Martha and I have two sons, Aaron and Jacob. Right now both of them have careers in the field of computer technology. Aaron is 35 and is engaged and living with his partner Sarah outside of Chicago. Jacob is 33 and is living in New York City. Both Aaron and Jacob are very happy with their lives.
How did they get to the point of having stable and happy lives? I will be honest—some of it was pure luck. But, to some extent I believe it is because we accepted them as they were and loved them, even when they seemed to veer off the path of stability or when their educational process did not seem quite as linear as we would have liked or when they were unclear what their future might look like or when they took big risks in their careers. I have to say this was not easy. We have worried about Jacob when he insisted that his Kindergarten teacher told a story wrong and then told her so – he was always very independent minded—; when he had no friends except his brother until he was a Sophomore in High School; when he was diagnosed with type one diabetes in Junior High; and when he stopped going to college in Sophomore year—I mean just stopped going and didn’t tell anyone, not even the college. And we were worried about Aaron when he was diagnosed with dyslexia in elementary school; he had hidden it so well for a few years because he could memorize what the teacher said and picked up contextual clues from the classroom. But it became obvious his 4-year-old brother could read his early primer and 6-year-old Aaron had no clue what any of the words on the page said.
We accepted them unconditionally, and we told them we loved them—I never felt unconditionally accepted by my father and certainly don’t remember my father telling me he loved me, at least until he was in his sixties. That’s not to say I was a perfect parent. I think we would all agree there is no such thing. When Jacob started having behavior problems in school, I sent him to a psychologist. Now what I told all of my patients to do if their children had behavioral problems was to first get them a physical to determine any biological issues that might be causing the behavioral problem, but I didn’t do that as a parent. It was fortunate that I realized my mistake soon after he started seeing a psychologist. So, Martha took him to his pediatrician who immediately send them to Texas Children’s Hospital because of his high blood sugar. And after his blood sugar was regulated, there were no more behavioral problems. Those of you who have children may have some such stories as well.
We accepted them unconditionally and we told them we loved them. We supported them in their choices, even when we didn’t quite understand them. When Jacob was in elementary school, he decided to grow his hair down to the middle of his back—my mother hated this so much that she offered Jacob a $100 to get his hair cut. He refused to cut his hair and we supported his choice. More recently my mother has been pressuring Aaron to get engaged and married and she gave him her old engagement ring to hurry him up. What did we tell him? All We told him we support whatever choices he and his partner made about their relationship and their future. And though he did eventually get engaged, we are not pressuring him to get married. Its their life and their choice and we love them both. I’m not going to lie, sometimes I am sorely tempted to try to get them to tell me why they make the decisions that they do, but I also understand that they do not need to justify or even explain their choices to me. Martha and I are just the bows from which our children, as living arrows, were sent forth from. All any of us can do is launch them; it’s up to them to fly.
Kahil Gibran wrote:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
for they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit,
not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are
The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and
bends you with might that the arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer's hand be for gladness.
Martha and I didn’t bend our archer’s hand with gladness until we were in our very late twenties, like almost thirty. We were not brought up in the most functional, loving or happy homes, with a parent who had alcoholism in both our homes. We were unsure if we could be effective parents. Perhaps some of you might have wondered the same thing before having children. But I will tell you, once we did have Aaron and Jacob, I believe we did pretty well, probably better than we thought we could. We earned how to set healthy limits on our children and how to support our children’s learning. We didn’t try to make them like us. We just tried to accept them as they were and tell them we loved them. And they weren’t like us. I mean when Jacob decided to be dancing pants for one Halloween and the color black for another, I did wonder whose kid this was. And Aaron didn’t want to get a driver’s license the moment he turned 15, and barely wanted it at 16—I was driving when I was 14. I wonder if those of you with children feel like your children aren’t very much like you, at least in certain ways.
As you heard in our children’s dedication service, one of the things we are called to do for the children as a community is to “offer them our care and concern, our love and our wholehearted assistance.” That makes perfect sense. But there is a lot to unpack in that short little phrase. Yes, we offer care, concern, love and assistance, but in so doing “We realize that with some apprehension that the quality of our own lives will determine how well this child’s potential will be realized in full bloom and flower.” The quality of our lives. Children will listen. They’ll watch what we do, how we live our values and beliefs, and how we make a positive difference in the world. All the things we say we do as Unitarian Universalists. I remember when Aaron was born, I mean the moment he was born, because I was in the operating room, I realized that I was going to be one of his role models, and as a parent, I would be central to how he would see the world. At that moment I made the decision that I would need to take a closer look at those UU values and Principles that I went around telling people about. And I needed to walk my talk. Probably not perfectly, but with more awareness and consistency.
And here is probably the hardest thing we as a congregation must do, and as a parent I realized I also had to do. “In being part of these children’s lives, we must realize that we cannot remove all the thorns from their lives. There will be some pain in these children’s lives that we cannot protect them from, but through the pain we will be with them.” As their parent, I could not take away Jacob’s diabetes or Aaron’s dyslexia. And here with the children under our communal care, we cannot take away the prejudice they may experience or the bullying or whatever issues they face, but we can communicate to them that they are not alone. And that they are accepted just as they are. We need to not only say to them that they are loved, we need to show them as well.
One final thing I want to share with you. This was written by our Unitarian Universalist forebear, William Ellery Channing: "The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own;
Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own;
Not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth;
Not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs;
Not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or peculiar notions,
But to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decision;
Not to burden the memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought;
Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment.
In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul… to excite and cherish spiritual life."
I often tell parents who ask about bringing their children to UU Miami that it can be challenging for them and their children because we do not tell our children what to believe or how to think or how to live in the world. We teach them how to ask questions about themselves, about others, about their faith, beliefs and about the world, we seek to awaken their conscience and their soul, to excite and hopefully help them cherish their spiritual and ethical life. More often than not, there are no easy answers for our children. And we also teach them that they are not alone in this quest. They have a community, a village if you will, that will be with them. So, my friends, here are some tips for acknowledging and affirming how we will show that that they belong in this community. First and foremost we must be willing to listen to them. At different stages of their life, they will come in this sanctuary and tell us what they believe, what they think, how they view the world, the universe, Unitarian Universalism. And we will need to accept them just as they are and tell them we love them. And when they ask us questions about our beliefs and faith, about our ethics and morals, we must be honest and authentic and age appropriate with them. By doing so we, in effect, are holding a safe space for them to become who they will become, to find out what they believe, and to experiment here in this safe space with the morals and ethics that will carry them through a lifetime.
I know this can feel like a huge responsibility, but I for one accept it, just as I accepted it when Martha and I chose to have children. The children in this congregation are our children, part of our tribe, our village. If this congregation and Unitarian Universalism is to exist, grow, and thrive now and in the future, we must affirm regularly in our minds and hearts what was said in our child dedication this morning. It’s not just one and done. Our commitment to our children must inform how we interact with the them, how we are in community with one another, and how we live our values in the world. And so I ask you: “Will you be welcoming, loving, and accepting of these and future children into our congregation; will you walk with them when they are in pain; will you model what it is to be a Unitarian Universalist; and will you pledge to their family, your care and concern, your love and your wholehearted assistance?” What do you answer? (congregation: We Will)