to comfort and to challenge
Hanging next to our front door is this Irish woodcut print with the prayer below:
God, keep my jewel this day from danger
From tinker and pooka and black-hearted stranger
From harm of the water and hurt of the fire
From the horns of the cows going home to the byre
From teasing the ass when he’s tied to the manger
From stone that would bruise and from thorns of the briar
From evil red berries that waken desire
From hunting the gander and vexing the goat
From depths o’ sea water by Danny’s old boat
From cut and from tumble – from sickness and weeping
May God have my jewel this day in his keeping
I have always loved this blessing (aside from the dated language) and the image that accompanies it, because I think it speaks to the heart of parenting: the competing desires to protect your child from the dangers of the world and to push him out to explore its beauty.
The mother stands watching, waiting; you can almost feel her anxious restraint as she holds back from removing every obstacle in her child’s path. And he toddles onward, happy and oblivious, eager and curious.
Last week at Mass, I found myself musing how parents and the church share a similar call: to comfort and to challenge. In the sea of First Communion veils and suits, I saw hundreds of families who rarely darken the door of the church. Every year our pastor or deacon admirably tries to weave in the message that the children who are sharing in the Eucharist for the first time are invited to return every week with their families. Our parish strives to make this celebration a welcoming occasion for people who are new to the parish, who may have had their child baptized and not returned since, who often dropped their kids off for faith formation classes rather than take an active role in helping them prepare for the sacrament.
But I often find myself wanting the priest to challenge these families as well. Becoming part of the life of a faith community does not simply mean showing up for the happy celebrations or dropping by “when you feel like it.” The message of Jesus Christ that we’re trying to preach and live is equal parts comforting love and challenging message. We aren’t just here to feel good about ourselves and put on a happy face; we’re called to turn the world’s values upside down as we work for the justice and peace of God’s kingdom.
I know it’s a delicate balance. I have to bite my tongue sometimes and admit that we need to welcome people in with comfort before we can change their lives with challenge. Thinking about the church’s role in comparison to the parent’s vocation helps me in this way.
I can’t simply thrust S out into the world and tell him, “It’s a tough, messy, broken place – go learn about it and then make a difference.” I have to care for his tender awakening to life and comfort him when he stumbles. The ebb and flow of helping another human learn how to navigate what lies ahead.
Perhaps God watches us like the mother in this woodcut print: loving, vigilant, hopeful yet wanting to protect. And there we go, toddling out into the dangers of the world, often utterly unaware of what lies ahead and how much it could hurt us.
When we return, bruised and weeping, we seek comfort – which God freely gives. But we also need challenge – to learn, to do differently, to act wisely – which God gently places before us.
I find comfort in the truth that God’s mothering spirit must understand our challenges as church and as parents as well.