When Left Behind
Neil Perry was a young man attending the exclusive Welton Academy in Vermont. He was a bright student whose father wanted him to become a doctor. Neil was not sure what he would like to do with his life but in dutiful obedience he conformed to his father's wishes by diligently applying himself to his pre-med academic studies. However, he felt stifled. Inwardly his heart ached for something else but he was not sure what that would be. Then he met John Keating, a brilliant Welton alumnus who earned the respect and admiration of the faculty. Keating had just graduated from college and was returning to Welton to teach poetry. Played by actor Robin Williams, John Keating does more than teach poetry in the popular movie, Dead Poet's Society. He teaches Neil and his classmates how poetry can be used to discover and enrich their inner soul. Keating calls them to step beyond the limitations and perceptions of their world. He persuades them through inspirational antics and much laughter, to loosen their school ties, to embrace the moment and enjoy life. Through his friendship the students discover a sense of self-autonomy and confidence. Neil learns that he has the heart of an actor not a doctor. He feels called to the stage not operating room. His father becomes enraged to learn of his son's decision. Neil's father insists that his son disavow any thought of a theatrical career and concentrate only on his academic studies. Torn between his inner call and the dictatorial demands of his father, Neil makes a tragic decision.
Zebedee, the father of James and John, may have been able to empathize with Neil's father. He had dreams for his sons. Ever since they were small boys he looked forward to the day that he would turn his fishing business over to them. They were good boys, they obeyed their father. They were hard workers and quick learners. Zebedee knew that John was a dreamer. He loved to ask questions about God. He had a fascination with asking questions that no one else had thought about, sometimes the "what ifs," would get wearisome but the father never wanted to stifle his inquisitive mind. Zebedee may have hoped that by allowing his sons to spend time with The Baptist that some of that religious enthusiasm would get worked out of his system. However, the father was not sure if their brief stay in the wilderness had satisfied their zeal. After John had been arrested they both returned to their boats but they kept taking time to go and listen to a new rabbi from Nazareth. Most of the village had heard him teach in the synagogue. Zebedee himself had listened with great interest on one Sabbath. The man spoke with authority and had marvelous insight into the Law and the Prophets. His boys could not stop talking about him. Zebedee could see that their hearts were just not in their work Then one day that man walked up to his sons and asked them to follow him. Father and sons all knew what that meant. They would abandon their boats. They would give up the security of a good income. They would become dependent on the generosity of others. His boys turned and looked into their father's eyes for guidance. What should they do? Would their father give them permission to pursue their dream or would he demand that they stay and fulfill their role as sons?
The day that Jesus called his first disciples, James and John were not the only ones who had a choice to make. Zebedee, their father, also faced an important decision. Most writers tragically ignore Zebedee s struggle. Unconsciously we reject the notion of parental authority. We live in an age that values autonomy, the individual’s right to determine his or her own destiny. But those were not the values in Capernaum the day that Jesus recruited men to join his fellowship. The opinion of the father was honored. The sons were expected to follow in their father's footsteps. It made life easy; there were fewer decisions, fewer choices. A child did not have to worry about having enough money to get an education. He was in school the day he learned to walk. A young person did not have to worry about raising investment capital, whatever belonged to the father belonged to the son. Zebedee would have rightfully assumed that he would pass on to his two sons his boats, his nets and his livelihood. He could have asked them to ignore the invitation by this new itinerate preacher. He could have asked them to choose a more practical career that offered greater security and less risk.
Much of what I have said is pure speculation. It does not come from the authoritative texts of Scripture but the highly subjective thoughts of contemplation. It is built on premise that Mark recorded of Zebedee by name, because of that he was well-known throughout the early church, by name. Simon and Andrew were probably not fishing alone but no one from their boat is mentioned by name. The names of their parents are not recorded in Scripture nor are the family names of the other disciples, except for James the son of Alphaeus. That mention was probably due more to distinguish the two men than highlight their father.
Later we learn that Zebedee’s wife kept in touch with her sons and tried to secure for them a promotion. While Jesus reprimanded her at the time, I believe that Mark would not have recorded it unless both the mother and her sons and learned form the situation. They may have even become models of humility and servitude. For me this evidence appears to suggest the possibility that the parents of James and John were members of the first century church. Rather than disinherit them, or prevent them from making a hasty decision, Zebedee may have offered to his sons the emotional and financial support that earned him the respect and admiration of the first century church. Therefore we would do well for us to consider the issues the older man struggled with the day his sons left him to follow Jesus. Many of you have older children who have families of their own. You might argue that you have already wrestled with these issues. My question to you is, have you?
A few years ago, Carol and I visited Berlin Germany. The Iron Curtain came down years before, but the scars of a divided nation were still visible. The new Germany was still in the throes of rebuilding and restoring the nation. New government office buildings were being constructed for a new capital; old buildings were being remolded, their barricaded windows were being reopened to allow the person to look to the west. The projects were several years from completion. Eventually Berlin will become a world attraction, for commerce, entertainment and politics but it will take time and a lot of work. The crisis of separation may have taken place years ago but the hurts and pain still remain. Unless you have been very intentional about healing a broken relationship it will not be healed naturally. Unresolved hurts from the past may be keeping you and your children from establishing a close relationship today.
TO LET GO
The most obvious struggle that any parent has is the struggle to let go. It is difficult for a parent to release their children. Although the tension between parent and teen often makes it much easier, a parent naturally wants to hold onto their baby. Parents rightfully feel a sense of ownership with their children. They brought them into the world. Children are a gift of God but they owe their biological existence to their parents. That biological connection becomes the source of a very powerful emotional bond. The first cord is cut on the first day of school. When mom says goodbye for a few hours. It is not the time of separation that bothers mom but the realization that her baby is growing up and is no longer dependant on her.
Sometimes parents struggle to let go. They do not allow their child to develop his or her own unique identity. They place an emotional lien on their child and send the compromising message, "Go if you must, but if you do, I'll die." The challenge for every parent is releasing their child in order that she or he may learn to fly.
Two dads were talking at work about their children. One of them was lamenting over the travels of his daughter. She decided to drop out of college and spend a year traveling with friends throughout South America. To date she contracted dengue fever in Ecuador and had her backpack stolen in Bogota. She met several men in Rio and the one she has fallen in love with has joined the group. She has run out of money twice and they have had to deposit money in her local bank twice. "You raise them to be independent, self-reliant, and to think for themselves," the one dad says, "and then you spend the rest of your life worrying while they do it"
ACCEPTING THEIR CHOICES
The second struggle for any parent is to accept their child's career choice. “My son, the doctor” and “my daughter, the lawyer” are status phrases that parents use to link their children’s choices with status, money, and power. We may shake our heads over Neil Perry's father pushing him to pursue a career in medicine, but it is difficult to resist the temptation to prod or encourage our offspring into vocations that would enhance their social status. One author writes: “We worship at the altar of professionalism, undervalue the acquisition of useful skills, deride blue-collar and service occupations as not worthy of our children's talents, and/or project onto them our own unrealized ambitions. One father admitted that when his daughter took a job repairing Birkenstocks he was too embarrassed to tell his mother. She had predicted that her granddaughter would be the first woman chief justice after the young girl had one a high school debate. Dad told his mom that she had taken a position in "apparel merchandising." Later a friend admitted telling co-workers that his son was in the medical field after the boy was hired to be a hospital orderly.
The struggle to accept the career path of our children is understandable. We have invested a lot of time—you did not spend all those hours on the ball field to raise an interior decorator. Parents spend a lot of money on their children's education. You want more to show for it than their dishpan hands. We want them to be happy but we want them to be happy the way we would be happy. There comes a point when we simply have to accept their choice.
On the day that James and John walked away from their nets, Zebedee had to accept the choice they made.
YOU DID YOUR BEST
What do you think Zebedee thought about when rumors came to him about the confrontations between Jesus and the religious authorities? How do you think he handled the twisting in his stomach when he heard that the Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus? Like any parent he wondered if he had done the right thing. He probably wondered if he had made the right decision.
The second struggle of discipleship for any parent is accepting that you did you best. The bad news of parenting is that even if your stretch marks are a faint memory and you’re ready for late night feedings you do not have a second chance. The good news is that even if you were not June Cleaver or Maria Van Trapp you need to remind yourself that you did you best.
We enter into every relationship and situation with both our strengths and our weaknesses. Often we are able to draw on our strengths and respond with wisdom and clarity of mind, to share feelings of love and support. And then there are those times when the baggage of our own hurts gets in the way. We are short tempered, judgmental, uncooperative, and self centered; the Dr Jekell and Mr. Hyde complex rages within us. We make mistakes and say things that we regret. We make decisions that do not consider the needs or interests of other. Conflict develops and relationships become strained and even broken. We all have experiences that we would like to relive but we can never go back. Even if we did, we would have no guarantee that we would do things any differently.
Kelsey's family spent every summer at their cabin located on Golden Pond, NH. Away from the pressures of the academic world, the cabin retreat was a time for the family to enjoy life together, but it was also a time for a clash of wills. Dad had been an outstanding diver in college, and he wanted his daughter to follow in his footsteps, but she could never master the back flip. Each summer dad tried to teach her how to perform the reverse somersault but each summer ended in failure. The struggle on the diving board came to epitomize the relationship between father and daughter. Kelsey was a mature woman when she met her parents at the cabin to celebrate their 48th summer retreat.
Throughout the week, she and her dad relived their parent child conflicts. Just after a very tension verbal exchange her mom, played by Katharine Hepburn, took Kelsey aside and pleaded with her saying, "Try to understand, your father did the best that he could."
Isn't that what we said to our children when they were growing up, it doesn't matter if your team wins or loses, just make sure you did the best that you could. It doesn't matter if you get straight A's, just do your best. Now we need to say those very words to ourselves.
The Rev. John H. Pavelko
1. Jane Adams, I'm Still Your Mother: How to get along with your grown-up children for the rest of your life, (New York: Delacorte Press, 1994), p. 81. Many of the thoughts and illustrations come from this book to site each one would be repetitious.