In Brian Doyle's family, you were allowed to take the train alone from Long Island into New York City only after your twelfth birthday.[i] Brian sought to make this pilgrimage to pay homage to his beloved basketball team, the Knicks, in that great cathedral known as Madison Square Garden. But before he could leave, he was compelled to wait, fidgeting in the threshold of his front door, impatiently shifting his weight from one foot to the other, as his mother fiddled with his jacket collar in a way most unlike her. Stalling, holding on, his mother reviewed details already covered, giving him last minute advice he already knew:
"I can't believe you're twelve," she said in between checking and re-checking him for hat and mittens and an extra pair of eyeglasses. "One minute ago you were four and talking to the birds. Make us proud of your behavior. You need a new winter coat. Don't forget to call. Are you really twelve? You had better stop fiddling about and get to the station. I will assume that you have a clean handkerchief. Go." And she sighed, "Go."
Decades later, Brian Doyle remembered this as the dividing line between being a boy and being something else on the way to becoming a man.
My own son is about two and a half years old and he talks to the birds, wishing them a cheery, "Hi birdy, tweet, tweet," on our daily walks. On his own, he reaches up to grasp his mother's hand when journeying into new places; and he asks for "both hands, both hands" before careening down the big slide at our church's playground. But someday, probably sooner than I'm ready, he'll be poised to head off on his own, making a pilgrimage to his dream. When my son comes to me, bright eyed and hopeful, will I listen to the earnest desire of his great big God-given heart? I know there comes a point when every caregiver must say, "Go."
My own son could make this inevitable separation less painful if he was polite and courteous, patiently standing stock still, enduring my anxiety as I fiddle with his collar and humoring me as I remind him of things he's already heard and, indeed, already knows. Might my son take steps on the way toward becoming a man with kindness and care for his old man? Surely that is the ideal, which begs another question: How could Jesus talk like that to his mother?
While Matthew and Luke include a similar scene (Mt 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21), Mark alone pulls back the privacy curtain and allows a glimpse into the family dynamics, including the rationale of Mother Mary. Jesus has already begun his pilgrimage, sharing his great big, God-given heart and proclaiming the good news through preaching, teaching, and healing. But in verse 21, Mary, along with her other children, marches toward Jesus in order to restrain him. She is not merely attempting to stall the inevitable separation of child from parent. "Restrain" is the same verb used to describe those who lay hands on Jesus in order to arrest him (Mark 14:46).[ii] Why does his family want to shut down his ministry?
At the beginning of this chapter, we learned how the religious and political leaders were already concocting plans to kill Jesus (Mark 3:6). He had become a wanted man, provoking the powerful authorities to dangerous retaliation.
His family, then, was staging an intervention--they were trying to save his life. His mother stood outside the house and called Jesus, believing she was beckoning him to a place of love.
So then, how could Jesus talk to his mother like that? Despite their understandable, even noble intentions, Jesus does not need his mother to save him; Jesus is the savior--the Savior of the world. He intervenes on his family's behalf, not the other way around. He intervenes on our behalf, too. Even if his sharp retort sounds jarring to our ears, perhaps we could listen deeper and hear something else.
Every caregiver knows the goal is to allow children to grow up in order that they can become all God has called them to be. Yet every caregiver also knows it is much easier to declare, "No!" than sigh, "Go." It seems to me that restrain describes our fear, which under the guise of good intentions, may well be in opposition to faith.
Such fear confronts, not only to parents, but also churches, particularly those we might call mainline--probably those who listen to Day1 broadcasts! Now, I do not wish to sound rude, like I was back-talking my mother church. But let's be honest: all across our country, there are towering steeples that loom over increasingly smaller congregations. And there are many churches about the size of mine, which are precariously close to closing their doors for good, but . . .
At the same time, there are young people today who are poised excitedly in the threshold, ready to head off into the world, their hearts set on pursuing their God-given vocation!
And, like Jesus taught, this millennial generation values action--the doing of the will of God (Mark 3:35). They do not want to be told; they want to experience.[iii] They want to go, but . . .
Too often, the mainline church has stood apart, curtly demanding that they come to us. "We're your family," we cry. "We know what's best for you!" Or perhaps we've even tried to restrain them, preventing them from acting in ways we believe are different, abnormal, even dangerous. We think we are intervening on their behalf, don't we?
Yet, if we'd listen more closely, we could hear the fear in our own voices. We are scared for the future; we are terrified our churches will fail. And you know what? Maybe that fear is justified--perhaps the church will never be the same again. Maybe that former way of being church is coming to an end. How much more important, then, to lift our great big, God-given hearts and remember that resurrection comes only after death![iv] And that the life-giving Spirit of God cannot be restrained! With such faith, we might discover that--in the word, go--there's not only fear, but also freedom. And not just for young people, either.
Shortly after I became pastor, I came to learn how a certain director of graduate admissions at a veterinary school removed her horn-rimmed spectacles and dropped them unceremoniously upon the application lying before her, and then fixed the young woman nervously seated across from her large oak desk with a patronizing look. "Perhaps," she began, "you would best be served by considering a different career path."
Later that day, this young woman would be found wailing inconsolably in a puddle of heartbrokenness on the tile floor of her childhood bathroom. But in that moment, she maintained her composure--though her nostrils flared involuntarily with the sharp exhale of anger, not unlike certain large animals she'd been around her whole life.
She'd grown up on a farm with a true love of horses. She'd learned the difference between Appaloosa and Andalusian when most children her age were distinguishing household pets, and she had memorized her A, B, Clydesdales. Her passion was not just a child's infatuation, but the deep and abiding focus that accompanies the truest calling. She'd always had that way with these animals--that touch, that whisper, that look. She'd always had that gift, which coaxes quiet appreciative smiles from those in the know.
Growing up, she drew plenty of these reactions from men and women in her church, some of the same people who pretended not to notice when she tracked mud from her riding boots into the sanctuary or read a horse magazine behind her Bible throughout the Sunday school hour. And upon learning about the rejection from the veterinary school, these same folks did not try and protect her, glossing over the stinging truth; they did not attempt to hold her in another safer, more realistic vision for her life. Rather, the parental figures in her church reminded her of the many other times they'd seen her fall off only to get back up again.
These are the very same people who now take great delight in retelling that day in the admissions office, now that she has graduated at the top of her class from that very same veterinary school. And now that she's secured a post-doc surgical residency at an Ivy League university, they have loved to sidle up to her and ask if she might best be served by considering a different career path! Oh, how they love to do that!
Yes, they love to tell this story because, even when her path was unclear, they had the courage in themselves to hold faith in her. Even now, when the road leads out of town, they love to see her galloping ahead, moving unrestrained into her bright dream.
For most of all, they love that young woman and trust she carries something of them into her future. As she crosses the dividing line between being a girl and being something else on the way to becoming all God would have her to be, the brave saints in her mother church freely and faithfully say, "Go! Go."
[i] Brian Doyle, "November 1968" (The Sun: Nov 2014), p. 47
[ii] Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, p. 48
[iii] My thoughts on millennials and the church's faithful (rather than fearful) response have been greatly influenced by Nadia Bolz-Weber, specifically a lecture she gave at my alma mater, Lenoir-Rhyne University, on March 5th, 2015.
[iv] On this point, see the excellent editorial "Our Emmaus Road" by my colleague, Patrick David Heery: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/today/our-emmaus-road/