You may know that more babies are born in the summer than at any other time of year. I was talking to a labor and delivery nurse this week named Rhonda who told me that after 19 years on the job, she has seen a sea change recently. She said that many more mothers arrive at labor and delivery now with a particular idea of what giving birth should look like, and when it doesn’t meet the picture in their head, they become very anxious and angry. She counsels them, “Look, I know this is not how you planned this day. But this is where we are and we are going to have to deal with what is, not what you wanted it to be. God and this baby are in control of your body right now, not you. We are going to have to go with that and I don’t want you to miss the experience that is actually happening, because you are stuck in the experience that you think should have been.”
I relate to this story on so many levels. Having a baby is one of those experiences where all your ideas of perfectionism and comparison are fueled by hormones and high expectations. Good mothers should have a short and productive labor, produce a child who can breast-feed and meet all the developmental milestones with ease. Good mothers bounce right back and never have post-partum depression or baby fat. Good mothers naturally know what to do with a screaming baby or projectile vomiting. It gets worse from there; attach well with your baby, eat all organic food, choose a stimulating but loving day care, and use only grace-filled discipline. The expectations of a good parent are like a mushroom cloud of self and real condemnation.
This forced me to examine my own expectations of what a good parent is and where I got that information. Was the idea of the Perfect Mother biblical? Did all these rules I had inculcated about parenting come from God or my family or culture? Actually, most of the parents in the bible are terrible, if you base it on outcomes. Eve’s son was a murder. Rebekah’s’s son was a liar. I realized that all my expectations came from my own fears of being inadequate. I studied others to see how to measure up and fit in the good family world and then tried to make reality fit that picture.
The definition of an expectation is an unspoken behavioral rule that we believe should be met. Or expectations are resentments under construction. Our expectations about how to be family can grind love and faith into dust. Fill in the blank with the expectations you have been taught. A good father should ________. A good mother needs to __________. A loving son/daughter would _______. A caring brother would ___________. A compassionate sister finds time to __________. When we think of expectations, we are actually hardest on ourselves. We want to be loving. We want to be giving and generous. We want to be forgiving. But families can be the very hardest place to love each other.
Dr. Mary Pipher, who studies families, informs us, “We can attribute some of the difficulties people experience with their families to the fact that love intensifies problems. We remind people that all love causes pain…People in pain often blame their families but in reality life makes most people unhappy. Meaningless jobs, isolation, addictions, poor health, failed relationships, crime and poverty bring great sorrow.” In other words, what we are demanding from our family members may not have anything to do with what we really need.
Brené Brown’s work on families tells us that, “We may need to bury our expectations. We may need to relinquish the power that comes with “being right” or put to rest the idea that we can do what’s in our hearts and still retain the support or approval of others. Whatever it is, it all has to go. It isn’t good enough to box it up and set it aside. It has to die. It has to be grieved.”
In other words, before there is a resurrection there has to be a death. The outsized expectations we have of ourselves, our siblings or parents or children may need to die and a new way to interact come out of the ashes.
Jesus reaches right into this dilemma and tells us that there is only one Savior- and we are not it. There is only one Savior and He is the source of love and compassion, not us.
In our text in Mark today, Jesus family has staged a intervention on him. His mother, brothers and sisters have shown up to restrain him, the scripture reads. Think about that. It is almost comical to think that his family has come to save the Savior because they think he is crazy. And what he says is crazy according to their standards and expectations of family, but also cuts the Gordian knot of our pain and suffering. When the crowd tells Jesus that his family is outside, he replies, “Who is my family but whoever does the will of God?” Has he disowned his family? No- he has actually expanded the meaning of family to all believers. He has brought his own mother into the kingdom as his sister. He is opening the doors for us to be the family of God, where I will be there for your brother and you will be there for mine. Through grace, he has connected us together into the family of God, where we are accepted and loved as we are, without expectations or outsized roles to be played. Jesus is telling his family that they are all part of one family—the family of God. And Jesus is telling each of us that we don’t have to carry the burden alone because we and our families need heavy doses of grace to survive.
Paul Zahl, in his book Grace in Practice, gives us this insight about how our thinking about family puts us in God’s role, which must die. “As always when an idol dies, the thing upon which the disproportionate worship had been projected begins to receive its proper due. You begin to see it in its true colors. In the case of the family, you begin to love them as they are meant to be loved. They are meant to be loved as human beings, not as non-negotiable absolutes… Children are properly loved, but with a little detachment. Parents are fittingly honored, but with less suppression and resentment. Sibling rivalry is deconstructed, although that may be the last wall of Jericho to come tumbling down.”
When I hear this truth and grace, my heart, body and soul become calm. I know that it’s not all up to me to save them or myself. Elizabeth Achtemeier points us to the affirmation in the creeds that Jesus descended into hell. “The Son of God descends into our evil and darkness and death. And because this is so, we know God is present and at work in the midst of the most troubled family.” Jesus alone has the power to bind the strongman and plunder the house of chaos. I seem to always be more interested in being perceived as good than being faithful. Do I trust that my Savior is saving my family? Can I take off my cape and accept my relatives the way they are, and not as I would have them or their situation be?
Using my nurse friend’s analogy of birth, I am going to have to go with that because I don’t want to miss the experience that is actually happening in my family, because I am stuck in the experience that I think should be. I don’t want to miss what God is going to do in my loved ones’ lives because I am dead set on my solutions.
I have heard the Holy Spirit described as a mid-wife, bringing new life into our world through the pain. I have to hold onto the belief that all of my loved ones, especially the ones who are hardest to love, have been lovingly designed by God. They have their own hopes, fears, anxieties and shortcomings that are redeemed by Jesus Christ. They are part of God’s family and God has prepared a plan for their lives that doesn’t have me as the hero. I can put them into the arms of their loving Savior and know that is God’s will today.