Sitting around the breakfast table last year, I read through the story of the Annunciation with my children. We paused at the illustration and took in the details. Dirt floor. No windows. I asked, “Does this look like a poor person’s house or a rich person’s house?” My three-year-old bluntly observed, “That doesn’t look nice at all.” Right. The same went for Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, which even though it was not a stable, was certainly nothing fancy.
According to the gospel of Matthew, Mary and Joseph sought asylum from Herod’s cruel decree in Egypt, taking him on a dangerous journey under conditions which the American Academy of Pediatrics would never advise. After returning to Israel, his parents raised him in Nazareth, an insignificant village in an area known for violent state crackdowns on insurrectionists. Mary and Joseph were special, but they lost their kid in a big city at least once. The biblical record seems to indicate God didn’t provide a stable childhood, perfect parents, or a safe neighborhood for his own child’s upbringing. To us, it doesn’t look like the best situation.
Meanwhile, in the middle-class America many of us inhabit, parents are tying themselves in knots to secure “the best” for their kids. Perhaps it’s museum passes, Mandarin tutors, a home in the right school district, travel sports, or general overscheduling. Sociologist Annette Lareau refers to this style of parenting as “Concerted Cultivation,” a deliberate attempt to provide every advantage. While giving kids “the best” in this way sets them up for potential academic and vocational success, it also opens them to materialism, performance anxiety, and depression.
So let’s pause and reflect on Jesus’ childhood.
What if it gives us the freedom to reject “the best” and think about what’s really best for our children’s spiritual and emotional growth? That might mean renouncing comfort and being open to more — not less — risk. It might mean taking a step back to allow for more unstructured time. It might mean giving children more responsibilities around the home. It might mean turning down admission to a selective college. If God didn’t choose what looked like “the best” for his son, it frees us to follow his guidance even when others may question our decisions.
Parents wrestling with choices like these will find a friendly fellow pilgrim in Shannan Martin, author of the thoughtful, moving, and humorous book Falling Free: Rescued from the Life I Always Wanted. Feeling that God was calling her family to something new, the author moved from a comfortable, Pinterest-worthy life in the country to a small house in a run-down Rust Belt city. Her husband took a job as a prison chaplain. They brought a young man with a difficult past into their home. They joined an aging church and enrolled their children in the local (low-ranked) public school. And what the family discovered in this free-fall was joy. Gratitude. Community. Purpose. And, as Martin writes, “the gift of knowing for sure that our identity needn’t hinge on what the world values.”
This new year, let’s feel the freedom for our families to fail, to be ordinary, to march to a different drum, and to be used by God.
[Image Credit: Holy Family by Claude Mellan, property of the Public Domain via Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1953.]