Sunday, August 16, 2009

Deliver us to College...

Today, I volunteered to give the sermon at my church's summer lay-led service. As we prepare to drive my child on to college in a few hours, I delivered this sermon on letting go.

Today's reading is from Stations of the Spirit, by Victor Carpenter
It was the end of a summer holiday. The year was 1977. The last summer before our son Tyler was to enter the University of Pennsylvania. We were returning from a morning on the beach. As we came within sight of the house, Tyler broke into a run. I watched him race ahead, moving further and further from us. An ache started moving within me. My neck muscles tightened. I knew that I was going to cry. And the tears came.
I remembered feelings from my childhood. I was the little boy left at summer camp, my family driving off, leaving me to deal with my homesickness. I was surprised that my childhood vulnerability should confront me again in a situation of role reversal. I told myself that it was time for my son to leave home, but that was no help. The prospect of his claiming a life beyond the family that had nurtured him left an empty place in me, and my tears were an indication of my own vulnerability at the prospect of change and loss.

And so it goes.

I do not remember the moment to which my father refers in today's reading, but I understand the feeling he had that day. For in a few hours, we will climb into the car and bring our son to the College of Wooster where he will spend the next (hopefully only) 4 years. Of course, given the length of time each of his parents took to get through college ... maybe a little longer.

For me, a similarly ordinary experience that brings forth extraordinary feelings came last April. One Saturday afternoon, my son called and asked if I wanted to join him and a couple of friends for a game of Ultimate (that's "competitive Frisbee" for most of us). I walked over to his friend's house and then I along with about 5 other people over to the field across the street from here and played. Some of his friends I'd known for many years. Others I'd never met before. But the ages ranged from 17 to 18. I was 50. Yet I was not out of place, and after about an hour of play, we all sat and rested for a bit. I listened to the conversations around me, which were hauntingly familiar: school, teachers, jobs, women, names of people I'd heard of and some I hadn't. General talk about people and events from their present and about their immediate plans for the evening or the rest of the weekend. I felt welcome into the group, not as a parent, and certainly not as a peer. Just as a welcome participant. There was a sense of trust amongst his friends that I wasn't someone who would judge them or advise them or attempt to guide them based on what they said that day. It was like being a guest-member of that exclusive club of teenage men, just hanging out -- a club I'd left so many years ago. A club that they will soon leave too. I felt privileged in that moment, and as I walked home, I knew that it wouldn't be a privilege I'd get much more. After all, the role of a parent of a teenager is a combination of gate-keeping, disciplining, guiding, and helping. Picking up the pieces. To the teenager, our role feels intrusive, because it IS intrusive. I certainly remember many of my own teenage years, where adults were either intruders or watchers or simply invisible. On that day, I felt like an honorary teenager, and that would be a very fleeting moment.

He leaves us soon, and with it he takes our ability to observe the decisions he makes, to see his growth, and to converse regularly with him as he wrestles with new ideas and new experiences. Now, I don't want to imply that the transition of our elder offspring from dependent child to independent adult has happened, and I hold no illusions that, now that he is 18 and soon to be living "on his own" (or as much on his own when we get the bulk of his bills in the next few years) he will behave responsibly and ethically and wisely. He's not quite an adult, and Lord knows, if this summer's experiences of his are any indication, that kid's still got a lot of maturing to do.

At times this summer, I found myself asking why, why do you not learn from my experience? I know I made some idiotic choices in my youth, and I told you about many of them -- so why do you make some of the same choices? But that's not how things work. In the world of the teenager, the peer rules the parent. And the experience of listening to -- or giving -- bad advice is simply part of the growing process. It's the smart teenager that learns from this experience, and the wise one that looks out for his friends as they learn from their own foolish behaviors. But valid warnings don't cross the parental or generational lines. They're only valid when going from peer to peer. Why? because that's how we grow. We grow through experience. When I was a teenager, I knew that my parents had only a limited amount of useful knowledge to pass on to me, regardless of what they claimed. I simply knew better. Now my children return the favor. They remind me that while I might have the answers, they still need to learn for themselves, and IF they learn, they will learn the same way that I learned. A combination of intelligent decisions and foolish action. And they will develop and maintain friendships, where they share experiences with those who'll understand their situations and their frustrations.

Many of us in this room see children as they grow. We watch them run around during happy hour, we teach them about Unitarian Universalism, we watch them deliver credos from the pulpit and then we watch them disappear into their own group, only to return for their youth services, then we see them only for the Christmas Eve service, and then after a couple years, they're gone from the church altogether. The children move on, create families and join churches of their own. They continue to grow, but we often don't see the people they become. But they become.

In 1961, Carl Rogers, the humanist psychologist, published the book "On Becoming a Person", where he talks about "the fully functioning person" as a processing organism in process rather than a static state of humanistic perfection. He talks about 7 characteristics of the fully functioning person, and I cannot help but relate those characteristics -- openness to experience, reliability towards others -- to our 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism which go from from individual worth and dignity through cooperation and growth within the larger world of life. Rogers refers to something called "the good life", which as he points out, is not the same as a "life of comfort". In fact, the "good life" is just the opposite: The "good life" involves the stretching and growing of becoming more and more of one's potentialities. It involves the courage to be. It means launching oneself fully into the stream of life. And it doesn't end when you finish high school, or when you finish college, or start your own family. It is an ongoing process, moving from dependence to independence to interdependence.

And as we launch our first child into the stream of living independence, I also think of the changing nature of the our relationship. When raising a child, the questions revolve around "how can I alleviate this person's physical or emotional pain or what can I do to make my child a better person?" Later, as they grow into their own potential and begin to dictate the terms of their own personal growth, the question changes to "How can my role in our relationship facilitate this person's continuing development?". But as they leave, this question emerges: "How do I continue developing now that this person will become less a part of my daily life". Note the change in emphasis. "How do I continue developing?" This means acknowledging the influence that my child's presence has on my own continuing development, and the noticing of the two way influences we have on one another.

In our faith, we talk about an interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. Part of that interdependence is the joy of watching your child strike out on his own, make the decisions and take the actions of launching himself fully into that stream of life. But part of it is the pain of knowing that the those places will include you less and less as that teenage child constructs the life of his destiny.

Go now in peace, go now in peace. May the love of God surround you, everywhere everywhere you may go. Amen.