I’m not sure exactly when it is developmentally, but there is a point in childhood when “going missing” stops being a frightening prospect and becomes a need and a source of exhilaration. It’s not a permanent change. We continue to crave paternal care at turns even in our own adulthood. But it is a crucial point that marks the beginning of our creation of an independent self and the beginning of our own unique journey with God.
It came early for both of my children. At 4 Olivia used to love to hide behind the church organ or under the pastor’s desk during coffee hour, sometimes with toys or art supplies to keep her company, sometimes just talking to herself. At 5 Eli lived inside perpetually locked doors in our home because he would often just wander out into the neighborhood. I remember being a kindergartener myself and separating from my grandmother in department stores seeking solitude, hiding under the clothing racks and often falling asleep there before I was eventually (and frantically) found.
I remember feeling seen and knowing well that when the time came to be found, I would be found. And I relished the quiet of my enclosure. I was able to hear the passing conversations around me, and also able to ignore them when the movements of my own mind and heart were of greater interest. Sometimes I imagined. Sometimes I prayed. But I never felt afraid, and I knew already that my solitude was sacred. I have since sought out that same solitude and intimacy with God that I discovered in my childhood, nourished by many experiences of “going missing.”
In today’s gospel passage, the 12-year-old Jesus “goes missing” in the heart of a bustling city, having separated from his parents and their pilgrimage group. It’s been suggested to me by a friend that this story of Jesus tarrying in the temple is absurd, evidence of the fictional whim of the gospel writer. After all, what parent could lose track of their 12-year-old son for three days, only to find him caring for himself and others beyond anything they imagined him capable?
Our struggle to imagine the scenario is in part due to historical and cultural distance. We have a distorted picture of the gospel when we attempt to impose our own experience of traveling with children onto the story of the holy family’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We position our own hypervigilance and constant entertainment of even older children as the norm of parenting. But in the context of ancient Palestine, children were part of a larger community on the move together. They were clearly cared for but expected to follow understood protocols for keeping in motion. They would travel by foot or animal for days at a time with multiple families organized for safety and shared experience.
The holy family was also, we should remember, a family with a refugee history, accustomed to traveling long, difficult distances in search of basic security. The system of collective migration in the ancient world--in pilgrimage, resettlement, and exodus alike--would have demanded a great deal of self-sufficiency from children no longer “in arms.” They would not have remained consistently within a nuclear family unit as the larger group moved forward. They would have been loosely attended to by the whole community of adults, and would have structures of care for each other with older children tending to younger. We should imagine these ancient pilgrimages as moving neighborhoods, improvising shared responsibility without the benefit of a home base. The travels were extreme and exhausting, and the possibility of a child being lost in the fray, though it may shock us, was not distant.
We are also estranged from this gospel story by our tendency to read all of the Jesus narratives through the lens of his exceptionalism. Ironically, even as we celebrate the incarnation this time of year, we tend emphasize the divinity of Jesus rather than his humanness. Surely in this case the gospel writer intended this to some extent. This gospel is one of precious few windows the scripture gives us into the life of Jesus as a child--the preserved story of Jesus’ life in the Bible essentially leaps from his infancy to his adult ministry. There are a few exceptions to be found outside of the New Testament canon, but we rarely if ever get to read those.
My personal favorite comes from the Gospel of Philip, a fragment of Coptic text found in the Egyptian desert in the 1950s, a part of the groundbreaking Nag Hammadi discovery. In it, Jesus is a young boy, playing in the streets with a group of friends. One of his friends, a boy named Zeno, accidentally falls from the roof of a house and dies. Already aware that Jesus is different from the other children, the townspeople immediately turn on him, blaming him for the boy’s death. Exasperated with denying the accusations, the boy Jesus resurrects Zeno and demands that he set the record straight. It is our tradition’s version of the classic superhero narrative, the strange and awkward discovery of supernatural powers, and the need to reconcile them with a world that does not understand them. We find that too in today’s gospel passage: Jesus stepping out into power that others cannot readily accept, then stepping back into “obedience” and social norms for a time as his wisdom and abilities continue to grow.
A few years ago, a parent and blogger, Lenore Skenazy, published what has become a wildly popular and controversial book titled “Free Range Parenting: Raising Safe, Self-Reliant Kids.” In the book and many posts and articles since Skenazy argues that Americans live in the generation of “the most wanted child,” the child born of privilege and fantasies of exceptionalism. We live in the age of “helicopter parenting,” where parents intervene in the smallest interpersonal struggles among children and map out their their futures in excruciating detail. Skenazy’s response is that, in a time of both rational and irrational fear, we must give our children more freedom than we believe we can. We must offer them, as early as possible in childhood, the space to move through the world with their own discretion and their own devices.
There was a time last year when my son Eli, then 9 years old, begged for the independence to walk five blocks alone in Berkeley to visit a friend. I thought a lot of this passage and of Mary’s state of mind as I deliberated too long over the request. Eli is my dreamer, and spends most of the day elsewhere--imagining himself as one character or another in elaborate dramas of good and evil. I worry about his willingness to remember that he is not actually a highly-trained ninja warrior as he crosses the street. I worry about his tendency to incorporate everyone around him into his games, and how that might be exploited. But his desire was so sincere and so urgent that I could not deny him. I sent him on his way with a dozen specific instructions and a cell phone to text me each time he started to cross a street, if anyone spoke to him, and when he arrived at his destination. He dutifully, though impatiently, complied. After a few hours of play time, he told the host parent he was going to walk back home. Since we had not made a preliminary plan, she was unsure that he should do so alone. She tried calling me, but I was showering and not picking up the phone. Deferring to caution, she insisted on walking Eli home.
By the time he arrived, he was a mess of tears. “I thought I was finally grown up enough to be alone for a few minutes.” It was almost two days before he fully recovered from the hurt. As I reflected on that experience while writing this sermon, I sensed that Eli might have felt something like Audre Lorde when she wrote: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crushed into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” And I realized that both in my overprotective actions and in the implicit contract between myself and the other parents in my circle, I was teaching my son two things: a) the world and the people in it are not safe for you, and b) you have no agency to keep yourself safe. They were not new lessons. I realized that they were encoded in practically every aspect of our relationship since his birth.
The alternative honestly frightens me. The alternative is to acknowledge that our work is not to keep our own children, our biological or chosen children, safe from a world of danger. It is to make the world safe for all children, to invite the reality that all children are our own children, and that we must allow them to meet the world and to meet God on their own terms, despite the dangers.
In the aftermath of her book on free-range parenting, Lenore Skenazy has set her attention to resisting the forces of alarmism that drive adults to fear the sight of unattended children, to report parents to the police for neglect when 9, 10, 11, 12 year old children are left to play or wander alone in less than perfectly controlled environments. I have some resistance to the metaphor of God as a kind of supernatural parent. I believe that God operates outside of our understanding of such relationships, and meets us in ways we cannot pattern or expect. But there is a parallel here to those times when we sense that God has gone quiet, has disappeared in the midst of our journey. We grow in the knowledge of God’s love and care especially when they seem least readily apparent, when we are trying on our own hands and feet and seeing how far they can take us. It is true that we have genuine reason to worry for our children, in a world rife with disappointments and dangers. But my fear is that our ways of protecting our children constrain their discovery of their sacred purpose and strength. As Lenore Skenazy wrote in Free Range Parenting: “We don’t remember the times that our parents held our handlebars. We remember the time they let go.”
Even more importantly as Christians, we have to see that our ways of keeping our children safe from a position of American privilege fuel discrimination and isolation in the broader web of our human relations. Those we deem “our” children take precedence over the children of others, and are judged more worthy of full lives, whether we take this view conscious or unconsciously. But our faith teaches us that all children of God are our children. In his last Christmas sermon, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
We cannot pretend that our children are growing up into a peaceful, secure, and civilized world. But it is irresponsible to try to protect them from the dangerous world they will have to live in as adults. Our children haven't yet isolated themselves by selfishness and indifference; they do not fall easily into the error of despair. They are considerably braver and more creative than most adults. Our responsibility to them is not to pretend that if we don't look, evil will go away, but to help them, and more often than not to watch them and learn from them, as they discover new means to contend with it.
From a position of exaggerated privilege, we are able to make choices for our children that, whether or not we admit it, operate at the exclusion of families whose lives are infinitely more harrowing than our own. We are able, or believe ourselves able, to guard our children by the fiercest standards, and this version of parenting is celebrated. Our hyperattention to every detail of children’s well-being and formation is taken as basic sanity, despite the insane things it makes us do. “The idea is that if you’re worrying, then you’re doing the right thing,” says Lawrence Balter, a professor at New York University. Worrying “is like a demonstration to yourself that you’re being responsible,” he says. It has become our national pastime.”
I believe that a part of what Mary “held in her heart” following Jesus’ disappearance was the dawning realization that the child Jesus, though he was chronologically young and vulnerable, was not ultimately her possession or her sole responsibility. She knew, and we as parents, whether biological or not, must know that our children’s well-being and destiny lie with God and with the complex world that they will inherit. And it is perhaps most troubling to realize that they are prepared. That they already know what they need to know, much sooner and with much more certainty than we can imagine. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge that we, too, have had for so long all that we ever needed to navigate the beautiful, terrifying world. We have the love of God, the resources of community, and if we will accept it, the urgent intent to make safe passage and exploration the inheritance of all children, everywhere.
A poet once wrote, “There is a gate to Christmas. It is an ancient, tiny gate--child wide, and child high.” May that be the gate we enter as we walk into this new year, as the children we have been and still are, and with the children who, ultimately, we are all called to parent into self-reliance.