A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 11, 2012
Colossians 3:20-21 GNT
One of my most prized books is a little volume by Parker J. Palmer titled Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. The book was recommended by my New York friend, Sister Kitty Hanley, a spiritual director. It is one of those books that I won’t loan out, and one of those books that can point your life in a new direction, or at least help you see your life from a different angle. In a nutshell, what Palmer talks about in Let Your Life Speak is listening to your inner self and letting your inner self reveal to you who you are so that the vocation you choose matches who you are. In other words, Palmer learned through a very painful experience, including a period of deep depression, that the vocation he had chosen for himself was not the person he was inside and not the person he was meant to be. In order to live the abundant life that we were meant to live, we need to learn to listen to the inner life, or as Quakers term it the “Inner Light,” so we may learn who we are and what we should be doing with our lives.
So, as I thought about Nursery School Appreciation Sunday in general, and children in particular, it occurred to me that what Palmer has to say could apply to the children of our church and nursery school as well. And so this morning, using Palmer’s book as a springboard, I would like to explore a bit the question: What are our children meant to be?
I think Palmer would say that our children are meant to be accepted and respected for who they are and where they are. Palmer notes that “identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others. It depends on the simple fact that we are children of God, valued in and for ourselves” (Palmer 87). “Children of God, valued in and for ourselves.” As parents, grandparents, and teachers, it is incumbent upon us that we love and appreciate and respect our children for who and where they are and not try to force them into some preconceived mold. Each child is an individual in his or her own right. Each one moves at a different pace, is drawn toward different interests, and is gifted with differing abilities. We love our children when we see them and accept them for who they are, rather than who we might hope them to be.
We have all heard of or seen in movies the classic scenario of the father who expects the child to follow in his footsteps and take over the family business, or become a lawyer because he is a lawyer, or pursue a career in the military because he pursued a career in the military, and so on, only to realize disastrous results. Sometimes it works out well that way when a child follows in the parent’s footsteps, but I suspect most often not. Each person is different and happiest when he or she can follow his or her own heart.
Also, I think Palmer would say our children are meant to be helped in listening to the voice within them. Palmer speaks of “a life hidden like the river beneath the ice” (Palmer 2). He speaks of an inner voice “calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God” (Palmer 10). Speaking from experience, as parents we often think we know what is better for our children than they do. Sometimes we may, and sometimes we may not. And so we may encourage them to do this instead of that, to not pursue this path but pursue this other one which would be better instead. Allow me to share a personal example.
When our son was in middle school, he decided he wanted to be in the school band. So the band director tested him and together they decided that he should consider the snare drum. My wife came home with our son after meeting with the band teacher and announced that he wanted to play the snare drum. And my response was, “What! Surely not the snare drum. He won’t be happy playing the snare drum.” Well, luckily I did not contest it any further, but decided to go with it. We went to the local music store and bought a snare drum. And as it turned out, our son did have a natural talent, not just for the snare drum, but percussion instruments in general, and he ended up playing the snare drum in the school band all through middle school, junior high and high school, and then received a small band scholarship from the University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Band Marching Band in which he played all four years of his undergraduate studies. A picture of our son marching into Neyland Stadium playing the snare drum is one of the most prized photos I have ever taken. The point is, that is one time when I could have goofed royally by not letting our son’s inner voice guide him. But I could give other examples when I was not as wise, perhaps, and didn’t always support our children as I should have in listening to their inner voice. It is our joy and challenge as parents, grandparents, and teachers to help our children listen to and discern the inner voice that is telling them who they are and the direction they should take in life.
Thirdly, I think Palmer would say our children are meant to be encouraged in being the best that they personally can be. This is where it can get tricky, especially if you have more than one child. It is not our job to encourage our children to be as good as a brother or sister or cousin is. Nor is it our job to encourage our children to be successful like some star athlete or other star math or science student at their school. But rather, we can encourage our children to be the best that they can be, according to their own inherent strengths and abilities. As the writer of the letter to the Colossians put it, we are to be careful about irritating or provoking our children, causing them to become discouraged.
Parker Palmer observes, “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world” (Palmer 16). As parents, grandparents, and teachers, that is our calling and challenge with our children: to assist them in discovering their path of authentic selfhood in the world. And that path may not be what we might have envisioned for them at all!
To give an example, several years ago a church member, who was also a good friend and one of my strongest supporters and someone I could call upon when I needed anything done in the church, came to see me at my church office one day. Missy, I will call her, was very distraught because her daughter, her only child who was about 20 at the time, had told her that she had decided that she was trying to find her true self, and in doing so had chosen a path that her mother was not happy with. I think the reason Missy came to see me was in hopes that I would give her some advice and instructions about how to convince her daughter that she was wrong and to change her mind about the path she was planning to take. Much to Missy’s disappointment, I am afraid, I did not do that. Instead, I encouraged Missy to try to support her daughter in coming to understand who she was and trying to love her just the same, regardless of the path she might choose to take. As I said, sometimes the inner voice of our children, telling them who they are deep inside, may not pan out to be the path we would have chosen for our children at all. But we are called to love and support them any way. Of course, there are exceptions—children can be wrong too. We would not want to support them in following a course that was unlawful or harmful to themselves and others. (Such was not the case with Missy’s daughter, by the way.) But support them in following a course that could lead to blessing in their lives as well as others.
When you come to think about it, these principles are pretty much the philosophy of our United Church Nursery School. Part of the philosophy and goals of the United Church Nursery School are to assist children in functioning independently and gaining a sense of competence and responsibility, to be challenged and experience small successes that build self-confidence, and to learn to communicate their feelings and wishes. In other words, we do well when we respect our children for who they are, help our children listen to the voice within, and encourage our children to be the best that they (and not someone else) were created to be. Amen.
Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000.