I just pulled the curtains back on this Monday morning because despite being awake and working for a few hours, the sun is just now rising to greet me. I love Mondays and I love mornings.
I’ve pulled a book off my shelf in recent weeks – in part because I live with an adolescent, and in part because I’m going to oversee a homeschooling semester for a different adolescent in the new year, but also because it’s a great book about growing up – and even at fifty, I’m faced with the constant challenge of growing up and into established adulthood – what it means, why it’s important, etcetera.
Today I offer you a few paragraphs from the chapter “You Aren’t Going to Tell Me What to Do!” – which is a great chapter title no matter how you look at it.
“No” is the essential word in dealing with all matters of pseudo-spirituality. We need to acquire facility in saying no. We need to become connoisseurs of the negative.
But this is a particular kind of no, which is somewhat new to the adolescent. Previous to adolescence, the no consisted primarily of prohibitions. Prohibitions forbid certain behaviors because they are dangerous either to self or to society. They are the rules of the game of living. They make it possible to stay alive in relative harmony with things and animals and people. They range all the way from small courtesies at meals (“Don’t talk with your mouth full”) to large matters of survival (“Thou shalt not kill”). Because children have little or no experience in the world, most of the negatives are prohibitions imposed in others. They don’t need to understand the reason for a prohibition, they just need to obey it. Asking “why” is dangerous for it dilutes and delays obedience – if children insist on understanding before obeying (“Don’t stand so close to that cliff!” “Don’t eat those berries!” “Don’t run in the street!”) they’re as good as dead. For the first years of a child’s life he or she is trained in blind obedience, unthinking obedience, unquestioning obedience.
But there comes a time when prohibitions need to develop into renunciations, when the no imposed from the outside needs to become the no embraced from the inside. Adolescence is the optimum time for this development.
This is the place, and time, to make a basic distinction between morality and spirituality in relation to the negative. In matters of morality, we are dealing mostly with prohibitions – the no comes from without; in matters of spirituality, we are dealing mostly with renunciations – the no comes from within.
Morality that does not become spirituality is mostly exterior, like cumbersome armor on the medieval knight. Morality that becomes spirituality is mostly interior, like lissome coordination and supple reflexes in an Olympic athlete. Moral prohibitions repeated and reinforced in adolescence and carried over into adulthood are heavy and restrictive and joyless; spiritual renunciations acquired in adolescence enable us to “lay aside every weight…and run with perseverance the race that is set before us” ( Hebrews 12 ). Prohibitions that ossify become a life sentence in a death cell. Prohibitions that develop into renunciations set us free for sacrificial love climaxed by resurrection.
This all comes to sharp focus in Jesus’ words, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” ( Mark 8 )
I sometimes think of this as the key text for adolescence. This is a transitional text in the Gospel story even as adolescence is a transitional time in our stories. The first half of St. Mark’s Gospel can be seen as analogous to childhood. Jesus is primarily presented as doing things for us, telling us the way things are. He helps and heals, he directs and teaches. He is in the process of revealing God to us by restoring all things, making all things new. The consequences of his ministry are healthy bodies, sane minds, full stomachs, safe passage. Eventually, as the evidence accumulates all around, Peter realizes what has been going on and says, “You are the Christ!” He recognizes God revealed in Jesus. “This is God among us! The salvation of the world!”
It is at this point, but not a moment before, that Jesus introduces his great no, his call for renunciation: deny yourself; take up your cross daily. Note well: this is not a prohibition to be obeyed; it is a renunciation to be embraced. He does not chain the disciples up and march them to Jerusalem and the cross; he invites them to follow him in the renunciation that he embraces on the road to resurrection.
We are only capable of renouncing a false life when are familiar with a real life…..Renunciation clears out the clutter of self, of false spiritualities, of pseudo-life so that there is room in us for God and true spirituality and eternal life.
“No,” in this context, is a freedom word. It frees us from false promises, wrong roads, spurious attractions so that we are free for grace and mercy and love and God – a saved life, a whole life, an exuberant life.
From Eugene Peterson’s Like Dew Your Youth – Growing Up with Your Teenager
So much to think about here.
As I think about you all and your different stories, I often see your faith growing up and into something new in much the same way that a child becomes an adolescent and then an adult. Sometime we cling to the “prohibition” side of things, just trying to keep ourselves out of trouble, stay within the lines, away from the edge of the cliff, etcetera. But Eugene Peterson’s thoughts here are compelling. The call to grow up and learn the difference between prohibition and renunciation is a direct challenge to us – chewing the solid food of the faith, weaning off the dribbling milk.
God feels big and expansive here – calling us to independence and to our particular giftings, giving us room to sketch and dream and explore, allowing us to bring questions and concerns and doubts in the same way that my sons challenge my authority as they grow older. My mothering ceases to be a litany of prohibitions, and starts to be common explorations – I intercede on their behalf, lift their struggles to the heavens, come alongside them as they learn their true names. I want them to own their faith, be comfortable in their skin. I want God to invite them to mature and grow, so I must move to the background and let God step into the forefront.
This is God Almighty calling on us all to enlarge our lives on His behalf, this is not for the faint of heart. He’s asking us to set aside our petty notions and follow Him, and in order to do that, we’re going to need to grow up. All of us. It will never end, there is always something bright and new around the corner, even in old age.
This coming Sunday marks the beginning of Advent, the start of the Christian year. I’m going to post through December, then might take a pause until I return home in mid January.
I’m collecting photos for my office in the new year – please send me one!