From the Book of Deuteronomy:

Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Deuteronomy 8:5 (NRSV) – May 6, 2013.)

Frustrated ManRecently, I sat down with a fellow clergy person, a cleric about my own age who is also a parent. We were talking about our kids and how there are times when, as mothers and fathers, we simply have to let go and let our children live their own lives and make their own mistakes. He made the interesting comment that, until he was parent to a maturing teenager, he hadn’t really understood what helplessness is. “As parents, ” he said, “we are essentially helpless.” This, he suggested, gives us a clue to understanding God.

I told him I wasn’t quite comfortable with the concept of helplessness; it feels somehow negative and akin to “playing the victim.” But then none of the synonyms of helpless – powerless, ineffective, inadequate, impotent – seem any better. I know what my friend is getting at . . . how to express it, that’s the issue.

I read this single verse of Deuteronomy and, as parent to adult children, I think, “How does one ‘discipline’ an adult child?” One doesn’t. It’s that simple. Adult children are adults, free to do as they will. The “children of Israel” had come of age. Like any nation, like any adult individual, they were free to do as they would. How was God the parent to discipline this mature, adult nation? Disinheritance? It wouldn’t work; I can attest to that from personal experience.

My parents, shortly after both turned 21 years of age, married in the face of parental opposition on both sides; neither set of my grandparents approved. So what did my grandparents do, on both sides? They disinherited my parents. And what did that accomplish? Nothing, except to alienate my folks from their siblings, and deprive me and my brother, my children and my brother’s children of any possibility of first-hand knowledge of our heritage. Who got punished? Who got disciplined? Certainly not my parents. I think the only people who really got hurt were my grandparents.

How does one “discipline” an adult child? One doesn’t. One simply loves them. One acknowledges that one is . . . helpless . . . it really is the only word to use . . . and one simply loves them. That’s a pretty good clue to understanding God.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.