Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Madame Zebedee

Surely I am not the only parent who feels pressured to ensure that my boys achieve their maximum potential. According to the books and websites, this can be accomplished by reading stacks of the best children's literature, playing specially orchestrated classical music, buying only the safest and most age-appropriate toys, measuring the boys' development regularly according to averages and standards, removing the television to the darkest and most heavily cobwebbed corner of the house, fitting them with fifty-dollar walking shoes, feeding them organic this and fortified that, filling every moment with something edifying, etc., etc., etc. It seems that I must do all of this to give my kids the best chance at the best future.

I imagine the ideal home looking something like Mr. Roger's house except that there would be elaborate schedules on the wall for one child's dance and art classes and another child's soccer practice and karate lessons. The rooms would all be bright and colorful with an array of comprehensible input displayed thoughtfully on the walls (think phonetic charts and alphabet posters). The house would be filled with Montessori-style stations equipped with all sorts of hands-on learning activities. Poor Mr. Roger's would not be there at all because he is, of course, from television. Every young parent knows that television is anathema. An exception is made in the case of Baby Einstein products or other such developmental tools, but only when the parent is participating in the experience and enthusiastically labeling every object on the screen. "Junior, that is an apple." "Look, see the train!" "Ohhh, the baby is sleeping." And on, and on.

Contrast this with our home. We are squashed in the back of a dirty alley in a two bedroom Vietnamese-style house. For outdoor activities, we have a postage stamp garden and an algae-choked fish pond. We did have an inflatable wading pool for the boys, but the alley cats clawed holes in it and urinated on it. I grew weary of patching and cleaning the thing and stealthily disposed of it when the boys weren't looking. Thanks to loving grandparents willing to pay dearly at the post office, we have lots of toys and books, but the t.v. is still central in our house. Art projects are sparse. Caleb tolerates coloring but only as long as I let him pick all the paper off the crayons and leave little waxy bits all over the floor. Painting is better, but it requires a full shower afterward--for both of us.

All excuses aside, I do sometimes feel insecure and inadequate as a parent. We made a decision years ago to pursue a life that isn't likely to result in the perfect house or private lessons for our boys. We are reasonably comfortable, but we live simply and without many of the "perks" we would have in the States--libraries, playgrounds, sports, play groups, and so on. Occasionally, I regret not having these things but for the most part I'm okay with it. Because I am generally content with our life, I was blindsided recently by fears that we are not providing enough for our boys. I suddenly found myself asking and not being able to answer the question, "Have we put them at a disadvantage by choosing the path we've chosen?"

I was still asking myself this question when I happened upon the story of Madame Zebedee in Mathew chapter 20. You probably remember the conscientious mother of the apostles, James and John. In the passage, she worked up the muster to ask Jesus a favor. Her seemingly simple request was that her sons would be allowed to sit on either side of Jesus when he came into power. Surely her baby boys were worth such an honor. She must have imagined a life of influence, prestige, and rich reward for them. She may have even thought this a just request since she knew following Jesus in the short-term hadn't amounted to much. Their sacrifices would earn them the position. Little did she understand what she was really asking.

Jesus' response to Madame Zebedee and later to his squabbling disciples was that whoever desires greatness must become a servant and whoever aims to be first should be a slave. He turns our natural ambitions on their head. We want our children to lead the pack, to be successful, to achieve their full potential. Jesus, in effect, says, "Teach your child to go last, to serve, to love others more than he loves himself."

This only makes sense when we believe (and continually remind ourselves) that there is more to life than the 70 or 80-plus years we hope to spend on earth. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus says that a seed must fall into the ground and die to bear fruit. A man must lose his life to find it. Knowing that the bulk of life is yet to come, frees us from the impulse to get all we can out of this short time.

I remember going through a salad bar once in Bangkok and having to fight the impulse to stare as a woman filled her bowl. She carefully picked unbroken lettuce leaves from the garnish and layered them around the inside of her dish to expand its capacity. Then she skillfully scooped and ladled and piled creating a wobbly mountain of salad. She arranged cubes of red Jello on top of potato salad which was already balancing on a stack of watermelon slices and poured Ranch dressing over it all. She maneuvered the concoction back to her table and dug in. I made my way back to our own table and tried not to gawk over Daniel's shoulder. In places where people have long made do with too little, the tendency is to take whatever one can get. It's a human thing. We grasp at what we fear losing or what we think we need. The gospel liberates us from this. Wealth, power, and prestige become salad toppings in light of eternity.

Upon first reading Matthew 20, I was comforted. Teaching our children to be humble, to work hard for the benefit of others, to love, and to serve is not contingent upon having the perfect home with a large back yard, library access, or the best educational toys. It is not necessarily learned in groups or classes or private lessons. We are not at a disadvantage by living at the back of a dirty alley on the other side of the world.

I was ready to let one long sigh of relief until I read the passage again, and then one more time. How are such things taught? If there is no curriculum, no early development class, no group, or tutor to pass these things on, how do we teach them? How do we help our children to become genuinely humble and not just insecure, concerned for the good of others and not just their good opinion, passionate about Christ's kingdom and undeterred by lesser visions of success. I'm not sure I've fully answered this, but the most obvious solution seems to be that we must live it. We must put ourselves last and others first. We must give the best of what we have and not the excess. We must model for our children humility and service and love.

Scratch that sigh of relief. This is a tall order! Like Madame Zebedee, I find myself going to Jesus. Instead of a pair of thrones, however, I think I will ask for grace--grace to love God and love others in full view of my children. This is enough.


  1. I was ready to thank you for the relief you bring – we are not in a dirty back alley, but the direction I am taking in life has not delivered wealth or anything approaching a standard life in our society. Weird, or at least unusual, is more the case. And I often worry about the quality of input into the boys' lives. As I say, I was ready to thank you for the message of relief.
    Then I read on.
    Now I can thank you for the challenge and the reminder that we can go to Jesus in our unbelief and inadequacy. A different "thank you", probably a deeper one.

  2. It's good to know we are not alone in choosing a (dare we say) simpler life for ourselves and our kids. Maybe we can start a movement. That would give a happy spin to our poverty. :) All kidding aside, it is challenging to live the gospel for our children to see. I think of the apostle Paul saying "imitate me as I imitate Christ." I've never felt ready to say that, but it seems now that I don't have much choice in the matter. We just have to take a deep breath, pray hard, and do our best.

  3. Amen! Thanks for sharing. It is a very good reminder.