I heard of a young mother who gave birth to twins, and rang the local newspaper to put a notice in the personal column. She gave the person at the other end all the details, but unfortunately the reception was bad, and she was asked, ‘will you repeat that?’
‘Not if I can help it,’ was the reply.
How often I wonder, after a hectic day with the children, do we look at them and say just that. And yet, I learned of George McDonald, a Methodist Minister in the nineteenth century. He and his wife, Hannah, had eleven children. Of the seven daughters, Alice became the mother of Rudyard Kipling; Georgiana married the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones; Agnes eventually married the future president of the Royal Academy, Edward Poynter; and Louisa became the mother of prime minister Stanley Baldwin.
Yes, parenthood is often tough, but how many people can look back on loving Christian parents, and supportive homes, where they could be truly themselves, without pretence, and still be loved and valued? How many people can look back and find that in their childhood there was laid a sure foundation of character and personality, and the good aspects of what they are now?
Yes, what a father and mother say to a child may not be heard outside the door of their house, but it will reverberate in history. It will be echoed in the adult life of their children, and, in turn, will be passed on to their children. Obviously, this has something to say to Rachel and Chris, Lily, Hannah, and William. But it has something to say to all of us, as share in the church family and the nurture of the children in our church.
I’d like to suggest to you that the family is a school for life. All children, however lovable, can be little barbarians when the mood takes them. They have to learn at home, in gradual easy ways, or in hard ways, all sorts of lessons, such as: how to share; how to treat other people considerately; how to do what they’re told by people who know what’s what; how to absorb, consciously or unconsciously, the self- discipline that makes achievement possible; how to discover that one can win long term goals by giving up short-term pleasures. All these things, and many others, they learn by example, by teaching, or by compulsion, in any good family. The family is a school for life skills, for learning how to live tolerantly and successfully in community. All this takes time, parent time, for it can’t be skimped.
I heard of a couple who went into a toy shop. ‘We both work,’ she said, ‘so the kids are left alone a great deal – what have you got for them?’ The shop assistant suggested one thing after another; but nothing seemed to suit. ‘You don’t seem to have much idea!’ said the mother. ‘Well Madam,’ replied the shop assistant, ‘as far as I see it, what your children need most is a mother and father, but we don’t sell them here.’ Do try to put some family time on your list, even in these hectic days.
I’d also like to suggest to you that the family is a school for love. It’s the place where we learn that love isn’t a matter of liking. We choose our friends, we don’t choose our relatives, or our children – we’re stuck with them. With luck we may like them, but we have to learn to love them, and they have to learn to love us. They will leam to work for each other’s good. They’ll get into the habit of thinking of others before themselves. They’ll know what it feels like to be open, vulnerable, and self-giving. They’ll experience trust, confession, forgiveness; all those deep human emotions that lie in and around the word love. They’ll discover within the security of your family, all that battery of things that are involved when you unpack that most profound of human attitudes.
Of course, love is defined many different ways. Mills & Boon define it one way in their romantic novels, the old Hollywood musicals define it another way; but here, in church, we define it in the most demanding and rewarding way of all: we use the Christian definition. And for that we look at the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We see the picture of Jesus, what he was, what he did, and we say, ‘yes, that’s the best definition of love we have ever seen’. It’s tender yet very strong. It not only includes joy and laughter, but also suffering and tears. The greater the love, the greater the price-tag there is on it. The more you love someone, the more you care about them, the more you worry about them, the more you are concerned for them, the greater is the hurt when something happens to them. The greatest love of all, the love Christ had for us all, involved the greatest price-tag: a cross.
There’s a story of a mother whose son was killed in the First World War: ‘O, that I might see him again,’ she prayed. Well, the story goes that an angel, moved by her grief, appeared to her and said, ‘Yes, I’ll arrange it, but how would you like to see him? As a proud soldier in the front line, or as the little baby he once was?’
‘No’, said the mother slowly, ‘I’d like to see him as he was one day when he’d been naughty out in the garden, and he ran in to ask my forgiveness. He was so small and unhappy, and the tears ran down his grubby face, and he flew into my arms so fast he knocked the breath out of me.’
There’s nothing more moving than someone in a loving relationship who says, ‘I need you.’ Your children need you to teach them the joy of a love like that: the heart-warming power of giving sacrificially, the cost and the positive rewards of forgiving generously.
I’d also like to suggest that your family is a school for the wider community. Like everything else, the family at its best is a small microcosm of the larger family of God. Having learned the basics in our individual families, we can then go on to take our place in the wider family of the Church, and the yet larger family of the human race. Exercising the skills and qualities we’ve learned at home, we can venture out and demonstrate compassion, sympathy, and understanding, and make our own contribution to the intractable problems out there. We can take our place in the adult world, standing four-square on our integrity and convictions, knowing that we see ourselves properly, as God sees us, neither as arrogantly proud nor hypocritically humble, but as people with imperfections, deeply loved by God. Like everything else God made, the existence of the family is surely not an accidental phenomenon. It’s not just a sociologically convenient way of propagating the species. The family says something more. It speaks of a deeper level of experience, a larger purpose in his providence, and the ultimate destiny that God has in store for us. The family, our families, are small models, here and now, where, through happiness and sorrow, successes and disappointments, we learn the depths of character that will fit us for God’s larger family in his eternal kingdom. So, as parents, Rachel and Chris, you have a tremendous responsibility.
As you look at Hannah and William asleep in the cot, you’re suddenly aware, as all parents are, of the responsibility you carry. And it is a great and difficult task, but there’s nothing more useful and satisfying than bringing up a family well. You’re the headmaster and headmistress of your own private little school; teach your children well. For your future happiness, and theirs depend on it.
A lady once said to a famous preacher, ‘l feel led to going around preaching as you do; the trouble is that l have nine children and can’t see how I’d ever manage to get away to fulfil that call.’ The preacher replied, ‘I am delighted to hear that the Lord has called you to preach; I am also pleased to note that he has already provided you with a ready-made congregation.’ Start where you are, in the demanding ground of your home, and never cease promoting healthy, happy, and holy family life, until that basis is soundly laid in your home, in our community, and in our world. And may God bless you, Rachel and Chris, and all of us, as we do that.