Having finished The Shack, a truth I began processing years ago has come to the fore. It is the reality that our children are not our possessions but gifts entrusted to us. We are in this role to guide, not coerce (though strong nudging is sometimes required). We are in our children’s lives to prepare a fertile soil for their eventual launching, a stronghold to which they may well return after their release, though in altered form, having mingled with the world. If we’ve done our jobs right, love will permeate our relationship with them, even in hard times, whether they’re far or near from their nuclear nesting place.
I think I can speak in general terms about The Shack without giving anything away, and, thus, better explain why this story prompted today’s thoughts. In The Shack, we are introduced to Mack, a father who has experienced something that is, by all accounts, a parent’s worst fear. He refers to it as The Great Sadness. The way Mack grapples with The Great Sadness, mainly through interactions with God, brings a common theme to mind: we are, above all else, children of God. As the story progresses, Mack’s journey becomes less about his relationship with his children and others in his life and more about his relationship with God, as God’s extreme regard for his beloved is revealed.
Even though we call them “our” children, the five young beings who dwell in our house and hearts are more accurately God’s children, simply on loan to us. It is a gift that has both blessing and burden attached to it.
As a new parent, I had more difficulty grasping this. Awed by the fact that my longtime dream of being a mother had come to pass, my thoughts were somewhat euphoric, but slightly inaccurate, too. I remember the first time I passed a mirror and saw the reflected image of me carrying my newborn in a front pack. I stared at that image, pleasantly shocked. There I was, and there was this being, this tiny person attached to me. The days of playing dolls with my sister were long gone. I was a real mother now. The long-ago vision had turned from vague concept into reality, and I was deeply in love with this new person I’d helped create.
Back then, it was harder for me to see where my son left off and I began. Newborns are so dependent on us, and we pour our spirits and life into their survival and well-being. Little by little, the detachment takes place, and then one day, we find ourselves looking in the mirror again but seeing just ourselves, wondering who we are, exactly, and what our bigger purpose is.
I am grateful for my slightly-older-than-me friends who have shared their wisdom and helped prepare me for that future time when all my birdies will have flown from the nest. But even now, while they’re all still here, I am grateful to have the knowledge that my children are not my own. There is an incredible bond between parent and child, in good times and bad. But in the end, they really are not ours.
This may be disconcerting at first glance, but it needn’t be. If we look at it in the right light, it is a freeing thought. Much as we might be tempted to feel we are wholly responsible for molding and perfecting our children, we are not. They are unique individuals with free wills, and we can only do so much to help them be who they were designed to be. We can provide the base, but at some point they leave to figure out who they are separate from us. If we have kept the important line between where they leave off and we begin, I believe, we will have much less trauma when the time comes for them to lift their wings and fly away. We will more easily realize that we are still whole, and they will become even more whole in our absence. We will realize that even as our role in their lives diminishes, God’s is increasing.
But isn’t that a nice thought — that they are God’s, not ours? That we do not have to bear the whole burden of seeing them off into the world, or even shaping them while they’re still with us, and that once they are out there, they will never be alone? Likewise, no matter how “mature” we become, we can also be assured that we will always be a child of God first; that we’ll never be abandoned by our Creator. The lesson of seeing this, of relenting to this reality, is a gift in and of itself. It brings about a calm acceptance that we’ll always be cared for, as will our children.
Even when it seems otherwise, as The Shack so wisely demonstrates, God is holding us tightly and is, indeed, quite fond of us, always.