Many years ago I went with our three children- who were quite young at the time- to visit the grandparents. It was quite a long journey and before we went off to the house I had to stop off in town to go to the Bank and do one or two other bits and pieces.
Well, I was having an especially bad day as a parent and each of the children in their own way were trying their father`s patience to put it mildly. Progress along the pavement was loud, filled with screams and understandably slow; so slow in fact that an elderly lady with her walking stick over took this example of domestic bliss. At which point she turned and said to me with a twinkle in her eye, “Would you like to borrow my stick dear?” Nothing daunted I still carry a nappy pin on my key-ring as a reminder that I have been there… and maybe you can tell similar stories.
Now, a good friend of mine taught me something very important many years ago. I noticed how, whenever he met a young mum or a couple with their little offspring he would go out of his way to say, “Well done”. He wasn`t putting it on; he was just so aware of how challenging it can be to bring up a child that he wanted to be one of those who offered a bit of encouragement along the way. So firstly, if you get the chance to do that this week- then please do take it; it will be greatly appreciated.
But of course it`s not just encouragement that parents need- they also need perspective. Not just some reassurance that they will eventually get some sleep but an invitation, in many cases, to see that no matter how difficult things are they are engaged in something extremely precious and significant. Now, to begin with at any rate, (like the lady who offered me her stick) a sense of humour can go a long way. I often ask, whether baby has “become a flippin` nuisance yet?” Because many find it helpful to laugh a little and just own up to that all too painful contrast between parenthood as they are experiencing it…. and the often rose-tinted expectations they gained from all those ante-natal classes.
I`m generalising, of course but this is because so many people seem caught between idealism and sentimentality on the one hand and a sort of sleep deprived depression on the other, where they can`t escape that nagging feeling that for them, things must have gone badly wrong. And that feeling is reinforced at every turn isn`t it? Parents are subject to judgement in our culture aren`t they? In any public space they have to be seen to be `in control` of their children; to keep them quiet, entertained, perfectly behaved, healthily fed and all the rest. And they wear themselves and their offspring out in a never-ending and dizzying array of activities designed to give their little one the best start; the economic edge and a huge social circle…. I needn`t go on.
And so often we don`t help. We who have `been there` are quite clearly the victims of a certain amnesia not to say intolerance. And this is a shame because beyond the sentimentality; beyond the weariness; beyond the often harsh criticism of others there is a crying need for reassurance; reassurance that it will be OK. Some hint that being a parent, despite its apparent chaos is a Godly thing and infused with holiness.
Next Saturday it will be our Marriage Preparation Day; and during the afternoon is to my mind the highlight of the day. For a number of years now we`ve been pleased to have with us a couple who have been married more years than they care to mention but each year it`s fascinating to watch thirty and more young couples completely transfixed by the wit, good humour and affectionate way this couple speak of their experience of marriage. For the young couples it`s uplifting; it`s reassuring; it`s engaging and yes, entertaining. Nothing`s said…but this couple who`ve `been there` leave those young people feeling, “That`s how we want OUR marriage to be”.
Of course it`s part of the game that a younger generation want to do things their own way; and sometimes we who`ve `been there` are not only a bit judgemental but a bit too handy with the advice But I think those of us who are shall we say, in the second half of life have far more to offer than we appreciate. I think we give up too soon. It seems to me that it`s high time that those of us in the second half of life start living lives that make the younger generation want to grow up… Not to wish their lives away but to inhabit a maturity …. a life rather than a retirement.
That`s why I often invite couples to think about the Gospel story we heard this morning; Mary and Joseph bringing the child Jesus into the Temple for Dedication. (Luke 2.22-40) I like to point out how Mary and Joseph came along with their experience of being Jesus` parents; with their understanding of what it was all about ……. only to hear, in that place of worship; from these two superannuated characters called Simeon and Anna… that there was something about their child that they hadn`t yet grasped. That there was something more going on beyond the nappies and the school run.
You see it strikes me that there has to be more. There has to be more than a gushing sentimentality. There has to be more than weariness and the never ending round of trying to live up to everyone else`s expectations. Somewhere along the line there has to be an acceptance; a guilt-free accommodation with things as they are… but a lot of couples won`t get there on their own.
This is where those two characters, Simeon and Anna come in. They`re not there by accident; and Simeon in particular is notable for the way he takes Jesus into his arms; praised God and blessed them. It`s very simple… but devastatingly important. He praised God and blessed them. You see, what`s often forgotten is that little reference in our Gospel reading to the offering which Mary and Joseph brought.…it was `a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons`. Not the kind of thing WE usually bring on a Sunday morning but when St. Luke wrote this account it was known as the `Offering of the Poor`.
In other words we`re given a picture of Mary and Joseph were as a simple and unostentatious couple. There was nothing flash or wealthy about this gift… It was probably all they could afford but this statement of their `everydayness`…… is contrasted with Simeon wrapping his arms around the baby and saying, “You`re caught up in something much bigger than you might realise”. This is what we`re called to do. To praise God and to bless.
Yes, I think we are right to be alarmed at the way in which discussion about ageing in our society is frankly dominated by a culture of youth; notions of economic worth, `the cost of keeping people alive` and where the wisdom of years is ignored. But a lot of this is bluff. I don`t buy it. As I say, many of a younger generation may not wish to hear; they may want to plough their own furrow and remain deaf to whatever wisdom you or I may want to pass on but scratch beneath the surface and the insecurity, the fear and the lack of any real sense of `what this parenting thing` this growing up is all about anyway is palpable. And my point is that there are moments; like that meeting with the lady who offered me her stick(!); like that meeting in the Temple… where a younger person, a younger couple can be really blessed by someone of what the Prayer Book calls `riper years`; someone who has `been there`. Someone like you and me.
How? Well look at Simeon and Anna… and it`s not just their experience. They`re described as living lives guided by the Spirit; of worship and devotion; and they were expectant of God despite considerable hardship and tragedy. They are almost like the Church`s grandparents…. And those of us of their vintage and experience are asked to consider how far we`re letting ourselves be formed like them…. so that we might have the same impact as they did.
Again, I like that picture of Simeon taking Christ into his arms and praising God. Yes, it helps to take a moment to compassionately encourage the people whom you meet each day… especially the young ones with their (screaming) offspring. But I would invite you not to underestimate the impact you can have (which is far beyond a kind word here and there) of simply being the kind of person who has learned to embrace Christ. Who is being formed by a life of intimacy with him and who brings a blessing; who opens their eyes to a life that`s all together deeper and richer. I promise you…. people will notice the difference. It begins as you come forward this morning …. As you gaze on him; present in the bread and wine. As you praise God… and know; this is what it`s all about…