For those of us who are parents or caretakers of children, we are called into the mighty work of Cultivating a young heart. What an awesome and terrifying responsibility this is.
We are given the mighty work of ‘making level paths’ for their feet and teaching them to navigate the rocky terrain they will inevitably face where level paths don’t exist. We are called to help them pull weeds from the soil of their hearts, helping them to discern and know how to one day do it without us. As much as we may wish it weren’t so, it is right that their feet will one day go beyond the path we pave and push forward into the uncultivated spaces of life as gardeners of their own hearts. We don’t know exactly what they will face out there, but if their lives are like ours in any way, we know they will encounter heartache and loss. They will struggle and know challenges that will sometimes seem too great to bear. How might we teach them to bravely tend to the soil of their hearts so that good things can grow as they walk along the path that our good and faithful God has called them to?
Those who grow grape vines ‘train’ them to grow up a trellis or some sort of structure that supports the production of its fruit. The growers, however, do not plant grapes in the same way they plant corn or carrots, and they don’t expect a different produce from them – shaming the grape seeds for becoming grapes instead of, say, sugar snap peas. A good gardener cares for the plant based on what it is and what it needs, and they ‘train’ it for its greatest flourishment and wholeness. This is true for us in the care of raising children, too. How do we prepare the way for them to become who God is making them to be?
Raphael’s “Alba Madonna” (ca 1510) is a beautiful painting depicting little John the Baptist, clothed in a camel-hair onesie, playing next to the infant Jesus and His mother Mary. Jesus holds a long thin wooden cross which symbolizes the ‘path’ that John and Mary were preparing Him for. I don’t know how much either of them knew exactly what lay ahead for this little boy as they watched Him grow, but both played a part in the accomplishment of His mission, and ultimately the Salvation of mankind.
I love the prophecy in Isaiah that John the Baptist took as his marching orders:
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.”
John, in utero, was the first human being outside of divine angelic revelation to recognize the Christ-child (Luke 1:41-44). But aside from his prophetic fetal gesticulations, grown-up John also prepared the hearts of his hearers for the coming Messiah by preaching to the willing and scolding the hard-hearted. Along with the many he baptized, he also baptized Jesus Himself! Then in an act of ultimate humility, he sends his own disciples to follow Jesus instead of him. We may understand and appreciate this from a visible ministry standpoint – how one leader can pave the way for another. But what may have been less visible to the crowds, though it made no less impact, was the work done by Jesus’ mama.
Luke 1:30-31, 38a (AMP)
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.
Listen carefully: you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son,
and you shall name Him Jesus.
Then Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord;
may it be done to me according to your word.”
God did not spin the world around like a toy globe, close His eyes, stop it with His finger, and drop His Son somewhere, sometime, someplace to some mom… He chose Mary.
It’s strange to think the childhood of Christ would need the care of a mother. Jesus was perfect, so… did He need to be told not to touch the stove? Did He fall and skin His knee and need His mother to kiss it to feel better? Did His diaper leak and did He ever throw a fit? Did He have colic? Baby challenges aside, imagine raising a teenager who believes He’s God’s gift to the world… and is actually RIGHT about that! And Jesus still benefits from His mother’s care as an adult. The story of Jesus’ first miracle is also a beautiful story of Mary ‘paving the way’ for Jesus to start His public ministry. Mary at the foot of the cross is heartbreaking, yet it’s another beautiful picture of her continuing to accept this call, even in the face of the unimaginable. If Jesus lived in human skin with human limitations, fully God yes, but also fully man… He needed a mama, and His Heavenly Father made sure He had a good one.
As we marvel at the grand mystery of the Messiah needing a mother, and are grateful that Mary answered the call, we are meant to turn our hearts towards our own children and the responsibility that God has placed on us. “Behold (our name), you have been called to raise (our child’s name).” Imagine this! God has chosen US to be OUR child’s parent. To help them with THEIR specific challenges and facilitate THEIR unique and beautiful growth. We, like Mary, may not know exactly what we are ‘training’ our children for, we may not know exactly what their life will look like and what they will face… but we are called to ‘make level paths’ for their feet and help them pull the inevitable weeds that grow along the way.
I wonder if the burden ever got to Mary like it does us sometimes? Did she ever sit in a chair and stare off into space as little Jesus played on the ground? Did she ever not know what to do next, or how to do it? Yet, I wonder how much of what God called her to do was accomplished in Mary dutifully performing the everyday acts of service that come with being a parent. These things can be mundane and frustrating, sure, but did she go about them with intention and love and a heart that pointed the young Jesus towards His Heavenly Father and forward to His mission? In cleaning the floor did she ever speak to Him about the state of the world, how it needed to be cleansed and redeemed? In making the table did she ever talk about how love brings people together to break bread? In kissing his boo-boos did she ever whisper softly that He would do the same for all God’s children? I wonder how many parables Jesus would later tell were planted in His heart as He watched His parents tend and care for their home and community? I wonder how many times, when things got hard, when dishes broke, when rooms wouldn’t stay cleaned, when it all felt so heavy on her shoulders, did Mary have to recommit herself to the declaration “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be done to me”?
Little acts of faithfulness are what allow good things to grow. Our children’s hearts, just like soil, need to be cared for and cultivated.
The conditions that exist and the care that is given can either produce a bountiful harvest or a withering one. The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13) shows how different ‘contaminants’ can keep what is otherwise good from growing beyond the seedling phase. ‘Rocks’ and ‘Birds’ and ‘Weeds’ plague the good seed that falls from the farmer’s hand. So, it can be with the hearts of our children. The world has no shortage of disappointments that can turn to bitterness and harden into ‘rocks’ that will keep roots of faith from growing deep. Worries and distractions are ‘weeds’ that choke and drain resources. There are a thousand and one ‘birds’ in this life that seek to snatch good growth away at the first sign of a sprout. Sadly, we as parents too, imperfect as we are, can also be ways by which weeds, and rocks and birds can come. Harsh words, discouragement, unrealistic expectations… Sometimes the wounds given to us from our time in the world are all-to-easily passed on to our children. (Have we ever spoken unkindly to ourselves, and then heard those same words spoken by our children to themselves? Heartbreaking, isn’t it?) If we nourish the soil of our children, but do not attend to the ‘rocks’ in our own hearts, we cannot be too surprised when they begin to show up in the hearts of our children. Similarly, weeds left unpulled in our own hearts can blow their unfruitful seeds of worry and distraction into theirs, too. And any birds roosting on our shoulders that we let peck at our hearts can fly over and gobble up whatever good grows in them. The condition of our children’s hearts, and the health of the growth that comes from it, can greatly depend on what we allow God to do with our own.
But what has a great capacity to wound can also be one of the best defenses our children have… If we let the Good Gardener take us, ‘train’ us, and make our hearts into what He wants them to be, it will greatly bless our children, too. God chose Mary because of her willingness and her heart. John dedicated his life to pursuing what was most important. This is not to say that it is all up to us or that we must be perfect before becoming a parent. Far from it. The good news is that the same God that wants to walk with our children, the same God we are preparing their hearts to be receptive to, the same loving hands that will lead them through this life, even when their hands have left ours… is the same God who wants to walk with us, too. His hands are more than able to help us pull our weeds, dig up our rocks, and shoo away our birds. And the miraculous nature of grace will mean that even our mistakes can be used by God for our and our children’s good, too.
Humanity seems to have no end to the ways our soil can become contaminated; however, God does not tire nor grow weary. And if we continually pour the soil of our hearts into His big hands, He is more than able to sift it with us again and again. When we parents choose to work on our OWN soil, THIS is one of the best things we can do for the soil of our children’s hearts too. When we make level paths for our OWN feet, THIS is one of the best things we can do for the little feet that are following closely behind us, and the little eyes who are watching us to learn what they must do when they move beyond us. The rule of flying in an airplane is, if the oxygen masks fall, put on your mask first, so that you remain conscious and able to help the child. It won’t do our kids much good if we pass out first. If we want to ‘train up our children in the way that they should go,’ if we seek to help them become who God is making them to be, one of the best things we can do for them is to become who God is making us to be, too. We cannot pour from an empty pitcher. Out of the overflow of our own heart will such things come, rather than scraping the bottom of an empty vessel for droplets to nourish their reaching sprouts.
Listen, parenting is hard. It’s great! …but it’s hard. And there’s too much already to do. How do we find time in all the business to connect to God ourselves? Do we really need one more thing on our list? But this is the thing that makes all the other things possible and better and more beautiful and life-giving in a way that we just can’t be without it. As our children reach for our hand, reach up for His. As we help our kids navigate the road ahead, listen carefully for His voice leading us. And as we help our kids pull weeds, let Him help us pull our own. Just like with our children, it doesn’t have to be perfect right away. We take this one step at a time and keep trying. We can do this. Sure, we’re gonna mess up, just like our kids will, and our Heavenly Father has grace for us and is there to kiss our boo-boos, walk us through our mistakes, and help us try again. We’re there for our kids, and He is there for us, too. Take His hand. Our children will thank us for it someday.
“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be done to me.”
The featured image is courtesy of Sam Keyes and used with his permission for Cultivating.
Adam is a vagabond of the arts. He is an animator by training, a media specialist by vocation and a writer by hobby. Though he “still hasn’t found what he’s looking for”, in his wandering through the arts he has found the firm conviction that God has been writing His story through our stories since the beginning, and He’s not done yet. Adam and his wife Sarah have 3 children and live in Northern Colorado. His artistic interests range from G.K. Chesterton to Looney Tunes.