Back To…

 

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“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message)

August is a hybrid month. About midway through the month, we move from the carefree (albeit hot) season of the summer break to the more routine and structured life that begins with the phrase, “Back to…” with some responsibility in place of the ellipsis. Back to school. Back to work. Back to the grind. Or, my favorite, back to football! Let’s not rush too quickly back to the busy-ness. There’s still time for one more trip to the lake, to the beach, or to the mountains. There’s still time for one more lazy weekend before the calendar starts filling up and the “to do” lists get longer.

I think the reason we like to hold onto the last little bit of summer is that our souls need the Spirit of the Sabbath to be whole. God designed us that way. Is it possible that we find ourselves lamenting the end of summer because we’ve never actually found the rest our souls need? Is it possible that our season of rest has been nothing more than another busy season, just with more of the activities we love?

God’s command to keep the Sabbath is not some legalistic prescription that is burdensome or inconvenient. Sabbath is God’s design for developing healthy rhythms of alternating rest and work. In the rest phase, Sabbath is as much about reflecting and recognizing how God is at work in our lives as it is about rest. Sabbath feeds our ability to do greater work for having reflected on “who we are” and “why” we do what we’re doing. If we’ve been so busy this summer that we weren’t able to reflect on the nature of our being and the direction of our lives, then it’s easy to understand why we’re having difficulty letting go of summer.

As in all things with God, there is grace. Even if you missed out on finding the renewal you were hoping for this summer, it’s not as elusive as you think, even now as you’re facing the onslaught of “back to…” Any time spent with God is an opportunity for your soul to be nurtured—even if it’s just a few moments in the morning before you begin your day. If you’re married, finding time at the end of the day to sit silently, holding hands, and being grateful can do wonders for renewing your energy. As a parent, when my children were small, gazing into their beds as they slept could serve as a form of meditation as I gave thanks for their precious lives (and for their sleeping!). As a single person, I remember spending time listening to music on my CD player late into the night and being moved spiritually. Take Sabbath wherever you can, whenever you can, however you can, and you’ll find the energy to carry on and to do great things.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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The Hassle of Complexity

 

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“Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10a, NRSV)

We live in a house that is over 100 years old. About 30 years ago, a master gardener lived in our house. About 15 years ago, that master gardener moved out and, unfortunately, another master gardener didn’t move in. When we purchased the house in 2015, you could see that someone had spent a significant investment of planning and planting the landscaping around our house. The problem was that everything was overgrown. The careful pruning and shaping of the master gardener’s hand were replaced by the laissez-faire attitude of homeowners or the “mow and blow” lawn maintenance professionals they hired. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle between the master gardener and the un-invested maintenance crew. I love a manicured lawn with tasteful, but minimal shrubbery and landscaping.

For the past two years, I have been cutting back the out-of-control limbs and shrubs in hopes of bringing back some beauty and manageability to our yard. Some of the trees had to go because they were creating problems with their roots erupting sidewalks, choking out sewer lines, or damaging the foundation of the house. Other shrubs have been cut back (a.k.a. “butchering”) in hopes of regaining control and a natural symmetry instead of the weird growth patterns created by competing for sunlight. In the 90-degree humid heat last weekend, I realized I was working hard to create a stunning, yet low-maintenance yard. Turning complexity into simplicity is hard work.

My life can resemble my yard if I’m not carefully attending to what’s most important to me. I can keep adding layer after layer of complexity that requires more and more of my time to maintain. After a while, I get busy with other things, and the resulting neglect creates areas that have become unmanageable and overgrown. No matter how hard I try to regain control, my efforts never seem to be enough. I have to make a decision to simplify—to decide what is most important to me—and to prune and trim—and sometimes even totally remove the unnecessary distractions. To do that requires more effort, so the temptation is to keep carrying the load for another day…and then another day…and then another.

The antidote to complexity is simplicity. The Psalmist, speaking for God, says, “Be still and know that I am God.” The unstated fact is that we are NOT God and through stillness, we can connect with the One who created us. Allowing the God who created me to guide my life is one of the keys to simplifying my life.

Maybe you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of life. You are not alone. I’m willing to meet with you and talk about ways that you can connect with God that will give you a better foundation for a more manageable life. If you take me up on it, I promise not to ask you to help me with my yard!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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Gerald’s Story

 

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“Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” (1 John 4:8, NRSV)

We were drinking sweet tea as our chairs rocked back and forth on a hot July afternoon. Gerald was in his eighties. He never said much. When he did speak, it was never kind. He grunted his disapproval of whatever caught his ire, which was almost everything. Then he would be quiet for a long stretch before erupting again on another topic that infuriated him. People did not like to be around him. He drove them away. His wife, his children, and even his old friends were all gone. He was home alone most of the time except for two times a week when he went out.

He went to the grocery store every Wednesday morning. People there pretended not to see him. They didn’t want to become the recipient of his latest rant. Many days, the cashier was the unlucky target because there was no way she could avoid Gerald.

On Sunday, Gerald came to church. He sat in the back. He never shook hands. He never stood. He never sang. He never recited a creed or uttered the Lord’s Prayer. He never even bowed his head. None of us had any idea why he came because he didn’t speak to anybody. As soon as the service was over, he was out the door and in his old pickup truck, headed back to his perch on the front porch where, except for rocking in his chair, you would think you were staring at a granite statue—his face in a frozen grimace. He’d sit there until dark and then mysteriously disappear into the house for the night.
It was a small country church, and so there wasn’t much for a pastor to do most days but visit people. People expected me to drop by for a minute—even if I was just passing by on my way somewhere else—and they always had time, and they always had sweet tea. Even Gerald expected me to visit. Why? I’m not sure. But if I didn’t, I would be the subject of one of his venomous outbursts to the cashier when he went to the grocery store the next Wednesday.

People in the church pitied me for having to visit Gerald. They didn’t understand. I went not because I was supposed to go; I went because I wanted to go. I wanted to learn about the pain that lay beneath the surface, to identify the emotional toxin that poisoned him, or to put a name to the villain that created this angry, sullen caricature of a miserable life. He never let on. Gerald never revealed the source of his misery. He would sit quietly for a while, and then he would spew his venom trying to drive me away—but I wouldn’t go until he quieted down again. Once he was calm, I would pray, wish him well, and be on my way.

One time, as I got up to leave, he grabbed my forearm. It startled me that his weathered hand was still almost strong enough to pull me back down to my seat. I started to pull away—but instead, I dropped back into the chair.
I waited for what felt like an eternity not knowing what to expect. Then Gerald spoke.

“What is God like?” he asked sternly.

I was stunned. No ranting. No furious anger. For the first time in my memory, instead of making a brash statement, Gerald asked a question. It was as if there was a tear in the fabric of the universe. At that moment I was presented with both an incredible challenge and a tremendous opportunity. How could I describe what God is like when God, as the Bible says, is the very essence of love? How could I describe that “God is love” to a person who didn’t seem to know love? The task felt impossible; yet, sacred. What would you have said to Gerald at that moment? What would you have done?

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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Celebrating the Past; Looking to the Future

“O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” —Psalm 136:1, NRSV

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This past week we observed the 241st Anniversary of the United States Declaration of Independence. It’s a grand time to celebrate the accomplishments of a great nation and to reflect on what it means to be a people of freedom almost 250 years later. Hopefully, along with eating barbecue, watermelon, and ice cream, we were able to thank God for the blessings of living in a land of abundance. Maybe as we watched the fireworks or lit some sparklers, the colorful splendor reminded us of the joy we have in residing in a nation that honors creativity and beauty. Possibly, as we spent time with family and friends, we were reminded of how great it is to live in a country with some of the most caring and compassionate people the world has ever known—many of whom have made enormous sacrifices for the freedoms we enjoy. If you missed the larger picture of the 4th of July, then pause now and thank God for the rights we have that include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Our history sets the stage for our future. The accomplishments of the past can propel us into an even brighter future. Learning from both our successes and our failures as a nation creates a richer fulfillment of the vision cast in our founding as a nation.

Almost 100 years after the founding of the United States (91 years to be exact), the roots of what is known as Canterbury United Methodist Church sunk into the ground in 1867. Preaching services were held in brush arbors (crudely constructed outdoor structures) and when the weather was bad, in people’s homes. A church building was eventually built west of Mountain Brook Village on Hollywood Boulevard and took on the name Union Hill. You will hear more about our history as we get closer to our 150th Anniversary on October 15, 2017.

Canterbury has a vibrant history that includes relocations and a merger of two congregations that culminated in the first worship service on the current property on October 12, 1952, in what is now known as Canterbury Hall. God has blessed this congregation over the last 150 years, and we want to celebrate God’s faithfulness. Additionally, we want to celebrate the thousands of people who have made Canterbury what it is. Keep an eye out for ways you can learn more about this great congregation and for activities that you and your family will want to share in as we “give thanks to God…for his steadfast love endures forever.” God has even more in store for us as we look to our future!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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The Dangers of Sentimental Religion

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
(Matthew 10:39, NRSV)

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Jesus makes demands of his followers that most of us just gloss over as if Jesus never said them at all. For instance, are we willing to forgive someone who has wronged us multiple times (Luke 17:4), or are we more likely to hold a grudge, plotting how we will get our revenge? Did Jesus really mean for us to love our enemies and to bless those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), or are we exempt from that because our enemies are so much worse than any enemies in his day? Are we willing to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33), or do we seek our own kingdoms first? Do we do everything we can to preserve our own lives (Matthew 10:39), or are we willing to give them up for the cause of Christ?

Most of us prefer a more sedate and mild form of Christianity that makes no demands of us or at least requires minimal sacrifice on our part. We prefer a sentimental religion that ignores and denies the harsh demands of being a disciple of Jesus Christ for a serene “church in the wildwood” experience where the worst we can expect is mosquito bites (or chigger bites) at the covered dish supper “in the little brown church in the vale.” A sentimental religion denies that Jesus requires us to count the cost (Luke 14:25-33) before we make a commitment, lest we find ourselves unable to fulfill the extraordinary sacrifices that any true religion will extract from us.

Alternating experiences of exhilarating joy and all-consuming fear marked the lives of Jesus’ first followers. The hearts and the minds of the disciples were filled with the ecstasy of seeing people healed miraculously. But also deeply inscribed were the adrenaline-drenched times of intense fear associated with the persecution and rejection of those who denied the reality of Jesus. My experience of the Christian faith has probably been more of the exhilarating joy rather than the overwhelming fear. How about you?

We can each take stock of the demands that our faith in Jesus has made on our lives and determine if we have taken his gospel commands seriously. For me, I am more comfortable figuring out how Jesus makes demands of others than how he makes demands of me. I am praying for a greater sense of awareness for what it means to be a Christian in the 21st Century. I am praying for the courage to engage in whatever sacrifice is required of me for me to be found more faithful to God. There’s no telling where this kind of prayer may take me. I just hope I’m up for the journey. How about you?

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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The Holy Trinity

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19, NRSV)

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What is your image of God? If you are like most people, when I used the word “God” in my question, an image of an older man probably came to mind. If my question were for you to describe Jesus, you would probably describe an olive-skinned man in his 30’s in a robe with long flowing hair. (Thanks to the popularity of Warner Sallman’s painting that has indelibly etched the image in our minds!) If I asked you to paint a picture of the Holy Spirit, you would probably paint a metaphor—something like branches blowing in the wind or maybe a dove descending. All three of these images are images of God—three images of the One True God. We refer to these three images of God as the Trinity.

The word “trinity” is not in the Bible. Tertullian (c. 155- c. 240 AD) coined this phrase so that the church had a verbal way of wrestling with the three-in-one nature of God hinted at in scriptural passages such as the one listed above. Although some scholars dispute whether the phrase was part of the original rendering of the gospel, the Trinitarian reference from Matthew’s gospel describes God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After Tertullian’s attempt at framing the doctrine, the church became divided over how best to understand the Trinity. For instance, did Jesus come before the Holy Spirit or did the Holy Spirit come first? It became a huge mess.

So the leaders of Christianity decided to hold a council in 325 AD in Nicaea (out of which came the Nicene Creed that we sometimes use at Canterbury). More confusion ensued, so another council was held at Constantinople about 50 years later. Then another council was convened in Ephesus in 431 AD followed by yet another council in 451 at Chalcedon, all in hopes of reaching full agreement on the doctrine of the Trinity. The church (and I) continues to struggle with the three-fold nature of God.

What we can’t argue with is that we are instructed by Jesus to go into the world and to teach about God to all we encounter. We may not have all the right words or even get the theological doctrine exactly right, but if we share what God has done for us, that will be good enough. Your experience of God may be more as the Father. If so, then share the Father with others. If your experience is more with Jesus, share Jesus with those you meet. If you’ve had an experience with the Holy Spirit, share the Holy Spirit with others. Don’t worry about getting it right—worry about getting it out into the lives of others! Then you will have fulfilled the Great Commission. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—three-in-one. Amen!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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5

The Rhythms of Rest

“On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”  — Mark 4:35-36a, NRSV

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Jesus routinely took time away for rest and renewal. In the passage above, Jesus had been teaching the crowds when he decided he needed a break. Jesus left the crowd behind and got in some boats with his disciples and headed to a quiet place. He fell asleep because he was exhausted. Unfortunately, a squall came up, and Jesus would have slept through it except the disciples woke him up in fear. Jesus went back to work and calmed the storm, scolded the disciples for their lack of faith, and then went back to sleep. I can’t say with certainty that he went back to sleep. The Scripture doesn’t reveal that fact; however, I’m pretty sure he did!

We all need regular intervals for rest and reflection. I believe we need rest and renewal every day, every week, every month, and every year.

  • I begin each day (after hopefully having slept for seven hours) with a minimum of 20-30 minutes of contemplative prayer.
  • I plan for one full day each week away from work although I sometimes take two half-days due to weddings, funerals, or other pastoral duties.
  • I shoot for three to four days off in a row each month, although I probably average doing that about every other month.
  • Each year we all need an annual vacation that takes us away from our work long enough for us to completely disengage. For me, that requires two weeks in a row although I admit most of the time I only take one week at a time. I need to practice what I preach!

Even if we get this pattern down, many of us merely fill that time designed for rest and renewal with a “to-do” list of activities. These activities drain us or at least distract us from a critical component of renewal—that is, reflection. For us to truly grow, we must be able to get some perspective on our lives. If we’re not careful, we’ll crowd out the time and space needed to adequately reflect on how we’re becoming the people God created us to be. (Notice in Mark 4 that Jesus’ time away for rest is sandwiched between two crowds.) Failing to reflect and gain perspective leads us to a mundane life at best, and a frenetic life at worst. We are not human doings—we are human beings!

Some of you excel at maintaining healthy rhythms. Your lives are characterized by steady and stable emotional resilience. Others are trapped in busy-ness that is robbing you of peace. If Jesus needed time away for rest and reflection, so do we. Let’s make caring for our wellbeing a priority. It’s a great time to establish healthy rhythms of rest and renewal as we move into the Summer. Take care of your Selves!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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Freedom and Responsibility

“The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.”  

(Proverbs 10:7, NRSV)

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How will you be remembered? What will be the defining accomplishments of your life? What legacy will you leave for those who come after you? Is there any contribution you are making that will touch the lives of those you’ve never even met?

Memorial Day is a time for us to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we celebrate as Americans. It’s an important day as we recall that people we never knew and possibly some we did, were willing to do their part in extending into the future the principle of “liberty and justice for all” through their sacrifice. Memorial Day is important to observe because it is dangerous to disconnect sacrifice and responsibility from freedom and independence. As a matter of fact, I would say the degree to which we are free is directly proportional to our willingness to take responsibility and be held accountable for our actions.

As a teenager with a driver’s license and a car, I wanted more freedom to go where I wanted, when I wanted, and with whom I wanted. My parents demanded that I first demonstrate responsibility before they were willing to grant me the freedom to do as I wished. They were linking freedom and responsibility in a life lesson whose truth is borne out on a daily basis for me even now as an adult. I am free to do whatever I want as long as I’m willing to be responsible for my actions and can accept the consequences and the costs of my actions.

I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had to make any significant sacrifices as a result of the freedom under which I live. Most Americans have had a similar experience. Even so, I’ve tried not to take those freedoms lightly and to remember that others have been required to give more. That realization produces a spirit of gratitude.

As a follower of Jesus, the costs of being a disciple have not been too demanding on me either. I recognize there are other Christians around the world for whom there is a significant risk for them to worship and to practice their faith. I can’t imagine how hard it is for them. Would it surprise you to know that those same Christians frequently pray for those of us who can worship without persecution? They pray for us because they believe without persecution, we will have a hard time developing faith. It’s true!

We can choose how we will be remembered as Christians and as citizens of the United States. On this Memorial Day, I give thanks for those U.S. soldiers and for those Christians around the world who have demonstrated the lengths to which a faithful person will go to live out their faith and their principles. Now, may I do the same.

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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An Encouraging Word for the Summer

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  (Hebrews 10:23-25, NRSV)

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Congratulations to all the graduates who are moving on to the next phase of your lives. May God grant you grace and comfort throughout the summer and into the fall, preparing you for what lies ahead.

Speaking of summer, we’re approaching that time of rest and renewal when many people will make their way to the beach, to the mountains, or beyond. We miss you when you are gone! We want to stay connected to you even while you travel. The Canterbury App is a great way to stay in touch. You can tap into one of our worship live streams (both Traditional and Contemporary Worship) at 10:30 am Central each Sunday and watch what’s happening while you’re away. We’re referring to these live broadcasts as “Canterbury Live.” If the 10:30 am time slot doesn’t work for you, you can still access an archived version of the services or listen to a podcast of any of the sermons preached at Canterbury. If you choose any of these options, drop us an email and let us know you listened in.

Even though your plans may have you away from church a lot this summer, remember that connecting with other Christians is an important part of Christian community. The Hebrews passage at the top of the page tells us we’re responsible for provoking each other to love more and serve more. Maintaining that kind of connection to Canterbury can be difficult if your schedule takes you away several Sundays in a row. Being a part of a small group can be an added benefit, especially if you’re traveling on the weekends but are home during the week. We’re here to help you get connected so let any of the staff know if you would like to be a part of a small group and we’ll help you find a group that meets your needs.

As we do each year, for those traveling throughout the summer, we encourage you to fulfill your giving for the time you will be gone before you leave. We call this our First Things First campaign. By doing so, it not only keeps you from getting behind in your giving, it allows the church to fulfill its ministries and other obligations that continue throughout the summer. We are grateful for those of you who have already stepped up, and we know there are others who plan to do the same.

Allow me to offer one last word of gratitude for those of you who completed our most recent survey. Our goal was 700 responses, and we exceeded that number! We’ll be working with the results and making a report to the Church Council in August with some preliminary steps for moving forward.

I hope to see you Sunday!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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All in the Family

“While [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him.  Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’  But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’  And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:46-50, NRSV)

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“While [Jesus] was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:46-50, NRSV)

I am the fourth of five children. We had great parents—most of the time. We were great kids—probably only some of the time. There were times for each of my siblings and me when we struggled with our relationships with our parents. Like most of you, when I became a father, I gained a greater understanding of my parents and why they did the things they did. I learned how complicated it could be to both love and discipline a child. I learned how frustrating it is when a child fails to grasp an important lesson on the values a parent tries to instill. And I learned how the responsibilities of parenting might lead to feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. Parenting is a tough job, but somebody has to do it!

Imagine how Mary must have felt when Jesus dismissed her in the scripture passage above. Digging deeper into the text, we see the reason Mary and Jesus’ siblings were there. They were there to try to “rein him in” and take him back home. They feared for his life because of his radical teachings. By removing him, they thought they would save his life. Of course, as the future revealed, his family (including his mother and his brother James) became significant figures in the church that formed after his resurrection.

So what can we make of this struggle between Jesus and his family? The goal of any parent is to help their children move toward independence and become successful contributors to society. This process is known as individuation. It’s a painful process for both the child and the parent. It’s where the child develops a sense of distinctive identity as part of a later stage of development that replaces the shared identity of earlier stages of development. In the scripture, Jesus was becoming his own man. Mary was struggling to let him go.

The quality of the parent/child relationship often lies in our ability to navigate the transition from dependence to independence or, put another way, from shared identity to individuation. It’s a delicate balance and one that is more often accomplished awkwardly than seamlessly. That’s why in graduation pictures of parents and their children if you look closely, you can see both pride and fear in the eyes of the graduate’s parents! Happy Mothers’ Day to all who strive to help others grow up. Parenting is a difficult job, but somebody’s got to do it!

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Rev. Dale Cohen
Senior Pastor of Canterbury United Methodist Church

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