My teenagers are a constant revelation

ANYONE WHO SURVIVES THE DENTIST'S DRILL should be able to pass this acid test. As I sit terrified in a car crammed with 15-year-old boys, my own at the wheel, I wonder, "Where is God now?" Rush hour traffic bolts feverishly, my stomach wrenches, my neck stiffens, rigid with tension. Acid rock on the radio fills the car with whining, shrieking dissonance. If Dante had had a teenaged driver, he surely would've added this trip to his circles of hell.

All around me, solitary business types in somber suits are commuting to work. In the crystalline stillness of their cars, they probably plan the day's projects and compose themselves serenely for the office. What devilish punishment has consigned me to going the opposite way, an hour round-trip away from my office? Worse, what has reduced me to such quivering stress that I will arrive there needing Valium, before any work crises have had a chance to develop? The answer is contained in my barely intelligible mutter to the concerned receptionist when I arrive, "I have a teenaged driver."

Surely those five magic words, mumbled at death's door, will compensate abundantly for all the evils I've ever committed. Saint Peter (whose teenager probably careened in a mean chariot or raced the fishing boat against Andrew's kid) will embrace me sympathetically and whisk me right past purgatory. "Ah, yes, dear. We understand," he'll cluck soothingly. The angels will gather in empathy and stroke my contorted spine with feathery tenderness. The martyrs will recognize one of their own, a bold, kindred spirit who risked the freeway at 8 a.m. As cherubim inquire about the newcomer, they nod knowingly and pull out a special throne: deep and cushiony, on heaven's highest porch, with a sweeping view of spectacular sunsets and a steady stream of mai tais—yeah, with little paper umbrellas!

Forgive the fantasizing, but one needs some carrot to endure these rides through terror. Oddly enough, traveling beside a 15-year-old boy witha new driver's permit doesn't get much play in classic works on spirituality. Most of those volumes—and I'm the first to find them immensely helpful—seem to have been composed in the hush of a retreat house or the ordered silence of a monastery. Not much help when I'm desperately in need of some soothing to offset the relentless drumming of the rock band . . .

"Aaugh!" I think as horns blare and cars swerve within inches of the inexperienced driver beside me. I think, "Not only do I have to endure this; I have to find some meaning in it?"

Then my writing and speaking come back to haunt me. You said God is everywhere—has God abandoned the freeway? You said God is constantly present—can pimply companions and throbbing electric guitars drive that presence away? You want your children to be able to call on Christ anywhere, at any time--does he not cover you with compassion, even here, even now? The scriptural one-liner jabs with the worst ferocity: Who can separate us from the love of Christ?

So it's either recant all I've written, like some theologian under the torture of the Inquisition, or in desperation, reach for the God of rush hour. Searching from that stance does not lessen the panic with which I clutch the armrest, or the sharpness with which I draw a shocked breath. It does, however, attune me to the little cues of the Presence. This is, after all, my third teenager, my third trip through highway hell, the third time I've cowered in the passenger seat beside the new driver. In better moments, I realize that "this, too, will pass."

In fact, I've been weak-kneed with gratitude to my older son, who at 22 drives the family fearlessly on mountain roads, through blizzards that would leave me paralyzed with anxiety. I prod myself mercilessly, that would have been impossible had I not, six years ago, endured the days of his driver's permit. How convenient it's been for my older daughter to drive her younger sister to day camp, or me to the airport. Again, impossible without the white-knuckle days . . . Are you showing me something here, dear God, about the rich passage of time and the long lens of eternity?

Treading that rocky road, I must acknowledge one benefit of this experiential learning: a cozy companionship I might not otherwise have shared in my children's tumultuous teenage years.

Seizing the wheel like a trophy, Sean grins and asks facetiously: "You wouldn't want to miss this special bonding time, would you?" Even a rare courtesy kindles, as a small voice from the back seat, like the tenth leper, pipes up politely, "Thank you for driving with us, Mrs.Coffey." I do get an earful of high school gossip, an empathy with their excruciating social codes, a tickle of their humor, and a feel for their musical tastes. If nothing else, this daily jolt of harsh reality will prevent me from getting airy or pious!

It seems to be God's style to push us beyond the surface events. Even when paralyzed with fright, I relish the small, mysterious smile that plays around Sean's mouth when he is driving. He's pretty good at this new skill, I'll concede. I recognize that familiar hint of smile from watching anyone absorbed in what they do well: my friend who's a potter, my son's friend who skis as if it were ballet, a teacher who entertains a class with relaxed good humor, my own delight when I get a line in a new poem right.

In the absence of rituals marking puberty, our society confers a driver's license. So Sean pivots on a threshold, and while a brass choir isn't playing a triumphant entrance, we're poised in a liminal space. Tentatively, with plenty of joking to cover the tension, he is seizing his own life, the adulthood that hovers just around the corner. Sure, there will be some scrapes along the way, some speeding tickets, and some nearly averted crashes. But faith tells me, even as I twist with anxiety, that grace will carry the day, that he will arrive at maturity, and in the future I'll be grateful when he can pick me up from work as my car gets repaired. Yes, some parents endure terrible tragedies and discover their children's bodies in twisted wreckage. My heart aches for them. But the vast majority survive adolescence, just as they sidetracked the dangerous pitfalls of toddlerhood. That statistic alone must prove the existence of guardian angels.

Maybe it's pushing the analogy, but some unseen companion has always been at my side through the roller coasters of my own experience. Unsure and tentative as I've launched new adventures, I've counted on that affirmation, that "You can do it!" message. If I don't want my children to remain forever dependent, I must pay the price to guide them into the paths of self-reliance. It may sound a bit forced, but as Sean reaches school and grudgingly hands the car keys back to me, I choke out, "Good job, Hon!" What's a little hypocrisy among family members?

Then comes the moment when grace rushes in. Despite all my efforts to bring God into the car pool, I love the moment when it empties. With the car all to myself, I dial the radio to the soft liquid of classical music. I reclaim my thoughts—and my wheel. "Heh, heh," I chortle, crazed with power. "I'm in the driver's seat!" It's an exhilaration that the childless never sense as they slip blithely behind the wheels of their cars. Poor folks—they're always in charge. They miss the joyful ebb and flow of surrendering control and regaining it. Nor will they ever celebrate a safe arrival with the heartfelt gratitude of the licensed driver who sits beside the driver's permit. Whenever I see a picture of the pope deplaning and kissing the ground of a foreign country, I think, "Yup, that's the relief I feel." If it weren't so grubby, I might start kissing the floor of my garage.

Twisting in the wind: the parent-teacher conference
Our wish to disassociate from our offspring hits its peak at the dreaded parent-teacher conference. There we wear the glummest faces collected in the high school cafeteria since the mandatory freshman-parent-orientation.

Clearly not folks who want to be here, we fantasize about the 27 places we'd rather be. The demeaning way we are treated reinforces our rock-bottom self-image: herded into the cafeteria with zero privacy, expected to hoist aging, overweight bodies onto picnic table benches opposite people young enough to be our students—who are in fact the faculty, the "wisdom figures" in this bunch. In order to be heard, we shout over each other, revealing to the embarrassed multitudes the excruciatingly private details of our teenagers' grades.

The teenagers themselves acquire alienated stares and rigid postures. In a Frankenstein transformation, the kids we joked with over dinner become defensive and remote, as if their weekend plans involved suicide bombing attacks rather than a movie or basketball game. With studied coolness, they adopt punk slouches, fists plunged into low-riding jeans pockets, eyes shaded by the visors of baseball caps. "Failure" blazes across their foreheads; neon lights shrieking "Outcast!'' would almost be redundant. Every parent wonders darkly if this is the first step toward a career in serial killing.

Dads who would slap each other's backs at the car wash nod furtively in passing; moms who slogged in tandem through the fundraising committee stare frostily past each other. Recognition implies the kiss of death; the only kindness is pretending not to know each other. After all, only the most miserable wretches attend this ordeal chummily termed "parent-teacher conferences." We wouldn't be here if our kids were on the honor roll. We have (ahem) failed at our most important task.

The extent of our failure becomes clear only as we make the rounds. One computer printout after another reveals the dismal score: homework not turned in; quizzes flunked; opportunities for extra credit assiduously avoided.

The teachers slog caffeine and try to retain the calm, professional courtesy that will prevent us from groveling or sobbing at their feet. Their deliberate avoidance of questions like "So where were you when he spent the night before the final on the phone?" only underscores our painful fall from grace.

The compassion of a few young teachers makes me want to weep. With a concern that could not be faked, the religion teacher asks my son if there's anything he can do to help to make the class more relevant. Between the two young men stretches a gap that makes the Lazarus-Dives chasm look minuscule.

The young theology teacher is everything I'd want my son to be: devoted to his wife and students, living in solidarity with the poor, committed to bringing the finest contemporary theologians into his classroom. He must try desperately to communicate with kids who visit from another planet. As he tries to guide them toward the examined life, they gravitate toward rugby, fast cars, and throbbing sound systems. While the teacher tries intently to reach my son, I wonder vaguely which lurid, beer-sloganed T-shirt my offspring has chosen for the occasion.

I toy with various lame excuses. Wonder if he's heard this one: "Heh, heh, he's 15 years old"? On the torture bench, I remember how a colleague's 14-year-old discovered the perfect button to push with his dad, the respected chair of a college English department. Semester after semester, this dedicated professional would drag himself to grueling conferences about his son, wickedly devoted to flunking English. Ah, they do know how to get our elderly goats, pinioned here on the hot seats!

Trapped in this picnic-bench cage, I try desperately to concoct conversational ploys. "Well, they'll grow out of it" doesn't seem to cut it for football quarterbacks who lurch beside doll-sized moms. The only decent solution seems to be to admit one's abysmal sin in this public confessional and genuflect abjectly before the teacher with profuse apologies and firm promises of amendment. Then exit as gracefully as possible, saving for the parking lot the sanctions upon the son who's lassoed us into this predicament.

As usual, the understandings don't seem to come until sufficient time, that gracious restorer of perspective, has elapsed. In this case, we're talking lots of time spread over four children.

The sad truth is that for folks supposedly in the know, professional teachers and writers, we have a dismal history of faithful attendance at conferences for the parenting-impaired. Yup, we know the latest educational trends; we read the journals; we attend the conventions and keep up the credentials. But somehow we can't hold a candle to the wonderful janitor down the block whose kid gets straight As and a full ride through college. Our frequent trips through cafeteria-table hell are tributes to God's sense of humor and our increasing sense of humility.

But most important of all, this insidious form of torture gives me a glimpse into a quality of Jesus that I call "sad tiredness." It surfaces repeatedly as disciple after disciple demonstrates how sweepingly they have misunderstood him. That catch in his voice, that hesitation in his heart rings familiar to the survivor of the cafeteria conference.

We hear it when James and John request thrones on his right and left. It echoes again when Peter warns him blatantly that talk about justice will get him in trouble. Philip seems to be a perpetual teenager who asks the perennial stupid question. Jesus addresses him with parental weariness, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?" (John 14:9). As the disciples jostle for favors, wish audibly for the perks, and theorize about their power in the kingdom, we can almost hear Jesus whisper, "How could you have gotten it so wrong?"

To the arrogant teenager we long to say, "Everything I value I've tried to pass on to you, and you have set it aside." The same perplexity echoes through the scriptural story of the unfruitful vineyard. It details all the gifts God has carefully provided to nurture a vineyard, which in turn produces only wild grapes. With all natural expectations dashed, God asks the answerable question: "What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?" (Isa. 5:4). We have not been the perfect parents, but when our children disappoint us, we begin to understand how our own failures must sadden God.

Yet the stunning mystery quivering at the heart of all this is that despite the disappointment or even the broken heart, we continue to love the errant child. At the moment we are closest to strangling him or her, we would also hurl our bodies in front of anyone who threatened that precious life.

We maybe moan the terrible study habits, the blithe disregard for an education that is costing us a fortune—but God help anyone else who criticizes! Deep down, we love that child with an aching ferocity. We value that life more than our own. In the paradox, we glimpse a God heartbroken over our inadequacies yet, at the same time, sending the most precious Son to redeem us.

Until I had children, I could never hold such polarities in tension; the two ideas could not coexist in my mind. Now I see how what I despair of most completely is also what I most deeply cherish.

Biblically, it's a common thread, where parents and God and sons seem to take interchangeable roles. As the parable father peers far down the dusty road, yearning for the son who squandered the inheritance, the stance is familiar. It isn't the rabbi who welcomes the son home, just as it isn't his apostles, but his mother who prompts Jesus' first miracle.

Only the parent-child relationship, it seems, is woven close enough to bear the weight of the ultimate truths. Familiarity may breed contempt, but the round contours and smoothed edges of home also create a relaxed state where the guard is down and the understanding can occur. A cluster of similar biblical stories resonates with a message learned better in the household than in the temple: don't waste energy on the mistake, the grade, the failure; celebrate instead the son come home.

Conference time is also prime time to recall our own offenses. Only through those did we ourselves learn how God, greater than any hurt, can forgive any wrong. Back in grade school, long before parenthood, I couldn't understand why a God as great as ours is purported to be could love a creature so prone to failure as myself. Parenthood provided an insider's look at that question.

Didn't I fall in love, hopelessly, immediately, and forever, with a tiny being still streaked with blood, whose birth had caused me considerable pain and whose presence promised to interrupt my sleep and drain my bank account for years ahead? Was God's loving me any more logical? As Thomas More explains to his son-in-law William Roper in the film "A Man for All Seasons," "Finally, it's not a matter for reason. Finally it's a matter of love."

I will learn to endure the parent-teacher conferences, a powerful learning experience. There we know that we are like God when we give our hearts into such small hands, then live out a commitment which can carry a staggering cost.

The saga of the pink suit
It was outrageously expensive and wildly impractical. Even the most sympathetic male would find it hard to understand why I coveted it. The pink suit also fit like a glove and was stunningly beautiful. My older daughter, Colleen, and I stumbled upon it during one of our shopping trips meant to find her a swimsuit or a pair of jeans. Inevitably, when we set out with such a definite daughter agenda, we wound up finding treasures for Mom.

Graciously, Colleen would then assume the role of fashion consultant, giving me a critical reading on every garment I tried. One look at her face was enough to tell me if a new outfit rated further consideration. Her eyes lit up when I tried on the pink suit. But after long consideration of the price, the necessity of dry cleaning, the limited number of occasions on which I could wear it, we decided to return it (reluctantly) to the rack and concentrate on more practical purchases.

Of course the saga does not end there. The following day, I was scheduled for a dental appointment so grueling that the dentist had prescribed Valium in advance. That ruled out my driving and placed my daughter in the inverted role of  "taking Mommy to the dentist." She came through like a champion: pleading for more drugs when the painkillers had no effect, holding my hand for shots, trying to relax me with soothing talk of languid beach vacations.

Despite Colleen's efforts, the anesthesia that would have knocked out a 300-pound man failed to have the desired effect, and the dentist swore she'd go to jail if she increased the dosage. I would, it developed, be facing the drill cold turkey.

One look at the sharp needles and menacing instruments hidden behind me made Colleen desperate. In a daring ploy to distract me, she bribed: "What reward would you like after it's all over?" My rational faculty blurred by the drugs, I seized the chance with childish greed: "The pink suit!"

Four hours later, with a tooth that felt like a pumpkin, a system full of drugs, a head full of fuzz, and a mouth full of pain, I collapsed into bed. There on the pillow was a classy shopping bag from a posh department store. Even in my woozy condition, I didn't need to look inside. Curled in tissue paper, there lay the pink suit in the perfect size, every child's most outlandish Christmas wish come true.

One might logically ask what such a story has to do with theology. Maybe nothing. Maybe it's simply a tale of feminine vanity, a frivolous story of spoiling that would baffle many people. Or, maybe everything. Perhaps the pink suit is a vehicle that tells us something of God, just as more traditional symbols like candle and loaf, chalice and vine call up another reality, awaken another level of meaning. For one thing, it says that a child, taken to the dentist for many years, with hand held empathetically and the promise of a frozen yogurt afterward, knows how to return the favor when her turn comes. If someone has been the beneficiary of enough trip-to-the-dentist compassion, she knows how to reciprocate.

Wasn't the modeling dimension crucial to the message of Jesus? The theme "Go and Do Likewise" threads its way through many of his stories. The tales of the early church show a community gradually learning to act as he did: by trial and error, praying together, touching, healing, feeding, expelling demons in every guise.

Another element of this saga is the same clothing metaphor that runs throughout scripture. Isaiah writes:

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord . . .
For he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels (61:10).

Speaking of the vindication of the Israelites, God promises: "You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God" (Isa. 62:3). Finally, God says with loving mercy to the people: "Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city" (Isa. 52:1).

We usually associate ancient Hebrew society with harsh poverty. Yet these passages overflow with abundance. When it comes to the royal crowns of God's children, no one counts the cost. It's quite possible the writers were using hyperbole, praising God's bounty with an extravagance well beyond their usual grim ration. How astonishing, they seem to say, that we who usually wear the scratchy, ill-fitting garment are in some sense clothed with the grace of the deity, the lavish wardrobe of King Solomon or the Queen of Sheba.

In the New Testament, the metaphor takes on another spin: We are to clothe ourselves in Christ (Rom. 13:14; Gal. 3:27). The "great portent" in Revelation is "a woman clothed with the sun . . . and on her head a crown of twelve stars" (12:1). The bride of the Lamb, or the beloved of God, is "clothed with fine linen, bright and pure" (Rev.19:8).

For someone to make such imaginative leaps from the ordinary requires a jumping-off place, some foretaste, some glimpse of the shimmering satin. To then appropriate the image to oneself, one must have a deeply rooted sense of what all humans justly deserve: the natural dignity that befits every son or daughter of God. The appearance is deceptive, says such a stance. We may not be costumed for the part, but beneath the misleading surface, we are indeed the children of the most high king.

Perhaps it is a far reach from seeds to pink suits. But even pampered people in modern homes need a glimmer of grace, a reminder of our high calling. We need our diamond from the king's crown, even if it's only a drop of dew on a pansy's velvet surface or the costume jewelry inherited from a beloved relative. We may be surrounded by material comforts, but still we seem to need frequent reminders of who we are.

As if to prove that theory, I regularly endure a moment of panic before every public speaking engagement. About five minutes before I'm slated to go on stage, I blank on content, lose any concept of why I'm doing this, and wonder how fast I can find the nearest exit. At that time,I usually vanish into the ladies' room for a few deep breaths and the kind of urgent prayer that drowning people must say as the waters fill their lungs. Then I emerge from the rest room with confidence restored and energy renewed. "Bring on the audience!" I want to shout, lunging toward the podium.

For the next few talks, I have a new weapon in the preparation arsenal. I'll enter the ladies' room and look in the mirror. It will gleam back at me in stunning pink: wildly impractical, outrageously expensive. I will stroke its soft skirt and remember a day at the dentist, a little girl who once put in her time in the dentist's chair, too, and a mature girl's thoughtfulness that every parent deserves at least once.

The audience will not know the saga, nor guess that something pink's at play. But perhaps with enthusiasm and conviction, I can remind them that they, too, are bejeweled; they, too, are children of the king who clothes them in luxury and extravagance, who attaches no price and no strings to the gifts showered on beloved children.

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