Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” (Judges 11:34-35, NRSV)
My daughter has a book entitled, “Naughty Parents”, it is a wonderful children’s book that flips the roles of children and parents. So in the book, parents are running and chasing after everything and dirtying their clothes. It is the parents who are eating ice cream and whining for more, more, MORE! The children are the responsible and respectable ones who are cleaning up the mischievous behavior of their parents. It is cute in that the text plays with our roles and behavior as parents and children. In reflecting on a deeper meaning (you know me the consummate thinker), I think about how we parent and how are children actually receive what we provide for them as parents. Said in another way, our children become, as adults, the products of our handiwork as parents. Obvious on the surface, but still very scary when you really meditate on it…
The work of parenting is one of the few things in life that training should be absolutely mandatory! Unfortunately it is not necessary. Learning the ways of parenting, all of its responsibilities, and its challenges and pitfalls would make for great reading and for a great resource text. In fact, many authors have tried to write texts that provide that very kind of instruction. Whether they are medical doctors, psychologists or just ordinary parents with unique experiences, these authors attempt to convey expertise about a subject in which the diversity of style, nature of children and experience of life play such a pivotal role. However, this is not as easy as it sounds.
Writing a manual on parenting is like writing a guide to eating food. You can do it, but depending on my tastes, likes, experiences and values, I may agree or disagree with your conclusions. The fundamental truth about parenting is that we all parent from the place of our childhood experience. Whether good or bad, our skills are learned and shaped as parents in reaction to what we lived through (and with) as children. Experiencing violence as children may mean inflicting violence as parents. It could also lead to vows of non-violence when parenting because of a disturbing childhood. Children that have no boundaries may continue in a likewise fashion when they are adults, or they could choose to enforce greater structure because of what they think they lacked as children.
In many respects, our individualized parenting manual is written for each of us through the experiences of being a child in our parent’s household. How we were raised contributes to and builds modes for parenting that we rely on when we have children of our own. So then, to stop the abdication of parental responsibility; or the malicious behavior of aggressive beating of children; or brining children to tanning salons; or raising children in our own image, we must begin in the present.
We must begin with the present generation of children and parents and seek to provide new experiences in their parenting manual. Children are not our extensions of ourselves; they are not ours, to do with as we please. Educator/philosopher/poet Kahlil Gibran once said that “our children come through us and not to us”, and he is correct. Our responsibility is to Who sent them through us and to the gifts they will be in life. Parenting from this perspective makes for good stewards in the present and for stewards for the future.
The text above from the corpus of work from Judges stands as a permanent signpost to all parents; specifically the pitfalls of parenting from experience. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is more a story about Jephthah’s failing as a father. To get the whole picture I encourage you to read all chapter 11, but essentially, Jephthah was an illegitimate child of a prominent tribal patriarch and a prostitute. His father denies him the access to the ‘legitimate’ role of a child in a father’s home and essentially Jephthah is raised by the streets. The text reports that “Outlaws collected around Jephthah and went raiding with him”, to show his rough and trouble childhood created an adult who was the envy of any mercenary. Jephthah is an aggressive and forthright man whose mal-experience of love and family has created a person who knows commitment through the lens of violence and the ethic of the street. Many of us know people like this, and recognize the importance of their experience in shaping their life.
The text reports that Jephthah is approached by the elders of the community to fight against the oppressive Ammonites and lead an army against them. Jephthah is already indifferent to plights of the system that condemned him so long ago, but he fights anyway. The peculiar thing is that in his prayer to God for victory, he makes an interesting (if not ridiculous) vow of sacrifice: to sacrifice the first thing that comes out greet him at home at the end of the battle. This is when we learn that Jephthah has one child: a daughter.
His rash promise means that in a cruel twist of irony, it is his daughter that comes out to greet him, when the battle is won. He must sacrifice his daughter….
His experience as a isolated and undisciplined child evolved into a aggressive-living, no-holds-barred adult. That freewheeling and open adult used his experiences to parent. His experiences of bravado and the ‘man-of-his-word’ ideology ended up sending his daughter to a sacrificial altar.
In recent weeks, parenting of all sorts has been on display. In one instance it was the parent who takes her child in the tanning bed with her. In many examples, it was the parent that so often ignores their child’s destructive behavior to the detriment of society that has to apologize for the destruction they have caused. Even the pastor’s got in the act, with a prominent pastor of a mega church allegedly assaulting his daughter. Many of us didn’t grow up with experiences like Jephthah or the effects of harsh living as Jephthah had. And sure, many of us as parents don’t see that we would ever vow to burn our children alive for the sake of God as in the realm of possibility. However, many of us make plans about our children, their futures and their experiences that mean they are sacrificed on the altars of our dreams. Our children struggle to be all we as parents put on them to be in life. Instead, maybe we should struggle as parents to be all that they need us to be in order to be parents we want them to be in the future.
Let’s all take Jephthah’s warning as the impetus to be better as parents and guardians for our children. Mindful of our experiences as children and adults, we can do our best to parent to the uniqueness of our child and steer them into God’s future for their lives. Parents that authentically parent with the future in mind are parents with a vision for the future……and a vision of truth.