1 Thessalonians 2:7b-13: We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.
I’m not a very athletic person. I don’t know if you can tell from my soft arms or extremely skinny calves, but I have never been much for sports. My hand-eye coordination is so bad I have trouble correctly lifting a cup of water to my lips without spilling let alone throwing or catching a ball. My poor coordination plagued me throughout my childhood. After many failed attempts at T-ball, karate and gymnastics, I gave my grace-lessness one more try. At that time, the roller skating rink was the coolest place a fourth grader could hang out. Racing, video games, popsicles and couples skate: you name it, magical things happened at the roller skating rink. Every time my day care went to the roller-skating, I dreamed of speeding past boys twice my size and sliding across the finish line with triumphantly blazing wheels. I wanted to be the best roller skater ever.
So my mom faithfully signed me up for figure roller-skating. Now figure roller-skating is not a very popular sport. It is kind of like ice figure skating with a lot less glamour, glitter and chilly elegance. Plus, it’s not very competitive because only four or five people in the whole world practice it. This was the sport for me.
Every Saturday morning, I put on my tasteful red skating skirt, bright white skates with matching gleaming wheels, and maneuvered out on to the rink. I watched as girls four or five years older moved like gazelles across the smooth surface. Their muscular legs bulging with every stroke propelling them faster as they prepared for jumps, spins and graceful arm dancing motions. In comparison, my stick-like legs heaved to lift the gargantuan skates and move across the floor. As time progressed, I gained more confidence with my abilities to glide on eight wheels underneath the glow of a disco ball. I learned to stop using a traditional toe stopper rather than smacking into dirty brown, carpeted walls. I could make figure eights backwards and forwards with ease. It seemed I had overcome my fear and inability to coordinate my body to do as I my brain commanded. Until… one highly anticipated Saturday morning, I woke early with butterflies in my stomach. With difficulty I pulled on my glossy tights and form fitting skating uniform. When my parents and I arrived at the rink there was a buzz in the air. It was competition day. Skaters from all over the surround area arrived to be judged according to their routines and abilities… so there were like five competitors there. As my turn approached, I skated out onto the rink to the cheers of my parents in a practically empty room. Still, I was nervous. As the music swelled, I began to display my limited knowledge of figure roller-skating dance by waving my arms around a bit and swizzling my feet left and right. I don’t remember the routine or song to which I performed. All I remember is at the closing of the program I performed a single legged spin. My heart leapt in my throat as my feet approached the exact spot on the floor where I should enter the rotation. As I swung my body into position, I prepared to maintain balance for several consecutive turns. However, before I could even get into position, I over compensated, throwing my body into a hard right spin. My heavy skates slipped out from underneath my angular frame carrying my skinny legs above me. My bony bottom crashed to the floor as my boyish haircut flew in my face. The music blared as the two audience members – my parents - loudly gasped. In mortification, I pulled myself up off the floor as best I could. My shaky legs could not twist back into a spin. Instead I finished the rest of the routine, replaying scenes from the triumphal disgrace of the bobsled team from Cool Runnings in hopes that I still maintained a shred of my ten year-old dignity. After the music concluded I left the floor with my ears sunk between my shoulder blades. I was afraid to approach my coach, a mean spirited task-master. Even more so, I was embarrassed to approach my parents. I knew their hard work and money for lessons had not paid off how they had anticipated. After the obvious awkwardness in my performance, along with the tumble, my parents probably knew their daughter would not be a figure rolling-skating star.
Just as parents hope for the prosperity and successful-ness of their child, Paul mentions parental support for both the Thessalonians and himself in this passage. Interestingly, he refers to the Thessalonians as a mother, caring for and nursing her young. Previously Paul was run out of town, chased by people who despised him. He was physically and emotionally worn out. The Thessalonians offered respite and encouragement after a tiring journey. They nurtured and nestled the believers with tenderness in hopes of restoration. In return, Paul and his followers became like a parent to the Thessalonian church by “urging and encouraging” concerning a life worthy of God, who calls them into God’s kingdom and glory. Paul’s mutual references to parental love, nurture, and support reveals the intimacy of his relationship with the Thessalonians. In the beginning the church provided physical nourishment for he and Silas. In turn, Paul offered spiritual guidance, bold encouragement and a longing for the future joys among Christians of the church.
Parental care, as described by Paul here seems to be focused on preparing people for the coming of Christ through work and skill. He says,
“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers.”
Later in chapter four, he encourages them to lead a quiet life, working hard with their hands so they are not dependent on others (4:11b-12). By warning and preparing the Thessalonians for the challenges ahead, Paul hopes to arm them with skills for the future. His love transcends the present moment in Thessalonica to reminds of his constant care in anticipated events. Much like Paul’s experience, the Thessalonians could encounter devastating persecution, theological challenges and internal dissention. Paul’s instruction hopes to prevent wrestlings among the community and maintain a sense of peace and unity. However, is this a true parental image to follow? Are we to be like Paul, urging our children and fellow believers to practice and grow in talent in order to be successful individuals?
Traditional parenting naturally presumes a future where the child outlives the parent and ideally becomes successful, perhaps even achieves something spectacular. Parents possess the responsibility of prosperity and instruction for their children in the right ways in hopes of a flourishing adulthood. In turn children obey their parents, as Paul often advises, and everyone turns out to be non-dysfunctional human beings. That’s parenting right? According to Paul is parenting the guidance in order to make victorious, upstanding children of God? Or is there something more?
There are moments in our life, when we fall, when our flimsy bodies won’t carry us any further and we need the comfort and guidance of a nursing parent. Paul exhausted his resources and energies when he approached Thessalonica. Wearily, he dragged himself, along with his disciples, into the city looking for work, companionship and comfort. The Thessalonian Gentiles who listened and believed Paul’s words about Jesus Christ took it upon themselves to provide tender care for the man and his followers. They worked alongside him, cheered him on through difficult situations and remained loyal friends despite persecution. Paul says referring to himself as a child,
“We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
As the fellow believers of Thessalonica cared for Paul, so Paul grew to appreciate and love the generous nature of his friends in the city. In turn, the apostle sought to maintain a healthy relationship with his fellow Christians. He worked in order to support himself, without creating debts or selfish laziness while he live among them. The relationship went beyond merely words, telling of Jesus life, death and resurrection. The Christians with Paul shared their life’s work, life’s secrets and life’s passions with their friends. Their relationship blossomed under the ideas of understanding and acceptance.
My first figure rolling skating competition was my last figure roller skating competition. After removing the white weights of disgrace from my scrawny ankles of shame, I walked up to mom and dad with disappointment. From my jerky movement out on the floor in addition to my collapsed spin move, my mother and father had packed up their dreams of a coordinated child. They would never attend basketball games, cheer-leading camps, or dance recitals. They accepted the fact that their only child walked a little like the Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator and danced a lot like Sponge Bob Square Pants. My parents would have to settle for sitting through three-hour long high school plays with poor British accents, making posters to elect Erin for student council and driving long distances to debate tournaments filled with overdressed nerds in ill-fitting suits. But that day, as I approached my parents, sweaty with disappointing anxiety, my mom brought me in for a hug and smiled brightly. “You were so brave,” she said to her tiny daughter. “Even though you fell, you go right back up.” It turns out, they give everyone a metal, whether you fell or not. I pinned my prize onto my team sweatshirt and carried my heavy gym bag out of the rink. To my parents’ relief I quit figure roller-skating a few weeks later.
Paul’s words of maternal and paternal imagery tell the story of deep human love in the present. Love is not an investment in the future, where you hope to make a profit. Love is the gift of dignity and respect that another human being deserves just because he or she is a human being. As Christians we give of ourselves, extravagantly, in order to communicate the gospel message. Our goodness is not based on occupation, hobby, or skill. Our saintliness is part of who we are. We make our work and lives holy and communicate love through our words, actions, and attitudes. This does not mean we do not get angry, disappointed or scared. In fact, it is just the opposite. By being truly ourselves, we display who God created us to be. And by embracing ourselves, we open up our souls to others, welcoming their true personhood to the table as well. We act as mother and father, loving and encouraging others. In addition, we have spiritual mothers and fathers of the faith who carries us along during difficult times. These saints, like Paul and the Thessalonians, inspire us to live with courage making everyday holy.
The love of spiritual parentage does not calculate success, does not find utter disappointment in failure and does not plan for future expectation of fulfillment. Instead, the challenge and joy of spiritual parenting, celebrates the love of the present – a present without honors or a rational reason to celebrate accomplishment.