Registering his protest at having to pick up the clothes he had strewn across his bedroom floor, along with a trail of discarded candy wrappers, our 6-year-old son exclaimed, “You’re the worst parents ever. I’m running away!”
With this emotional outburst, Sean ran to his bedroom and filled his Thomas the Tank engine suitcase with toys and his toothbrush. He then grabbed a sleeping bag and made for the door. I tried to embrace him, but he pushed me away. “But where will you go?” I nervously asked him. “To Grandma Linda’s house” he yelled. Thankfully, I breathed a sigh of relief, for Grandma Linda just lives down the block from our house.
“Alright, it sounds like you need some time away,” his father said to him. At this point, I am sure that Sean was hoping that we would beg and plead with him to stay, even though he refused to do what we had asked. But we didn’t.
“I can’t cross the road by myself, someone has to help!” he sheepishly remarked. One of our family rules is not crossing the road without parental supervision. So our son, who was running away from the “worst parents ever,” was accompanied across the road to a safe place so that he could “run away.” I watched him stomp up the street in his light-up shoes with my husband watching until Sean was safely inside Grandma Linda’s house.
There comes a point in every parent’s life when we experience something similar in our own family. As a child or teenager we may have run away ourselves or have gone through this with our own children. Rarely do we forget this experience. As parents, it’s hard to hear words spoken in anger directed towards us. Yet we know that holding our children accountable for their decisions is an important part of growing up.
At Grandma Linda’s house, Sean and Linda had a chat about how rules help to keep us safe and teach us important lessons from parents who love us, even when we don’t like them. Our relationship with God can mirror this same scenario — running away from God who loves us and wants the best for us.
Many times in life, we want to chart our own path, do “our own thing” and avoid being accountable for our actions. We push God out and decide to spiritually run away — from ourselves, from God and from others. We see this countless times in the Bible. One of the best examples of running from God is found in the Book of Jonah, as “Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:3).
When we run away from God, it is often because we want to be free — free of rules, free to be ourselves, free to do what we want. But freedom comes with a cost — the cost of responsibility and living in harmony with others. The cost of love. Many times, when we run away from God, we end up hurting ourselves, others and our relationship with God our Father. But we cannot preserve ourselves by running away from God, as Jonah found out. Just like we knew where Sean was the whole time he was away, so, too, does God always know where we are.
As a perfect gentleman, God will never make us do anything against our will or try to embrace us when we do not want to be embraced. He will never force his will on us. But he will not shield us from the effects of our own actions, particularly our sinful ones. Sean didn’t like the rules in our house that day, and so he ran from them. But the discarded clothes and candy wrappers were still waiting for him when he returned, just like the choices we make stay with us.
Later that day, Sean returned home, escorted by Grandma Linda. We were waiting for him with open arms. “I love you. I’m sorry,” Sean said. With that, we all embraced. Later on, Sean told me, “I just needed a bit of space today, Mam.” I told him that sometimes we all need a bit of space, but that running away doesn’t solve our problems.
The same is true of our relationship with God. We cannot outrun God’s goodness, his mercy and his love, and we cannot truly love God from a distance. Lent reminds us that, no matter what we have done in life, God’s mercy will always rescue us if we approach him with a sincere and contrite heart. We might be tempted to run from God, but we cannot. His arms are always open to us.
Stanz is director of parish life and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay and author of “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church” (Loyola Press).