Pushy Mum (and Dad) Syndrome

We are all familiar with Pushy Mum Syndrome: the mother whose energies are entirely devoted to advancing her child’s chances in life. All her ugly ducklings are swans, if only the world would see; and how hard she works to make sure the world does see! Pushy Dad Syndrome also exists but can be harder on the little chip off the old block, who is expected to be everything his father never was — and more. I wonder whether Mr and Mrs Zebedee would recognize themselves in that description, the pushiness and the fiery temper being among their traits passed on to their sons. When the mother of James and John approached Jesus to ask a special place in the Kingdom for her sons, I daresay both parents justified their ambition by claiming it was not for themselves. They were only interested in the good of their children. The put-down Mrs Zebedee received must have delighted the other disciples, though they may have shivered at what Jesus had to say about servanthood (Matthew 20.17–28).

Today’s gospel alerts us to two things most of us would rather not think about: the way in which we can deceive ourselves about our true motives — doing things for the good of others is surely irreproachable — and our reluctance to embrace the sacrifice that following Jesus necessarily involves. Scrutinising our own motives isn’t easy and often requires someone else to show us what we would rather not see. It can be painful, but we need to remember that truth is ultimately not only freeing but healing, too. As to sacrifice, we are surely far enough into Lent for everyone to realise that it is not the little sacrifices we take on ourselves that count, but the unexpected ones God sends us that matter. If that sounds rather severe on this lovely spring morning, there is something more we could reflect on. God desires only what is best for us, genuinely so. In him there is no trace of Pushy Mum or Pushy Dad, only infinite love and goodness.

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Ambition and Anger

I like St James, whose feast we keep today. I like the fact that he and his brother are Sons of Boanerges (Sons of Thunder) and that whenever he pops up in the New Testament in propria persona, the dust flies. In my mind’s eye, I can see him looking dark and dangerous, glittering with ambition, and not too scrupulous about how many toes he treads on. He gets his mother to ask for a seat at Jesus’ right hand in the kingdom, because, of course, he’s worth it; he helpfully suggests raining fire and lightning down on recalcitrant villages because he knows he can; he alone among the apostles is recorded as having been martyred by Herod Agrippa — he was just too much of a nuisance to go unpunished. He is, I think, a wonderful patron for those of us who have problems with ambition and anger.

I’m quite sure that some of my readers will protest that they are not ambitious or that they are not angry persons. They should stop reading now. This post is for those of us who are both. St James is a fine example of how qualities many regard as ‘unChristian’ can be transformed by grace so that they become not merely neutral qualities but positive helps to salvation. Without his ambition and drive, St James would have been a lacklustre servant of the Church; without his anger and the energy it gave him, he would have been much less courageous. It is worth thinking about that. The very qualities that we might fear in ourselves or others were, in him, vehicles of grace.

That doesn’t mean that, as far as we are concerned, anything goes. On the contrary, and using St James as an example again, I think it was his close friendship with Jesus that transformed natural ambition and anger into something gracious and grace-giving. Can we say the same of our own anger and ambition? Are we ‘friends’ with Jesus? The Christian life is sometimes presented as a war against everything that comes to us naturally and humanly. That is, in fact, an enormous heresy. The Christian life involves struggle, of course it does, but we start with what God gave us — this body, this intelligence, these emotions, these circumstances — and we allow God to make of them, and us, what he wills. Co-operation with grace is the key point, and that co-operation can only be achieved if we become close to God — friends with Jesus, if you like — through prayer.

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