In the months before our spring wedding, my love and I camped, hiked or backpacked every weekend, most often on the southern branches of the Appalachian Trail.  Old trails led us to unexpected vistas, miles passed, sunlight faded, time stood still. Surprised by love, we needed that time to imagine our life together.

One of those weekends, we left the trail early Sunday morning to walk around a lake that bordered a campground.  A congregation had gathered beneath a wooden shelter to worship, a motley crew of people who had walked to the service from tents and campers, children and dogs in tow. My love and I sat on a picnic bench outside the shelter, sang along when we knew the words, watched the sunlight dance on the lake, listened to a sermon that seems as urgently important twenty years later as it did on that day.

The service was ecumenical and haphazard, interrupted by barking dogs, crying babies, the cracking of logs in the brick fireplace.  The preacher did not quote scripture or refer to a hymnal.  He acknowledged the beauty of the day, the glory of our surroundings. His topic was God’s unconditional love.

“God loved you before you were born,” he said, and then added the distinction that endures in faith and memory.  “Like a parent expecting the birth of a child, God knows he will love you. God doesn’t wait to see how you will turn out, what your talents will be.

“God decides you are worthy of love before your life begins.”

Simple, enduring, incomprehensible truth:  worthy of love. The preacher’s words transcend most denominational and faith affiliations, but also conceal the challenge.  Harboring the possibility that we might be unconditionally accepted, loved despite our manifold faults and weaknesses, carries a burden of responsibility. Of those to whom much has been given, he said, much will be required.

a child, raised to believe he is worthy of love, celebrates the life he has been given in a way that makes a difference in the world

Like all great metaphors, the preacher’s image of an expectant parent made an abstract idea personal. Unconditional love was, for a beautiful, fleeting moment, understandable. His sermon had nothing to do with the logistics of parenting, the everyday realities of providing food and shelter and a good education. It invited the members of that church in the woods to cherish their lives. That is also the spiritual core of parenting: a child, raised to believe he is worthy of love, celebrates the life he has been given in a way that makes a difference in the world.

It is not possible to raise children with the expectant parent’s uncomplicated love. Parents must have expectations; children have to test and rebel. Children seldom grow up exactly as parents thought they would. Life rarely unfolds as we expect it will.

Parents have always conducted the spiritual lives of their families on suburban sidewalks, mountain paths and city sidewalks, in churches, synagogues and mosques. Deliberately or accidentally, all parents coordinate their hearts and minds in accordance with a moral code, a set of values that usually includes versions of love and loyalty, family and community solidarity.

The mountain preacher’s metaphor is both timeless and universal. Prodigal sons continue to run away and return. We still open our arms and weep with the father as he stands outside his front door, watching his rebellious son approach. Every parent understands how a child’s smallest betrayals wound and mar. We believe that the good father will continue to accept and love his son, regardless.

Successful parents are not revealed through their children’s achievements. Baring extremes of talent or disability, most kids make choices and follow inclinations and desires according to an evolving intuition about the life they are meant to live. Who can explain why one son runs, another dances, why one daughter sings, another reads?  Helping a child grow into her best self involves as much parental investigation and observation as it does molding and shaping.

Steadfast love for a child has little to do with outcomes. Good fathers are those whose grown sons call when they need guidance or advice. Good mothers expect their children will leave home, welcome them when they return. Good parents live as if they remember the promises they made before their children were born.