My son, Seth, graduated from high school a few days ago. Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” keeps popping up in my head every time I pause to catch my breath. This irritation notwithstanding, I’m grateful for all the hoopla surrounding this time in Seth’s unfolding narrative. The people surrounding his life love and support his potential, which is an extraordinary thing to witness as a parent. (Who is this child? What did I do right or wrong? What did I forget to do? Why does he still leave his clothes on the floor? How proud of him can I be before it becomes a sin?)

I am noticing, however, a disturbing trend during this time of celebration, a subtle ritual that pervades all the pomp and circumstance. Inevitably, everyone whom Seth encounters asks what his plans are. He dutifully trots out the litany of which school he will be attending, followed by his chosen major, and whether he’ll live on campus or at home. The inquisitors then compliment his choices, praising his grit and intelligence in choosing what appears to be such a lucrative major. Some go on to say (in a convoluted manner) how these choices will lead to happiness and success, as if happiness and success are somehow predicated on one’s choice of college and major.

I don’t blame people for asking those questions. It’s what white middle-class people such as myself do in this culture. We lay out these questions and respond in the affirmative because we are born into a system of privilege that successfully masks itself under the guise of “blessedness” or “good fortune.” We live in a framework of entitlement that does not invite scrutiny as to why we are eligible to receive this good life. Those of us who do ask questions about our privileged status find ourselves surrounded by a rendition of “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” because to ask the question messes with people’s faith and, moreover, their sense that all is right with the world and God is in His [sic] heaven.

There’s a problem here. We Lutherans who invoke the theology of the cross should not be raising our kids to be happy. We should not be training them up to chase after lucrative careers. We should not espouse the hedonic treadmill that measures success based on the quantities of toys in the garage or dollars in the bank. On the other hand, we don’t necessarily expect them to live in the desert, bedecked in camel’s hair, living on a diet of locusts and wild honey either. Let’s not lose our heads altogether.

Where does this leave us, then? Bishop Bob Rimbo once told me that perhaps the most important word in the Lutheran lexicon is “and.” Saint and sinner. Baptized and broken. Needing and wanting. These “ands” create a nexus where I hope my children learn to be fully present. This is the tension in which I seek to make sense of things. When we pray the words “Give us this day our daily bread,” I want them to understand it in their context and the context of a person who lives on $2 a day. And then I want them to live with this uncomfortable truth, like a rock in their shoe, in hopes that they will channel their energies to change the world.

I love my kids so much that I want them to find deep contentment in serving others and realizing their connection to all living things. I want them to disavow a middle-class white picket fence existence for something more meaningful—a life of purpose and a refusal to succumb to apathy. To my graduating son and all-too-soon to be graduating daughter: be blessed with knowing how much is enough and wanting others to have as much if not more. Finally, I hope you come to this knowledge before you wake to find “Cat’s in the Cradle” popping into your noggin as well.

Martin Zimmann
The Rev. Dr. Martin Otto Zimmann is an adjunct professor of church and society at United Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg campus. He holds a Ph.D. in American culture studies.

Read more about: