Parent reflects from empty nest

Dr. R. F. Smith, Jr. and Rebecca Galli

Dr. R. F. Smith, Jr. and Rebecca Galli

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at

Perhaps you’ve heard the story. It has many versions.

Three pastors were fishing from a small boat anchored just a few yards off shore. About mid-morning they became thirsty. The Presbyterian pastor offered to get some cold drinks. He stepped out of the boat and walked on water to the shore.

Later, they were thirsty again. This time the Methodist minister went ashore, walking on the water in the style of his colleague. The third time they became thirsty, the Baptist cleric offered to get the drinks. Not to be outdone, he stepped out on the water and promptly sank to the bottom.

As he splashed his way to the shore, the Presbyterian turned to his Methodist counterpart and said. “Do you think we ought to show him where the stumps are?”

My father attributed that story to a theological educator from a seminary chapel service. “That,” said the educator, “is the purpose of theological education — to show students where the stumps are.”

But in a class on the philosophy of religion, a professor disagreed. “The purpose of theological education is not to show where the stumps are,” he contended, “but to teach students how to swim!”

Both the chapel speaker and the classroom professor touched elements of truth for theological education, my father concluded. We must teach students where the stumps are. And, at the same time, we must teach them how to swim.

Last week, I read that story within a new context as I rolled around in the post-holiday empty nest after launching my children back to their independent lives.

As a parent, have I shown my children where the stumps are? Did I teach them where to walk on the sure-footed paths of the stumps that I know? The hard-earned ones I learned through experience, the ones I hope to save them from learning on their own?

And did I also teach them to swim? Did I give them enough opportunities to learn on their own so they could manage if the stumps should fail, or the waters rise, or, heaven forbid, they head down a path other than the ones I know?

I hope I have done both.

It is good, certainly, to know where the stumps are.

But, the reality is that stumps can be as negative as they are positive — as limiting as they are helpful.

Perhaps the old riverboat captain adds one more bit of wisdom. When asked if he knew where all the stumps were in the river, he answered. “No. But I know where they are not.”

To know where the stumps are, and are not, is valuable knowledge, so necessary for navigation in life.

But nothing really matters, stumps to the contrary, unless we know how to swim. Life is just too unpredictable to rely only on hitting and missing the stumps of what we know.

Happy New Year! Here’s hoping you and yours are well-equipped for a safe and successful journey in the year ahead.