My book, Faith at Home, has been out in the world for a year now, and I am as proud as a parent, and so grateful, too, for the warm welcome it has received. I have learned a lot, as parents do in that first year especially, and I am at the point when I am thinking about another one, perhaps as some parents think about having another child when they have forgotten the pain of the process. My next book will be about compassion: why we need to teach active empathy, and how we do that most effectively. So, yes, the book’s been out a year, but I’m definitely not finished with it. I am actively engaged in its life and ideas, giving keynotes and workshops and writing (all-too-infrequent) blogposts about it. And I am developing a reader’s guide (which will be posted on the website.) To help with that, I am beginning a series of blogposts that pose questions based on each chapter of the book. Feel free to share your answers or pose your own questions in the comments!
Chapter 1: Talking About God
Many of us, even those who count ourselves believers, do not talk about God. It’s easier and more comfortable and a lot less dangerous that way. However, let’s take the risk… What we are trying to articulate for our children might be drastically different from the understanding of God that we grew up with. Our thoughts and beliefs may not be what are commonly accepted in popular culture, or even in our extended families. (p. 2–3)
How’s the God-talk going at your house?
What’s your way “in” to the conversation?
If you aren’t talking about God, what might help you get past your discomfort?
Let’s talk about God in metaphor and mystery, in simple, concrete ways: as a mother hen, a friend, a gardener, as artist and builder, as light and rock. Let’s talk about what we imagine when we say “God.” (p.5)
What names or images of God resonate for you?
What stirs your imagination or your heart when you think about God?
Our son Peter, who was sent to theological debate camp this summer against his will, is at the eye-rolling age of 14 now. He’s still singing in a choir so he finds himself at church every Wednesday and Sunday (“I am the most religious kid I know!” he told me recently and with some horror), where he is snarkily critical of sermons and hymns. I am fine with that, and so is God, I’m certain. It’s the conversation that’s important. God is still speaking.
Fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, shootings, illnesses, accidents–it seems that everywhere we turn just now, we are faced with traumatic events that leave us and those we love struggling and in pain. Where is God when terrible things happen? Why does God allow tragedy? These are questions we have asked since the beginning of time. It may not surprise you that the oldest book in the Bible, Job, takes on the problem of human suffering and how people of faith should understand it without answering the question well at all.
The idea that God intervenes in human affairs and natural disasters–or worse, chooses not to–has always been troubling to me. My understanding of God is a loving presence, with us in every moment, good and terrible. As Christians, we know in Jesus a God who suffers with us, a compassionate God who understands human grief and suffering because he has grieved and suffered, too. Harold Kushner says, “God, who neither causes nor prevents tragedies, helps by inspiring people to help. As a nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi once put it, ‘human beings are God’s language.’” Television icon and Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers is still widely quoted when tragedy strikes:
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”²
This is how God acts in times of trouble, in and through us.
How to Help Children in Difficult Times
Comfort them, assure them, be with them.
Tell them that it’s okay to feel whatever it is that they are feeling. Help them name what they are feeling. Tell them what you are feeling, too, and don’t be afraid to show your emotions.
Make sure they understand nothing that has happened is their fault.
Tell them what they need to know as clearly and simply as you can. The facts surrounding traumatic events are far better coming from you than from any other source.
Don’t use euphemisms. Say died, not “passed away.” Equating death with sleep or a long trip is a really bad idea. Even saying “God needed another angel” or “God has taken them to heaven” is problematic, because children may fear that God will want to take them, too.
Limit their exposure to the news (if it is a local or national tragedy) and/or adult conversation.
Listen to their questions. What they are actually asking is not necessarily what we think they are asking. My case in point is my son Peter at three: when he began to understand in a different way that he had just one parent, he started asking about what would happen to him if I died. I kept reassuring him. He was frustrated. One morning as I was unbuckling him from the car seat in the preschool drop-off lane, he said to me, “If you die today or tomorrow, who will drive this car and take me where I need to go?” What Peter needed to know was that I had a plan for him.
You are allowed to say that you don’t know or that you don’t understand either. It’s healthy and helpful to let your children know that you don’t have all the answers.
Try to maintain as normal a routine as possible. This will help you as well as your children, if some things in an otherwise chaotic time can remain the same.
In the event of a tragedy, by all means tell your children that this [natural disaster, school shooting, death of a child] is very rare, and that God did not cause it–or any other death, illness, accident–to happen.
There are a number of excellent resources available as you make your way through a time of crisis. When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner deserves its status as a classic in the field. He writes for adults clearly and with compassion from his experience as a rabbi and a parent. Death is Stupid by Anastasia Higgenbotham, is refreshingly honest and sensitive, while leaving room for your own beliefs. Artist and writer Roger Hutchison’s new book, My Favorite Color is Blue. Sometimes., explores grief in beautiful imagery and nuanced language that will touch the hearts of children and adults.
Helping Others in the Midst of their Grief
Show up. Please, please show up. So many of us back away; we are afraid to come close, as if cancer or the death of a spouse or a child is somehow contagious. You may not know what to say. Say that. Say, “I have no words.” It’s fine to sit in silence, to hold your friend as she cries, to cry with her. The real ministry is being present.
Do not say, “Please let me know if I can help.” Be specific. Call from the grocery store and say, “I am picking up dinner for you. Would you like me to choose, or do you have some suggestions?” Say, “I’m coming over to do your laundry,” or offer to pick up their kids from school and spend the afternoon with them. People in crisis have practical needs and you can do something. Can you go to doctor’s appointments with them? That can be of tremendous value. In fact, you can learn how to clean a feeding tube and administer morphine. You may not think you can, but trust me on this. What your friend is doing is so much harder.
Be aware of how you speak of God. It is never God’s will or God’s plan for a loved one to be ill or to die. Equally unhelpful is “God never gives you more than you can handle,” because God simply doesn’t work like that. Even “He’s in a better place” is hurtful, because no matter what heaven is like, when someone loses a spouse or a child, there is no better place that person could be than with their family. When I found myself spending time with a family who had recently learned their youngest child was dying, a wise priest who had also been a hospice chaplain told me, “In much of this, God will feel more present to you than to them.” That made me think about what I was doing in a different way: I wasn’t there to bring them God; I found God when I was with them, sipping tea or emptying the dishwasher or sitting at the bedside of their sweet and beloved child. It is a sacred thing, to come close to people in this time, but the gift will be yours to receive.
Don’t shield your own children. Let them make cards, help prepare a meal, visit. Let them see how we take care of each other in times of need.
“Funerals make space within the church, among God’s people, for children to explore the strangeness of life’s end. It is here that they see adults vulnerable to grief; that they sense the magnitude of what we face. Here children also learn that we carry this grief together. It is at funerals that we discover that, even in the end, there is nowhere we can go from God’s love–because we see it in the people gathered around us.”
Christian funerals in the liturgical churches are framed as celebrations of life. The color of the altar covering and the vestments worn by the clergy is white because we are Easter people; we know that death is not the end of this story either, even if we aren’t exactly clear on the details of what happens next. The liturgy itself helps us embrace the mystery.
Those who have died live on in our memories. Tell their stories, talk about them, show photos, listen to their favorite music, and visit the places that were special to them. I have “memories” of my great-grandmothers whom I never met, because my parents and grandparents have shared their stories with such warmth and vividness. Our loved ones are still present in the love we share with each other.
What About Heaven?
Please talk to your children about heaven if it brings you comfort; and even if you are unsure about it, imagining what it might be like can be a helpful tool for them. There are some lovely picture books that can give you a way in. A dear friend used Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant with her children to talk with them, not about the death of a pet, but of a loved one and found that the remove of dogs from people meant that she could get through it and the resulting conversation without crying. If heaven is so wonderful for the dogs in this book, how much more wonderful will being with God be for the people we love? A particularly moving picture book to use with school-aged children is The Next Place by Warren Hanson.
When I talk about heaven, I am usually imagining the parousia, a Greek word that means “presence,” the time at the end of time when God will be “all in all.” I use this image from Revelation 21:
Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. God will dwell with them, and they will be God’s peoples. … God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (CEB)
I don’t know what happens after we die, but this I believe.
Death and tragedy touch all of us. If you haven’t had to talk to your children about them yet, it’s only a matter of time. Take heart. “Here is the world,” says theologian Frederick Buechner, echoing God, “beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” We are not afraid because we know God is with us always, and nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.
This post was originally written in August, 2017 right after the racial violence in Charlottesville. It has been updated.
Like many of you, I imagine, I am still thinking about and praying about Charlottesville. What do we tell our children? We tell them that we are made in the image of God who loves us—all of us; that we promise in our baptismal covenant “to seek and serve Christ in all persons,” to love our neighbors as ourselves, and “to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” There is no room for misunderstanding in these words. Love and peace are words our children hear us use often, but what about justice? “Justice is what love looks like in public,” says Cornel West. It is the work of the church, and of families, too.
How do we start? Jareesa Tucker McClure has great advice and several excellent resources to share in this blog post. She doesn’t sugarcoat the challenge: “We owe it to our children to tell them the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. There are people in the world who hate others because of their skin color, religion or nation of origin. It’s our duty as parents to prepare our children for the real world. Sharing the truth helps build trust with your child, as they’ll know they can come to you to answer the hard questions with honesty.”
Among the resources McClure recommends is this article this article by Erin Winkler, who has studied how young children learn race. Part of the difficulty, of course, is that “first we need to get comfortable talking and learning about race, racism, and racial inequity, period. If you cannot explain to another adult why these patterns of racialized inequity exist and persist, it is going to be impossible to explain to a four-year-old in an age-appropriate manner.” Winkler provides sound, practical suggestions for how to start these difficult conversations and how to move from what we say to what we do. “Actively seek out anti-racist role models in your community and in the broader society, and expose young children to these role models. Show children that, while we do face troubling problems as a society, there are (and have always been) people and organizations working to make positive change every day. Show children that they can help, too.”
Addressing these issues is not something your family will finish over a weekend; it’s long work, and for white parents especially, it is likely to push us out of our comfort zones. Books can give us a window into history and experiences vastly different from our own. Last week, the Parents’ Choice Foundation offered a list of 22 books that deal with the difficult topics Charlottesville stirred up, with reviews and age guidelines for each.
Minister, activist and Christian ethics professor Jennifer Harvey’s work focuses on white anti-racism and her newest book, published in January 2018, is Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America. It’s full of examples and practical advice for parents and educators, and is a significant and much-needed addition to the conversation .
As Christians, we must talk with our children about race and racial justice in the context of our faith. Pastor and parent Erin Wathen, in her book More Than Words: 10 Values for Modern Families, writes about environmental racism evidenced in the lead-poisoned tap water of Flint, Michigan. Yes, there is the immediate need to provide the community with safe water, but Wathen reminds us that the “transformative work of relationship takes place in community” (p. 95). Helping others isn’t enough. In our families and in our churches, we have the opportunity and the imperative to reach out to those who are not like us, to really listen to and know one another and to strengthen existing relationships in ways that deepen our understanding, compassion and respect. “The act of service does not transform the deeper reality; the work of justice does.” When the deeper reality is transformed, the kingdom of God is revealed. This is what we were made for: to help God in this work.
Yes, it’s really hard to talk about the crucifixion with children. Adults have enough trouble with it. Please don’t skip over the hard parts, though. We do know how the story ends. We call Good Friday ‘good’ because we are an Easter people. Even in the name we give it, we do not look at this day alone for the terrible thing that happened, that Jesus died on the cross. We look all the way to Sunday, when Jesus rose again. We pause on Friday to remember that Jesus, whom we love, died on a dark day when soldiers shamed him, nearly all his friends left his side, and he wasn’t even sure that God was with him. We tell the story of what happened that day because it is vital for our children to hear: Jesus was afraid, he suffered, he died . . . and God turned his fear, his suffering, and his dying into hope, wholeness, and new life.
We tell this story—our Christian story—over and over again because it tells us the truth: not that there is no darkness, but that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”Remembering that gives us comfort and makes us bold, helps us encourage others and find goodness in the most difficult of days. We are Easter people because we have been to the cross and the grave and we know the promise God makes to us in Jesus: God’s power and grace can transform anything; God’s love is stronger than the cross, stronger than death itself.
You might bring some sweetness to this bitter day in a traditional way, by baking hot cross buns, a custom that dates to Saxon times. My husband makes this recipe. Break your fast with these, and make enough to share with your neighbors or with the overworked staff of your church, who still have three intense days before they rest.
Sermon/Keynote for the Diocese of Olympia Faith Formation Day February 25, 2017
I am so happy and thankful to be here with you today. I was invited here because I recently wrote a book calledFaith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents. That’s a very deliberate subtitle, and even though I was brought up in the Episcopal Church and have worked for the Episcopal Church in some form or fashion nearly all of my adult life, I place myself firmly in that category of “cautiously Christian.” I still have a lot of questions. There are days and moments within days when I struggle to believe, but I try to live, I choose to act as though I do.
I’ve just heard two great stories about Bishop Rickel, and one of them is from the national news, that you and the Diocese of Olympia are standing on the side of refugees against the current administration, joining in a lawsuit with the ACLU, for which I am so grateful. The other story is from a clergy friend who tells me that you ask each candidate for Confirmation to write you a letter telling you why they want to be confirmed. Not only do you read those letters, but you have met with parents whose child actually didn’t want to be confirmed to explain that you were not, in fact, going to confirm them. Bishop, as a parent and a Christian educator, I salute you. Both of these stories tell us that following Jesus is serious business, friends! My son Peter is trying to get out of going to theological debate camp for a week this summer by telling my husband and me that he has trouble with the Nicene Creed. I am flabbergasted by this. Seriously, Peter? That’s your excuse? Have I taught you nothing? Join the club! A seminarian friend told me she thinks Peter’s trolling me on that one. Anyone else have trouble with the Nicene Creed? Thank you, yes, Peter is going to camp.
“Learn to love the questions,” as Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to the young poet, which is good advice for the cautiously Christian. There is a question implicit in the scriptures we have heard today, a common thread running through them:
Where do we find God? Where does God dwell? Listen:
“But the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake. But the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire. But the Lord wasn’t in the fire. After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat. He went out and stood at the cave’s entrance. A voice came to him and said, ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’”
You might, like Elijah, think that God’s usually a bit of a show-off, and then, also like Elijah, discover God in the unexpected—in the silence, not the storm.
Our psalm this afternoon is one I know best in this hymn:
How lovely is thy dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts, to me!
My thirsty soul desires and longs
within thy courts to be;
my very heart and flesh cry out,
O living God for thee.
Beside thine altars, gracious Lord,
the swallows find a nest;
how happy they who dwell with thee
and praise thee without rest,
and happy they whose hearts are set
upon the pilgrim’s quest.
I learned that hymn as a child, in my parish church of St. Mary’s in Laguna Beach, California. Children expect to find God in church. I have a vivid memory of sitting beneath the altar, very quietly, as if I were Samuel in the tabernacle, listening for God. Teachers, clergy, do you ever do that? Let the kids explore the sanctuary? We just had a middle school sleepover in St. Paul’s Chapel, the oldest building in continuous use in Manhattan, where George Washington worshipped on his inauguration day and where scores of recovery workers slept in the months after 9/11. Before bed, we told ghost stories (it’s a 250 year old chapel—of course there are ghosts!) and then we dragged our sleeping bags up around the high altar for the best ghost stories from the Hebrew scriptures: Saul and the Witch of Endor and Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones during Compline by candlelight. Holy ground made for a surprisingly good night’s sleep.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of God as our Father in heaven, and also very clearly says that we do not need to go to the synagogue to pray. Instead, Jesus tells us to go into our room and shut the door. God is there, too. “Bidden or unbidden, God is present,” says Erasmus of Rotterdam, classical scholar and Catholic priest of the Middle Ages.
It’s possible that you regularly or occasionally run into God at church on Sundays. It’s possible, too, that you are most aware of God while running or hiking or at the beach. You might find God in your children’s faces or in the touch of your spouse. It’s equally possible that you have long since stopped looking for God. That’s okay—you showed up here today in spite of that. It’s possible some part of you still longs for that connection to the holy. What if I told you that YOU are that connection?
We do this all the time–I do this all the time–I make divisions between heaven and earth, the holy and the ordinary, the miraculous and the rational. That’s not how it works, I have come to understand. The realm of God and our world meet each time we remember that we are made in the image of God, we carry the divine spark of our maker, we are holy people, all of us.
Pastor and author Rob Bell’s book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, takes on these false dichotomies in a powerful way. Bell writes, “This is why the Jesus story is so massive, progressive, and forward-looking in human history. Jesus comes among us as God in a body, the divine and the human existing in the same place, in his death bringing an end to the idea that God is confined to a temple because the whole world is a temple, the whole earth is holy, holy, holy, as the prophet Isaiah said. Or, as one of the first Christians put it, we are the temple. There’s a new place where God dwells, and it’s us.”
We recognize this in our baptisms as we make the promise: “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves.” We teach being Christian to our children by modeling this. We do this not because we are good people. We do this because it’s how we follow Jesus.
Notice that when Jesus invites us to pray, he calls God “our” father. We are part of a new family now, everyone who follows Jesus, and when we pray, even when we pray in secret, we are united with everyone else who calls God “father.” We are not Christians alone. Despite what some well-meaning people will tell you, Christianity is not about a personal relationship with Jesus. Christian life by necessity, almost by definition, is one lived in community. We need each other. The first Christians even called themselves “followers of the Way,” understanding that it was how they lived and not what they thought or believed about God or Jesus that identified them as Christians.
Much later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable in which the righteous sheep are rewarded by their shepherd, the king, who tells them:
“Come … Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
The sheep are stunned by this revelation:
“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’”
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas points out, “It is significant that the righteous have not known that when they ministered, provided hospitality and visited that they did all of this for Jesus.” They have simply done what we are supposed to do; they have been God for each other. We belong to a new family, together we are building a new kingdom, and it won’t be finished until everyone, everyone is in.
That’s why we are here, isn’t it? This is what we want for our children and for ourselves: a deep sense of connection, belonging and purpose, a strong moral foundation rooted in God through Jesus, who showed us what God is like. Now more than ever we need to teach our children that it’s our compassion, not our commonalities, that make us neighbors, and a Christian’s neighbors are everyone, everywhere.
Expanding our children’s circles of concern from family and close friends to others whose lives and experiences may be very different from their own is a key factor in developing empathy. A recent study –part of the “Making Caring Common” project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education—involving 10,000 youth ages twelve to eighteen across a wide spectrum of race, culture and class, found that 80% of the respondents valued personal happiness and success over caring for others. The same number of kids—80%—reported that their parents were more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. Empathy is defined as the ability “to walk in someone else’s shoes,” but it is more than that: it is valuing and responding with compassion to other people and perspectives. Giving our children the opportunity to know, listen to, and actively help others is vital, not only to our Christian identity and formation, but to changing the society in which we live, or as my friend and former boss Ed Bacon likes to say, “turning the human race into the human family.”
Parents, we are our children’s primary pastors. Decades of research show that the faith and values our children carry with them into adulthood are largely taught at home. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. made a point of serious conversation around the dinner table every night, telling his young children about the injustices he encountered as a black man in the South in the 1930s and 40s, and how he confronted them. Years later, his daughter wrote, “These stories were as nourishing as the food that was set before us.” We can imagine how these stories inspired his son. The stories we tell from the day’s news, the office, the classroom or the playground give us the opportunity to reflect on where God is in them, and where God is calling us to be. Everything that’s worth talking about with our kids is worth talking about in the context of our faith.
The stories we heard in today’s scriptures have fed our spirits and soon we’ll be fed holy food and drink at God’s table. All this is strength for the journey of following Jesus, the adventure of a lifetime. May we be faithful and bold as we “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” As St. Francis of Assisi advises us, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Amen.
The Church for centuries has observed the feasts of saints on the day of their death, and today the Church remembers the life and ministry of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What your kids learn about him in school isn’t enough: his Christian faith and his calling compelled Dr. King to make civil rights his life’s work.
The lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures appointed for his feast day is taken from the story of Joseph with the coat of many colors, whose brothers were jealous of him and decided to get rid of him. Eventually, they sold him into slavery, but Joseph became a powerful leader in Egypt. Pharaoh, Egypt’s king, believed Joseph’s dreams and because of that, Joseph was able to save the Egyptians and even his own brothers from a terrible famine. It is taken from Genesis 37:17–20:
They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Read or listen to the “I Have a Dream” speech, beginning at the line, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”Continue to the end of the speech. Talk as a family about Dr. King’s dream, and how it has continued after his death.
Families with young children could try beginning this conversation with a brown egg and a white egg. Crack the eggs into the bowl one at a time. No matter what we look like on the outside, inside we are the same. Dr. King’s most famous speech is about his dream that everyone will one day live the way God wants us to live, treating each other fairly and with love, no matter the color of our skin or how different we might be. Read this quote: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” What we have inside us is the most important part of us. Talk together about what we dream of doing to make the world a better (peaceful, fairer) place. Read the excellent picture book God’s Dream by Desmond Tutu.
Parents, we are our children’s primary pastors. Decades of research show that the faith and values our children carry with them into adulthood are largely taught at home. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. made a point of serious conversation around the dinner table every night, telling his young children about the injustices he encountered as a black man in the South in the 1930s and 40s, and how he confronted them. Years later, his daughter wrote, “These stories were as nourishing as the food that was set before us.” We can imagine how these stories inspired his son. The stories we tell from the day’s news, the office, the classroom or the playground give us the opportunity to reflect on where God is in them, and where God is calling us to be.
Just last month, we heard Dr. King’s nine-year-old granddaughter Yolanda Renee King tell people across the nation about her dream. One of my favorite quotes of Dr. King’s is this: “Life’s most important and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'” We share our stories, our dreams, to help us live the answers to that question.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:25–29
The scripture passage above is the conversation that prompts Jesus to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan. A man, a Jew, is walking from Jerusalem to Jericho when he is set upon by robbers and left for dead. The religious leaders of the man’s own tribe who see him by the side of the road on their way to work or worship avoid him and do not stop. The person who helps him, who carries him to safety, bandages his wounds, and pays for his care is the enemy of the Jews, the one who is not like him, the one Jesus’s listeners would have been most surprised to hear named as the rescuer. Jesus’s point was that our commonalities do not make us neighbors. Showing compassion makes us neighbors.
Our neighbors have been the women who are shelter guests at Crossroads Community Services.During the day, most of these women are busy learning skills that will prepare them to transition out of homelessness. At night, they come to Crossroads for a meal and a place to sleep where it is safe, warm, and sheltered. As with so many programs, this one relies on volunteers. When we volunteer, we don’t actually do much. We chat over dinner and spend the night in a room nearby. The women leave very early the next day because the church also hosts a breakfast program in the same space. Those few mornings I hope we are more aware of our own privilege, more aware of how little it takes to be a good neighbor.
Expanding our children’s circles of concern from family and close friends to others whose lives and experiences may be very different from their own is a key element of developing empathy, according to researchers. A recent study—part of the “Making Caring Common” project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education—involving 10,000 youth ages twelve to eighteen, found that 80% of respondents valued personal happiness and success over caring for others.Empathy is defined as the ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” but it is more than that: it is valuing and responding with compassion to other people and perspectives.Giving our children the opportunity to know, listen to, and actively help others is essential, not only to our Christian identity and formation but to changing the society in which we live, or as Ed Bacon, the recently retired rector of All Saints Pasadena likes to say, “turning the human race into the human family.”
Wondering how to start? Writer and activist Glennon Doyle Melton wrote a letter to her son the day he began third grade. In it she tells him about a boy in her own third grade class, whom her classmates teased and she ignored, and the regret she feels about that every day. “I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us,” Glennon tells her son. “The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you. So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.” She gives her son some concrete examples of how to be compassionate to his friends, like making room at the lunch table for someone eating alone, or choosing someone first for the team who is usually chosen last. That sounds like Jesus to my ears. Glennon also tells her son about his teachers and classmates, “You Belong to Each Other.”I’m pretty sure God says that, too.
Our upstairs neighbor Hoora spent the morning of her birthday translating a baptism class I was teaching into Farsi for a family who recently emigrated from Iran. Her husband later told me she spent hours in preparation, reading about baptism and watching videos on the Internet. I wish I knew as much about Islam as she knows now about Christianity; the best way I can think of to honor her gift of time and effort is to learn more about her beliefs and culture.
My sister’s husband is Hindu, and we have been learning about his religion to better understand the traditions that my niece and nephew are growing up with. A dear friend who converted to Buddhism and is now a monk shares with us teachings and practices that she thinks will resonate in our lives. Throughout the years so many Jewish friends have welcomed us into their homes for Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and Passover. I have had the privilege of both working in an interfaith center and teaching children’s interfaith classes. I cannot overstate how important I think it is for all of us to better understand each other’s religions, our common values as well as our differences. Yes, it is important that we articulate our own faith to our children, but in this global age, we are connected as never before, and cultivating respect for one another is essential to the health and well-being of everyone who calls this planet home.
Once, we met an Israeli engineer on a flight from New York City to North Carolina and much to his surprise, Peter sang him the Shema in Hebrew: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”6 We are, each of us, made in the image of God and when we look for God in everyone we meet, we are reminded of what and who makes us one.
At every baptism, Peter has heard this vow and last May at his confirmation made it for himself:
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“I will, with God’s help.”
The particular gift of knowing people of all ages and colors and religions and walks of life was easy to give Peter, and one that becomes a gift he can give to others. This, I think, is one of the most important things we can do for our children: teach them to draw the circle wider, help them make the world a little bit smaller. This is what the kingdom of God looks like; we are building it together and it won’t be finished until everyone’s in.
My book is now out in the world (!) and I am finding that by far the most frequent question I get is about the subtitle: “A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents.” While I wrote with parents in mind, more than that I wanted to write for the cautious Christian, for anyone who struggles with the way “Christian” is defined by popular culture and much of the media, for anyone who doesn’t picture God as an old man with a long white beard, or who maybe doesn’t even think of God as a person at all, for those of us who love Jesus and try to never forget he was a Jew who had no intention of founding another religion.
Cautiously Christian to me means not expecting answers to prayers and praying anyway, because what matters is feeling connected to God. It means reading the Bible critically AND reverently, and sometimes having to throw reverence out the window in order to keep reading. It means that while I follow the Christian path, I believe with my whole heart that there are other equally valid paths to God. It means that because I have faith, I have no need of certitude. My faith is roomy enough for questions, wonder and doubt.
I am not less of a Christian for being cautious; in fact, I hope that I am at my most Christian when action is called for. That’s where the rubber meets the road. When I am thinking about and talking about and writing about my religion, I am careful and choosy, I take my time, I weigh things carefully. When I am living my Christian identity, I throw caution to the wind. I’m all in.
My September 11th story takes place the following Sunday, when the Gospel we read in church was the same as the Gospel we heard this morning: that God searches for all the lost ones, finds us, and brings us home, rejoicing.
On September 16, 2001, I walked back after lunch to the church where I had begun work only the month before, on the Upper East Side of New York City. As I came through the front door and my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could see two people sitting in the front pew of the otherwise empty sanctuary: a woman and a young girl. I grabbed a few blank index cards and a fistful of crayons from a basket, walked over and knelt down beside them. I introduced myself and handed the child the crayons and index cards. “This is Annie, and I’m her aunt,” the woman told me. “Annie’s father died on Tuesday, and she is wondering who is keeping her safe now.” I took a deep breath, said a silent prayer, and began.
“Well, Annie, your mother and your aunts and uncles are keeping you safe. So are the firefighters, and the police officers, the mayor and the president.” I paused, and pointed to the paschal candle in front of us, which had been lit and placed in the center of the chancel as soon as we heard the news of the second plane hitting the towers. “Do you see this candle? We sometimes call it the Christ candle, and it’s there to remind us that God’s love is stronger than anything, even death. Jesus is here with us, and we are safe in God’s love.” I don’t remember if I said anything else. What I will never forget is that Annie drew three pictures. The first was of the paschal candle, the second was of the dark church with jewel-bright stained glass windows, and the third was the sun blazing in the sky. Annie knew. I simply reminded her.
School starts tomorrow. Am I the only parent who shops for supplies at the last minute? This year I shopped via Amazon and Peter’s binder arrived, large enough to hold the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica, if a print version still exists. The school sent home a reassuring email saying that eighth graders do not have to bring all their supplies with them in the morning, so I have a brief reprieve. If I am really organized, I could leave the house when he does and go to Target when it opens. (I once had to do this on School Picture Day, when I discovered that there was nothing clean for him to wear.)
Tomorrow we’ll fill his backpack with folders and composition books, pencils and pens, a water bottle, a packed lunch, and a pocket cross. Soon, there will be a blessing of backpacks (well, of the children wearing them) at church, and perhaps this prayer I wrote some years ago will be spoken:
God of Wisdom, we give you thanks for schools and classrooms and for the teachers and students who fill them each day. We thank you for this new beginning, for new books and new ideas. We thank you for sharpened pencils, pointy crayons, and crisp blank pages waiting to be filled. We thank you for the gift of making mistakes and trying again. Help us to remember that asking the right questions is often as important as giving the right answers. Today we give you thanks for these your children, and we ask you to bless them with curiosity, understanding and respect. May their backpacks be a sign to them that they have everything they need to learn and grow this year in school and in Sunday School. May they be guided by your love. All this we ask in the name of Jesus, who as a child in the temple showed his longing to learn about you, and as an adult taught by story and example your great love for us. Amen.
I pray this for Peter, and for all our children who are lucky enough to attend school. I pray for children who don’t have what they need to learn and grow. May we work together on the serious and timely issue of education equity. As Marian Wright Edelman reminds us, “The future which we hold in trust for our own children will be shaped by our fairness to other people’s children.” (If you want to read an inspiring story that clarifies some of the issues surrounding education equity, start here.)
And tonight, I will say a special prayer of thanks for teachers and principals everywhere. God bless them!
(Riding the 2 train in 2013, Peter noticed a kindred spirit with an animal attached to her backpack. When he asked her what it was, the woman promptly took it off and gave it to him: “He’s been with me 10 years; it’s time for a new adventure!” We do not look gift wombats in the mouth.)