My kids are really interested in what roads we’re driving on and what direction we’re going. They have a better sense of direction at four than I had at ten (yes, really, I am truly direction-impaired), and they know all of the roads we take to get to most of our popular destinations. So yesterday, on our way to the grocery store, we were on Linden Church Road, and one of the kids asked, “What’s linden?” I replied, uncertain, “I’m not sure honey, but I think it’s a tree or a plant.” (Note: yes, it is a tree.) And then, of course, “Mommy, what’s church?”
My internal dialogue went something like this: You could just say it’s a pretty building. You could say a lot of things. You could say it’s a building where people go to talk and sing. You’re driving to the grocery store. Do you really want to get into this right now? But it’s a teachable moment. They’re interested, and listening, and a captive audience. Take a deep breath, don’t chicken out, just tell them.
“A church is a building where people go to learn about God.” (Yes, I know a church is much more than this. I know that a true church is not a building at all. They’re four. I started simple.) “Do you know what God is?”
Right. Because we don’t talk about God. My husband is a lapsed Catholic who probably hasn’t been to church since his mom stopped making him go. He’s a scientist, and would probably describe himself as agnostic. I was raised Protestant, and have been many other things since. I am not an atheist or an agnostic. I have faith, but it doesn’t fit neatly into any of the boxes I have tried. Since I found out I was pregnant, I have debated what (if anything) to do about the kiddos’ religious education. I liked growing up believing in something, even if it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. Even at a young age, organized Christian beliefs were too rigid for me. I questioned, always, even as a kid. In the end, that whole good people who don’t believe go to Hell thing was a deal breaker. I just don’t believe it. I believe there are many paths to heaven or bliss or nirvana. So no, we don’t go to church, and we don’t really talk much about God.
“God is someone that some people think made everything. The Earth and all of the trees and the ocean and animals and people.”
“And the clouds?”
“Yes, and the clouds.”
“Yes, and McDonalds. Everything. Some people think that God is real, and other people think that he is pretend. I don’t know the real answer. No one knows. It’s a mystery. What do you think?”
My son, looking confident: “Real.”
My daughter: “No, he’s pretend.”
Me: “I don’t know the real answer. Everyone thinks something different. You can think whatever you want.”
At this point, my son starts trying to convert my daughter with the zeal that only a four-year-old can exhibit about something they only heard of two minutes ago. “He’s real. He’s real. Say he’s real!”
My daughter looks upset. “No, I say pretend. I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
After a few minutes of holy war in the back of the minivan, I redirected to a discussion of the names of trees, and breathed a sigh of relief. That stuff is HARD. I want my kids to have a spiritual life, and I wonder how much of my own odd but still very present faith can be traced to the fact that I grew up being taught that faith and spirituality were important. I don’t feel comfortable teaching them things that I don’t believe, and I don’t feel comfortable with anyone else teaching them that stuff either. But I’m not sure that teaching them my weird mélange of faith would help. It would probably just be confusing.
Maybe they should start joining me in a meditation practice. Can kids sit and breathe? It doesn’t seem terribly likely, and even if they could, would they derive any benefit from it? Or would they just play with their belly buttons and wiggle around on their miniature zafus? We could certainly start having more conversations and hands-on lessons about helping those in need. I think they’re ready for that. They already have a very strong sense of environmentalism and know about being good to Mama Earth. Last time we went to Storyville (at the Baltimore County Public Library), they wanted to clean up the field full of litter before going in to play. And on the topic at the very heart of my belief system, love, they are experts.
In some ways, a lot of my spiritual searching has been about coming back to some things that children do naturally. They are already in the moment. They are authentic. They dance like no one is watching and laugh hard enough to heal anything in the world. They are beautiful bright spirits. For now, maybe it’s enough. Even if they don’t know that they have spirits.
As usual, I am left with more questions than answers. But when it comes to faith, maybe that’s OK.