Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why I intend to raise my (hypothetical) children with God

A friend of mine sent me a message linking me to an article which had troubled her. It was written by an atheist mom who decided to raise her children without religion and her reasons. My friend didn't quite know how to verbalize why the article rubbed her so wrong, but she knew she disagreed because her faith had been so central to her upbringing and life thus far. After reading the article, I could tell immediately what the problem was: the author's understanding of God and Christianity is not my understanding, and therefore her reasons failed to resonate. I want to preface this rebuttal by saying that I have no problem with anybody raising their kids with any beliefs that they see fit. But I also feel the need to articulate why many people choose to raise their children in their faith tradition that addresses the issues that the author raised.

Introduction: I'm a pastor in training, so obviously faith is and has been hugely important in my life. My fiance's faith journey has been different than mine, but we both essentially feel that God is central to our lives, and will be central to the life of any potential children. Some people might say that raising your children with religion is indoctrination, or that at the very least, as the author of the original article asserts, it's encouraging children to have fantastical thinking about some divine being in the sky, much like teaching kids about Santa (which is something that has issues all its own, in my opinion). However, it's my view that there's a big difference between teaching a child to know God, who I experience daily, and indoctrinating them. My beliefs may seem fantastical, or even ridiculous (the Bible even calls them foolishness), but knowing how my struggles with God and faith and growth have shaped me into the person I am today, I couldn't possibly deprive my children of such wholeness. These are a few reasons why:

1.) God is a parent and role model.

God understands the human heart better than any parent, and understands that you can't always guide and shape your children the way that you want to. Although some children may be easy to raise, others aren't. The Israelites, and all of us by extension, are the perfect example of rebellious children who refuse to listen. We've been doing it from the beginning, and we'll keep doing it until the end. But unlike a human parent, who may give up on their child who again and again refuses to listen (and God doesn't force us any more than we can force our kids), God never gives up. God loves us so unconditionally, that even the most horrible things we do to ourselves and each other are not an excuse to let go. God loves us in a way that we as parents can only hope to love our children.

2.) God's logic is different from ours.

The author's problem is less with God's logic and more with the logic of people and their responses to tragedy. She is troubled by pat answers to tough questions like "Why did God allow Newtown to happen?" Well, I'm troubled by pat answers to these questions too, because there is no easy answer. The answer that some people give, that it's not for us to know, is one way to resolve trying to understand something terrible. This is where the author and I agree: I also think we are asking the wrong questions. We shouldn't be asking why God allowed such things to happen, but if we believe that God allowed it to happen. It raises uncomfortable questions for people of faith, so we sometimes don't want to think of it. IS God omnipotent? Does God really control everything? Is there a plan to such things, or is evil a power which can truly contend with God on some level? Our questions are based on assumptions that may or may not be true, and on our human perspective. To us, Newtown looks like either a cruel allowance or like it demonstrates the powerlessness of God. Or perhaps it reveals something about what God is doing and will be doing in a future that we can't even imagine. I want to teach my children to think bigger than what they see, and try to imagine even in their limited capacity, the kind of mind that might be capable of holding everything that ever existed lovingly inside. I want to teach my children that there are no easy answers to questions, and that sometimes you have to let your assumptions be destroyed before you can come to understanding.

3.) Fairness is not the same as justice.

I had a teacher in high school who told me that God was not fair, but God was just. I take this a step further and want to say that God's justice is different than ours. To us, justice is equality; it's everybody getting the same treatment. Under that definition, life is definitely not fair. People do die too young. Good people get cancer and bad people live into old age. Children are abused, people are victimized, et cetera, et cetera... You know how not fair life can be sometimes. But to God, justice is isn't measured in equal beginnings or equal outcomes--it's measured in how much mercy we give and receive. It's clear in the gospels that God has a heart for the poor, the oppressed, the sick, outcast, and hurting. We are told that those who mourn will be comforted, those hunger will be filled, and those who are poor in spirit will receive the kingdom of God. (Matthew 5) In God's justice, those who suffer most receive most, because they most fully experience God. That doesn't always look like the justice we want or expect. It's an alchemy in which our suffering is transmuted proportionally into comfort, joy, and help. Unfortunately, because of the scope of our lives, we don't always have the opportunity to see that worked out for us, and it doesn't stop the bad stuff from sucking and feeling unfair, but we have what we theology nerds call "eschatalogical hope"--we have hope that even if it's not right now, it will be made right. We will have justice, and we will have a far better justice than tit for tat fairness.

4.) God's heart is for the vulnerable

God unquestionably cares for the weak. I think the gospel lesson for this week speaks directly to this. In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus quotes scripture saying: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And then he goes on to say that he is the one who will fulfill that message. There's a long, theological answer to the accusation that has to do with lots of assumptions about how God works in the world, but the short answer is that part of Christ's work as the Messiah is the transformation of hearts, and through Christ we, too, are given hearts for the vulnerable. God does protect the vulnerable by calling us, so in teaching our children about a loving God who cares for the poor, we instill in them those values and thus work toward building a future in which all the vulnerable are protected.

5.) God is here

Billions of people across the world worship God or deities of some kind and profess an experience of the divine in their lives. Perhaps billions of us are delusional, or maybe the perception is in to what we attribute a sense of peace, stillness, awe, and love. I may not be able to wrap my arms around God, or bury my head in his/her bosom, but I have experienced a sense of peace or stillness in the midst of terror. I have experienced love while feeling completely unlovable. I have experienced guidance while lost. I can't explain it or entirely verbalize it, but I believe that God IS here. I believe that God is undeniably entwined in the human experience because God loves us and came to be with us in the form of Jesus. I can't touch, smell, or hear my partner's love for me, but I experience it, and I want my children to experience God's love in that way too.

6.) God teaches us how to behave by teaching us who we are

It's true that, taught a certain way, religion can prime children to have an external locus of control. That is, they behave because they fear consequences from outside. Some may teach their children this way, and the author recognizes that this is not a very sophisticated approach. God does set up rules and boundaries for humans, but it's only in the most elementary understanding of Christian theology that the enforcement for such rules relies on hell or punishment. In my view, how we behave stems from who we are. If we consider ourselves to be people who are valued, loved, and wanted, our behavior will then stem not from an aversion to punishment, but from an effort to demonstrate our deeply held identity. God enables us to do this by naming us as beloved children. When you teach your child that he or she is beloved, you teach him or her that who they are is a person whose life is built on love, and therefore we can teach our children how to behave as a person of love rather than a person in fear of punishment.

7.) God teaches selflessness

"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other." -John 15:12-17

God has a plan for you, and that plan involves laying down your life. That plan involves dying to your old self, your old desires, your selfishness, your anger, and hate, and rising for the sake of others as Christ did. We are a small part of God's plan, but we are an important part. In some ways, the ushering in of God's kingdom depends on us. When I teach my (potential) children who God is, I will teach them who they are, and that their identity is deeply rooted in servanthood. The message is that they are special, but that message is inclusive and is intended not to foster narcissism but a sense of worth, particularly for people who sometimes question their worth. When we teach our children about God, we teach them that despite their failures and mistakes, despite their insecurity or the horrible things that the media, cruel peers, or even abusive relatives tell them, that they innately have worth. That they are wanted. That they are loved. And that because of that, we are all part of a huge mission to share that belonging with everybody we meet. So yes, we do teach our children that God thinks they're special. And because of that, we are also teaching them that they have a calling to love and serve like the one who named them special.


I understand why people don't want to raise their children with God, and that is absolutely their prerogative. I understand why somebody would not want to conceive of a punitive, omnipotent God who peers over our shoulder expecting us to do good things in the face of tragedy, evil, and unfairness. I don't want to conceive of that God either. The God that's represented in my tradition, the God that I have a relationship with, who walks with me, comforts me, and brings me hope is a God whose relationship to me helps me live. Teaching my children about God isn't about heaven or hell. It isn't about trying to explain randomness or avoid the fear of death. I will teach my children because I want them to spit at death by living in love. I want them to know God who knows them, who has named them as beloved, and who has a plan for them--and all of us. I want my children to have hope that things can change, and to desire to be a part of that change in the world as a part of that mission of love and reconciliation.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Trek, time, and theology.

I watched Star Trek: Generations the other day. The movie hinges on differing perspectives on time. The movie starts out with the death of Picard's brother and nephew, a stark reminder to childless Picard that his choices have been made and time has already engaged in its pursuit of his life and potential. It's described by the antagonist as a devourer which dogs every step. The crew of the Enterprise ends up discovering a scheme by a desperate/insane man who plans to destroy a star system's sun in order to change the course of a galactic phenomenon known as the nexus. Inside the nexus is pure joy. Whatever you want is yours to have, and time means nothing. The devourer has no teeth. But ultimately, Picard (and later Captain Kirk) discover that although they have everything they want, there is something about it which makes it meaningless because time is meaningless. There is no looking forward, because you can just go forward. There is no cherishing moments wistfully because you can go and live them again. Paradise, but without purpose.

I'm of two minds about time. On one hand, I don't think that time has a whole lot of meaning in the spiritual realm. Christ is described by John as the logos or word of God which was present from the beginning. Jesus was there when the first words of creation were spoken, and at the giving of the law, and on the cross, and the resurrection and at the last day. In fact, time can't have power over God or possibly even exist for God in the way it does for us because that would be a constraint which would negate what Christians hold as central to their doctrine--that restoration can and does occur. To quote my mom: "Time only exists so that physics works." We need time because we're not infinite beings. It makes me wonder if time existed for humans at all before the fall, or if maybe we weren't aware of the passing of time. After all, if there is no decay, decline, or death, there can't be time.

On the other hand, as Picard and Kirk came to understand, time does give us meaning in a sense. Time is what gives us a sense of perspective and location. Who am I now except for who I was before plus all the experiences that happened in between? Who will I be except for whatever happens in the time between now and then? Why am I here if not to work out some purpose, which, if time has no meaning, can't be of that much importance (how can a task be completed if there is nothing to define completion)? Picard describes to Riker that time is a friend that walks with us and reminds us to cherish each moment. That's a romantic description, I think. I'm not sure if I would agree with it, but at the same time, I have a hard time finding meaning in an existence in which there is no time, no change, no growth. But maybe that's because I'm broken.

Or should I say fallen? I think maybe part of the curse of the fall can be understood in terms of the effects of time on us. Instead of time being something which simply helps us gain perspective and understanding, it's something that also robs us. Eventually, time does take things away; health, vitality, and life in the end. Time and death may be two sides to the same coin. But think of time from God's perspective, where time exists in order to make physics work; in order to make gravity work, and forces and change and growth. Instead of decay, the change that occurs is always a new evolution, something exciting and beautiful which infinitely adds to us and yet takes nothing. Time would be the aid in a process of getting to know one another more deeply--to know God more deeply, and yet in that knowledge would be no pain or sorrow or loss. It would be a place where time has no meaning, and yet time means everything because there's purpose without degradation.

This idea is kind of hard to hold in my very small human mind, but it's one of those tensions that I think we have to live with. Time is both. It's a beast, because of how it acts on us broken people. But it's also a friend, because we can gain. And maybe part of the miracle of the resurrection is that breaking of the powers of decay. Because time did turn back, because Christ did rise from the grave, God defeated, and is currently defeating the parts that wither us. And that even makes it possible to wrap our minds a little bit around the idea of the now and not yet paradox. It did happen already, and it's happening right now, and it will happen in the future. It can be this way because even though God is deeply entrenched in our lives and suffering through Christ, ultimately God exists in all time, and our reality isn't the same as God's reality. So even though we may be living in the defeat of death right now, to God we're already living in life. It's just a matter of, heh, time before we catch up to the eschaton--to the future--that God is already present in.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A word against death

Death is heavy around here right now. I'm finally writing this because I was inspired by the post of a facebook friend announcing that her mom, who has been battling cancer, is going on hospice. This on the tail end of a week which included three funerals, one of them for a couple who died in an unexpected accident, as well as the uncertainty of one parish member's last days in his battle with cancer, and another whose poor health has led him into surgery which he may not survive. Add that to my dad telling me about a stillbirth he tended this weekend, and let me assure you, I have no illusions about mortality. I apologize if I'm not particularly astute or eloquent right now, but this word is for me, because sometimes the preacher needs to preach to herself. But I hope that if you're reading this and the weight of death is hanging around you, that this Word touches you as well, and gives you hope to carry on.

There is no good answer to death, whether it's an expected death of a 96 year old, like one of last week's funerals, or the shocking death of a suicide or a school full of kids. Today at our weekly text study, one pastor admitted that he often reads Psalm 43 for his own comfort, to remind him that even in the midst of all the crap that we wade through, God is with us. "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze." It's nice to know that God is walking with us in our suffering, because just feeling like somebody else is there is sometimes the best comfort. But often it's not. If God is with us, why isn't s/he doing something? Why doesn't God intervene to fix it, to help us, to make it go away? Why does cancer get victory? Why does accident or weakness or age win? Why does it feel like we're fighting against mortality, and always losing? It makes me angry sometimes, and I'm sad and lonely and stricken for the unfairness, for the pain that lovely, wonderful people go through, and the pain I go through too.

There's no easy answer to our suffering right now. The Thessalonians faced this problem. They were promised a savior, they were promised a king, and yet their loved ones were dying. Where do you find hope for life in the midst of death? How do you believe in the resurrection when all you see is death? I'm not really sure, but I know that faith is all about uncertainty. Faith is all about trusting the word of the one who keeps promises, even when it's hard, even when faced with all evidence to the contrary. Faith is about hearing that word declared to you again and again so that it sustains you, fills you, and carries you through grief in the most impossible times. Because faith is foolishness. But it's exactly because it's foolishness that it is so defiant toward death.

I think we defy evil with hope, and I want it to know exactly how much I defy it tonight. I also want you, whoever you are, whatever deaths (of dreams, of opportunities, or of loved ones) that you're facing to hear this word too: There is life. There is life beyond our pain, and there is life beyond our grief, and there is life beyond our death. Death is the insidious consequence, that which decays us, separates and breaks us, and steals our hope. But Christ is the life which triumphs over it. This is the God who promised to free Israel from slavery, and did it. This is the God who promised to bring Israel out of captivity, and did it. This is the God who promised a savior, and did it, and this is the God who promised life in the midst of death, and not only did it but is doing it today. It means that death never has the last word. It sucks. Death is horrible, and the suffering is unbelievable. But it's not the end. The end is the redemption. The end is the fulfillment of the promise. The end is the resurrection of the dead, of Christ, of your mother or father or friend or child, of me, and you. Amen. Amen amen amen.