On Parenting, Faith and Imperfection
Aug 28 2013
Today we’re going to talk about faith again. And, in fact, we’re going to talk about faith at least, like, two times in the next couple weeks because then this is a SERIES. A series of at least TWO posts, because I’m a mother of five kids and school is starting any day now and that’s all I can commit to right now. But who knows? Maybe it’ll be more than two posts – like, perhaps THREE posts, which is 50% more than two. Also, maybe I’ll actually make dinner tonight! It’s a whole world of possibilities out there; anything can happen, I tell you.
And I know. I know. Believe me, I know. I know some of you (Emily) just hate it when I get all faithy, but some of you (also Emily) stick around anyway because you’re kind and you let me be me even though I’m different than you, and you trust me to let you be you even though you’re different than me. And I love our community for this! It’s one of my very favorite things about us, this freedom to be deeply, authentically who we are in this space. A mosaic of extraordinary beauty.
But I know some of you (Amy) are all YEEHAW! Finally! Talk about faith on purpose already, Beth. Because you get all wordy about Love Pursuing Us and all of us being made in the Very Image of the Divine and being Enough Right Now as we already are and blah, blah, blah, but enough for what? Like, what’s the point here? When do we get to the part about being sinful and Jesus dying for us and redemption and Heaven? And I know it’s disappointing to some of my fellow Christians that the answer to that last question is, essentially, never. That I have no desire to write for conviction or conversion. That I’ve abandoned the Christianese language to the point I no longer use phrases like covered in the Blood, or fellowship of believers, or saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
So what is the point, then? Of this series and of talking about faith at all and of putting this smack dab in the middle of a parenting blog?
The point is to welcome you, to see you, and to love you.
That’s the crux of everything I hope to do with this life.
And I do that, in part, by letting you see me. The real me. In this case, the real me who’s a woman of imperfect faith, trying to raise children to ask questions, to look for answers, to trust Love, and to breathe.
I wrote this essay in May 2012 for Rachel Held Evan’s blog as part of a series on Parenting and Faith. It’s republished here with permission.
Ask. Seek. Knock. Breathe.
I used to prefer for God to live in a box.
Not a jewelry box. Or a moving box. Or a giant refrigerator box. Or even one of those pet store hamster boxes with breathing holes like the one I bought in 1980 with my best friend Tracy because two seven-year-olds co-owning a hamster is always a good idea.
Nope. My God-box was different.
My God-box was more like a Lunchables box. The kind that’s well-shaped with plastic compartments for neatly stacked crackers and round spheres of pressed meat and contoured for protection against breakage.
That was, in my mind, the very best, most structured kind of a God-box, and my God deserved the best.
I liked my boxed God very much because He was neat and tidy, and also a He with a capital H. And everything in my life fit into my God-box compartments.
I think that’s normal for a kid raised in the Church, and it isn’t bad or wrong. It just turned out to be, well, a little too easy and preserved for the realities of my life as it unfolded.
I became a mama for the first time in the Fall of 1998 when a foster mom, in the dark of night in a tiny home in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam placed a nine week old baby girl into my shaking arms. It was eleven days shy of my 25th birthday, and my husband and I marveled over Abby’s fingers and toes and the fact that two whole governments were willing to entrust us with her little, perfect life.
I had everything I wanted. A husband I liked nearly all the time. A daughter I adored. A home. And a personal relationship with JesusChristMyLordandSavior.
I was wildly, deliriously happy and fulfilled.
Except when I was terribly unhappy. And except when I was oddly empty. And except when I felt like I was choking in the dark of night as I sat for hours and hours on the hardwood floors outside my baby’s room and my butt grew numb while I wondered why I lacked for peace when I had gratitude and faith.
My confusion and bewilderment felt a lot like drowning or despair which I suspect are two words for the same thing. The wild flailing of arms. The gasps of air at the surface that were too brief to provide real respite. The rather desperate panic at the idea that, perhaps, being a mother wasn’t enough and being a follower of Jesus wasn’t enough, either.
Both ideas terrified me beyond description. How could they not, raised as I was by a loving Christian community to understand that God always fills the empty spaces and that a woman’s satisfaction comes from being a wife and a mother?
Instead, I found myself as a young mom lost in a wasteland of spiritual and emotional loneliness. Adrift. Isolated. Living in the opposite country from the illusive and idyllic Village where I was sure all of my friends’ children were being raised by content mommies who were far more Godly than me.
And so it was that becoming a mother stripped me down to nothing and left me bare, exposed to my fears and my not-enoughness and my God. It was there, in that empty space, that I slowly began to unpack my Lunchables box, trying to discover whether any pieces of my God-meal matched a more significant, infinite, loving God who could sustain me… whether I could somehow mesh my easy, compartmentalized answers with my difficult, messy questions…. and whether, perhaps, I might find myself in the process.
My box was loaded with things that were striking to me in the way they didn’t fit with my understanding of a loving God. Things I was surprised I’d carried for years and in secret because I thought I would be shunned by the Church if I discarded them. Things that I thought were core to being a follower of Jesus, but which I found out… weren’t. Things like:
- a Letter of the Law fundamentalism that’s married to mob-mentality politics,
- “the Lord helps those who help themselves” and “love the sinner and hate the sin” and other trendy sayings that embrace a cringe-worthy sense of entitlement or judgment and, strikingly, aren’t in the Bible,
- and the pressure to deliver the Horror of Hell story with enough conviction to scare people toward a merciful God and into Heaven
These and a thousand thousand other things stuck in my throat and became increasingly difficult to swallow. They clogged my faith and made it hard for me to breathe. And so, with the cacophony of “but you must believe these things to raise righteous children” and a great deal of uncertainty ringing in my ears, I let them go.
I let them go for the risky pursuit of an authentic faith. A faith based on the person of Jesus in the Bible. A faith based on Christ as my present, accessible, here-with-me-now teacher. A faith that embodies my desperate longing to see all people treated equally, to follow the deeper Spirit of the Law, to welcome strangers, to reject fear, and to love people with abandon. A faith that’s far scarier and more thrilling than platitudes, easy answers and trendy sayings because it means telling my children that I don’t know everything.
Jesus said a lot of earth-shattering things, but now that I’m a mom, I think this was one of the most radical of all:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” – Matthew 7:7-8
It seems to me that Jesus’ words are a clear directive.
Ask, Jesus says. Seek. Knock.
And then, if I’ve got this right, Jesus follows up a few verses later by saying that God will actually respond. God God, the Lover of us all, will reveal divine things. To me. To you. To, oh, anyone who asks. And God will do it without discretion or conditions. Without caution or prudence. Without making a list first of who has a right to which truth or who will handle the answers the best.
The revolutionary, almost subversive, thing about asking is that it goes beyond making it OK to have secret questions and inner doubts and gives us permission to raise our hands in God’s classroom with a “Pardon me, but I don’t get it.” Or “Really, God? Can you explain further?” Or “I just can’t bring myself to believe what the rest of your class is telling me.”
I suspect – a sneaking suspicion that gets louder as I age – that we’re somehow expected to keep asking. Out loud. And to keep seeking. And to keep knocking. Which has crazy implications on parenting from a Jesus perspective because typically when we don’t know something, we pretend we do. That’s in the Parenting Manual. Or the Being a Grownup Manual. Or the Christianity Manual. Or maybe it’s just being human.
If I am a parent who follows Christ and is honest about all of my not knowings, though, about still being in process, about being an asker and a seeker and a knocker, then I have to change my Christian parenting paradigm. I have to say to my children, instead, “I know only some of God’s heart, but I’m willing to share what I have” and then humbly leave that piece sitting on the counter for them to accept or reject.
But if I do that – if I tell that truth to my children – what will happen to their faith?
The truth, it turns out, can be an extraordinarily painful thing to tell. When I’m truthful, I find myself wading through my doubts, flashing my insecurities in public, and flipping through my dog-eared and coffee-stained questions like they’re well-worn copies of my favorite books.
If I say to my kids, “I don’t know; I’m a seeker just like you,” have I fallen down on the Christian Mama job? Have I led my kids astray by failing to hand them the answers? Have I abdicated my responsibility as a spiritual leader?
I don’t think so. And I’ll tell you why.
My sister-in-law, Kim, has been wandering around our faith community lately asking hard questions about the way the Church loves and harms people through acceptance or exclusion. About our collective fears. About the ways we engage in conversations. She’s letting her questions fall out all over the place, raw and beautiful in their authenticity. And she’s making people uncomfortable – or giddy – with her inability to accept the class’s answer and her insistence on raising her hand over and over and over.
Kim said two things that struck me as inordinately true during her questioning process. The first is her belief that the way we engage our conversations may be more important than our conclusions, for if we abandon love, kindness, forbearance and gentleness in favor of fear, self-righteousness and anger, what have we gained with a mere conclusion? And the second thing she said is I wonder if we Christians trust Jesus to be enough?
I wonder if we Christians trust Jesus to be enough.
As a mama who cares about my kids’ relationships with God, I have to ask myself… am I engaging in spiritual conversations with them with love and kindness? Or am I fearful and angry about their doubts and conclusions? Do I actually believe that God will answer my kids’ questions with true discoveries and open doors? Or am I trying to rapidly solve their theological dilemmas by assuring them that God has already gifted me with all the answers and so they needn’t bother God by asking themselves?
I had a conversation recently with my father about whether we’re obligated as Christians to be aspirational.
“Are we,” I asked, “supposed to hold ourselves up as an example of the Godly life? Because I’m afraid I lack what it takes for others – my children, my friends, my family – to want to aspire to be like me and, therefore, like God.”
You see, I have a lot of inadequacies in the aspirational areas, but the main one is I know too little, and I admit it too often. I confess to cleaning my toilets and my children with embarrassing irregularity. I make people wear shoes in my house because I’m not sure what they might step in, and I should probably make people wear shoes in my theology for the same reason. I parent less-than-perfect children in less-than-perfect ways, and I actually prefer it that way.
“This is no way to be an example to others,” I told my dad, “no way to point the way to Christ, despite the relief I feel in living this life. Some days, I don’t strive to be the best Jesus-follower I can be. Some days, it’s all I can do to breathe.”
But my dad said the most amazing thing to me in response.
My former-Marine father who likes things to be orderly; my Christian missionary father who stashed emergency-reference copies of Dr. Dobson’s The Strong-Willed Child throughout my childhood home; my traditional-interpretation-of-Scripture father who wonders where I get my wild and crazy theological ideas; that father of mine said,
“What if the root word of aspiration isn’t only to aspire to? What if the root word of aspiration is also to aspirate? To expel or dislodge the things that make people choke? To tell a truth that is so wild and so free that it helps people learn to breathe? What if you’re called to be that kind of aspiration?”
And I thought, Oh! If this life is about helping people breathe, I can do that.
Ask. Seek. Knock. Breathe.
I used to prefer for God to live in a box. Neat and tidy. Quiet and nice.
Now my life is full of questions. It’s messier and louder, more disruptive and fulfilling, than I imagined.
I can finally breathe.
In the next part of this faith series ( <— See? It’s a series, I tell you!), I plan to ask you some questions about faith — whatever faith or nonfaith background you claim — because one of the things I think we lack on the internet are good places to have open, loving interfaith conversations without agendas, you know? Wouldn’t that be incredibly refreshing? I know I would LOVE that. So plan on it. For now, though, I’d love your thoughts on this — this piece specifically or this series idea in general. Does this resonate with you? Or freak you out? Or what?