When I was a child, my parents nurtured my siblings’ and my spiritual curiosity by reading a few bedtime Bible stories, and letting us decide whether we wanted to stay in our warm beds on Sunday mornings or hitch a ride to church with friends. Having been burned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses before we were born, Mom and Dad preferred to stay home: doing crosswords and chopping wood, generally avoiding the overt religious life. My older sister showed little interest in religion, but my brother and I — looking for a place to belong after moving to a new community at 14- and 9-years-old — fell in easily with the fundamentalist Christian crowds that were more than willing to welcome us.
Now that I have children of my own, now that sleep is something I don’t just appreciate but actually covet and hoard, I find it hard to believe that I didn’t greedily snatch up every wink I could. I wish I could go back in time, whisper in the ear of the girl I once was: Be lazy while you can. Curl up with your dog and a book. Skip church, at least for now. It will only make you hurt and angry and bitter and jaded.
And it did. I like to think that if I was having my first church experiences now, as a grown, thirty-something woman, I’d have the discernment, experience, and wisdom to take in all the information, filter it appropriately, and utilize those elements that would cause me to grow spiritually while rejecting the rest. But I was young and trusting, absurdly so. I took it all so seriously, of course it eventually broke my heart.
“The LORD now speaks to Moses!” my daughter Eugenia cries out, waving my children’s Bible in the air. She found it in the shelves of old kids’ books, and she loves it, with its color illustrations of Jesus and the little children, Adam and Eve in the garden, Noah’s ark and the rainbow. She is just learning to read, and this sentence is the only one in the Bible she’s bothered to sound out. But she proclaims it loudly, to anyone who will listen.
“I can read my Bible!” she announces during drop-off at her brothers’ preschool, to the Christian and Muslim and Jewish and atheist parents slipping in and out of the doors, to anyone who will listen. “Do you want to hear? The LORD now speaks to Moses!” Some moms and dads look amused, others slightly alarmed. I smile at them, as if a recitation of Leviticus 1:1 is a developmental stage every six-year-old goes through.
“Come on, little Bible thumper,” I say, attempting to nudge her down the hall. “You’re going to be late to school.”
“The LORD now speaks to Moses!” she hollers, holding her ground.
“Don’t make me take that Bible away from you,” I say through gritted teeth.
My parents’ approach, of trusting us to make our own spiritual decisions, was an admirable one. I’ve tried to use similar tactics with my own children, participating in a progressive spiritual community and, beyond that, letting their own curiosity lead the way. But I cringe when religious language comes out of their little mouths. Is it because this reminds me of all that has previously hurt me in the church, or because it makes me think of all the hurts that lie ahead for them?
Eugenia and the boys are playing with brooms.
“Look!” Eugenia says, holding up two child-sized brooms perpendicular to one another. “I’ve made a cross! Oh, Jesus! Jesus, I love you!”
My husband and I exchange glances. “Yes, I love you so much, Jesus,” he mutters under his breath, “I’ve built you a cross.” It’s funny, but the truth behind his words worries me: doctrine is confusing even for adults. Will my daughter be hurt by this misunderstanding of doctrine? “There’s nothing loving about killing someone on a cross,” I want to say. But I know she’ll ask questions, and I don’t have many answers.
My daughter has learned about Jesus in Sunday school. I knew that she knew who Jesus was, but I hadn’t realized that her class had covered his death. I realize now that I should have taught her more about Jesus, myself, first. But I didn’t know what to say. I’m not sure what I believe, exactly, these days about things like atonement and resurrection; hell and heaven; how can I teach her what to believe? Yet how can I leave her spiritual education up to other people, no matter how good-hearted they are? Would it have been better not to have started going to church again? For her not to have been taught anything yet at all? One minute I think perhaps only people who are sure about what they believe should try to teach their children about religion. In the next, I think those who are certain may well be the most dangerous of all.
Despite the real affection I feel for my Quaker community, I worry about exposing my children to religious life in a society where the voices most commonly associated with Jesus are Dr. James Dobson’s and George W. Bush’s, Jerry Falwell’s and Pat Robertson’s and Ted Haggard’s. Where Christians are known not for feeding the poor and caring for the widows and orphans, but for obsessing about other people’s morality. Where Christians are taught that their leaders have a truth that no one else has.
As for me, I don’t have a lot of hard-core doctrine to pass on to my children. I don’t “know” anything, really. But there are a few things I’m pretty sure I believe.
I believe there’s value in participating in community — spiritual and otherwise.
I believe in asking questions.
I believe it’s important to take a risk and put oneself out there.
I believe in following the footsteps of those who are loving, of surrounding oneself with people who are fighting the good fight, trying to make the world a better place.
I believe that it’s okay to be uncertain. I believe it’s fine, even good, not to know exactly what one believes.
“Do you want to hear it backwards?” my daughter calls out from the back seat of our van. “Moses. To. Speaks. Now. The Lord.”
I smile. Because the little Bible thumper put words to one other thing I believe. That the spiritual life isn’t about knowing what God says, so much as it is about being open and connected, about allowing ourselves to be known by one another and by “God”: whatever that means to each of us.