I am tucking one small four-year-old son into his equally small bed when I hear his twin, say it.
Will is muttering something about God – now, weeks later, I can’t remember the comment, exactly – but I do remember clearly the pronoun my son used: He. He.
My son believes that God is a he.
* * *
This is my fault. I know it. I don’t talk to my children in a particularly purposeful way about God, so I haven’t set much of an example, good or bad, about issues of gender and the politics of what to call a deity. Brushing teeth, hide-and-seek, “How Much Is that [Name-Today’s-Favorite-Animal] in the Window” and “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” are part of our regular bedtime routine, but prayers aren’t really a part of the ritual.
The omission has occurred largely because I’m still uncomfortable with the brand of religious life, teachings, and experiences that were mine in my youth. As a girl, I was disturbed by Sunday school stories about an angry, vengeful God who sent a deathly flood, tested Abraham to see if Abraham loved God or his son Isaac more, and cursed women with the pain of childbirth as payback for the apple episode. My mother taught me to pray about the things that scared me: unlikely disasters, such as tornadoes and house fires, burglars and hurricanes. But I’d seen enough of the news to know that these struck some families; who was I to think God would keep me safe? As a child, I had an undeniable spiritual thirst; but what I learned about God made little sense to me.
I want my children to have a different experience, but I haven’t yet figured out how to best give them a revised version. I believe in prayer, certainly, but mostly of the “Thank you, thank you” sort endorsed by author Anne Lamott. I also believe in meditation, positive thinking, silence, synchronicity, and luck. I believe in God, but who/what I believe in these days is larger, more encompassing, less-pin-downable that what is conjured by the word “God” in my mind, or perhaps typically conjured in most people’s minds. I don’t want my children to think of God as the great Santa Claus in the sky. I don’t want them to start praying for a pony. Still trickier: what will I say after they pray, say, for God to keep them from having occasional nightmares, and the nightmares don’t stop?
As a spiritual person, I feel awkward about my children’s lack of spiritual education, but when it comes to imbuing my children with a meaningful spirituality, I’m often at a loss to know what to say or do. Pat answers about God and the spiritual life sometimes rise to my lips though I try to bite them back; I’ve heard a lifetime of such platitudes. Finding something to say that will be truly meaningful is a challenge. The one answer I offer my children, more than any other, is “I don’t know.”
A typical conversation may go something like this:
“Mama, what happens to people after we die?”
“Well, honey, our bodies stop working and the invisible part inside of us, that makes us who we are, leaves.”
“Where does it go?”
“Nobody knows for sure, because people who die can’t come back to tell us. Some people say that part of us goes to heaven. Some people say we come back as another person. Some people think nothing happens at all.”
“What do you think?”
Good question. Sometimes, I speculate aloud in response to the questions my children ask me. Sometimes, I shrug. “I don’t know.”
I have many friends who think they know the answers, who see the world of spirituality and religion and God in terms of black and white. Then there are those of us who realize we’re all grasping at existential straws: making the best sense we can out of the clues we find in this world: sacred texts, a mother’s love for her child, the revelations tucked up messily in heartbreak or brilliantly in sunshine; those found in our elderly parents’ illnesses and in our children’s graduations from one grade to the next.
As for what I believe . . . well, I have my ideas, my guesses, my hopes. The old Christian teaching of heaven as streets of gold never did anything for me as a child, much less as an adult. But I understand now that those were poetic words, only hinting at that which cannot be known or described. Yet I feel much more comfortable with the indescribable, with the unknowable, than I ever was with certainty. The problem is, uncertainty doesn’t fit neatly into children’s Sunday school curriculums, bedtime rituals, and picture books.
Talking with my children about religion, about God of any gender – the external manifestations of what I’ve known internally — is tough for me. Discussing what it means to be a decent person, to live a good life, to act ethnically and morally, comes far more naturally. Sometimes I worry that I’m failing them; at other times, these two extremes feel like different sides of the same coin.
As St. Francis of Assisi reportedly said, “Preach the good news, use words if necessary.” What, then, is better news than Mama showing up with a throw-up bowl and a cold washcloth? Or cleaning up child and bedding after a bedwetting accident, and tucking same child back under warm, dry covers with a kiss?
All mothers know: children “listen” to our actions far more than they listen to our words. When it comes to instructing our children in spiritual/religious life: When, if ever, are words necessary?
* * *
“You’re talking about God?” I say to my first son, settling him back into the little bed with the second. “You think God is a boy?”
He nods fiercely. “God is a boy.” He sounds a little disgusted, fed up with my ignorance, as if he can hardly believe that I have somehow missed this obvious fact.
“Really?” I raise my eyebrows. “You think so? Well, you’re not alone. A lot of people think of God as a boy. But, really, you know what? God is just as much a boy as a girl. Or, I could also say, God isn’t a boy or a girl. God is actually bigger than both those things. Think about it: God doesn’t have a body, right? So, God doesn’t have a penis.” The kids giggle, embarrassed. God with a penis! “What – and who – God is, is so much bigger than that,” I tell them. “It isn’t about being a boy or a girl at all. That isn’t the point.”
Will shakes his head at me. “No. God is a boy. And Jesus is a boy.”
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll give you that Jesus is a boy. But God is just as much a girl as a boy, whether you believe it or not. It’s just hard to realize that because so many people say ‘he’ when they talk about God. A person could say ‘he’ or ‘she,’ and both would be right.”
Will and Macky are quiet. I want to think that they’re both considering this.
“In fact,” I say, “I think I’m going to start calling God ‘She’ from now on. Just to balance things out!”
My daughter grins at me. “And if you ever forget,” she crows, “I’m going to remind you!” This is the daughter I prayed for when I couldn’t get pregnant. The daughter I found in a remote region of Siberia, on the other side of the world. How I found her, I can’t explain. Why all the children in Russia won’t get families is even harder to contemplate. But I can’t deny that she is here and that, in some way, we both have become something bigger than either of our prayers.
* * *
Eugenia reminds me to say “She” for God. I remind my boys that God is just as much a girl as a boy. The sun reminds me every morning that light follows dark, and my conservative friends take pains to remind me that, despite presumable evidence to the contrary, sometimes God really does answer prayer. As the truth of this realization hits me, I realize how very glad I am that She does. I close my eyes for a moment, and without even saying a word, I thank Her.