I throw my children into religious waters, and I don’t even know how to swim. The water is wide and deep. Spring has sprung, and the church calendar turns to stories of rebirth and renewal. We wear our Easter best and pray. When we step outside, the Kentucky landscape reveals the return of green everywhere. Suddenly, birds are happy again. Life is a little easier to explain out here, yet I still come into the church pews. I try to swim in these waters.
How do I simultaneously teach my sons about the natural cycles of the earth and about why religion is important to me?
I really should not be going there. To church, that is.
It is the season of Lent, and my four-year old is confused about why Lent is symbolized with the color green. After all, he found blue lint in his toes last week. He knows pieces of the story of Easter and comes to me for confirmation. Why did they nail him to the cross? What happened when he left the cave?
What really did happen? I wonder. I struggle for the right words.
I know I should say these things with more authority and certainty, but I mumble, “The story of the Bible says that God chose his only son . . . and this week the sermon told us, from love we were made and with love we will return.”
I fill his mind with confusion. I really should not be going there. To church, that is.
The next day, we sludge through the spring mud of a local nature sanctuary. We descend into a creek, runoff from our Kentucky River. We find ourselves in a grove of eastern cedars, and we peel the bark back, looking for bugs. We scan the horizon for the first glimpse of green, a lone wildflower. The earth is still very brown, but the sun makes the darkness feel light.
As we sit on a small bridge, my two young boys stare into the water. My four-year-old asks how the creek got here. At first I answer simply, “From the fallen snow and rain.”
But it is so much more than that. The crevices in the earth. I launch into the explanation of Pangaea, the rise of mountains, the life of sponges, the low-oxygen environment that gave rise to plants. The movement of the earth, the leftover limestone.
My narration is rusty and needs to be updated and edited. The first single cell organism. Complex organisms. The first human life. Genes and the crossing over of genetic information. Strategies.
I spout it out, heedless of the simultaneous effects of enriching my child and facing new, uncharted questions.
“But who made God?” he asks.
“Is that a tadpole?” I ask, hoping to change the subject. Where do I begin?
I think of the words of Reverend Lauren Winner, an Episcopal priest and scholar. In her book Still, about Winner’s own quest for religious truth, she explains she adds the words “want to” in the first line of the Nicene Creed. “I (want to) believe in the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost . . .” she recites.
I understand the importance of want. I want to believe too.
A few days later we find ourselves back at church.
Sometimes it is a struggle to get here. I encourage my kids to put on their Sunday best, which ends up being nicer than torn jeans and superhero shirts, but not as nice as the tucked-in, collared shirts, belts, and khakis I saw my brother wear on Sunday as a child. But I am okay with this.
During the service, I watch my oldest son fidget. He opens and closes hymnals and looks for pieces of paper to write on. I purposely do not bring food, gadgets, toys, or books for him to play with. I hold my breath, but I like to watch him squirm. Is he bored? What is he thinking?
I love the red velour pads and the straight, hard backs on the pews. My son tries to lie down. Maybe he is uncomfortable, but I scold him, “Sit up, look straight.” He is four, and he is a boy, but he can try.
After a while, he opens a hymnal and pretends to sing. He stares at the stained glass. The light looks different than last week because of daylight savings time. I wonder if he thinks the same thing. He watches me as I close my eyes for the Nicene Creed. He asks me a question, but I keep my eyes closed. I do not tell him to be quiet, but I do say, “I am praying.”
We go back the next week, and he sits on my lap this time. I hold him tight. How much longer will he want to snuggle in my arms? We look for words in the hymnal that he might know. I see him close his eyes.
It would be easier not to go to church. It would be easier to volunteer with my children each week — take food to the homeless, make cards for shut-ins, deliver books to children in need. Clean up the public park. It would require no explanation other than, “It’s nice to help others,” or, “Treat your neighbor as you want to be treated.” Isn’t that the message that children ultimately take home from church?
Why do I surrender to a formal, traditional church? Why do I let my kids see me fumble over my own religious understanding?
I know that one day my children will be utterly alone, for who is free from death, heartache, or failure? They will have to look inside themselves and ask hard questions. But despite the depth of our solitude, I sense a presence, one I think of as God, that listens and hears all voices. Especially those who ask the questions and are quiet enough to listen for a response.
I take my children to the woods so that they’ll see the changes in the seasons, new life, the emergence of plants and animals, and the flow of water. But I cannot show them all they need to know.
During the season of Lent we read from the Book of John about the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. The woman is alone, and Jesus knows she had been married five times. A recent lecturer at our church highlighted this teaching, reminding the congregation that the average life span during the time of Jesus was 30 years. Perhaps all the woman’s husbands have died? Or maybe her husbands were mean and cruel, and in marrying over and over she was simply escaping one doomed fate after another?
He pointed out that, according to the Bible, Jesus never judged her, but sat at the well with the woman, listening to her. This is the God that she prayed for, the lecturer explained. This is the man who knows her whole story.
She is not alone.
I think of the words of my own Rector during my very first visit to our church. An infant was being baptized that day, and our Rector reminded us brothers and sisters of the congregation that it was our job to help support this child and guide her religious faith.
Overcome by emotion, I wanted to give as much hope, appreciation, and love to this child as I could; I wanted all that for myself, too, and for my own children. I wanted to join a community like this that would support and help me in my own beliefs. I wanted to swim in these waters.
I often flip through the pages of Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal. I understand her appetite for a solid religious faith. “God is feeding me and what I am praying for is an appetite,” she states.
I strive and I hope, but I do not know. I want to believe.
I hope my son is bored and uncomfortable in church. I hope he knows he will do this next week, and the week after that. Next year, his brother will come with us, out of the nursery and into the pews. They will both watch me close my eyes and pray. I hope they pray, too.