Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Teaching Faith

MotherTalk is offering another Blog Bonanza, which means they invite all their blogger friends to write about a particular topic on a particular day. Today’s topic was inspired by the new book Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Caring, Ethical Kids Without Religion. Of course, I couldn’t pass this one up.

My husband says religion is for adults, although I have to point out that he was a Roman Catholic priest for sixteen years and had to give sermons with squirmy children in the pews. Still, he may have a point. I haven’t figured out how to explain complex ideas to my kids without having them come out as some sort of caricature.

For example, I recall giving one of my periodic speeches designed to counter the Lincoln-Memorial-Image of God my children have picked up, despite having parents who don’t call God “he.” I was holding forth at the dinner table and said, “God is not really a man, and God is not really a woman. God is not white, and God is not black.” My son, who was six at the time, smirked and said, “You mean God is like Michael Jackson?”

After I stopped laughing, I realized how much easier the old God in the sky image is to convey than my vague kind-of-like-the-groundwater-of-all-being explanation. It makes me sympathize a bit with the authors of Parenting Beyond Belief, who worry that religious instruction for children can be damaging. It’s true that some children are given simplistic, even frightening images of God that they never grow out of. (Michael Jackson?) In the interviews I’m doing for my book, it is striking how many people had to heal from wounds inflicted on them by such training. One man shared his boyhood terror of “the rapture”—the time when his evangelical family believed Jesus would come and whisk all true believers to heaven—because he was worried that he might get left behind.

Still, I don’t think we need to throw God out with the theological bathwater. Although we’ve gotten many laughs out of Luke’s Michael Jackson comment, I trust that he is growing up with a sense that there is something bigger than us at work in the universe and that that something is not easy to define. He certainly knows from growing up in two faith traditions (Catholic and Quaker), and from going to school with Muslims and Jews, that truth, love, and community can be found in more than one place, so I don’t think the intolerance the authors are worried about are a problem here. My children also know how to sit in silence in front of a candle, as we do every evening during Lent and Easter, and they know that being grateful at the end of every day is important.

I once heard someone say that all prayers basically boil down to these: thanks, help, sorry, and wow. I believe those are sentiments that children can understand and grow with.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Book Lessons

I haven’t been writing here much, mostly because I’ve been immersed in working on my book, trying to finish the new version of Chapter Two before school lets out. The only problem is that on Wednesday I realized that Chapter Two should really be Chapter Three and a piece of what was Chapter Three should become Chapter One. The rest of Chapter Three should become Chapter Four, etc. You can see how a person could forget to blog.

With all the ideas of the book swirling around my head, it seems like a good time to pull together some thoughts on what I’m learning so far, especially from the interviews I’ve been doing. So here are some observations:

1. People are amazing. What we go through is amazing, and listening to people who have come through struggle with humor and wisdom is inspiring. Many of the people I’m interviewing should write down their own life stories. In fact, everyone should.

2. God is amazing. Hearing people share how God has worked in their lives fuels my faith. One example that comes to mind is a woman who was being abused by her husband. He was choking her and saying, “I love you.” In that moment, she heard God say, “I love you more.” She took her children and left that day.

3. People grow up with an awful lot of baggage about God. I’ve noticed that for several people I interviewed, discarding their childhood ideas about God has been a real turning point in their lives. I remember one woman getting choked up recalling the first time she heard the idea that God could live within her. “God could live in me?” she said with emotion. “I thought God was out there punishing me.” Looking at our assumptions about God is my new Chapter One.

4. We need each other. We never know how a new person is going to affect our lives, and we don’t know how something we say will affect someone else. But often people’s lives have been changed by a casual comment, like, “You seem like a Quaker,” mentioned to a person who had never heard a Quakers and then went looking for them. We should be faithful to those little messages that pop up every day when we’re with people.

I’m also being confirmed in the knowledge that I love writing, even though it is a lot of work, and I’m not very fast at it. That’s OK though. I think wanting to be quick and efficient is my issue, not God’s.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


The end of the school year is in sight, and I haven’t finished arranging summer camp, let alone the writing work I planned to do this spring. It’s going well, just not at lightning speed, so I’ve been making special efforts to stay focused. Of course, life is getting in the way a bit, which I guess is good because it gives me something to write about.

A few weeks ago, when one of these “distractions” came along, a wise writer friend of mine said, “Whenever something like that happens, try to see how it is really is helping the book, like maybe it is something you need to write about.” That afternoon someone send me an article they had written and asked for my feedback. Now writers often hate this sort of request (especially if the person is not a good writer), but I kept my friend’s advice in mind and said, “Sure.” Turns out the article was not only well written, but it was about the same topic as the chapter I was working on and (with the author’s permission) gave me the perfect example to fill in one of the holes in my chapter.

Last week something similar happened. I was working on a section about “projection,” the psychological term for denying our own qualities or emotions and seeing them in someone else instead. I was thinking, “This would be a really good spot for me to share a time when I’ve projected onto someone else. I wonder when I’ve done that?” After several minutes of drawing a blank, I thought, “Either I am so self-aware and spiritually evolved that I never project, or I am so un-aware that I can’t even see I’ve done it!” I few hours later I got an email from someone who months ago read an essay I wrote about racism. She said at the time that she wanted to have coffee to discuss it with me. For months I’ve been assuming that she hated my essay, or found it offensive, or found me offensive. Her email, and our subsequent lunch, made it clear this was all in my mind, a classic case of projection. The incident has helped me see other times when I project my anxieties onto others, which I’m sure will help me write the chapter, whenever I get time to do it.

So it’s with gratitude for these recent distractions that I’m facing my newest hurtles, namely the alarming behavior of my computer, which yesterday started shutting down inexplicably about two seconds after I’d restart it. I was beginning to panic a bit about it yesterday afternoon, realizing that I hadn’t backed up Chapter Two recently, but it was time to go get the kids out of school early to bring them to their annual doctor’s appointment. Then Megan needed new sneakers, preferably before the baseball game at 6. In the same hour and a half slot, we also needed to do homework, walk and feed the dog, prepare for Luke’s talent show audition this morning (which involved some equipment we never did find after considerable searching) eat dinner, and change for the game. There wasn’t much time to fix my computer, though I did try restarting it eight more times while Luke took the dog out to pee. Then I needed to let it go during an interminable baseball game, which our team lost, making one of my children (I won’t name names) cranky during the ride home, though the fact that it was bedtime and homework still wasn’t done probably didn’t help. “So how is this helping my book?” I asked myself at the top of the sixth.

The obvious answer is to show me that I have not quite mastered the serenity thing yet, even though I’m writing a book about it. I also haven’t mastered simplicity, despite the recent retreat I co-led on the subject. I am doing better this morning, however, and so is my computer. The Internet program is still on the fritz, and I may have lost my collection of emails and addresses, but I haven't yet lost my composure. There are several more distractions on the schedule for today, but I’m remembering to breath, to accept the ones I can’t avoid and to try to learn something from them. I'm sure something about this will fit nicely in Chapter 2.

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