Lament and Faith and Childhood: Why my kid and I read the sad Psalms

'The Not so Little one asleep  / a random right here right now iPhone moment....' photo (c) 2012, kate hiscock - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Today’s post on faith and parenting comes to us from one of my favorite bloggers, Micha BoyettMicha, a stay-at-home mom from Texas, describes herself as “Southern Baptist nurtured, Anglican by choice, Presbyterian by former church, and in love with Roman Catholic monastic and contemplative practice.” She blogs as Mama: Monk at Patheos. If you haven’t caught her series on Practicing Benedict, do yourself a favor and check it out. Micha and I share a literary agent, and I can’t wait to see how she blesses us with her gift with words in the years to come. 

Enjoy!

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Transient

A year and a half ago, when my son first dreamed that a walrus (yes, I said a walrus) had entered his closet and rummaged around, I could not make that screaming child feel safe again, no matter what I tried. 

First, I lied about my own power: Look! I have Walrus spray! I’ll just spray your closet and he’ll never want to come back. 

Then, I made up a story to explain it all: Oh, I talked to the walrus and he’s super sorry, buddy. He meant to go to the apartment down the street where his friend lives and he’s really sad that he scared you. Don’t worry; he’ll never come back.

Finally, over the course of weeks, I told him the truth: Honey, I can’t promise that the walrus will never come again. But I promise that God loves you and he’s always protecting you.

I sang one of those old Psalty songs from my childhood cassette tapes, What time I am afraid, I will put my trust my trust in thee. My voice is plain. It’s on key but simple and you’ll never hear me with a solo. But sometimes I sing in my kids’ rooms and I know it’s my best work yet. That little chorus about fear? I sang it rich and I leaned over his bed, my fingers moving the hair across his forehead. Whenever I’m alone, I know that God is there... And God was there. It was lovely. 

My son stopped me before I could finish. “But I can’t see God!” He screamed, his face red, his fists clinched. The kid was two-years-old.

You know what disturbed me most about that moment? It wasn’t my son’s rage, his frustration, his realization that he wanted God to be something more for him. It was the reality that I knew exactly how he felt. 

I know what it is to love and believe deeply in the Lord and, at the same time, scream out to him: “Why are you doing this? Where are you? Do you even exist? Do you love me?” And, amazingly, I know how to move from those questions into communion and take the bread and the wine and beg God to swell inside me, to make me whole. 

Faith is complicated for me. I didn’t want it to be complicated for my kids. 

Maybe it’s inevitable. Maybe doubters raise doubters. Maybe it’s in the genes. But since that first late-night moment of frustration with God, my boy hasn’t stopped wanting answers and being unsatisfied with the pat ones I give him. He’s a scientist by nature and he’s exploring this world with the mind God has stuck inside him. He doesn’t know how to say it yet, but he wants to know how God fits into all this beauty, how God fits into all this brokenness. 

I love scripture, I love how parents are instructed in Deuteronomy to talk about the Lord “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” At my house, we talk about Jesus as maker of peanut butter, Jesus as super hero, Jesus as best friend, Jesus as instructor on how to be a friend. 

But, mostly, we talk about Jesus at night when my son wiggles under his covers in the dark and imagines. He imagines scary monsters and snakes on the wall but he also imagines a whole world where he is the super hero: slaying dragons with magic slime, blasting off in rockets through black holes to wholly edible planets. 

I’m learning that nighttime is as complicated as faith: it can be scary and full of unknowns, but it can also be packed with a dream-world that makes us sigh at its loveliness. Nothing is simple and when we try to wrap the complex in a pretty box of ease, we all know it. And, I’m more and more certain that kids have the best authenticity radar of anyone. 

So I’ve decided not to pretend that faith is simple. I’ve made a choice that with my kids, I will worship and cry and clench my fists and pray at 6:30 am on the couch and embrace the Church and serve and ask all the questions, and I will do it in front of them, for better or for worse. 

I’m starting by not being afraid of letting them love the Psalms. Though I grew up reciting Psalm 23 and Psalm 139, I made it through youth group without ever reading or understanding the painful Psalms. I never knew that God’s faithful people had also questioned him, struggled with fear, felt alone and forsaken.

Sometimes I wonder if I had been exposed to those laments earlier in my life, it wouldn’t have hurt so bad when I found myself vomiting up doubt as a twenty-year-old. What if someone had promised me that anger and disappointment and insecurity have always been part of pursuing God?

What I want to give my son is a picture that faith is messy and complicated and good. I want him to be brave enough to push through the questions of our culture and cling to what his heart knows. I stand over his bed at night with my hand on his forehead and pray that if he strays from the faith that he will always find his way back home. I pray that he will always find his home in the heart of Christ. 

Two weeks ago, I stumbled upon Psalms for Young Children (by Marie-Helen Delval) a paraphrased collection of simplified Psalms filled with beautiful and haunting illustrations. What I love about this book is that the laments have not been removed in favor of happy lambs jumping and illustrations of children praying beside beds with smiley faces. It refuses to shy away from the sad prayers of broken people. 

I’m not shocked that my son is drawn to the saddest ones. I’m not surprised that he keeps asking for Psalm 69 when we flip the pages. 

When I am sad,
it feels like I’m underwater,
like I’m stuck in the mud,
or at the bottomof a dark hole.
Pull me from this dark place,God!
Save me! 
I need your help!

Those words sit on the page beside a little girl curled up at the bottom of a dark sea surrounded by frightening fish with glowing eyes. My son knows about disappointment. He knows about nighttime and fear. He knows about frustration and the longing for God to not be so invisible. 

Maybe it’s a bad idea. Maybe parents raise faithful kids by protecting them from complexity. Maybe I should strive to set up a picture of my faith as complete and simple. But I know my son and I know myself. Neither of us would buy that. 

So I pray that honesty will shape him deeply, that he will grow into a faith in Christ that does not fear sadness or frustration. And that he will lean into a faith that allows honesty and vulnerability and the sweet complication of lament. 

After all, the Jesus that shows up in my chest and promises to help me believe is the same one who is already chasing after my son. So I will not fear that complexity. Beauty is found in the same place where doubt lives.

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