Last week, I used my Facebook page to get some feedback about the blog from readers, and many of you expressed a desire to see more posts on faith and parenting. Not yet a parent myself, I’ve decided to launch a series of guest posts on the topic. The author of today’s piece, who prefers to remain anonymous out of respect for her son's privacy, teaches at a Christian college in the Midwest. ...Enjoy!
My six year old son told me in all seriousness last night that he wants to convert to Buddhism.
“How long do I have to be a Christian, mama?” he asked. “Buddhism looks like more fun.”
I crawled in bed next to him and his encyclopedia of world religions settling in for a bit of philosophical dialog. His question made a lot of sense to me, a recovering skeptic.
“How can I tell somebody that God is there when,” he ran his hand through the air next to him, “THERE’S NOTHING THERE. You really expect me to believe that? It makes no sense.”
He reexamined his world religions encyclopedia, trying to decide if there were any other faiths that caught his eye. “Do I always have to believe in Jesus? Why? Where is he? Why can’t I see him?”
I responded as simply as I could with ideas of faith and truth and mystery. He didn’t seem satisfied and pegged me with more questions. “Where’s hell? Where’s heaven? What’s it like there? Will I go to hell if I don’t believe in Jesus? Will I go to hell if I become a Buddhist?”
Sheesh. What was I thinking teaching this kid - the one who lugged his 300 page illustrated encyclopedia of World History to preschool at age 4 - to ask questions?
We talked. We cuddled. I told him that I thought he had really good questions, ones that needed to be asked. I told him I’d had many of the same questions about other religions myself, but had decided to believe in Jesus. I told him that he had time, and that it would be important to explore these things for himself, not just believe in Jesus because we do.
“Will you always believe in Jesus, mama?”
I paused, trying to decide how much of my backstory would be helpful. How could I explain that the doubts that had once made me an agnostic hadn’t completely resolved, but that I’d instead learned to embrace mystery and ambiguity? How could I tell him that sometimes it still felt to me that God wasn’t there either?
In the end, I chose a simple response. “Yes, buddy. Always. I’m in this for good. I don’t always understand everything, but I’ve chosen to follow Jesus.”
[Rewind two years.]
It’s Christmas eve, and the pastor at the church we’re visiting shares the simple and beautiful story of Jesus coming to earth.
Something clicked with my then four year old son, and he came home asking if he could invite Jesus into his heart. While we’d never really talked about this concept much or pushed it on him, we certainly weren’t opposed to it, so we prayed with him. He opened his eyes and said, “I feel like I’m glowing inside.” Apparently, even four year olds can sense the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Fast forward to a few months ago when my highly energetic and intelligent son was struggling to control his tongue and tame his temper. One day, he decided that asking Jesus into his heart again might help, “I want to feel like I’m glowing again, mama.” So I prayed with him. He opened his eyes, looking disappointed, “It didn’t work. I don’t feel anything.”
I attempted to explain that you don’t always feel faith, sometimes you just choose it. He still looked disappointed. He really needed God to show up, and He hadn’t. I could relate.
“Where are you, God!?!” I’ve so often asked, feeling like my questions dissolve into thin air. I don’t have the gift of faith. Discernment, learning, even a little prophecy, yes. But faith - it eludes me. I get lost in the pages of the Encyclopedia of World Religions just like my son does. Yes, I follow Jesus, but I still don’t understand how He fits amongst the Zoroastrians, the ancient Romans, the Buddhists, or what to do with the fact that all their followers throughout history didn't know a thing about Him, not to mention the atrocity has been committed in His name.
We chatted a little longer, and I ended up suggesting that he didn’t need to make a decision now, that he needed time to decide who he wanted to be like, what was true, and what wasn’t.
“But I wanna decide now! This is too stressful.”
“Ahh, yes, buddy. Yes, it is,” my heart ached for his angst.
“But it’s ok. God is bigger than your questions. It’s ok to ask them, just be careful not to decide too quickly just because you don’t want to struggle with it. Maybe you can pray about it and ask God to show you.”
“But that won’t help, mama! That’s about religion and will just make it worse.”
So I told him that maybe he should just go to sleep. He thought that idea made more sense.
In the morning, he woke up somewhat reflective. His older, rule-oriented sister uncovered his desires for conversion on the way to school, “You can’t be a Buddhist!” she sounded horrified. “You have to be a Christian! Right, mama?!?!”
I remained quiet, and in a sullen tone, my son asked his sister to please not tell him what to do, that having these kind of questions was a very hard thing for him. Her response? “You just need to get over it.”
(Apparently, my other chid is a fundamentalist. Guess I’ll have to address those tendencies another day.)
At that point, I intervened, explaining doubts, and that it was more important to acknowledge them and ask honest questions than to pretend to believe something you don’t. This seemed to pacify them both.
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.
Thoreau’s words lingered long in my heart after our conversation.
My six year old had just confirmed this very sentiment. In the end, he wasn’t opposed to believing in Jesus, he was just sorely disappointed that no one seemed to show up when he really needed it. So he thought that perhaps something else would work better and started looking. I pray that as he searches, that he will find answers that speak to his heart, engage his mind, and soothe his soul. I pray that he will understand that following Jesus doesn’t always feel like we’re glowing, just growing.
Of course, I also pray that he doesn’t convert to Buddhism, but that God both reveals himself to my son while shaping his heart in respect for and kindness toward believers of other faiths. As a parent, I must admit that these conversations are painfully difficult.
Part of me wishes I could offer him the certainty of the fundamentalism I learned as a child, that I could just pressure him into faith by making him afraid of hell and the possibility that Jesus is coming back at any moment. It would feel a lot more secure to hear my child assert, “Jesus is the one true God” instead of “I want to become a Buddhist.” Yet I know that it was these realities that nearly destroyed my faith when I discovered there was a bigger world, and I won’t do that to my son. If Jesus is indeed the Savior of the world, then he is also the Savior of my children. I can teach them about him. I can bring his Love into our home.
However, as much as I would want to, I cannot force him into their hearts. That door is only opened willingly.
If your children have had doubts, how do you talk with them about it? What do you say when there aren't easy answers to their questions?