Monday, June 21, 2010

Are you there God? It's me....just kidding.

I’ve never been a very spiritual person. I can tell you that when I was in my early teens I believed in God as much as a child that has no interest in him can believe. I was far more interested in the activities that believing allowed me to participate in: trips to amusement parks, concerts, sleepovers, softball games (for the boys, not the sport itself), and weekends in the mountains. Sure, I’d wave my hands in the air and sing a few songs in exchange for all that fun time away from my parents.

Forming a relationship with an entity I couldn’t see or hear wasn’t that difficult a concept as I spent half my time immersed in a world of fiction anyway. But I thought about God with the inconsistency of youth, usually when I wanted something that I wasn’t likely to get and prayer was the only bargaining chip left. It was a selfish belief and I imagine completely common among that age group. Going to church gave me a set of friends I wouldn’t have had otherwise and for that I was grateful. I was a strange mix of social butterfly and awkward outsider – sometimes outrageously present in a room and sometimes so in my head that you would’ve thought me deaf. (If that doesn’t scream bipolar, I don’t know what does.)

The summer I turned 16 my cousin Ben died in a Jet Ski accident. I’d had older relatives die – my Nana, an uncle, a great aunt – but Ben was just three months younger than me and there was no grasping that reality. I loved him fiercely. We grew up next door to each other and his absence was so close to intolerable that, in the weeks after his funeral, I recall virtually nothing – my memory is spotted with black holes.

Like everyone that grieves, I became angry. I renounced my tenuous belief in a God that would take away someone so good and so young. There was no one else left for me to strike out at. I left the church and the youth group behind.

However, Ben was still gone. And if I didn’t believe in God at all, how could I believe in heaven? I spent so much time sitting in front of his headstone, talking to the air and tracing his name with my fingertips – trying desperately to figure out a way to believe in the place and not the maker. Instead of imagining Ben within the pearly gates, I imagined him sitting on a low cloud, his ever present fishing pole in one hand. It was the best I could do.

I went through phases over the years – waiting on signs, believing in signs (there or imagined, I still couldn’t rightly say), and avoiding the question of God and heaven all together. If someone asked me, I would say Ben was in heaven. I didn’t want to explain my feelings or debate the bible. Still don’t, in fact. Theological debates interest me about as much as politics – which is to say, not at all. I don’t often think about where Ben is anymore, but rather just remember him as he was. Next month he’ll have been dead 10 years and with each passing season it’s gotten a little easier to let him rest, wherever that may be.

I don’t have any problem attending a church service these days. There’s no more anger or staunch refusals to be a part of it in any way. I can go to church on a Sunday morning with my grandmother and sit quietly in the pew, reflecting on what we’re going to have for lunch or my new handbag. I can hang my head and close my eyes during a prayer, stand up and sing, and warble the sing song “Amen” with the rest of the congregation. Church is just a place, God is just a name, and prayer is just a moment of meditation. It’s safe to say that since my breakaway, I’ve thought about religion as much as I’ve thought about the mating habits of beetles. Until the past few weeks, that is.

Now I have a daughter and I’m supposed to be the person that shapes her into the woman she’ll one day become. That’s difficult enough without the question of religion.

For the first few years of her life I was quick to say that, no, I didn’t intend to take her to church and no, I didn’t intend to have her baptized, and as far as I was concerned she would be free to choose her own spiritual path when she was old enough. This, of course, did not go over well with my family.

My grandmother is, for lack of a better description, a loyal Lutheran. And while I’ve made fun of her sayings and speeches in the past, I don’t actually belittle her faith (Or anyone’s, with the possible exception of a Kool-Aid cult). But honestly, anyone who says to me “Red underwear is the devil” or raises their arm and proclaims in a reverent voice that they hope the drivers of cars with loud “boom boxes” will be struck by the “mighty” arm of God...Well, they’re just asking for it. I will laugh. I’ve exasperated her with my unwillingness to budge on the topic of religion (and politics, but that’s another story).

Recently my mother, unbeknownst to me, signed my daughter up for a week of vacation bible school. Now, she’s been to church before a few times and she’s been told stories about God and Jesus by my grandmother and mother, but I generally stay out of those discussions. I always felt that she was too young to understand anyway, so it wouldn’t make a difference what they said. But this was a first.

Starting last Monday at 6pm, I dropped her off at a church down the road from my house. (One of the doctors that work with mom is a member and invited her.) I walked her inside the fellowship hall behind the church, exchanged pleasantries with some of the women I knew by the door while I made sure she was where she needed to be, and returned home until it was time to pick her up at 8:30.

Each night I picked her up she had a smile on her face and some crafty thing in her hand. I liked seeing her excited about coming back. She was like me when I first started years ago – more eager about the company I was keeping and the fun things I was doing than over the reason behind it all. She asked me a few questions about heaven, but thankfully they were mostly rhetorical or required only an “mmmhmm”.

Saturday night I went with my mother, sister, and grandmother and sat in the sanctuary. I watched and smiled while Hannah sang and did her little dance routines with the other kids her age. Afterward I shook hands with a few of the members, smiled, and participated in the southern chitchat required of church functions.

And in the car driving home, while Hannah sang to herself in the backset, I wondered:

Should I join a church for her, even if I personally am not sure I believe in a higher power? Should I pretend for her benefit, will it be good for her? Will it confuse her when she’s older if I go along with it for now? Should I answer her questions about heaven the way a believer would, rather than a cynic? Should I continue to avoid them? What, if anything, should I do? Isn’t laying the basis of belief the same as telling her what to do? I would love to let her decide what to believe when she’s older, but I’m just not so sure anymore.

I still haven’t made a decision and maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just be the procrastinator I’ve always been and put it off until she’s grown and then the decision will be made for me.

Only God knows, right?


Hannah Miet said...

That's really a rough decision. I won't pretend to know a thing about parenting, or religion, but I can't help but think it might help if you are honest with Hannah, rather than necessarily trying to teach her anything. If you tell her that you're unsure of your own belief in a higher power, but that some people, like your mother, believe that God is like...and other people believe that God is like,.... Let her know that the decision is, inevitably, hers.

Anonymous said...

I think your daughter is just enjoying the social aspect of everything. It's not about God or religion. I know when I was about six or so my grandparents would make me go to church when I visited. They were religious. I hated it even then. I knew it wasn't for me. I enjoyed the stories about baby Jesus and singing carols at Christmas, but I never thought they were any more than just entertainment.

And I am still as far from religious as you can get. I don't think you need to pretend for the sake of your daughter. If she shows interest later, I'm sure your family would be happy to take her to church or related activities. If you don't believe, that's fine. I think though, that if it was any other type of social activity she was attending she'd be just as excited.

Eric said...

I like many churches because of the cool stonework, art, and sometimes they burn incense.

You can never go wrong teaching her to ask questions, e.g. 'So how do you think the stars got there? How was that made, etc?' Pretty soon, you get to the boundaries of scientific knowledge, so either she will develop a keen scientific mind, or will become slightly religious. Neither of those are horrible outcomes.

j-face said...

i think knowing you a bit and the fact that this post was published, has me convinced that you at least think of the entire concept different than you did before. and maybe that is all you need to deal with right now. just a different view. embrace it.

Girl Interrupted said...

I think most of the answers to your questions are right there in your post and are much more beautifully phrased than anything I can offer.

I really liked the way you wrote about your cousin too, you have such a nice way with sentiment and can really capture a sense of the wistful past.

Gorilla Bananas said...

When she's an adult she's going to remember what you said to her. So don't say anything that will make her think you were silly or a humbug.

Didactic Pirate said...

This is a tricky topic for me, and I'm glad you wrote about it. My wife and I are both non-church goers, and we tend to be skeptical of most organized religions, feeling they often do more harm than good in the world. But just because we feel that way, should that keep our daughter from joining a church if she wants to at some point? I can't picture joining one solely for my daughter's benefit, but then again, if my wife and I aren't the ones who introduce her to the idea of religion, who will? And if someone else does, how much should we trust that person? I don't want someone else being in charge of my kid's spiritual growth, frankly. But then again (again), I know a lot of people that take great comfort in the religion they embrace, and maybe there's someone out there who can introduce her to religion in an appropriate way -- whatever that means.

Urgh. This is one of those parenting issues that is so tough for me that I do what you do: put off dealing with it.

And now I'm going to have serious thoughts for the rest of the day. Thanks a lot. Sheesh.

Cheryllyn said...

I had this dilemma when my daughter was born. I wasn't (still am not) a deeply religious person and didn't want to cram her head full of things that I had issues with. Instead, if she had an interest or a question that I knew I'd screw up, we went to the library. She studied many different religions in her youth and I would take her to whichever church she wanted to go to. We'd discuss what she felt and what she'd seen and she'd go back to her research. From the time she was 6 until 18, when she settled on a religion that worked for her. Maybe I took the chicken's way out but I like to think she learned more from her research without me coloring it with my very bad views. :) Good luck!

Ally said...

If we had a child, I'm sure I'd be faced with the same issues. Go with your gut. I honestly don't know what I would do in that situation. The other day I swore to my mother in law that if we had a kid I wouldn't be rushing to baptize him/her because I don't believe in "original sin" or whatever ... even though I was born and raised a strict Catholic. I think it as my upbringing that created my personal issues with organized religion but I would NEVER judge anyone or anyone's personal beliefs. Seriously. So I hope this comment doesn't come across as such.

Rusty Hoe said...

We are not a religious family (though the old's are on both sides). We don't go to church or really talk about God and such. We did have discussions about heaven and the like when my nephew passed as it was important to our boys and their coping, but that really is it. I think faith, whatever it may be, is great for those who believe and can bring great comfort but I really don't know where I stand on it all. As long as the focus is on love, tolerance and compassion (and not hypocrisy) I'm pretty okay with any faith.

Having said that over here we have religious education in primary school. Once a week representatives of various faiths come to school and chat to their respective kids. Our eldest decided independent of us that he was Catholic and the only reason we found out was because he cam home talking about fire an brimstone thanks to a very intense nun. Our youngest hasn't picked a particular faith but talks about God and heaven a lot. We support them both in their beliefs and just go with it. They found their faiths their on their own and I kinda like that.

Beta Dad said...

I've always been thankful that my parents didn't make me go to church. There must be some secular social opportunities out there for her. Or at least a Unitarian Universalist camp.

Ed said...

Being a parent is hard. This is just another area that adds to that difficulty. Personally, I'm a believer, but that is based on my own findings on the path of life. I don't force my views on others, including my kids. Especially because I think it breads rebellion, not conversion. Letting them discover their own way is good, as long as you aren't discouraging them from searching for the truth or the answers to their questions due to your own personal views or bias. Who knows, you might find answers to your questions from their journey.

Anonymous said...

I think I kinda agree with what most people are saying here. I'm the first to say I know nothing about bringing up kids at all but I think its probably best to let her do her thing without necessarily signing yourself up for the whole thing. If she's enjoying it, what harm. And as you say she may just be enjoying the social end of it. Guess as long as she feels she can tell you about it and not be afraid that you'll laugh at her or demeen her fun in any way then you're doing an excellent job. Also feel that by not signing up to all of it you're maybe letting her know that its ok to have a different opinion and that maybe there isn't one truth in life; everyone is different and thats just fine.

Sara said...

This is one of those things that I've discussed with my fiancee, and we don't really know what to do about it either.

I consider myself a Christian, but I definitely have my doubts and I don't go to church. Sometimes I'm not sure that heaven even exists. But if it does and I don't take my child to church, will he/she not get to go to heaven with me?

Anyways, it's a tricky situation that I wish I knew the answer to.

rubbish said...

I take my Daughter to Church most weeks even though I wouldn't call myself a religious type. Over here though some of the best schools are Church of Wales ones and the one my Daughter currently attends and the one she will be going to next term are two of the best. Come September she'll be on her own if she wants to keep going to Church. I may keep going but then again I might not.
Later. said...

Touuuuugh question! This is exactly why I'm not ready for kids, good gawd!

I don't think we should ever pretend to believe in something we don't, but then again, this is the person who doesn't have kids talking. I'm sure whatever you decide will be well thought out and your daughter will appreciate it.

NWO said...

Hypocrisy is the worst of sins. Joining is a different decision and just attending... be true.