Of Sheep and Camels and a Child’s Questions

This post is the first installment of a series on children’s faith development called Vision from the Frontlines:  Voices, Experiences & Practices of Faith Development.  For more information about this series, click here.  Jessica & I met long ago while I was living in the East Bay and she was an intern at our church, First Presbyterian in Berkeley.  We spent many years sharing life’s daily highs and lows while part of a small group together. Now, despite the miles {she currently lives in Alexandria, Egypt}, I count on Jessica’s wisdom, humor & stability almost daily.  I can’t wait to share her thoughts & amazing writing with you today.

The final week of October was the most stressful yet in my driving life in Alexandria, Egypt.  Usually, my daily round of school and preschool transportation for our two kids takes between two and three hours, to go a total distance of about five miles.  In the days of frenzied preparation leading up to the Muslim religious holiday of Eid al-Adha, the already congested and narrow streets introduced a whole new element of craziness to my route: sheep, goats, cows, and the occasional camel, all jockeying for space in makeshift pens set up at intersections and on sidewalks.  While I had become accustomed to slaloming around cars to squeeze through tight spaces, this pushed my driving expertise to another level as I tried to inch by a bewildering number of animals without running into or over them.

One afternoon, as I navigated a particularly tricky turn, Emma piped up from the backseat with a whole series of questions. What was this holiday about? Was this holiday like Christmas? Why did they kill so many animals? Did people get presents? Would Muslims get to celebrate Christmas as well?  And on and on and on. While the questions were simple enough to answer, the larger issue behind them of different ideas and views of God was much more complicated. As I charged around cars, leaned on my horn, slammed on my brakes, and gestured frantically to the policeman to let me turn left in front of oncoming traffic, I struggled to provide answers to a kid who has only the vaguest understanding of Someone or Something bigger than her out there.  Living overseas, our children have not benefitted from a solid Sunday School experience, and I can’t say we have made up for it much at home.

As I fumbled my way through my answers, I encountered yet again my ongoing ambivalence over my role in the spiritual development of my children and the absolute poverty of my vocabulary in matters of faith.  I don’t question the importance of my role, but I am very unsure how I am to go about fulfilling it. I am a missionary kid who was raised in an environment that combined Baptist missionary zeal and Middle Eastern evangelical conservatism, set against the backdrop of Islam as the majority religion.  Given that potent brew, I was pretty clear on what it meant to be a Christian very early on, and I was fluent in the language of sin, repentance, and obedience. I eventually learned the language of grace post-college, and then after that, the language of doubt and disappointment as my sharply defined black and white faith got steadily shaken to a blurry gray during some formidable challenges in our life as a Foreign Service family.

My husband and I have had many, many conversations on how to set the spiritual tone in our family.  I cannot simply pass on the spiritual language of my childhood because I have since lost much of that spiritual certainty that was so definitive of my faith for many years. My husband did not grow up in a Christian household, so he doesn’t have a reference point for this, other than a strong desire NOT to create a Christian subculture in our home, which he fears would produce finger-pointing, Bible verse- spouting, judgmental children who say all the right things but whose hearts do not know grace, humility, or kindness. But I also don’t want to just meander through soft-edged, spiritual nonsense, leaving my children unmoored and with absolutely no way of grappling with the profound mysteries of faith. The stakes are all that much higher when they will likely spend the majority of their childhood in a Muslim context and we identify ourselves as Christians.   My husband believes that our behavior is our key educational tool in faith matters; I happen to think we need to put more meat on those bones. So how do we do both?

A recent conversation with a friend changed my thinking about this in a profoundly helpful way.  She mused that God already has His own relationship with our children. For whatever reason, THIS NEVER OCCURRED TO ME. I think I have simply assumed that my children could only access God through me. That it was completely incumbent upon me to guide their minds and thoughts to God. That if I wasn’t engaging in Regular Spiritual Instruction at home, they would never think about God, never understand sin or grace, and never want to invest in a faith community.  But those big spiritual questions that come up spontaneously in conversation with our kids? Every kid asks them, everywhere! What greater affirmation is there for us to know that God is already speaking to their hearts, prompting their questions, and touching their souls?  With that as my starting point, my role becomes much clearer and much simpler.

I am here as a participant and partner in God’s conversation that has already begun with my children.   As a contributor to this ongoing dialogue, I get to share my opinion, express my doubts, tell stories that have helped me understand God better, struggle to exhibit grace, forgiveness, and humility, talk openly to God about what is going on in my life, take my family to spend time with other friends who know and love God, and do my absolute best to gently direct my children’s hearts and minds to their Creator. Best of all, I get to throw the conversational thread back to God on a regular basis and trust that He will respond in just the right ways to the profound questions and longings of my children’s hearts.  His love runs deep, His grace abounds, and HE created my children. What greater Teacher could there be?

Jessica Robertson Wright lives with her husband and two children in Alexandria, Egypt.  She posts sporadically and only-when-inspired to her blog at robertsonwright.wordpress.com.

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