Sunday, May 16, 2010

Faith of Our Children

It is Sunday and I am playing hookie from church, taking some time for myself as I continue to try and fight off a cold or allergies or whatever it is today that is knocking me for a loop. Oh heck, the truth is I am flat out tired!! That is not helping! In some ways I feel I have yet to recover from our Long Winter, but I am getting there. Heaved a huge sigh of relief yesterday when I worked with our Google calendar schedule and yanked off many activities that we are finally done with, and saw nothing but white space! Hurray!

I received an interesting comment the other day that I have been pondering and decided to try and address. Here is part of it:

"At some point, I would be interested in a post or posts about how your children become acquainted with your faith and how their spiritual belief develops. "

Wow. That is actually a biggie, isn't it? It made me think a lot about this subject all afternoon, and I am not sure I have an adequate response. This of course makes me look like a complete idiot, especially in light of my academic pursuit of lay ministry right now. Well, here goes nuthin'...

Dominick and I are an eclectic mix of conservative and liberal...our personal faith is deep, but it looks very different from one another on the outside. Different, that is, if one likes labels, which many insist upon but we do not.

We are not of the praying at the restaurant table, Scripture memorizing, go to the revival meeting, bible study Wednesday evening, shout out "Amen" and "Hallelujah" ilk (OK, maybe Dominick has shouted a time or two! Hahaha!). That is not to say I don't see value in those things, it is just not who we are.

Our faith is woven in and out of our daily life, it extends well beyond Sunday morning and is as natural as getting up and grabbing the Cheerios every morning. We might forget to say grace before eating dinner once in awhile, but we are as likely to talk to or about God in any given conversation as we are to speak about each other.

It has always been a big concern of mine as we adopted older children that it would be difficult to introduce them to God and explain faith. With Kenny we were spared that, as his exposure to missionaries in his orphanage led him to already have a deep connection with God prior to us ever stepping on the scene. 3 years later we have done nothing more than provide him with an environment in which his faith could flourish.

With the girls I was even more nervous, and prayed often especially while in Kazakhstan that somehow the Spirit would enter in easily, for without it we would be lost, especially with the considerably difficult circumstances we were encountering and their very troubled past. I had no idea how in the world we would bring faith into the mix comfortably. Both had turned their noses up when hearing they would be attending church regularly in America, as their only experience had been with a Russian Orthodox service a couple of times a year. Should have known God had that all under control. It wasn't too long after we were home when Angela and Olesya were talking about death, their grandma, etc. and they indicated their grandma was in heaven and we had a brief pantomimed conversation about that. Next thing I know they have latched on to the Jesus movie a thoughtful and insightful friend and adoptive mom herself had sent us, all in Russian. It is Angela's favorite movie and she talks about what a good, good man Jesus was and they seem to understand the basics.

But how do you nurture faith in your kids? For every family, the answer to that one is totally different. I can only share how we attempt daily to create an authentic, faith filled home that works for us.

Being intentional is the single most important thing you can can't assume it will happen, and you can't think you have done your duty by taking the kids to church on Sunday. That is merely a starting point. Faith has to be breathed in and out, and the Spirit has to be invited into your home in a concrete way.

What do I mean by that? Well, is God part of your daily conversations? Or reserved only for meal and bed times? Do you ever share how you have consulted God in prayer openly with your kids? Talked about how you are wrestling with something and need God's leading? Have you discussed what you feel were answers to your prayers or God's leading and then explained why you felt that way? Do you pray with your children too...not just listen to them say their memorized prayer before supper? We have one we use sometimes "Bless the food before us, the friends beside us, and the love between us." when we have friends over, and we stole that from Joshie's best buddy and all love it because of the significance of the simple words. But otherwise, be it bedtime or dinner time, we have never taught the kids a specific prayer, preferring instead that it be their real thoughts, their hearts shared. So they pray as we gratitude, in petition, whatever. It is a young sounding version, of course, but it is not by rote and we think that has established a more intimate relationship with God right from the get go.

We have never pushed our new children to pray out loud with us or even to believe in God. We do assume they will hold hands with us around the table when we pray, or will sit quietly in the dark with us as we pray before bedtime as a family. Without pressure and giving them time to feel comfortable themselves, eventually Kenny, Olesya and Angela have all decided to one day pray on their own with us, and now almost 3 months home with the girls and they have both said an authentic and original prayer of their own more than once over a meal or at bedtime. Do they have a firm grasp on God, the Bible, who Jesus was, etc.? No, of course not, but it is a start and as time passes, familiarity grows and language develops and questions arise.

We do not wait for those questions though. Often we are the initiators of God talk in our house by asking simple questions such as "What do you think God would think of that behavior?" when seeing something on TV, or making observations such as "We are incredibly blessed, God sure put us all together perfectly!". We purposefully and intentionally invite the Spirit into our daily lives by truly trying to live by God's rules daily and keeping it "real" by pointing out when we have failed.

We seek out opportunities to serve God in gratitude and talk about how we have been given SO much in this world, we have a lot to repay...and how the reward is that tingle of joy knowing you made a difference in some way. We take the kids to highway clean up to help, so we care for God's world. We all help friends and neighbors as we can with chores, as repayment for those who have helped us. We catch our kids being kind to one another, acting in ways we want to reinforce, and we point it out. Just the other morning I said "Matthew, it is so nice to see you walking with your arm around your brother's shoulder. It says to the world "I love my brother!" and in a world where so few siblings often don't even like each other, it makes me smile to see you show so much love.". We ask the kids where they saw God that day. We throw open the curtains on some mornings that are particularly beautiful and declare "Wow...God sure made us a terrific morning! Thanks God!".

Sure, we read Bible stories and go to church faithfully, but frankly I think all of that contributes very little versus the impact of having parents who outwardly express their delight in their faith and the comfort they draw on it. Nothing is as important as expressing your own "God stuff"...and then not assuming your kids are too young to "get it". It might surprise you to learn they have greater insights and wisdom than most of the adults around you do. We also encourage questions, doubt and debate, for that means they are truly engaged in an interactive pursuit of their true faith.

I guess what I am trying to say is that it is not about "doing", it is about "being". The "being" has to be rooted in honest emotion and connection, not mere desire to see your kid go to that will only get you the result you've earned, a charade of faith.

Will our kids continue on as they mature, unlike the vast majority of kids who go to youth groups, graduate high school, and don't darken a Sanctuary door until they have their own children in tow? I have no idea whether they will or not. It is my hope that by keeping it about relationship and connection, they will see the value in belonging to a community of believers who are open and understanding of our own personal faith journeys...and that our kids see their own contributions as important in the lives of others on THEIR journeys.

I know many might blast us for this, but we also feel it is terribly important not to tell our kids what to think or believe. We want them to be free to explore their faith as they are called to do by the Spirit...and yes, I do feel the Spirit calls our children and is as active in their lives as it is in ours. We don't tell our kids "this is what happened", we often phrase it as "this is what I think...what do you think...and you are welcome to think differently...". In the car this week out of the blue Joshie said "Mommy, I think God looks like the moon and the sun." and I asked "Why do you think that? What makes you feel like God looks like that?" and he then went on to elaborate about how he thought that was God looking down on us...for him it was symbolic of God's continual presence in our lives, not that God actually looked like the sun or the moon. This is just as valid as any adult who pictures God as some old dude in a long flowing robe and perhaps white hair with a beard or something. Sort of like Father Time in those animated Christmas specials. I didn't negate Josh's image of God, we ALL have our internal image of God or Jesus in our head...and perhaps of Satan too, if that is where your mind takes you.

My point being this, for us, not allowing our kids to be somewhat in charge of developing their own theology then creates an invalid theology for them personally. "What?" you ask, Well, if they are told what to believe, if their own perceptions and understandings are cast aside quickly as "wrong" then they stop engaging in thinking about God and place all things spiritual in the category of "rules my parents make for me", which can be easily abandoned when they grow to maturity. If they develop their own understanding of God and are allowed to explore it like we allow them to explore everything else in their lives, then they "own" their faith and just might carry it into adulthood with them because it is theirs, and not something they were told to believe that automatically gets rejected along with everything else when adolescence arrives.

Or at least, that is our theory :-)

Most often, because all things spiritual are just a part of our everyday life, our most interesting conversations are usually brought up by the kids themselves. Yesterday Kenny asked me whether I thought Jesus was really God's son and how that was different from all of us being God's children. And you think my greatest learning comes from my lay ministry classes...I am getting a PhD right here at home! When you allow kids the freedom to think for themselves, when you indicate you have trust in them to work things out but are there to encourage them along the way, they begin to have confidence in their own abilities. They see that their wildest imaginings are worthy of consideration and can lead to new discoveries. If you shut them down and say "Why would you think such a thing?" or "You already know the answer to that." what you are really telling them is they are stupid, frankly, and must obey your every command including what they internalize spiritually.

And the truth is, I have always felt that what works for me may not work for them. What gives me hope, what lifts me up, what carries me through may be the exact opposite of what might do the same thing for them. It is something I remind myself constantly, I do not "own" our kids and God didn't provide them so we could make replica "mini-me's". The respect I have for their individual intellect and life experiences goes without saying, and I think they sense that too. I trust them to come to conclusions that will help them create a happy life. I trust the process of spiritual discovery that God will lead them on and recognize my role in it is not to dictate but to expose and nurture.

Again, at least that is my theory. :-)

There are a few things we have done that we consider invaluable to the development of their spiritual lives. One is church camp. Every single year. Whether we can afford it or not, they HAVE to go. It fills them in a way nothing else ever can, it is transformative for them to be with others their age in an environment that nurtures their soul. Perhaps this is more important for us as we belong to a church with only a couple of other families with children. Ther is no large youth group with lots of activities so they can hang with like minded friends. There is also a huge side benefit for us in that there is always a very visible adoptive family presence at our particular camp and kids of other races are present, which again in our small rural community is not always the case. But mostly, God is very palpable at La Foret, our kids' camp, and it carries over into everything they do. Dominick and I have said all along, and more so this year with 4 going that if we have to borrow to make it happen, it will happen every year. Priority number one over sports or anything else. And if you asked our kids, they would agree it is the single most important thing outside our family they do.

Another thing we do is make church a priority and church activities. We don't limit it to kid things, we work at church, we view it is our spiritual home and we are all responsible for caring for it and helping there in ways we can. It is an extension of our home.

On the tail of the above, we make sure our kids recognize that "church", "God", and "faith" are not one in the same, they are not interchangeable. God is with us, always. "Church" may look different depending where we are at any given time. Faith is what gives life hope and meaning. I DO NOT want my kids being "religious". I want them to live faith filled, faithful lives. I want them to carry God with them into the darkest places they ever encounter...I want God to be with them during the deepest disappointments...I want God with them on a terribly gut wrenching winter night in Kazakhstan when dreams felt like they were crashing around us, and I want God to be praised and present during the most joyous of times, which most often are not the ones heralded by society and tend to be those precious, quiet moments with loved ones where a new truth is revealed or another piece of our heart is offered. If God = Church, then we have not given our kids exposure to a faith that is life guiding.

I think the biggest thing we do though to help our kids develop their spiritual lives is the most simple...

We love.

We love them enough to do without and to travel thousands of miles and years to bring them home...and we point them towards God as we do so. We love others around us and forgive them their trespasses, and we point towards God as we do so. We love those we have never even met and show it through helping those near and far who may remain anonymous to us, and we point towards God when we do so.

We love. God is love.



Lenore said...

Thank you for writing this post! It's very insightful and helpful, as some of us might struggle more than others, with raising our children with faith. I think what you've said is all-encompassing, no matter what faith we follow. I love your interpretation and how you handle it with your kids! Just add it to the many things that are included to Angela's and Olesya's learning curve right now! Thankfully they have the wonderful parents and brothers to help guide them!! The faith that the LaJoy family shares is evident in your lives and to those around you. Thank you for sharing your insight and beliefs on this topic!!

Brooke said...

Thanks for this post! I have often wondered how Angela and Olesya were integrating faith with their new life. :) I would love to know (if you don't mind sharing), how the kids relate their faith and adoption? My husband and I are beginning to grapple with how to teach our hopefully adopted children about God. We are hoping to incite more positive feelings ("God chose me, so he sent his son in my place") as opposed to "Why did God let bad things happen to me? Why didn't God make it so I could stay with my first parents?"
Have your kids ever expressed the latter sentiments?

Anonymous said...

As you near the end of your lay ministry training and contemplate what the Spirit is calling you to do, know that you are already doing it. You are ministering to us through your blog. You are allowing us to contemplate the same lessons you are exploring together with your children. Love and faith pour out of your blog. Thank you for the time and effort you have given to us. By the way, weren't you supposed to be playing hookey. Instead you were teaching Sunday School.


Raynola said...

Awesome post! I feel so blessed to know you and have access to your faith based mindset. Thanking you for allowing me into your life. God is smiling as I am having read this wonderful testament of love.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your beautiful post. I deeply believe that each person must make their own choice. We can model faith and faithful living for our children (including our mistakes, as you said!), we can teach them what we know, we can expose them to others of faith (through church, camps, friendships, etc). But, as you wrote, it is up to them to accept and make it part of their daily lives.

I do not call myself "a religious person," I call myself a "person who seeks to follow the Christian faith." Church is a wonderful way to build up faith through study, worship and fellowship, but it is the means not the end.

Jesus prayed for unity among His followers. May it be so.

Peggy in Virginia

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much. You live your faith. Therefore, so do your children. You are all blessed to have each other. Pat

Kathy W said...

Interesting question posed by Brooke. above. I expect it to come up someday and I have seen variants of it in on blogs of some adults adopted as children. Along the vein of "don't tell me God had a role in my adoption 'cause that means he meant my first parents to abandon me". The God I love isn't like that.

I know that I want to tackle it as "God never promised that nothing bad would ever happen to you"... but "he promised you the chance to have a better today and tomorrow". That's oversimplifying and I'm struggling with it a bit, trying to find the voice I want to bring to it.

I believe God acted in placing my children in my family, but I do not mean to downplay the fact that to be adopted, you have to first have a loss and with that loss comes grief. Human life does have moments of loss in it. Not just in adoption but in general. And God does not want us to not feel that, nor are all the losses the same for everyone. He does want to offer us the chance to love after it.

Cindy, I'm sure you can find a way to put this better than I can!

Kathy W