Like many parents, I wonder whether my children will have faith.
I think that’s why a particular quote I saw on Twitter this past Friday night affected me the way it did. The quote appeared repeatedly in a series of tweets sent from the sanctuary of Central Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. Those tweeting were listening to a lecture by Craig Barnes. Barnes, the president of Princeton Theological Seminary, told those gathered:
“We can’t make our children believe. We can only make our children believe that we believe.”
Since reading those words, I’ve been thinking about whether my children know that I believe. That thought led me to consider whether it would be possible to identify some specific actions, words, or practices that might help them arrive at that conclusion.
I realized while thinking through that task that it’s almost impossible to separate the “that I believe” parts from the “what I believe” parts. May grace abound in those moments when what I believe threatens to prevent you from considering the particular practice I may be commending.
By no means an exhaustive list, and without any guarantee of the outcome, I offer the following commitments toward the end that my children will believe that I believe:
- I will seek to share an image of God so large that they never fear that what I believe is absolutely what they must believe. Jesus told the church before his death that he had more things yet to say to us, but that we couldn’t bear them yet. So he made a promise: the Spirit of truth would come who would guide us into all the truth (John 16:12-13). Michael Jinkins describes a riff by Cindy Rigsby with which I heartily agree: “If you have understood something, that which you have understood is not God.” Because God is more than I can ever comprehend, I will remain open to what God may yet reveal to me, even by way of my children.
- I will seek to show through my words and actions that I believe being connected to a community of faith is not a burden, but a joy. I know all of the reasons folks have left the church. At times, I am tempted to think that it would be a whole lot easier if it were just me and Jesus, but then a day comes when I have no prayers to offer, and discover someone is praying for me. Or a morning breaks when clinging to faith seems impossible, but another holds it for me. Life in community is always messy and frustrating and even infuriates me from time to time. And yet, left on my own, my vision always grows more narrow; my arrogance always rises; and my understanding of God becomes pitifully small. I believe in the power of the community Jesus calls together, even though we often betray our own beliefs. So I will keep showing up to give thanks that I do not have to journey alone.
- I will seek to take seriously my baptismal promise to nurture my children in the faith. One of my kids once told me, “This is my life! It’s not your life to live.” And she was right. But, as I reminded her, it is my life to shape, and I want to do that with as much love and grace and care as I can. And I will need the community of faith to help me keep my promises as well.
- I will sing. Ours is a singing faith, and I have found that by singing the hymns and songs in worship, even the ones I don’t particularly enjoy, I discover myself believing in a deeper and truer way. Just a few weeks ago, I stood beside my mother in worship. Hearing her sing the words she can no longer see made me even more grateful for her voice, and for her faith. I want my children to hear in my voice what I heard that day in hers.
- I will seek to reflect the generosity of God as I relate to others. I love the way Eugene Peterson renders a verse from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in his paraphrase of the Bible: “Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you” (Matthew 5:48, The Message). Looking back through the course of my (almost) fifty years, I see countless times the grace of God has surprised me with joy and transformed chaos into hope. It is that grace I seek to bear in my life toward others.
- I will seek to live my life in grateful response for the gifts of God that fill this world. In Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, David Steindl Rast opened my eyes to the truth that all of life is sheer gift. The world and everything in it didn’t have to exist, yet by the sheer gift of God, it does. I do not simply wish to notice these things which fill the world with God’s goodness; I also want to offer back my grateful praise.
- I will seek to share a sense of awe and wonder as we explore God’s good creation while hiking. Henry David Thoreau was right: in nature we return to reason and to faith. I want to explore with my children the beauty of all that God has created, showing them along the way how the heavens and earth tell the glory of God. While nature doesn’t reveal the whole picture of who God is, there is also nothing quite like seeing the sun rise through the mist hanging on the mountain ridge.
- I will talk with them about events in their lives or on the news that reveal a corruption or serious mis-understanding of what it means to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. This could be called the Westboro Baptist clause, but there are simply too many people who are beyond mean in the way they seek to share the love of God. As I seek to clarify and correct, however, I will also seek to avoid sarcastic dismissal of those who are earnestly seeking to be faithful.
- I will seek to let my life show the radical nature of the gospel of Jesus Christ. While there are myriad ways to do that, I will be particularly attentive to welcoming the outcast; to forgiving those who sin against me; to loving my enemies; and to embracing the other. I will do some of this by working through the systems of care at work in our community; more importantly, I will seek to do these things in the midst of the messiness of my real life relationships.
- I will always be ready to account for the hope that is within me, so that my children know why I’m living the way I am. I guess by this I simply mean, “I believe.” And I want my children to know that what I believe matters for the way I live and how I worship and the kindness I share.
Craig Barnes is right: we can’t make our children believe. But he’s also right when he says that we can help our children believe that we believe. So there’s my quick list. What would you add?