Editor’s Note: Pairing religion and raising children is a feat many parents struggle with handling. But not guest columnist Bill Peebles, who writes about his attempt to teach faith to his sons.
The light lingers over the lake, the boat bobs, tubing is done for today. My twin boys and their new friend from school are using towels as capes. The sun has kept us out later than we should be, and we have a 45-minute drive home. It’s time.
“Let’s get going, boys, it’s late and you’ll have to get up in the morning,” I shout down the hill from the deck we’ve been enjoying. They are done, sunburnt and weary. They head our way.
“Watcha gotta do in the morning, dude?” the new friend asks.
“We have to go to Mass.”
A blank stare from the boy.
“You know, church.”
“Wait, you guys go to church?” the new boy asks.
Without missing a beat, my other son says, “Wait, you don’t?”
We teach children faith how we were taught
I grew up going to the Heritage Presbyterian Church, on, you guessed it, Church Street in the great Midwest. I’ve never not gone to church, even in my groggiest college days. I’m not talking every week, just as often as I could.
My wife grew up attending Catholic schools, sang in choirs, and was one of the first girl altar servers her church allowed at the time. She was a youth minister for a number of years and works in ministry still. She’s gone to Mass regularly for as long as she remembers.
There was no doubt our kids were going to church. You’d probably guess there was some difficult decision-making that had to be done. Nope, not really. We went with the one with incense and water and coded garments and saints.
It’s time for me to be a bit more honest. I’m not a good Christian. The dogma borders on myth to me. I’m uncomfortable with some of it, unsure. Religion asks a lot of a man, in my opinion. It sets him up for failure, doubt and pain. So, why do we go to church?
The sunset is spectacular out my rearview; high cirrus clouds take the red light and bend them pink here and orange there in stripes across the sky. The familiar, comforting voice of Marty Brennaman calls the Reds game on the radio, three to two in the seventh. The country road cuts through cornfields, forgotten little towns with unnecessary stoplights, and down a long hill that leads us home. It is pastoral, serene, simple, right.
A boy sighs audibly, the scent is grape Jolly Rancher. The other boy says in a quiet voice, “Thank you, God, for this beautiful day.”
I whisper, “Amen.” They doze off and I am left to contemplate in the quiet, now sacred, cab of an old F-150.
The simple beautiful basics of faith
You see, if you set the theology aside and forgo the dogma, there is great simplicity in faith. In seven words, my son pretty much summed up where 50 years of hard thinking got me. Prayer, thanksgiving, beauty.
I want my sons to pray. Not this specific prayer or that one. No, their own prayer. I hardly believe prayers are answered — people die, lotteries are lost, tests failed — and I learned long ago not to ask for things. But prayer makes you listen. When you ask Yahweh or Mary or Buddha or Ra for answers, you have to find them. They’re between your heartbeats, behind a setting sun, between the stars. They are there in the moment between the breaths of two dozing man-cubs in the backseat of a red Ford truck.
I want my sons to give thanks. My question for those unfaithed – for lack of a better word – has always been, “To whom do you give thanks?” In this crazy, selfish world, it is easy to become the center of everything.
Giving thanks changes that. It is an admission of vulnerability, of need, of humility. The joy of giving thanks, outwardly, overwhelms the vague smugness of self-praise. It’s never mattered where the thanks go – upward, downward, inward – what matters is the search for thankfulness in the rooms of the heart marked “Love and Kindness” and “Truth and Beauty.”
I want my sons to see beauty. Sunsets, trees, cathedrals, oceans, faces, eyes, hearts – it is everywhere. In beauty, one sees the mask of, well, I’ve tried to avoid it, but, God, and behind the mask is … I dunno, truth? Somethingelseness?
One of my sweet boys, 3-years-old at the time, thought a dethorned rose was so beautiful he carried it around like a touchstone for a whole day. The next morning it was wilted and he was sad but thought it was “still sorta beautiful,” I’m still not sure if he meant the rose or the rose’s story. Another time, we sat on a soccer pitch on a warm fall evening and watched the sunset. The other boy, then 8 years of age, said it was “glorious,” which it was. He knew the science of it all, but he still offered the question, “Why would God do this for us?” Grace, I whispered.
Children are ill-prepared for theology and dogma. Without the benefit of experience, the tales of commandments and compassion and resurrection and redemption are jumbled in detail and mystery. What a child learns from these stories — common across cultures — is that there are rules and justice, that love is way important, that renewal and do-overs are possible. It is not the “redeemed one” that’s important, it’s that there is a redemption song.
I don’t know, then, if I can teach faith to my sons.
I can show them mine, though.
And, they can show me theirs.
It is dark in the driveway. I open the back door. My breath catches as the soft light shines on two slumbering, sweatshirted, rosy little boys, and I offer up a quiet prayer of thanksgiving for these beautiful, beautiful boys, and, before my breath starts again, I know it has been heard.
One little boy stirs, “Oh, thank God, we’re Home.”
And yes, he did capitalize “Home.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Peebles left a 30-year career in the restaurant business to become a stay-at-home dad to twin boys. He writes a blog, I Hope I Win a Toaster, that makes little sense. He coaches sometimes, volunteers at the schools, plays guitar, and is a damn good homemaker. Bill believes in hope, dreams, and love … but not computers.
Lovely piece, Bill.
Defining, explaining, reasoning behind faith is not so simple in the complicated world we live in.
Honestly, I stopped reading right here: “My question for those unfaithed – for lack of a better word – has always been, “To whom do you give thanks?” In this crazy, selfish world, it is easy to become the center of everything.
Giving thanks changes that. It is an admission of vulnerability, of need, of humility. The joy of giving thanks, outwardly, overwhelms the vague smugness of self-praise. ”
Ok, cool, you have faith. Why denigrate those of us that are Atheist with the stereotypical suggestion that we believe we’re the center of everything and only offer the ‘smugness of self-praise”?
I’ll never understand that. You can honor and share your faith without trashing those of us that don’t as selfish and smug. You could have had a powerful, lovely piece here about you and your kids, but you chose, right in the middle, to turn it into a “we’re better than non-believers” piece.
Next time, maybe keep it about you and your kids and your shared faith and leave the non-believers out of it.
Bill Peebles says
I suppose you could find that between the lines of this piece, but I certainly didn’t put them in on purpose. No offense was intended, or, honestly, even considered. Consequently, I’ll offer no apologies.
When you offend someone by accident an apology is reasonable, even if you didn’t even consider the fact that it might be offensive. Unless, of course, you don’t mind that you accidentally offended someone.
My thoughts exactly. And for a cherry on top, the cited passage is riddled with smug self satisfaction. Se la vie.
It was an otherwise engaging read, despite my atheism. I was willing to roll my eyes at the kids indignation when their friend said he didn’t go to church, but claiming atheism is the path to a narcissistic mastrubatory existence is laughable (I say as I narcissistically spew my opinion into the Internet as if it will make a difference, it won’t, but before anyone calls me on it, you’re doing it too).
Anyways, I agree with John, you had a nice piece here without needing to bring us “un-faithed” into it.
Beautiful writing as always Bill. And you handle the idea wonderfully. Good thoughts to mull over for parents of every faith background.
Good thoughts Bill. I have many thoughts on this subject. I don’t always go to chuch, sometimes I can’t get out of bed to go. I can’t stand the judgmental dirty looks of the overly pieous ones; the subdivision dewellers who think I don’t belong in “their” church. I’m sickened when I hear people slam me for having a beer at a ballgame while the same gluton slurps down a 64oz coke full of sugar. I teach my kids faith, I also teach them to respect and love others. My kids have won multiple awards at school for moral focus, academics and the “be nice award”. Faith without works is dead, works without love is false piety. I teach my kids all people are equal, no matter their background, beliefs or ect, ext and ect. I don’t care about people of “no-faith” disrespecting me, but people of my faith trashing me because I don’t pass their “baptist sniff test” does. There’s many good things about my church, and a few negative. I try to keep that in mind. Nice writing. Hope we meet up some day!
Adam G. says
Thanks for your explanation of how you are doing what you are doing.
I’m struggling with some of this as a parent. I was raised Jewish, and I am Jewish,and my wife is Jewish and my son is Jewish too– but what does it mean? I don’t eat kosher, I rarely go to synagogue, I don’t celebrate or keep Shabbat. I don’t wear a kippah. Yet, yet, yet…. somehow I want my son to have a religion he can hang his hat on– a shelf from which to explore his own faith (if he has it) My heritage is Jewish, so that’s what he’s getting
Anyway, thanks for explaining what it is that you are doing.
Carl Wilke says
I love the simplicity that you brought to this complex subject. Having a heart that can recognize and appreciate beauty while being humble enough to give thanks…is enough. Thanks for the reminder to keep this in perspective. Peace to you, Bill.
Mark Greene says
Thanks for the article, Bill. I’m not a religious man, but I do consider myself to be a spiritual man.
When you talk about faith as an indication of humility I will say that I have met many people of faith who are truly humble. In most cases, I met these people as they were in the process of rendering service, to the poor, the unwell or victims of disasters.
People who render service are simply remarkable in that way. Whether they render service to their community, their neighbors or even their children, their humility is learned through their service. But service is also performed by many who are not religious. And they are equally touched by that same grace.
You don’t need religion in order to side step the trap of self praise.
Additionally, I have met many people of faith are anything but humble. They are judgmental, contemptuous and they do great damage in the world.