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"You know what? God isn't real," my 4-year-old son declared. My jaw dropped. It wasn't the thing he said, exactly (though I do think 4 is a little early for his existentialist phase to kick in). It was when he chose to say it: at church. To the pastor. In the middle of a children's sermon.
Fortunately, the pastor found it more amusing than mortifying. I don't remember exactly what she said, but I'm pretty sure she named some examples of real things we can't see. Love was probably on the list. Maybe happiness. Perhaps Madonna's real age. At that point, I was mainly just relieved that my son wasn't arguing with her. Along with the other kids, he bowed his head for the prayer, then hurried back to the Sunday school room to cut loaves and fishes out of construction paper.
I'm thinking right now that you might have the wrong impression of me. Maybe you're picturing me in a matching twinset, clutching my gold children's-initial necklace in horror at what people might think. Honestly, that was the furthest thing from my mind. Also, I'm pretty sure I was wearing jeans.
The reason this moment hit me so hard is that it perfectly captured the inner tug-of-war I experience whenever motherhood and religion intersect. You see, I was raised a Christian; my father is a Presbyterian minister, and I literally grew up in the churches where he worked. God was not optional in my house. When I had a problem, we would turn to the Bible for answers; we would pray about it.
The Christianity my parents instilled in me was a compassionate one. Never did I tell someone that they were going to hell, or that they were a sinner. I believed in a loving God, and embraced the idea that there were many ways to find Him/Her. I was encouraged to ask questions. Though the faith I was taught had tenets and guidelines, creeds and non-negotiable beliefs, I didn't find it rigid. Nor did it make me feel guilty about who I was. It allowed me room to grow. And when I inevitably left that church to find God on my own terms, I took a lot of it with me.
I am surrounded by smart, funny, kind people who don't believe in God, and, even if they do, weekly worship isn't often part of their lives.
I would like to give this gift to my son. But I no longer live in my parents' world. Though I'm still a Christian (and my husband, thanks to a very different spiritual journey, is as well), very few of our friends are practicing Christians. Very few of our friends are practicing anything. It's not a judgment; it's just a fact. I am surrounded by smart, funny, kind people who don't believe in God, and, even if they do, weekly worship isn't often part of their lives. In our artsy, liberal outcropping of the New York City area, my family fits right in—except for that one thing. Whenever I first mention that I attend church, people look at my askew, as if wondering when I'll start lecturing them about abortion.
As a result, mainline Protestant congregations around here are on the small side. My son is one of a handful of kids at the church we attend now. He won't experience the big youth groups and extravagant Christmas pageants that I loved growing up. But it's more intimate—the faith feels personal. Hopefully, this will allow my son to figure out how to relate to Jesus on his own terms. And he'll have many, many chances to ask questions.
Which is exactly what he was doing during that children's sermon. Ironically, by questioning God's whole existence in front of the congregation, my kid was doing the very thing I wanted him to do in church: He was exploring the faith, with an honest and open heart. He was figuring it out for himself.
Later that day, I asked my kid what he meant by, "God isn't real." He smiled sheepishly and asked where God lives. I told him that God is everywhere, including inside him. He asked if God was inside his broccoli. Yes, I said. Even there. "God is real," he decided. For now.
I'm not going to tell my son that I have the final word on God. We're exploring this terrain together, this scraggly path through a world of nonbelievers. All I can do is encourage him to keep showing up, and keep asking questions—especially the hard ones.