I was raised in the Presbyterian church and thought I had God and religion under my belt until I went to college at a Southern Baptist university. A particularly hypocritical religion professor and the pervasive belief that all is God’s will — be it a bad grade or a friend’s horrific car accident — eroded my footing. Eastern religions became more appealing, but mostly I just backed away from the whole God-question, which was easy to do during the fifteen years I lived in a small liberal town on the coast of Maine. Although there were the requisite churches for those who wanted to attend, I didn’t know anyone who did and religion was considered to be a private matter.
When Nina and I and my then-husband moved to Knoxville, religion pounced on us like a large hyped-up dog. As we unloaded boxes from the moving truck into our new house during a sweltering July afternoon, two men in sweat-soaked white shirts walked down the street, stopping at each house. As they approached our driveway, my husband and a friend who was helping us scampered inside. I was left, red-faced and dripping with sweat, carrying a box down the ramp of the truck.
“How’s it going?” one asked cheerily, as if I happened to be sitting under a ceiling fan on a verandah doing nothing more than eating bon-bon’s. I put the box down and wiped my sleeve across my brow. They introduced themselves as pastors at a Baptist church up the road, and asked me if I’d been born again. I wanted to say, “I was a believer until I became a skeptic,” but instead I picked up the box, moved past them, and said, “We’re not looking for a new church, thank you. And we’re busy moving in, as you can see. You’re welcome to help unload, if you like.” They walked on to the next house.
Just days later, a proper Southern woman asked if we had found a “church home, for our precious child of God.” And so we decided we needed to find a church, not out of our convictions, but so we had a robe to hide behind — kind of an armor to hold up and say, “See! We go here.” We also figured that if we were living in a place where the topic of religion was on the tip of tongues, then Nina would need have an understanding of it all, too.
We searched for the most liberal options — including the Unitarian church where a gunman had opened fire — killing two — just a year earlier because of the church’s “free-thinking.” Ultimately, we felt at home at the Presbyterian church my parents have attended for more than twenty years. Before we officially joined the church after a year of attending, my husband I met with the pastor, who is a young razor-sharp man with an outrageously irreverent sense of humor. I told him that I wasn’t sure I was qualified to be a member, since I don’t think Christianity is the only path to faith. He said, “Well, welcome to the craziest congregation of druids, Buddhists, Jews, skeptics, and some Presbyterians. You’ll fit right in. We have a labyrinth in the woods just beyond the parking lot, for pete’s sake. At one point, the youth hung Tibetan prayer flags out there.”
Yet on the day we officially joined our new church in Knoxville, my left ear was so clogged that I had a hard time hearing. Surely there’s a sign there, words of welcome falling on deaf ears and all.
After Sunday school with the “super-cool” Miss Mary, Nina said, “I don’t like church. They just talk about God and I don’t like God.” I asked her to tell me more.
“I guess it’s not that I don’t like God, but that I don’t know about God,” she said, “I don’t understand what God is, or where he is. Miss Mary tells me he is a he, like a daddy or something, and he is everywhere but I’ve never seen the guy.”
I tell her that I’m confused about God, too, but that there are a lot of different ways to think about God and no one way is the only right way. I tell her that often when I hear the name “God” I substitute the word “Love.”
“I think that ultimately God is about loving each other and trying to take care of ourselves, other people, and the earth,” I offered tentatively. This is from the mother who feels like a hypocrite even going to church — that I go not to worship a God I believe is my Lord and Savior but because it’s an open-minded, safe place to question faith in general. And because I love many of the people who also choose to be there. They ask Nina about the super-hero cape she often wears and agree with her that God doesn’t care if she doesn’t wear fancy clothes to church. And everyone in the pew doubled over with laughter one Sunday when she attempted to slide a smuggled-in whoopie cushion in my dad’s place as he sat down. As much as I know I should’ve chastised her for such improper behavior, I’ve got to figure that God doesn’t mind laughter, either.
I bought What Is God? for Nina and me to read. It’s a beautiful all-inclusive children’s book, acknowledging that God is a mystery. The colorful pages cover all the versions of God, from the old bearded man in the sky to Mohammed and Buddha, and emphasizes the interconnectedness of us all.
Nina leaned into me on the couch and we’d just turned the page about how people of one religion sometimes fight with people of another religion because they don’t understand that all religions come down to the same thing. God is everything, we read, from the hot wind in the desert to the freezing snow in the winter to the big, yellow moon.
“Are we about done?” Nina asked, “All this God talk hurts my brain.” I skim ahead to the last few pages on prayer and global interconnectedness and said, “Yeah. We’ll finish another time.”
Hours later, while she was coloring a My Little Pony picture and I was making dinner, she said, “I think it’s a force field.”
“What’s a force field?” I asked.
“God. Kind of like when I was at pony camp and learned how to stand on the saddle on Snickers. I didn’t fall because there was a force field all around me.”
“Of course,” was all I could muster to say, admiring her conviction with a tad bit of envy.
I read this poem, posted by my writing instructor, out loud to Nina:
God Says Yes To Me
by Kaylin Haught
“I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes”
After I finished, Nina looked at me with furrowed brows and I prepared myself for her question about the “she” issue. Instead, she said, “Can you be a little more like that, Mama? I mean, with your yeses?”
My friend Monique arrived from Asheville with her five-year-old daughter, Tessa, who would be staying with me and Nina while Monique attended a Biblical-Counseling workshop. I met Monique after she and her husband moved into the house four doors down from us in Maine. Because their house was on the corner of a four-way-stop sign — and because they hadn’t put up blinds or curtains in their kitchen yet — I stole glimpses of them in their kitchen as I drove by and guessed they were about our age.
Having been the new kid on the block a couple times when I was younger, I have an internal welcome-wagon setting that kicks into gear in a situation like this. On the morning of Super Bowl Sunday, I stopped at their house after running to the grocery store, knocked on the door, and invited them to join us. They did, and we’ve been friends since despite their move to Asheville and ours to Knoxville — and our differences in faith.
Monique and her family are Seventh-Day Adventists, and were somewhat of an anomaly in our small liberal town. They had a bible on the side table, for godssake, which dinner guests placed their drinks as far away from as possible. But Monique and her family persevered, and never in an obtrusive way. They would only talk about how their faith worked for them — “We prayed about how to strengthen our relationship,” for example — and never suggested to their friends that they do the same.
Now that she’s back with family and her familiar church, Monique has been studying to counsel others from a Bible-based perspective. Shortly after she left for her workshop, Nina and Tessa got re-acquainted, beginning with age and grade. Nina eagerly showed Tessa one of her addition worksheets from school.
Tessa, who attends a private Christian school, replied, “Do you pray in school?” Nina screwed up her face as if to say “are you crazy?” and said, “No. Well, we say the Pledge of Allegiance and that has God in it.”
“No,” Tessa said, “like you have church while you’re at school. We do. Everyday.”
Nina flipped her hand in the air and said, “No way. But we God-it-up on Sundays.”
“Tell me a story about God,” Nina said, sitting on the toilet in her 1960’s green-tiled bathroom while I filled the bathtub. My mind went blank. “A story about you and God,” she prodded. I didn’t say, “Once we were good friends but I didn’t like some of the zealots he was hanging out with so we haven’t been in touch for awhile.”
She answered my silence with, “Well, I know a lot about God.”
“You do?” I asked. “Where did you learn so much about God?”
“I just know,” she said. “I was born knowing. Kids come out knowing about God and all that stuff. God’s inside us.” She looked out the bathroom window at the trees that were beginning to drop their leaves and said, “And he’s in the trees and the leaves, and…” She trailed off while her eyes scanned the bathroom, landing on the bubbles in the bath. “He’s even in the bubbles, definitely in bubbles. Oh, and God’s ok with tantrums,” she added.
I can have faith in that. And for right now, that’s enough.
— Amy Rawe