Niamh is an incredibly fast reader. She can easily finish a 400+ page book in two days. Which, when you are living in a small space on the road, presents a small problem. I could solve this issue by ordering her stories on my Nook, but she likes to collect her favorite series in actual books. Two weeks into our roadtrip, we found a Target in Vegas just to load her up on reading.
Before we made it to Vegas, though, we spent four days in Joshua Tree National Park. She did not have any reading material by that point. A couple days earlier, she listened to a podcast we put on while we drove. Peter Enns and Jared Byas interviewed “Science Mike” on The Bible for Normal People. (We listened to a few of their podcasts on the ride out, and she apparently really liked them because she reminds me on Mondays that new Peter Enns podcasts are out.) Because she had enjoyed the Science Mike interview so much and was out of reading material, I pointed her to his book Finding God in the Waves. She finished it in 24 hours.
Niamh is thirteen and probably not Mike McHargue’s target audience. Half way through the book, she cried her eyes out while we were eating dinner. She asked me how we know God is real. And told us, sobbing, that Mike was picked on for being a “chubby nerd”. (Niamh has no tolerance for bullying). We’ve had a few of these moments with the kids— those talks that come out of nowhere about God, the Bible, and our beliefs and experiences. While they are happening, I aways feel a little rocked—like maybe we are inviting them into hard places too soon. A neat, tidy, literal Bible is so much easier to hand to children. You can put them to bed with a lost tooth under their pillow, the promise of the tooth fairy, and a book about Noah’s Ark— and it all makes perfect sense. Until they age a little and realize the quarters come from your nightstand and innocent children were collateral damage in an ancient story to just ‘begin again’ by washing everything away.
I’m glad Niamh read the book and cried. I think Mike caught her heart by first sharing his story, which she identified with (who isn’t a kid who feels weird or on the outside at some point?). Sharing your story is a brilliant way to invite people in a tender and vulnerable way into difficult discussion. She felt his pain and that helped her track with him through his journey— even the leaving God part. She liked how he approached each faith tension, even if it was not resolved in a concrete way. The book caused a momentary panic— but she told me, after finishing the book the following day, that even in the unravelling of faith, there is something fresh and beautiful about the process. Like after sitting in it a bit, she thinks of God in much deeper ways.
It is very much like a hard, long run. It freaking sucks while it’s happening, but afterward you feel more alive.
The kids were old enough to understand what was happening when my (and Phil’s) beliefs began to fall apart. We were not prepared with a parenting plan through their childhood regarding God and the Bible as our own belief systems came under scrutiny. We have been in the thick of it, figuring it out for sometime, while our children stay privy to our own questions, shifting theology, and humanity.
Whenever the kids used to fall and get hurt, I’d pick them up and start saying “you’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine” over and over. One time after Niamh got hurt, she asked me, “Why do you keep telling me I’m fine when I’m actually hurt?” I told her that if I keep repeating you’re fine she would believe me and feel less hurt. She told me that was dumb.
It is pretty dumb, actually. As a mom, my first inclination is always to relieve pain—I want to just stop the bleeding. I don’t want my kids to hurt or suffer. It causes me pain— worse pain than their’s, I think! But walking through hard spiritual places with them, I am learning to embrace them in their doubt and fear, but not fix it. I’ve admitted to them that somedays I don’t know if there is a God either. I can’t prove him to them, I can only share my own experiences of Love and beauty and pain (and my sincere and growing love for the Bible)— and remind them of their own experiences. But their spiritual discomfort and questionings are not a good place for me to start repeating you’re fine. Growth happens in tension and hard places. And my kid’s (I’m sure, like yours, too) are good thinkers and bullshit spotters. It is better for me to believe in the depth of their hearts and minds than to fix God for them into something much smaller than he actually is.
Niamh and Philly are asking questions and thinking through things at eleven and thirteen that I did not question until I was 32. It can be difficult to parent through, but we are amazed that they are approaching these places far sooner in their lives than we did. And maybe that’s the whole point—to just be a parent who raises kids who are better parents and deeper thinkers than we are. I believe humanity is collectively moving towards goodness (even if we are always stumbling forward), towards a horizon that is defined by love. As a parent, I think that is my goal. Niamh and Philly are people who will embody love and grace far better than Phil and I. That is our legacy.
Finding God in the Waves was more of an attempt to occupy my reader for a few days than an invitation into a faith crisis. She finished the book in one day and ended up crying into her vegetables. Neither of those things were what I imagined when I handed her the book. But. BUT. It was the catalyst for a fantastic family talk, a new way of thinking through things for Niamh, and a parenting opportunity for Phil and I.
After she finished it and asked for another book, I gave her Rob Bell’s How to be Here. I like Bell after a book that rocks me. It’s like reading a theologically brilliant beach bum. Something about that is comforting to me. He often reminds me what it is like to feel excited about life, people, and God again. She read that book in a few hours (seriously, Niamh?!) and told us all about it, no tears, just bright eyes and excitement. I think it’s pretty special that she is reading these books already and creating a list of exceptional writers to return to again and again. I think I will give her Richard Rohr next. His books are so dense, maybe I can buy myself two whole days of reading.
If you are interested in this topic— parenting kids through their faith journeys, especially when that road is not a straight line through easy conversations and a tidy bible— THIS IS A LINK worth an hour of your time. And here is a link to the book, Finding God in the Waves.