We remember our fathers today, and so I want to share a picture of my Dad.
Dr. Robert Thomas Makar. He’s where I get the Makar name from. If you were here two weeks ago, you saw a very different picture of him. When he was young. Here he’s older, just weeks away from his death at 61. He’s not doing well.
But I’m showing you this picture because it helps explain this poem I wrote about my Dad during my sabbatical. Do you see the helmet on the wall, to the right of all the diplomas? That’s a pith helmet. You wear it in the jungle; you wear it in the desert; you wear it if you are an explorer, an adventurer.
Here’s the poem, entitled “The Helmet”:
I see it in old pictures
over his comfortable office desk
with its obligatory snapshot of his sons,
right beside his prized medical school diplomas
and therefore strange:
a pith helmet
meant for wilder climates
giving shade from a hateful sun.
One of these things is not like the other.
It went straight into the garbage after he died.
It meant nothing to us. We were struggling
to come to terms with all his things.
Only ten years later
does it dawn on me: all the pictures
where he’s secure in his office
and completely in control
wearing that white Dr’s coat
and the diplomas sing—
pictures in which his face turns from young to old,
pictures in which his face turns from thin to fat—
this man whose life formed mine….
In every one of those pictures
like a silent message, off center:
the helmet made of cork,
what Teddy Roosevelt once wore
with all his Rough Riders,
or Lawrence of Arabia, all adventurers, explorers,
slashing their way through dangers
and risking all. My Dad’s unlived life?
I wear the helmet for him now.
You know, I don’t remember conversations with Dad about spiritual matters—at least as a kid. None stand out for me. Dad was a materialist scientist for much of the time I knew him. Surgery was the solution to our problems. Or pills. Spiritual stuff was spooky stuff, unworthy of serious consideration. Death was a thing to be conquered. We never went to church.
But there were times when I saw another side of him. He had a subscription to the Franklin Library, a subsidiary of the Franklin Mint, and every month he’d be sent a fancy leather bound book of some classic of world literature, like Plato’s Republic or Emerson’s Essays. I don’t think I ever saw him actually crack them open, and at his death, the books were in almost untouched condition. But he just liked them there. He just liked the idea that all that philosophical and spiritual wisdom was within reach, even as he made no time for it in his busy life of doctoring and surgery and pills.
Dad had an unlived life. And like all parents are to their children, he was so impactful on my world that his unlived life became my lived one. Children see what their parents lack yet long for. They see it with X-ray eyes. He was never able to truly be a spiritual explorer, so I am. First a philosopher, now a minister. I wear the helmet for him now.
But I don’t recommend this as a way of coming to wear the helmet. Lots of problems with the complete “hands-off” approach, which I’ll have more to say about in a moment. Right now, though, all I’ll say is that I miss my father’s voice on spiritual matters. I have had to invent myself, and there are times I feel as if the walls of my house are thin, and a cold wind whips through, and so does the rain. When a mother or father is intentional about his or her spiritual parenting, the child reaps the benefits of it for the rest of his or her days. Stronger walls. Stronger spiritual house.
So let’s talk about how to spiritually parent our children more intentionally. That’s our focus today.
You know, I wonder if I am underestimating my Dad, when I say he dismissed spiritual matters out of hand—when I cite that as a reason for why we never really talked about God or why bad things happen or the meaning of death. Easy to dumb our parents down into straw men and straw women. A person comes to appreciate this once they themselves become a parent. Then they know: the reality is far more complex.
Probably what was going on was that my Dad had all sorts of false assumptions that got in the way of his spiritual parenting. Not just my Dad either. Many if not most parents. And you know what they say about assumptions. “Assumptions are the termites of relationships.” You know who said that? Henry Winkler, the Fonz. So it’s gotta be true, right? Say it with me, Ayyyyyyyyyy!
Assumptions. Lots of them, some of which seem to feed the others. Here’s one: That the parent already has to have all the answers to life, the universe, and everything before he or she is qualified to spiritually parent. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut. Does this ring any bells? For if you don’t know the truth for yourself, how can you share it with another?
But you know, this is not how Unitarian Universalism sees the faith journey or parenting in faith. Anthropology professor T. M. Luhrmann hit the Unitarian Universalist nail on the head when she said, in a recent New York Times article (“Belief is the Least Part of Faith”), that “it is more helpful to think about faith as the questions that people choose to focus on, rather than the propositions observers think they must hold.” Faith is about enduring focus. Faith is about allowing certain deep questions to shape your life and staying with those questions as one’s answers grow and develop and change over time. Faith is a marathon and not a sprint. It means that in a Unitarian Universalist household, here are some perfectly acceptable things to say when the child asks the parent a question like, “What is God?” and the parent doesn’t have an answer ready to go. Say this: “I too have wondered about that.” Or, “I’m still working on that question. Here’s what I think so far.” Or “I don’t know, but it’s important, let’s find out together.” The true measure of the success of spiritual parenting is fighting against apatheism, apathy—teaching our kids that religion is about the search. That it’s their religious duty to search and never stop. Religion is caught more than it is taught. Let them see the seeker in you, and they will be seekers all their days. You have just put the spiritual explorer’s helmet on their head. And God bless you for the gift you have given them and the world.
But now, what if you feel like you DO have an answer? One that rings true to you and your life experience, reason, intuition, and whatever other sources of authority you hold dear? What then? It may sound strange to suggest that this might ever be a problem, but it is to plenty of Unitarian Universalists who affirm the right of individual conscience in religious matters and are horrified by the mere thought of indoctrinating anyone, including their kids! Consider a classic illustration of this, which comes from psychologist Bill Doherty: “It was 1980, and I had been a Unitarian Universalist for about three years, when my seven-year-old son Eric asked me, ‘What happens after we die? Is there a heaven?’ Being a good UU, I responded as follows: ‘Well, some people believe that when we die we go to heaven where we live forever, and other people believe that when we die, our life is over and we live on through the memories of people who have known and loved us.’ To which Eric replied, ‘But what do you believe?’ ‘Well, some people believe that after we die we go to heaven, and other people believe…’—at which point Eric interrupted me and asked again, ‘But what do YOU believe?’” How many of you have ever been like Bill Doherty in a similar situation? You want to take a “hands off” approach, you find yourself dodging your kid’s questions like crazy, refusing to give them a straight answer because you want them to figure it out for themselves? Because. That’s. The. U. U. Way!
But me tell you another story. It’s about a boy who lived in the 19th century, long before the time when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged to become the religion we know today. The boy was Universalist, with paternal grandparents who were strong in the faith and loved giving their opinion, but the father did not, the father kept quiet, the child grew up getting not much in the way of spiritual guidance. I’m talking about Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. He put on his own spiritual explorer’s hat, invented a very different spiritual way. He was a genius. And we Unitarian Universalists are all led to wonder: what if that boy’s spiritual genius had been given careful and intentional Universalist guidance? Where would we be now?
Whatever the UU way is, it can’t be this. It can’t be the neglect of our children, our children leaving our faith because it never got into their blood and bones… It can’t be about allowing every conceivable force under the sun (what the kids hear on the playground, what the kids hear on TV, what the kids see on the Internet) to spiritually parent our children but the actual live parents keep silent and say nothing….
A story like this forces a realization upon us. That seven-year-olds and nine-year-olds and others like them are not adults. Children are at a time in their lives where the “hands off” approach actually harms their spiritual growth because they need to be handed something definite to grow from, something that actually puts them on the path. What they eventually affirm as adults will absolutely be their business, but we have to give them a solid place to start.
This is what Bill Doherty realized in the exchange with his son. Here’s the rest of that story. Eric has just insisted on a better answer than he’s been given—he’s not letting his Dad off the hook—and so his Dad relents: “O.K. I believe that when we die we live on through other people but not in a heaven.” At this, Eric got silent for a moment, and then he said something that blew his dad out of the water: “I’ll believe what you believe for now, and when I grow up I’ll make up my own mind.” That’s what Eric said. And about all this, Bill Doherty writes, “My seven year old was teaching me something here. He was being a developmentally appropriate UU child, and I was not being a developmentally appropriate UU parent. He knew he needed answers, for now, to an important religious question, and he also knew that he could seek his own answers when he was prepared to do so.”
That’s exactly the message to give when your child asks a question and you feel you have an answer, but you also want to reinforce the message of freedom. “Here’s what I believe. When you grow up, you may have a different answer. But for right now, you can believe what I believe.”
What do you think? Does that feel right to you?
This issue of developmental appropriateness—so important. Consider another scenario: You are in your Dadmobile or Mommobile, navigating insane Atlanta traffic. You’ve just left the house, where your five-year-old was watching a TV special about sea creatures like octopi. Suddenly you notice the kid has just gotten real quiet. Uh oh, he’s about to ask one of those hard spirituality-related questions. That’s when so many of the hard questions pop up, right? While you’re driving… Here’s what he asks: “Does God have suckers?” Now you might be a theist. For you, God is an impersonal being, like the Force in Star Wars. Or you might be an atheist. God is a social construction meant ultimately to transmit certain cultural values. This is where you are. How are you going to traverse the distance between your abstract truth and your kid’s concrete question about whether God is like an octopus and has suction cups? How to get from point A to point B?
The straight answer is don’t even try. Don’t do it!
Fact is, abstract religious teaching for most if not all children is meaningless. We can’t expect certain things from our children until their bodies and brains are ready. It’s at 13 years of age, say the theorists, when children truly become capable of conceptual thought. Introduce the high-level concept, for example, of God as a Spirit to a six-year-old, and they are gonna walk away thinking that God is like Caspar the Friendly Ghost. God is going to have that Caspar-the-Friendly-Ghost meaning stuck to him/her/it and who knows how much effort will be required later on to get unstuck from that strange unfortunate meaning. So much of religious exploration, folks, is unlearning. Undoing.
The need is to be developmentally appropriate here too. The need is to hold back all the sophisticated abstract concepts that make sense to us, in light of the fact that our children’s brains—given the level of development—make them able to understand spiritual issues in only concrete ways. The need is to stay at a children’s picture book level in our conversations, the need is to follow their lead. Does God have suction cups? That’s actually a fun question, fun to go exploring….
Actually, if this was my kid, here’s how I’d respond. Putting my spiritual parenting helmet firmly on my head, I’d ask her, “Well, what do you think?”
Now this is not evasion. Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story that makes the point plain, about a mother whose eight-year-old son came in from playing one day and asked, “Mommy, where did I come from?“ The mother said to herself, “This is IT!” and sat him down to explain the whole process of reproduction and birth, complete with diagrams and pictures of the embryo at various stages of its development. When she was finished, her son said, “That’s all very interesting, but Jimmy comes from New Jersey. Where did I come from?”
Assumptions are the termites of relationships.
To give a helpful answer, it’s essential to get a better sense of where your child is coming from, what’s on their minds. “Daddy, “ the child asks, “what will happen when you die?” It could be that the child wants something more theoretical here. But on the other hand, it could be that they are wondering about what will happen to them, who will take care of them, what happens next. Which requires a very different answer. Shy away from reading too much into the questions of a child. Find out what they are actually asking for.
Adventures in spiritual parenting. Part of it is disposing of the assumption termites that infest the parent-child relationship around spiritual matters. Another part is being developmentally appropriate, following the lead of the child. Let me leave you with a third part to this, to the venture of placing the spiritual helmet on a child’s head and setting them loose for exploration. It’s this: try not to tell so much as show. Religion is caught more than taught. At mealtimes, for example, light a “thankful candle” before you dig in. Everyone shares one thing they are grateful for. Rituals regularly engaged-in are so powerful in the spiritual nurture of children. Singing hymns in worship. Lighting the chalice. Powerful.
And how about storytelling? It was that great writer Mark Twain who once said, “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” Reading stories to your child is a way of focusing their imagination and therefore enabling them to see the world in creative and hopeful ways. If this isn’t spirituality in action, I don’t know what is.
And then there is this. On this Father’s Day, of all days, if you can, I encourage you to find a natural spot here in Atlanta. Find a place where you can take a walk and just appreciate the beauty of this world. Nature is a particularly powerful trigger for moments of wonder and awe in children. I don’t know if you know how to pray. But when you say to your child, “Do you see that? Do you see the trees, the clouds, the flower, the animal, the lake, the sky, the sun? Do you see that, and isn’t it beautiful?” When you say that, you are introducing your child to the age-old spiritual practice of praise, and by this all good things are magnified, and it IS a kind of prayer. Nothing is like a father’s voice of praise, or a mother’s. Do this for your child. Place the exploration helmet reverently on his head. Bless him.