Grace at Home: Thoughts on Christian Parenting from the ‘Village Priest’

By Joy Carroll Wallis 2-06-2014
Child hand inside a parent's, mickyso /
Child hand inside a parent's, mickyso /

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Joy Carroll Wallis' chapter of the book Faith Forward: A Dialogue on Children, Youth and a New Kind of Christianity

“Offering your child to God is a way of offering yourself to God again, and it felt that way to me. For the religious and not, there is a powerful spirituality in the birth of a child. Already, we’re learning a little about the unconditional love of God for us in the way we feel about our own child. Through one of the most universal human experiences, parent after parent is taught the lessons of love and life. And all is grace.” Jim Wallis, following the birth of his son, Luke

Jim and I grew up in Christian families, which brought with it both advantages and disadvantages. My father was a clergyman in the Church of England in the inner city of South London. Jim’s parents were the founders and leaders of a Plymouth Brethren congregation in Detroit. We both rebelled and returned and our stories are well documented in the books we have written.

One of the best gifts that we experienced as the children of Christian leaders was that of an open home. Exposure to family, and friends from many different cultures and walks of life helped shape us. But, more importantly, it allowed us to grow up participating in the ministry of hospitality – and that has stuck. The Wallis home is known to be an “open house.” Our guest room belongs to many people: from a professor teaching a course in town, to a church leader participating in a fellowship program or conference; from a patient recovering from major surgery or illness, to a summer intern visiting from a far-flung part of the world. To add to this, the basement and boys’ rooms are often filled with teenagers or most of a baseball team, and our dining table is full to capacity on a regular basis.

One day when just the members of our family were sitting down to eat dinner, Jim asked who would like to say grace. Jack, who was about four at the time, looked around and said, “But we don’t have enough people!”

We don’t have to have a quorum to give thanks to God for our food, and indeed these prayers before we eat have been a good introduction to praying together with our children. Luke and Jack are now comfortable in offering to God what is on their hearts together as a family and with any guests that may be with us. I remember one evening when one of Luke’s friends was with us for dinner. As we joined hands to give thanks, this friend said, “Wow! This is just like in the movies.” Of course, there are those occasions, such as when someone is in a bad mood or in the middle of a squabble, where the call to prayer is more difficult and the prayers are short and grumpy. But these times of sharing prayers and meals as a family have been highlights in our common faith life.

Praying with our children has been a priority for Jim and he has been most faithful in praying with each of the boys at bedtime. These occasions have been a way for the boys to work through questions they have about God, about the purpose of prayer, and about what to expect in the way of answers. Although we could share all sorts of examples, one evening prayer sticks out the most. After an evening conversation with friends about poverty and the outrageous number of preventable child deaths around the world, Luke, who was quite young at the time, was clearly moved by what he had learned. At bedtime, as his dad tucked him in and prayed with him, Luke said, “Lord I pray for the 30,000 children who will die tomorrow… Please don’t let them die… Well, I know that’s not possible, so please let them have their best day ever… But of course it won’t be their best day ever… so… Lord, please help us to stop this from happening.”

Sometimes their prayers leave us awestruck. But at other times, their ability to integrate their whole lives into their prayers makes us smile.

Jack is used to the “responsive classroom” at school and he once prayed, “I want to pray for all the poor people in the world, but that’s a lot… God there really are a lot of poor people in the world… Any questions or comments?”

To balance the open house, we’ve found it important that we all have the space and full permission to be ourselves, even if the result is not always very attractive. We think that living in a family is the most serious commitment to community that anyone will ever make. Unconditional love, forgiveness, and fresh starts are foundational in our family community, each of which is made real through God’s grace. Many of our friends’ families are rooted in varying traditions or values. Our family is firmly rooted in the Christian tradition and we all attempt to be followers of Jesus. And we hope that our daily actions and decisions reflect this.

As for the mom in this family, I am privileged to be able to focus my energy in the communities in which our boys grow and thrive. I am the president of Jack’s elementary school Parent-Teacher Association and the commissioner of Northwest Washington Little League baseball. I am sometimes referred to as the “village priest” in a world where it does indeed take a village to raise a child. … When I was elected to serve as a Baptist deacon [in our former church], I was reminded that we are what God calls us to be wherever that happens to be. I have discovered that priesthood is unconfined and spills over into all areas of my life – including raising a family. Whether or not the priest has a church, the vocation lives and finds expression. The priestly part of my being goes with me into Jack’s elementary school, it goes with me onto the Little League baseball diamond, and it goes with me as we build a community of moms and dads who playfully call ourselves “the village” in our efforts to support one another as we raise our kids. I listen, I support, I pray, I encourage, I explain, I take initiatives. I am there in the middle of life in Washington, D.C. as a person, as a mom, and as a Christian; and from time to time God uses all this.

When I was a parish priest in England, I remember a bishop explaining that priests are paid a stipend as opposed to a salary. The stipend was a sum of money that enabled us not to work; it enabled us to be present to a community as a priest. This was quite liberating for me – I was not being paid for my performance as a priest but was financially enabled by the diocese to be a priest where I was.

These days I feel thankful for the grace of being able not to work and the great thing is that although I have chosen to be an “at-home” mom, the priest has not disappeared. I have discovered a wonderful integration of priesthood and family that is immensely satisfying. There is a richness about my life right now that makes me thankful that I have so much, if not all at once, of what priesthood and family life have to offer. And by

God’s grace, our family will continue to honour the “big commitment” of being Christian together.

Joy Carroll Wallis was among the first women to be ordained to the priesthood in England in 1994. She's the author of The Woman Behind the Collar: The Pioneering Journey of an Episcopal Priest. Carroll Wallis lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband (Sojourners president Jim Wallis) and their two sons, Luke 15 and Jack 10. Joy is also a PTA President and Little League Commissioner. 

Image: Child hand inside a parent's, mickyso /

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