“Okay, sweetie, can you put Joseph in the manger scene now?” I ask my 5-year-old. Her fingers hesitate a few beats too long over the shepherds and wise men (this guy? that guy?) and I realize that maybe my relaxed approach to spiritual matters has gotten a little out of hand.
My personal theology is a bit of a haphazard salad, and some of the odder items in the Bible make me pretty sure we aren’t supposed to follow the Good Book word for word. But I’d like to believe there’s Someone up there somewhere, and surely some Bible stories will teach my kids moral lessons that will help them grow up into the fine, upstanding people I want them to be. Right?
So I buy a book of Bible stories — a charming little book filled with fluffy sheep and smiling cartoon people in tunics and sandals — telling myself it’ll be Aesop’s Fables plus Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, with the extra heft of blessings from the Big Guy Upstairs. I sit down to pick out our first story.
And I can’t.
The stories are familiar. I learned them in Sunday School while making yarn-and-popsicle-stick crafts. But now, reading them with fresh eyes, I can’t find a single story that doesn’t make me feel unsettled, wondering what questions my children will ask that I can’t answer.
Sure, the first story starts off kinda nice: There’s a fun family DIY project with everybody hammering happily together, and furry animals trotting two-by-two up the ramp onto a big wooden boat. Which is all really great ... except that in the background, behind all that warm cuddly togetherness, is God busily whipping up a ginormous genocidal tsunami that kills, oh that’s right, EVERYONE ELSE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. “They all died?” I picture my kids asking, round-eyed. “Even the kids?”
I try another one. Here’s a nice father-son hiking trip, two guys trundling up a mountain with their Gatorade and trail mix and cooler full of sandwiches ... except, wait a sec, the father is supposed to kill the son with an axe to prove his loyalty to his father, and the supposedly warm-fuzzy happy ending is that he actually doesn’t have to, even though he was there with axe in hand, totally ready to have at it. (“I think that kid should sleep with one eye open and a baseball bat under his bed from now on,” I imagine my kids saying. “And I don’t think that dad should lead any more Cub Scout camping trips.”)
I keep turning pages, but the moral is always the same. Want to walk through a furnace? Sashay through the lion house? Learn to walk again after lifelong paralysis? All you gotta do is pray and believe.
The thing is, I desperately want this to be true. I do. I want my children to have someone, something, to pray to during that interminable wait in the hospital waiting room, sitting on a hard plastic chair and listening to the beep-beep-beep of distant monitors as they wait for a loved one to come out of surgery. I want them to have someone to pray to when the wheels start to slip on an icy highway, or the tornado sirens go off and the funnel cloud is only minutes away. I want to give them the comfort of knowing that there is someone at the controls who’s got their back, and that if they pray and believe, everything will turn out just fine.
But they see the newspaper on the kitchen counter every morning (yes, we still get one). They see car wrecks on the interstate. Their school has lockdown drills in case an armed intruder dashes into the cafeteria. They know that sometimes things aren’t fine at all.
Every time a commercial airliner falls out of the sky, I am certain that there are hundreds of people on board — doctors and nurses, teachers and workmen, little boys in dinosaur T-shirts, little girls in polka-dot dresses — fervently praying the same prayer: “Please, God, please save us. Please.” And God does not save them. Did they not pray hard enough? Did they not believe hard enough? How do I explain this?
The other day a friend posted a request for prayers on Facebook as she interviewed for a new job. The comments section was filled with support (“Praying for you!” “Prayers on the way!”) And then she didn’t get the job, and the commenters effortlessly changed gears: “God must have another plan for you.” “When God closes one door, he opens another!” And I thought: Wait a minute, if God was planning to open the correct door at the time and place of his choosing, what was the point of all those prayers? Would my friend have gotten the job if there were more people praying, like people texting votes on Dancing with the Stars? How does this work?
I have heard people say that life is an intricately woven tapestry in which we are the threads and whose pattern only God can see. It feels like a nice sentiment ... right up until you realize that your survival depends on whether today’s the day that God decides there's enough navy-blue thread in the lower left-hand corner of the tapestry. ("God can just cut off the thread when he’s done with my color?" I imagine my kids asking, worriedly. "Just ‘cause of the pattern?")
And what if I tell my kids that God answers our prayers in his own time and his own way? (“If the police did that, it’d be like, ‘Help! There’s a robber smashing through my downstairs window!’ ‘Okay, ma’am, we’ll be there next Thursday!’” I imagine them saying, giggling at first and then turning serious. “Actually, Mommy, that doesn’t really make me feel better at all.”)
I have several friends in whose lives God and religion are entirely absent. They are caring, intelligent, profoundly decent people, and in the hard light of day, their concerns about God and religion make a great deal of sense. In fact, I started writing this essay wondering if I would wind up agreeing with them.
But I can’t quite do it, and I don’t know why. It’s not just because I love the glow of candlelight on my children’s faces at church on Christmas Eve (although I do), or because I want my kids to be able to hum the classic hymns when they’re old and everything else has slipped from their memories (although that would be nice, too).
Maybe it’s because when I am driving down the interstate at night with my children snuggled trustingly in their car seats and suddenly I’m in pea-soup fog and a blinding downpour with semi-trucks passing me at seventy miles an hour, I realize I’m whispering, “Please let me get home. Please just let me get home.” I don’t know who I’m talking to. But I want there to be somebody.
Maybe it’s because when my then-infant son had an allergic reaction that made him break out in enormous, head-to-toe hives and I found myself pounding frantically on the door of a medical clinic that appeared to have closed for lunch, I realized later that I had been whispering “please please please please” under my breath the entire time. I don’t know who I was talking to. But I wanted there to be somebody.
Admittedly, in those dark moments, I was asking God to fix the outcome, which doesn’t make sense. Plenty of good people pray and still have awful things happen to them. And when you remove the Superman-like ability to halt accidents and cure disease, the allure of believing in God pales considerably.
But maybe there is something between God as unfathomable marionettist and the idea of no God at all. Perhaps God only answers prayers in the form of things like strength and courage (rather than letting us order up specific outcomes or things — a car, a job — the way you order a ham sandwich). Maybe what I should have been asking for was strength to concentrate on my driving, or courage to think clearly about what to do next if the clinic had been closed. Maybe — as Mr. Rogers obliquely suggested when he told us to “look for the helpers” when tragedy struck — God doesn’t cause the bad things to happen, but inspires those around to help pick up the pieces.
Or maybe God doesn’t. I don’t know. And I guess no one does, not really — and by the time they find out for certain, it’s too late to tell.
That night, we read the story of the Good Samaritan, and talk about food pantries and kindness and loving your neighbor. And then I put the book away for while, still thinking, not sure what to do next.
Not long afterward, I am driving at night on a rural two-lane road with the kids in the back, when a snow flurry morphs into a full-on blizzard. There is nowhere to stop, so I inch the car along the narrow, curving road, peering into the wild swirl of snowflakes, willing the car up every incline and gritting my teeth every time the tires lose traction. Without turning my head, I hand my 8-year-old son my cell phone, with instructions to watch for any flicker of cell phone reception. He holds it at the ready, proud to be helping in a crisis.
“Mommy?” says my daughter, the 5-year-old, softly. “Mommy, what can *I* do?”
Then, out of nowhere, she says: “Should I pray?”
I blink, startled — her primary experience with prayer is the (admittedly rote) recitation of grace before meals. And then I hesitate, thinking about all my doubts and questions, my theories, my caveats.
Is it better to offer her something that might not be true, or deny the existence of something that could be?
“Sure, honey, give it a try,” I say finally, slowly. “We’ll take all the help we can get.”
Karen Weese is a freelance writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.