My son wanted a simple answer, and I could not give him one. It is similar to our overall climate today — we want simple answers to our questions, but that’s not always possible, is it? Humanity is not always simple. But it is necessary that we see the reality we face for and with our children. The things we teach them today, the way we talk about the world, the church, the political climate — it affects them and shapes their futures.
TO FIND BOOKS for young people by and about people from a variety of perspectives—including race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, class, and disability—the children’s librarian at your school or the public library will often be the place to start (read why we need diverse children's literature in our December issue article, "Stories for All God's Children"). If you’re fortunate enough to have an independent bookstore in your area with a robust children’s department, the staff there may also be of help.
If in-person advice is in short supply where you live, several online sites can also provide ideas. These include the website of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books), which has bibliographies and booklists on a wide range of topics and population groups. The We Need Diverse Books campaign website (weneeddiversebooks.org) has a variety of resources for finding diverse books for young people, including a list of other websites that focus on books featuring certain demographics or on diversity in specific genres. ThePirateTree.com features interviews, reviews, and other articles from a collective of children’s and young adult book writers interested in children’s literature and social justice issues. School Library Journal (slj.com) is a key source of reviews and other publishing information for librarians and teachers who work with children and teens.
The following are examples of recent books that break free of the restraints of a “single story.”
Families, by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, is a picture book for very young children that describes and celebrates all different configurations of families. Holiday House (Ages 2 to 6)
Thunder Boy Jr. is the first picture book by beloved young-adult fiction author Sherman Alexie. Illustrated by Mexican- American artist Yuyi Morales, it is the exuberant story of a little boy who is nicknamed after his father but wishes instead for a name “that celebrates something cool that I’ve done.” Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (Ages 4 to7)
Most importantly, I got to put my boys to bed most nights of their lives. Almost every night, we would say a prayer and goodnight with quick conversations about the day, the next day, or baseball. That’s why it was hard to turn off the bedside light when we came home — without being able to say goodnight.
Why is it so difficult for people of faith, who manage to structure their community and life around the belief of an unseen God, to not able to believe the very visible, tangible words and cries of their flesh-and-blood neighbors? Who forget that the very image of God is imprinted into these bodies?
O you of little faith, why don’t you believe?
Was it Jesus who said, “No greater love has anyone than this, to sit through a school board meeting?”
No, actually that was me. I whispered it to my wife as we sat together for several hours at a recent meeting of our local school board. On the agenda that evening was the adoption of a proposed district-wide gender expansive policy to protect transgendered and gender non-conforming students and bring the district in line with the U.S. Department of Education's directive on Title IX and recent legal precedent.
READERS OFTEN ASK US: How can I incorporate a hunger for justice into my child’s spiritual formation? How do we help the youngest members of the church understand the gospel’s call to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves? Sojourners asked five Christian parents engaged in various forms of justice work to share their best tips for helping children put their faith into action. Here’s what they said. - The Editors
1. Look for Teachable Moments
by Kate Ott
MANY PARENTS FEEL unprepared to talk about sex or faith with their children. I was one of those parents until I realized age-appropriate sexuality information could empower my children and keep them safe. I also realized that teaching my kids about sexuality meant more than talking about “sex.” After all, if I didn’t talk to my kids about how Christian values of love, justice, and mutuality guide the care of our bodies and our relationship choices, who would?
So rather than planning for a single “big talk” or waiting until I know all the answers, I practice parenting through teachable moments. For example, in our house we talk about how clothing choices and hygiene reflect our thankfulness for our bodies as part of God’s good creation (including remembering to brush teeth!). As a parent, when I take a picture of my kids, I ask them for permission before posting it on social media; this encourages thinking-before-posting and consent as an active yes. And when we’re watching TV or listening to a song in the car about attraction or a relationship, I ask questions like: How would you feel in that situation? Do you think that person values their body? Does that seem like a mutual decision/relationship? Is that kind of love balancing God, neighbor, and self? In the short conversation, I always say something like, “Being in a relationship takes a lot of work and requires communication, honesty, commitment, and mutuality.” This models how to use one’s values to assess relationship choices.
Last year, St. Lydia’s church in Brooklyn, N.Y., started a monthly service that lifts up children’s leadership and participation. They call it Waffle Church, and it’s messy on purpose. Olivia Whitener, an editorial assistant at Sojourners , interviewed Waffle Church minister Sarah McCaslin in January about the service that revolves around songs, stories, maple syrup, and the love of Jesus.
Sojourners: Why waffles?
Rev. Sarah McCaslin: Well, I prefer a savory brunch option, if given the choice. But “Omelet Church” just doesn’t have the same ring. The fact of the matter is: Who doesn’t love a waffle? They’re easy to make, they’re delicious. But the waffles aren’t as important as the idea of this meal we share around the table. It isn’t that we’re going to church and then will have waffles. When we sit around the table together and fellowship together, it’s an extension of communion.
What’s special about a Waffle Church service? The first time we did Waffle Church, I was standing at the table, and I do a rhetorical-question-style liturgy: “Look, we are gathered around this table, and we set it with our finest. This is not the Lutheran table, it’s not St. Lydia’s table, it’s not Waffle Church’s table. Whose table is this?” Then a 6-year-old shouts, “It’s the Lord’s table!” We couldn’t have planned it, and it was just amazing. Of course, now we have to do it because there’s always the kid who wants to shout “It’s the Lord’s table!” And so here’s a piece of the liturgy that has been fixed because the children will demand it. That kind of stuff is just happening all the time.
Are there ways other churches can incorporate a Waffle Church service into their ministries? I think it’s about creating a physical space that can accommodate the needs of children. The music is the other major piece of it. At St. Lydia’s, we adhere to the paperless-music singing tradition, where all of the songs are taught. So there’s no hymnal, no lyrics to be read—those things tend to privilege literacy. This way, children and adults can participate in the music each and every week.
DURING ALL THE Sunday mornings I spent in church as a child, I only cried once. After months of encouragement from my parents, I decided to go to our Catholic parish’s children’s liturgy (their version of Sunday school). I remember nothing else about that morning except that I stood in the corner crying while kind volunteers tried to calm me down with a few cookies. I never went to children’s liturgy again, and I’m thankful the experience didn’t leave me scarred for life, unable to eat another cookie.
My dislike of children’s liturgy wasn’t about what it was; it had to do with what it wasn’t. I grew up watching Mass unfold from the front pew, where I could be as close to the action as possible. Going to the basement meant that I had to give up the beauty, wonder, and fascination I experienced during church services.
It’s been more than 25 years since I lost my composure on that fateful Sunday, and my dissatisfaction with children’s liturgy is now echoed by ministers, Christian educators, and parents who realize the importance of including children in corporate worship. But as I see it, including children in corporate worship isn’t a matter of choice or changing trends; it’s a matter of justice.
“When your children ask you ...”
Practices for including children in worship are far from new. Children’s ministry leaders refer to Deuteronomy 6 so often that memorizing this passage might as well be a prerequisite for working with kids in churches! Many interpretations of this chapter focus on the first few verses—“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children ...”—and emphasize the importance of teaching God’s commandments to children in all times and places. Yet a crucial point in this text appears in verse 20, which begins, “When your children ask you ...”
WE ARE A baseball family, with our two boys playing on many teams over the years with multiracial teammates, coaches, and leadership in the organizations shaping those programs. I have long been a Little League baseball coach, and my wife, Joy, has been commissioner at every level too.
In baseball, talent and teamwork are the metrics and measuring sticks, not the race of one’s teammates. For both of my boys, their teammates are their closest friends.
Being a Little League coach (for 11 years and 22 seasons!) has given me a place to reflect on our nation’s racial issues. Playing baseball brings you closer together. My son Luke often says his high school teammates are the best friends he’s ever had, and at every level of Little League, my players always testify in our final team meeting of the season how they have become such close friends. Being teammates really does help overcome racial bias and prejudice, because it is the issue of proximity that finally helps human beings understand one another and learn empathy. On Little League teams we are all cheering for one another, looking out for one another, picking one another up when we fall down or make a mistake, and learning to be positive as we work together for our common goals.
One of the best things to watch over the course of a season is how, across racial lines, the parents of players become friends as well. It is especially interesting to see how the conversation topics develop over time, moving from “just baseball” to school and future, to work and family, to sharing of life experiences, and even to national events, which sometimes includes race. What becomes clear is that we all care more about our children and their future than anything else, and beginning to talk about our kids’ futures together can be a very powerful moment.
DAVID KING and Margot Starbuck are nostalgic for the good ol’ days of youth sports. In Overplayed: A Parent’s Guide to Sanity in the World of Youth Sports, the authors first critique the current youth sports machine by reminiscing about an athletic utopia of the past: One where kids used water bottles for goal posts and flip-flops for bases. Back when parents weren’t paying up to $18,000 in hotel and trainer fees for elite travel teams. Back when kids loved sports.
This book intends to teach parents how to prevent burnout, overuse injury, and a misguided value system for their children. However, I read Overplayed as a young single woman learning to love sports again after suffering overuse injury and burnout right before college. I wish my parents—loving and good-intentioned as they were and are—had read this book 20 years ago.
King, athletic director at a Mennonite university, and Starbuck, a writer and a parent to three teenage athletes, believe that sports has the potential to be a powerful force in the lives of children. However, often money and myths corrupt that potential. Early on, Starbuck speaks wonders of the ways athletics teach us to know and love our physicality, explaining, “I came to know my body as good because of the opportunities I had to play sports as a girl.” But with early single-sport specialization and year-round tournament schedules, children are coming to know their bodies as injured before they can come to know their bodies as good. The authors note that in 2014, 1.35 million kids suffered sports-related injuries that landed them in the emergency room. “‘No pain no gain,’” the authors insist, “should have no place in youth sports.”
MY SON WAS 10 YEARS, and the sight of an envelope addressed in his squiggly handwriting filled my spirit with joy. But as I tore open the envelope and began reading, I saw that this letter was different from the ones he had sent before.
In the top right-hand corner, Li’l Jay had written in big, capital letters:
MY MOM TOLD ME WHY YOU’RE IN JAIL, BECAUSE OF MURDER! DON’T KILL DAD PLEASE THAT IS A SIN. JESUS WATCHES WHAT YOU DO. PRAY TO HIM.
I stared at the small paragraph for what felt like hours. My body trembled violently, and everything inside of me threatened to break in half. For the first time in my incarceration, I was hit with the truth that my son would grow up to see me as a murderer.
I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about it before. It’s not that I was planning to hide my past from my son—it’s just that I thought I would be able to sit down and explain it to him when I felt he was mature enough for the conversation. But as I read Li’l Jay’s words, reality kicked me in the gut, and the pain of not knowing what to say spread through my body like cancer.
I didn’t know the context of the conversation that he had with his mother, so I wasn’t sure how to respond. The only thing I was sure of was that I had to do everything in my power to turn my life around. It was the only way I could show my son that I was not a monster.
His letter continued:
Dear daddy, I wonder how you’re doing in there. I’m doing fine. When I think about you, it makes me feel sad with no daddy around to wake me up and go work out and be strong like you. I have to do it all by myself. It bothers me the way I miss you. I pray and pray one day my prayer may come true and we’ll be together 4 life. It’s the anger in my heart that hurts me most without a dad in the house. My mama said I am the man of the house. She tells me I have to take over the anger so I won’t be in jail.
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the reign of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the reign of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
IN THE WEEKS LEADING UP to my child’s baptism, I wrestled with this passage from the gospel of John. While it doesn’t explicitly mention baptism, most of the churches where I had worshipped over my years as a Christian nevertheless drew significantly on it when they articulated their understanding of what it is we’re doing in the waters. And so, experiencing a deeply conflicted desire to raise my child—my daughter—in the church, I prayed for God’s Spirit to release fresh insight from old wisdom. I was yearning to understand what it was we were about to do.
Nicodemus is almost always presented as a fool in this story. What a silly question! What a silly man, thinking that there might be any kind of a special relationship between a person’s first birth and their second! I’ve never heard a sermon or attended a Bible study where we acknowledge that for someone hearing this brand new and seemingly nonsensical concept of being born again, Nicodemus’ question is perhaps the most logical one to pose.
Even more to the point, I’d never noticed before that Jesus’ answer to the question doesn’t dismiss the validity of a mother’s labor as the very context out of which we should understand what it is that happens in baptism.
It’s patriarchal theology that did that.
Now, the phrase “patriarchal theology” might be an offensive one simply to toss around. So let me just tip my hand: I’m a card-carrying feminist theologian, Baptist minister mama. From some angles I look like a jumble of contradictions, contradictions that I try to live with grace and glee.
But it’s not the fact that I’m a Baptist that gave me pause on the decision of baptizing my infant daughter in the Anglican church in Toronto where our ecumenical family happens to worship. Of course, as a Baptist minister I affirm the theology of baptism as an outward expression of an inward conversion, an expression that requires one be of a certain age to be able to proclaim it. But at the same time, my ecumenical sensibilities and general disposition of theological expansiveness mean that I simultaneously affirm a more Anglican theology of baptism—which sees God’s invitation to the community of faith as occurring through a grace that precedes our awareness of it. So, being a Baptist married to an Anglican, I didn’t really struggle with the idea of baptizing our daughter on account of her infancy.
When a picture from my first daughter’s first year pops up, when I was in the throes of postpartum depression, I long for a re-do. To relish the tiny baby snuggles and keep a level head with the all-nighters, knowing it truly does pass. I so wish I would have had the capacity to feel the fullness of the love and terror I felt, instead of putting on the shroud of numbness and apathy that comes with depression.
But there is grace. In an effort to forget what is behind, I will push forward clinging to hope and understanding that regret will be part of this journey too. Regret can be just a tiny shadow in a landscape of laughter, messiness, tears, and living.
Undergirding Tripp’s parenting book is a theological assumption of the nature of the child and the role of the parent. All of his chapters and discussions on methods of discipline and instruction are predicated by the framework of where the child is in relation to the parent. A good storyteller (and marketer) knows to introduce a problem in order to then supply the solution, which Tripp does successfully. According to Tripp, the problem begins the fact that a child’s heart is oriented towards evil. The solution to this problem is for parent to, acting as a representative of God, bring the child back into the “circle of blessing.”
IN MY 20s, I came to the unsettling conclusion that God was calling me to have a baby. Familiar with Frederick Buechner’s declaration that vocation “is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet,” I believed that my visceral yearning for children pointed toward my deep gladness. How my desire for children would meet the world’s great need, however, was far from clear, particularly in my small urban church where people routinely made great sacrifices in response to poverty and injustice.
In my progressive circles, childbearing can also be cast as ethically questionable, contributing to overpopulation and environmental degradation. In 2006, Katharine Jefferts Schori, then the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, summed up this view when she told an interviewer that “Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. ... We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.” More crudely, proponents of a growing “childfree” movement dismissed parents as self-absorbed “breeders.”
I was also leery of claiming a call to motherhood because within some strains of Christianity, a woman’s vocation to motherhood is assumed, regardless of her circumstances or predilections. Many evangelical and Catholic Christians uphold the traditional nuclear family of husband, wife,
and children as the God-ordained bedrock of society and the church. Writing for the Family Research Council, Dr. Andreas J. Kostenberger of the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary writes, “The Bible defines ‘family’ in a narrow sense as the union of one man and one woman in matrimony which is normally blessed with one or several natural or adopted children” (emphasis in original). I feared that by claiming motherhood as my vocation, I might inadvertently support a limited vision that idolizes traditional families and sees childbearing as every woman’s primary calling.
Even Pope Francis has harsh words for those who choose not to procreate. As reported by the Catholic News Service in June 2014, Pope Francis stated that among “things Jesus doesn’t like” are married couples “who don’t want children, who want to be without fruitfulness.” Such couples are convinced, he argued, that by remaining childless they “can see the world, be on vacation...have a fancy home in the country...be carefree.” He warned that such couples are doomed to a bitter, lonely old age. The stereotype of childless adults as embittered hedonists is so widespread that writer Meghan Daum titled her recent anthology of essays by childless writers Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed.
OK, I get that sin is an issue and I am despicable and Jesus is my only hope. God the Father loves me just as I am, but too much to let me stay that way.
However, I think about sin with the same ease as I do cancer. I either avoid it at all costs, or it becomes the center of my dark thoughts. I’m struggling with grasping the concept, and I hope someday I’ll arrive at the place where my theology and belief in a good God shelter me when I get the Tuesday afternoon call that the tumor is cancerous. The shit hits the fan, but I’m saved. Death is coming, but I’m unafraid.
I’m not there yet. It’s messy and anxiety-inducing. For each step I take forward in understanding the fall of humankind, my other foot takes a step toward grace that is so sweet and life-giving. I wouldn’t mind camping out at grace for awhile.
My daughter is in seventh grade, next year she will be in eighth. She tells me this means she will be “the king of middle school.” She will go to a leadership camp and learn what it means to cultivate leadership qualities in order to be a good king for the underlings in sixth and seventh grade.
And then she will graduate middle school and it’s back to the bottom of the pecking order — one minute a king, the next, a lowly high school freshman. Just when you think you’ve learned everything there is to know comes the swift reminder you are only just beginning.
Out here in the real world, things operate similarly. Motherhood certainly took me through the same cruel pattern. After floundering sleeplessly, aimlessly, in a constant panicked state through the first few newborn months, I thought I’d mastered this parenting thing. I could interpret my newborn’s cries, predict when she would go down for her nap within a half hour margin of error, and change a diaper by rote.
In C.S. Lewis’ beloved Narnia chronicles, the youngest of the four main characters, a little girl named Lucy, encounters Aslan, the lion who is an archetype for God.
She hasn’t seen him for a time, and she remarks, “Aslan, you are bigger.”
Aslan replies, with his strong, gentle voice, “Every year you grow, so shall I.”
As parents we are saddled with some anxiety to make sure we teach our children everything that they need to know within the short eighteen years we have them in our home. But when it comes to our faith, we can breathe easy, because our God is not One who can be limited to eighteen years of instruction. We get to walk with our children in this very beginning of their journey, and watch them dip their toes into just how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God.
The question we need to ask when our children leave home is not, "Have you learned everything there is to know about God?"
But, "Are you ready to get started?"
We think it's wrong for a woman, much less a mother, to be angry. And so when anger inevitably, righteously, hits us — with its cousin fatigue and its brother frustration — we don't know what to do except to bury it beneath a smile that gets thinner and weaker as the day winds on.
We all get angry, though. It is a function of being human, and I daresay without anger we would never have won women the right to vote, school desegregation, or any other host of advances that came about when people got righteously angry and unleashed the power of justice and the Holy Spirit.
So be angry when you are angry. The Bible says so. Do not be ashamed to say, in the moment, "This is not right. I'm angry."
What happens when the heart of God is broken?
What happens when, in spite of our best efforts, we are overcome by human frailty, we are assaulted by the reality of the sins of humankind, and it appears there is nothing we can do that will overcome the tragic pain of our fractured lives? Such are the questions that come upon us when we read of the tortured life of King David, the pain and agony of his personal sin, and the tragedy that befell the life of Absalom, his beloved son.