We stood beside the font, full of water, warmed to welcome an infant wholly. It was the first Sunday in Advent. The church was robed in royal blue, the babe in freshest skin. We stood beside the font and—together with her parents, with the whole congregation gathered—we spoke promises to our god-daughter. We promised to abide with her among God’s faithful people, to teach her, to nurture her, to pray for her. We sealed her with the cross of Christ, clothed her in an heirloom gown, and welcomed our littlest sister into the family of God. Then we ate cake.
Liv Grace entered more than water that day and inherited more than heirloom lace. We gave her a story, a tangled story of a broken people living in a crying-out creation, a true story of a God who abides, mending and raising. This is not an easy story to give an infant. The cross is not an easy thing to trace above such brand new eyes. But we give our children this story—told in water, oil, and flame—because we want to graft their green branches onto the strongest vine we know. We want to entrust their lives to God.
But, how? How do we entrust our children to God? How do we live into these promises to raise them faithfully? How do we teach them the broken truth about the human story? What do we say and leave unsaid? How do we welcome and, when the time comes, say goodbye to our children? How can the Church support parents and caregivers in these holy, heart-wrenching tasks?
In this issue of Let’s Talk we invited our authors to reflect on the theme of faithful parenting. Above all, their responses testify to the reality that while we have great power to shape and be shaped by our children’s stories, the abiding narrative that promises to transform us all is the story of a broken world which is redeemed by Christ.
In “Writing Our Children,” Kaethe Schwehn reminds us that “telling a story, any kind of story, is always an exercise in absence and presence; what one chooses to mention will reveal certain truths while simultaneously veiling others.” Nevertheless, she believes—as a writer, as a mother, as a person of faith—that “offering a broken and biased story is (almost always) better than no story at all.” The most important chapters of a child’s story, the sacramental moments, will emerge even when we fall short in the writing of the details.
In “Faithful Parenting: It’s In the Story!” the Rev. Dr. Linda Lee Nelson recalls her own experience of finding a tender welcome in the waters of baptism at age five, when, she writes, “the story took me into its arms as it promised never to let me go, and on that morning it gave me the gift of identity and community.” The new identity that this child found at the font helped her to know that the brokenness of her parents did not need to be her own: there was a larger story in which she could live and love freely. Giving a child over to this greater story is the best gift a parent can offer.
In “Washing the Diapers,” a chapter from the forthcoming book Hopes and Fears: Everyday Theology for New Parents and Other Tired, Anxious People, the Rev. Lee Hull Moses wrestles with how and how much to teach our children about the brokenness in our world, particularly the injustices for which we must claim responsibility. She longs for her daughter to know the goodness of God and the goodness of creation, while also understanding “that we live in the gap between this world and the one God dreams for us; that we are not yet there.” Accordingly, she offers practical ways in which even very young children can be engaged in the work of social justice and advocacy.
In a sermon delivered on Mother’s Day, the Rev. Paula Murray explores the ways in which the mothers and grandmothers in her congregation find their hopes for their children fulfilled by a Christ who abides with us. She reminds us that “for the first nine months of his life, our Savior did abide, as did each of us here, with his mother in just such a way as a branch abides with the vine.” At the heart of the dreams and disappointments in any parental relationship is a God who came to earth in human flesh to save us by conquering sin and death.
As Christians we trust that death does not have the final word, but it does sometimes afflict children. In “‘I Have Called You By Name’: The Calling of Parenthood in the Midst of Grief” the Rev. Stacey Jutila writes about the ways in which Christian communities can respond to the heartbreaking situation of a child’s death: “Amidst the anguish, pain, and cries of lament of a grieving parent, God calls out with a louder voice of promise.” Drawing on her experience as a pediatric hospital chaplain and bereavement counselor, Stacey offers several ways in which people of faith can respond honestly to grieving parents while keeping God’s promises in the foreground.
In “Sea Monsters, Butterflyfish, and the Hiddenness of God,” the Rev. Elizabeth Palmer reviews recent albums of children’s Bible music in relation to the realities of the world’s brokenness and our inability to see God clearly in this lifetime. Delving into the music of Butterflyfish and Why Not Sea Monsters?, she notes ways in which “their songs hint at the paradoxical Lutheran presupposition that God is both hidden and revealed: revealed through Christ in Scripture, and hidden through the cross and in the deep mysteries of human suffering.” The bands take very different approaches to telling the Christian story, but in both cases the final word is always grace.
In his As I See It column, the Rev. Frank Senn discusses the challenges that older children find as they leave their childhood homes and encounter new spaces and styles of worship. “It’s not easy for anyone to go into places where one is a stranger. How do we overcome the fear and anxiety of being strangers in a strange place?” The means of overcoming such fear resides in deliberate training while the child is still young: visiting unfamiliar churches in new contexts, learning that prayer and praise and proclamation transcend distinctions of language and culture, and trusting that in the gathering itself we are given a grace that transcends all human limitations. We are strangers, all of us, and yet we are together the Body of Christ.
In this issue’s On the Way, the Rev. Ben Dueholm shares the theological lessons his family has learned in the past two years as they parented a foster child. These lessons include a nuanced sense of social and communal obligations for the least among us, a broader meaning of the biblical concept of steadfast love, and a new understanding of the ways in which small children contend with separation, injustice, and death. Ben explains, “it is the most peculiar sorrow of parenthood that we feel somehow obligated to teach our children to accept these things, perhaps not realizing that we could succeed too well and that the defiant sense of fairness and pure attachment to another could be covered up and forgotten rather than harnessed and modulated.”
Ben closes his column with a tribute to the Rev. Ruth VanDemark, a member of the Let’s Talk Editorial Council who died in June after a long struggle with cancer. Ruth was a mother, a pastor, a lawyer, a prominent community member in her neighborhood of Wicker Park, and to those of us who had the privilege of working with her, a dear friend. Ben’s tribute testifies to the richness of grace in which Ruth lived and died.
And Ruth’s story reminds us: Gathered into one body in baptism, tutored in faith—and perseverance—by our children, we entrust not only the lives of our children, but our own lives to God. We trust that every choice we make, every story we tell and retell, is made more than what it is by grace. Born of water and the Word, fed by the sweet food of Christ’s own body, we all are children of a most gracious God, who is at work tenderly raising us to life abundant.
God of all good gifts, your Son gathered children into his arms and blessed them. Help us to understand our youth as they grow in years and in knowledge of your world. Give us compassion when they face temptations and experience failures. Teach us to encourage their search for truth and value in their lives. Help us to appreciate their ideals and sympathize with their frustrations that with them we may look for a better world than either we or they have known; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.1
Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 83.