Sunday, August 26, 2007

Hello, God. Are You There? It's Me, Pillowfight Fairy

Like every Christian parent, we wonder from time to time how we are doing at teaching our children about God. Sure, we try to live worthy lives, hoping that the example we set rubs off; and we talk to them about God when the opportunity presents itself. We also attend a church that has a good educational program for the children.

(Although they make so many odd crafts in their classes that we sometimes wonder what exactly they do in there. Usually we wind up bringing home about three items apiece for each of our girls--papers that have been partly colored, things glued to popsicle sticks with the glue still wet, such weird things with brads and beads and paste and glitter and cotton balls, that we can't figure out what exactly the teacher was getting at. For example, the following item wound up in the mass of stuff that we brought home from church today, among many other unidentified items:

Those are pasta shells glued to bits of construction paper, glued to a paper plate. Now tell me: any idea what Bible story the Adrenalin Junkie was studying today? Is this the stuff that the Prodigal Son was trying to feed the pigs? Are these the stomach contents of Jonah's whale? Or is this thing supposed to represent a more abstract theological concept, like Redemption, or Utter Depravity, or even Transubstantiation? Personally, I'm inclined to the idea that what you're seeing here is one of the seven deadly sins.)

Ahem. Where was I?

Occasionally one of our kids will say something that lets us know that bits and pieces of this theological instruction are getting through. The Pillowfight Fairy will occasionally say things about God that shows that she's thinking about Him, and that she has what can accurately be described as a child-like understanding of Him.

For instance, we tell our kids that God made everything in the natural world: the sun, the sky the trees, the birds, the cats, the dogs, the clouds, the rain, etc. So Pillowfight Fairy naturally extrapolates this to all kinds of other things. A few weeks back we were out in the backyard when the sprinklers came on (which is always exciting), and the Fairy commented "...and God made the grass, and the trees, and the sprinklers...." So I responded as well as I could; that, well... actually, God made all the raw materials, but that people had actually used the raw materials to make the sprinklers. I explained that I was the one who dug the trenches and laid the pipes in the ground, and installed the sprinklers; that the pipes and sprinklers had been made by other people, and that we just bought them. I didn't go into the manufacturing processes behind items made of polyvinyl chloride--I figured I'd confused her enough. But I did try to work in the concept that God likes to create things, and that when he made us, he made us so that we like to create things too; that God gave us the ability to take the stuff he made and arrange it to useful or beautiful purposes.

Ok, but God still made all the things in the natural world, right? This includes trees, and butterflies, and cats, and birds, and so forth. So a couple of days later, she says something along the lines of, "Maybe today God will make some puppies in our yard." So Tonya and I looked at each other, and we each could tell the other was thinking, "Boy, I hope not." But of course we had to explain that while God has the power to create anything He wants, for the most part he finished up creating the animals a long time ago. New animals today aren't so much created, as they are born. But of course, we've been telling the Fairy all along that God made her. And in fact, one could argue the point that every new life is in some way a miracle, that each of us--Pillowfight Fairy included--were created by God, but then you have to explain to a four-year old that this kind of creation is different from the kind of creation that happened in Genesis, when God made everything ex nihilo. And although we think that the Fairy is rather advanced for her age, and although we're using a Classical Homeschooling approach, she hasn't just yet been exposed to Latin so we can't use terms like ex nihilo with her.

At sunset tonight, while we were driving home from church, the Pillowfight Fairy said something along the lines of, "God painted the sky," which was a lovely concept to which Tonya and I happily assented. But shortly after this, the Fairy said something along the lines of, "...and when God doesn't notice something, that's when we should pray about it."


Tonya responded that "God's actually pretty good at noticing things, but he likes it when we pray to Him anyway." Thinking about it, this is about as good an answer as one can give to a four-year-old. Try to go too far beyond this, and you risk going way above the head of the little one, and quite possibly way above your own head as well.

Part of the problem is precisely that the Fairy has stumbled upon one of the mysteries of God: Why should we pray, when He already knows everything we need? This is not a question with a simple answer, and different religous sects throughout the ages have tried to address the mystery in completely different ways. The Muslims, to give one example, have decided that one should pray not to inform God of what we need or would like, because He already knows what He's going to do, and what He's going to give us. To the Muslim, prayer is strictly a prescribed act of devotion, at five set times each day, and is not really an act of communication (after all, the words are already known in advance). What do we need to communicate to God that He doesn't already know?

And in a way, this would make sense, except for the fact that the Bible is loaded with examples of people praying for all kinds of reasons, including from a desire to change God's mind, at which prayer is sometimes successful! And Jesus explicitly tells us to ask for what we need--see Luke 11:9-13 for an example. How exactly does this work, though, if God already knows what we need?

Now, we Christians are supposed to pray for many reasons; Christianity sees prayer as genuine communication with God. But what are we to make of Paul's statement in Romans 8:26-27:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

This passage often gives those of us in the Church of Christ fits. After all, it talks about an active, sentient Spirit that lives with us and communicates with God on our behalf, in such a way that we cannot fathom. And, it does so because we ourselves "do not know how to pray as we ought." And furthermore, this passage shows up just before Paul goes off on all this stuff about Predestination and Election (all that "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion" business--Romans 9:15).

And David himself (later echoed by Jesus) could occasionally say something like "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" in Psalm 22:1. So the Fairy's observation that "...and when God doesn't notice something, that's when we should pray about it" isn't a completely unreasonable thing for her to think. Answering her completely and accurately would be difficult if she were of any age, let alone when she's just four.

On the other hand, with the Fairy we don't see a whole lot of in-depth analysis. After all, she's four. Furthermore, I'm reminded of Jesus' teachings regarding children, such as in Mark 10:13-16:

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

So, what to make of this, and my little girl? The Fairy is trying to figure out her place in the universe a little at a time, and trying to figure out God and the way He works. This is entirely appropriate, and entirely natural. Her faith isn't supposed to be an intellectual faith; she's not expected to get all the answers right. What I take from the above passage is that whatever limitations in her understanding of God she might have, she probably has the big things down, simply by virtue of the fact that she's a kid: God is big and strong, God makes amazing things, He loves me and cares for me, and He wants me to be good because He doesn't like punishing people. While there's plenty of room in Christian life for pursuing wisdom and understanding through use of the intellect, the Christian life is not actually about intellect. I think Jesus' words above indicate that even a four-year-old is capable of getting the important stuff.

Even if they're a bit disappointed that God didn't make puppies in the backyard today.

No comments: