by Bruce Epperly
“We’re going to Gabby’s church!” my grandson announces as we’re pulling out of the driveway to run errands. On the way, I tell him that we’re going to see my administrative assistant for a few minutes before going to the library across the parking lot. My four year old grandson asks, “Is she your boss?” and I correct him with “No, I’m the boss.” To which he responds, “You’re wrong, Gabby. God and Jesus are your bosses!”
Children have a sense of the holy. They live in the magic world of the imagination and the joy of the senses. They experience both the awe and terror of life. They know that they are dependent and they are trying to make sense of the chaos of the world into which they are born.
Grandparents have a role in helping their grandchildren make sense of the world. We provide a sense of safety and order, and we also encourage creativity and novelty. Our grandchildren know that they are loved unconditionally, without some of the pressures that come with parenting. Grandparenting is often easier than parenting, because of its gracefulness. We don’t have to prove ourselves. We know that we’ll make mistakes but we also know that our children survived our parenting, and grew up to be parents themselves!
Children ask questions – about everything! My oldest grandchild loves sharks. He knows that sharks are predators and can be dangerous. He likes their fierceness. They help him feel brave, especially when he’s pretending to be a shark. But, being fierce often leads to discipline by his parents and occasionally his grandparents. One day, he asked me, “Does God love sharks?” You see, he already knows a lot about theology. He knows, based on our conversations, that “God is bigger than infinity.” He knows, based on other conversations, that “God and Jesus live forever and are in charge of things” even though we have freedom. He knows that his recently deceased great-grandmother is with God in heaven and that love never ends. So the question, “Does God love sharks?” is a perfect one.
I responded to his query, “What do you think? Do you think God loves sharks?” And, his reply was “yes.” I returned with “God loves sharks and God loves you, too!”
Talking with your grandchildren about God is more about creating a space for conversation than preaching to them. Young children aren’t able to deal with abstractions, so doctrine is of little consequence and some so-called orthodox doctrines – such as hell, divine punishment, sin – can be harmful to children’s faith if shared in a literal, absolutist fashion. A young child who hears about the fate of sinners can worry that he or she will spend forever apart from their parents in a dark and fiery place. A young child who is told to change because he or she is “different” than others can spend a lifetime in shame and guilt for something unworthy of censure.
Our task is to listen and not correct when spiritual issues come up. Our orthodoxies are too small to be taken literally in a 14 billion year, 125 billion galaxy universe. Don’t worry about the age of the earth; take your grandchildren out at night to revel in a starry night, show them a geode, or go hiking in the woods. Let their own curiosity drive your faith conversations.
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me.” He saw the child as an embodiment of the realm of God. Our talking is grounded in our listening. Let the children in your life shine. Watch them, observe their delight and fear, and let that be your guide. What our children need most is for us to “let our lives speak.” To share words of love and descriptions of divinity, but more importantly embody divine love in relating with them. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke of “radical amazement” as one of the most significant religious virtues. Our sustained wonder and amazement is our best gift to our children, along with our love. In a world that tamps down amazement, we need to help them stay in touch with beauty, wonder, love, and the surprising world in which we live.
We grandparents are the “elders.” Let us pass along our faith, and more importantly our love and wonder to bring delight, beauty, and integrity to generations in the making.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor of South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA. He regularly teaches courses in spirituality, ministerial excellence, and theology for seminaries and gives seminars and lectures on healing, spirituality, process theology, and ministerial self-care and excellence. He is the author of 35 books, including a number of Energion books, “Letters to My Grandson,” “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” “Experiencing God in Suffering: A Journey with Job,” and “Holistic Spirituality: Life Giving Wisdom from the Book of James.” He has written texts on Philippians and Galatians for the Energion Participatory Bible Study Series.