The bedtime routine is almost over. Penny has taken her sweet time putting on her pajamas. I say, “Penny, I am starting to feel angry but I don’t want to yell at you.” She turns slowly in my direction, then gives me a quick nod and finishes her task. William is lying on the floor chewing a stick of Trident, which helps him calm down at the end of the day. Marilee is already in her crib across the hall. Teeth, face, bodies, hair are clean, or at least cleanish. We have read a story. And now, zippers zipped and toilets flushed and curtains drawn, it is time for my favorite part of the day.
William climbs into his bed—dinosaur sheets and his navy blue comforter with stars pushed down to the end of the bed so he won’t get too hot. He holds his giraffe and stretches his legs out straight, and they seem to have grown an inch just today. He sees me looking at him and blows a kiss, with a smile.
Penny nestles in close by, underneath her covers—hot pink with white polka dots. Her glasses sit on the bedside table, folded carefully within reach, next to a cup of water. With her glasses off, I see her cheekbones more clearly, and the expression of anticipation that makes her eyes sparkle. “Mom,” she says, “will you sing me church songs?”
Her favorites at the moment include “Strength Will Rise” and “Our God is Greater.” She wants to be just like Kate, who leads worship at our church. Penny considers how to turn the words of the songs into signs, physical expressions of their meaning. She explains, “When we sing ‘Our God is higher,’ you need to lift your hands in the air to show the people what it means.” As I sing, I watch her raise her hands, clench her fists (for “strength) and stretch her arms wide to indicate “forever.”
William also requests “Our God is Greater.” And when I go to sing it a second time, the lyrics make me squirm a little. I sing it anyway, because the words come straight from the Old Testament: “Our God is greater. Our God is stronger. God you are higher than any other…”
William blurts out, “But Mom. There’s only one God.”
“Yes,” I say.
“So how can our God be greater than other gods?”
I consider a lesson in ancient culture, when the Israelites fought against nations who worshiped other deities. Instead, I go with: “Well it’s not that there are real other gods but that we can treat other things we love like god, put them in God’s place.”
“Like what?” he asks.
“Like money. Like if we love money so much we don’t love God any more.”
His eyes move up, as if he is trying to look inside his own head. He has stashes of money hidden all over the house—quarters collected in a box in the living room, dollar bills in an old black purse, assorted coins and bills in a piggy bank on this dresser. His face gets a little stern. “What else?”
“School or work or family even.”
He nods slowly.
I start singing again and then interrupt myself. “But it’s not that any of those things aren’t good. It’s not that God doesn’t want us to love other things.”
He nods quickly this time, as if to make it clear I should resume the song. “Right. Just not to love them the most.”
I keep singing, but I wonder. Do I really love God more than my children? More than my work? More than my husband? I guess so, but it’s more accurate to say that loving God is what enables me to love my family and my activities. Loving God doesn’t box out kids and spouse and career. It infuses them, energizes them. But I don’t think I can explain this to William, so I finish the song and kiss him on the forehead and walk away.
Much of our family life revolves around singing. I sing to get my children marching up the steps. We sing to learn the alphabet. We sing in celebration. We sing to bless our food. So perhaps it is fitting that the way they have learned the most about God is through singing.
Holy holy holy Lord God Almighty…
O come o come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
You have been a shelter, Lord, to every generation, to every generation
I have a maker. He formed my heart.
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
One glad morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away
Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord
And perhaps it is fitting that my own theological education comes these days, not through classrooms or adult Bible studies or long stretches of time reading, but through the sweet moments of singing my children to sleep.
What have your children taught you about God?