Spinach April 19, 2012

When I was pregnant, I could not eat green vegetables. I couldn’t stomach the tastes and textures, plus the heartburn that ensued was unbearable. (I often think that nature uses pregnancy to prepare women for motherhood in many ways. Including, perhaps, making us empathetic to a picky toddler’s eating habits). So, I ate lots of fruit and took my vitamins, and hoped that God would work out the math on all the fingers and toes that were knitting themselves together inside me.

Well, God (and the vitamins) came through. Both my kids got born ok, one after some complications (un-related to my green veggie deprivation) and both times, I reintroduced myself to green vegetables. For the most part. I love kale, collards, broccoli, even brussel sprouts if they’re cooked right (meaning, by my husband, in foil on the grill, or by me, in lots of bacon grease). But spinach…well, spinach and I have not gotten to be friends again. Ever since my 2nd pregnancy, I can’t stand it. Thing is, I eat it anyway sometimes because it is good for me. I try to loose it in a veggie burrito or a great pasta dish, or drown it in salad dressing.

I try to sneak it in my kids’ food, too. And now that they are getting old enough to catch me out, I am wondering…do i pretend to like it, and try to trick them into thinking it’s great? Or do I teach them that there are some things we do anyway, because they are good for us?

I often hear parents say that they don’t take their kids to church or teach them a faith because they want their kids to “choose for themselves” when they are grown. I remove myself/let go/avoid judgement….all the great things I learned from the gospels of Anne Lamott and Tina Fey. However, I struggle with this framing of faith “choices.” If a child is given no faith background, they are really not being given freedom of choice. They are not even being shown the menu.

Now, I do not for a moment liken going to church with choking down a spinach omelett. To me, being part of a faith community is the essence of life itself. Kind of like parenting. But I know, to many, ‘church’ is really alot like eating vegetables… to be avoided if possible. And of course, it is very possible.

My concern for kids being raised without a faith tradition is not rooted in a fear of hell. I’m not worrying that God rejects the godless to the outer darkness, or condemns to a fiery pit. Nor am i worried that kids without church (or some other religious tradition) cannot learn moral values, right from wrong, and social empathy. I know that good parents can instill all this in their children with love and sound upbringing.

Furthermore, I applaud these parents for not wanting to cram a belief system down their kids’ throats. In most cases, they want only to protect their children from systems of exclusion, hate rhetoric and supression of the self that they (the parents) have experienced or perceived in religion. Still, there are parts of childhood and personhood that can only be rooted in a faith community. To be clear: A faith community. The right one. Not necessarily mine. Each family has different beliefs, needs, values, etc. that can be answered across the wide spectrum of interfaith dialogue.

My hope is that people who liken church to spinach can seek, and find for themselves, a place of belief and connection that is life-giving and meaningful for them. And if not…well, here are a few reasons it might still be a good idea to eat the spinach, and offer some kind of faith community to the kids:

The bigger picture  Finding the right faith story for your family means giving a common thread of meaning, image and history to your everyday lives. Kids who know that they are part of a longer, broader, bigger narrative have better coping skills, wider imaginations, and probably, a more diverse array of friends. (Provided you find a community that does not scare them away from gay people, poor people, or women with their ankles showing…)

–which brings me to, The Village, otherwise known as not just you. It is very healthy for kids–especially teenagers–to have trusted adults in their lives who are not immediate family members and not teachers at school. They need safe places to vent about family and school, many influnces and insights to help process the world, and mostly, little reminders everywhere that they are loved in a BIG way by people who don’t have to care for them by laws of nature or state.

–let us not forget presents. When you have a baby, you need lots of stuff. Cute, tiny stuff that is very expensive. Who loves to buy this stuff? Church ladies!  (Or synagogue ladies, or mosque ladies.) These women (and their husbands) are the same ones who will write big fat checks for high school graduation, who send care packages to college, who arrive with piles of wedding gifts and stockpiles of unsolicted advice for the newlyweds. But, more important than the stuff and cash, is the sense of belonging and self that comes with every single check, blender, and seed of wisdom. These things matter…to the new mom, to the new grad, to the new bride or groom, and at every less spectacular moment in between

Sight, sound and song. Why do you reckon people throng churches on high holy days? People who may have left the church long ago, or people who were never a part of it? Why come seeking once or twice a year? Because these are the days of tradition. Days that we tell old stories, sing old songs, and go through sacred rituals that make people nostalgic. Those sometime seekers may not know what it is they’re after, but I have a guess. They are remembering something–a time, place, person, or group of people–that made them feely fully at home, at rest, and alive. And somewhere, in all those sacred connections of space and time, lives a truth of community that can’t be found at the mall, or even in the most beautifully decorated home. Not long ago, I got home from a long day and my 3-year-old told me that i smelled like church, and my pastor’s heart–or was it my mother’s heart?–skipped a few beats. What a joy to know that my child has the smell of church in her being already, and that, for her, ‘smelling like church’ means rootedness, connection, and home.

Again, I’m not saying that a person can’t be healthy, happy and whole without a faith community. But so many good things depend on the sharing of story, calling and place. I just suggest, it is worth considering, that children might be exposed to church as a means of expanding their options, not limiting them.

Ultimately, if i let my kids ‘choose’ what they want to eat, without imposing a LITTLE bit of my motherly will on them, they would live on chicken nuggets and pancakes forever. I don’t expect them to grow up and one day decide they like leafy green things. The hunger for good things is an acquired taste.  The thirst for good news develops in our youth, and it moves us from table to table, from mercy to mercy, all the days of our lives.

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