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Confessions of a new father

'We need to have the conversations so the faith will be passed on'


When I was at a clergy gathering at which theologian Robert W. Jenson told us about his new book, my first reaction was “He must be so proud.”

In my pre-parenthood days, fresh out of seminary and aspiring to a career in academia, I would have imagined him proud of having published another book. But in this case, I felt Jenson’s pride for his granddaughter. After all, his new book is Conversations with Poppi about God: An Eight-Year-Old and Her Theologian Grandfather Trade Questions (Brazos Press, 2007).  

The rest of us mortals show our pride by attaching the latest digital photos to e-mails, maxing out the storage capacity of our relatives’ servers.

I knew from watching other families that having children dramatically affected their daily living. Dinner conversation changed focus, dwelling at considerable length on the best strategies for dealing with teething. Bed and nap times became high priorities. I had even suspected that having a child would change my reading habits—or delete the habit of reading from my life altogether. It didn’t occur to me that I would keep reading, only differently. And keep reading and reading and reading—the same books over and over and over again. Books like Kiss Goodnight, Sam and That’s Not My Puppy.

It especially didn’t occur to me that the moral of the majority of books I would read would be quite simple: “Good night, and go to sleep .…”
 
I also started to devise a strategy on how exactly we might introduce devotions into this arduous circuit of repeated book readings. Our family fails at this endeavor probably as often as many others. We set it as our goal to sing a hymn each morning around breakfast time, but the busy nature of mornings as a family often precludes this. Admission: we forget.

Shopping is easier. I started wandering into the children’s section of the bookstore, usually to browse the board books looking for gems my son could read and eat. But I also started looking over the religious selections, wondering how soon a child could pray. At two weeks? Three months? One year?

Then I picked up a wonderful board book titled Our Father (Eerdmans, 2006), translated from the French. It’s like a contemporary small catechism on the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s perfect because it also happens to include adorable drawings and is made out of cardboard stiff enough to withstand my son’s teething onslaughts. I tried to convince my wife that we could also purchase Hail Mary (Eerdmans, 2006), but failed. Another day, maybe.

We have had some success on the prayer front. Our simple table prayer is currently “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed. Amen.” Our son, Samuel, consistently joins in on the “Amen.” Although lately the word has transmogrified into “Mama.” I’m not surprised at the lapse. Samuel’s mama is really his god at this point, the source of all good things, and so the “Amen” of the table prayer transubstantiated into “Mama” isn’t heresy but rather developmentally conditioned heterodoxy. We’re just happy he joins in with us in praying the prayer.

Which brings me back to Jenson’s new book. I’m glad that our most eminent theologians are paying attention to children—or at least offering a model of how they talk about faith with their grandchildren. I’m grateful for a role model, a theologian and clergyperson who believes theology is for the whole church, 8-year-olds included. I’m also thankful for granddaughter and co-author Solveig Lucia Gold, who reminds us that children are theologians too. Our children might embarrass us with their questions because our answers may come across as less than convincing, even incoherent. But we desperately need to have such conversations because we will all be changed in the process. We need to have the conversations so the faith will be passed on, and so those responsible for sharing the faith make sure the way they share it is shaped by the excellent questioning and conversation of our children.

Now I’m just waiting for a Robert W. Jenson board book. I’m afraid Conversations with Poppi will quickly become Conversations with Pulpi via my son’s close readings of the text. He has taken author Eugene Peterson’s encouragement to Eat This Book (Eerdmans, 2006) quite literally.  


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