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On the way into the Y for swim lessons on Monday, my son and I stopped to let a Y staffer scan my membership card.

While we were standing there, I noticed the big basket of colorful slips of paper that is labeled “Spiritual Vitamins” and suggested that William take one for us to read together. I often take one myself, just to see what random Bible verse I might get and to see how it might apply to my current situation. Often I get a verse that I vaguely recognize, so I end up spending part of my time on the treadmill or elliptical trainer pondering when I might have read that part of the Bible and what it means. (Which is a nice little extra Bible study in an unexpected way, if you think about it. It’s Biblical lagniappe.)

But the lady suggested that we take a slip from a second basket of “Spiritual Vitamins” that are created just for children. “They’re a little easier to explain,” she said, proffering the basket.

The purple slip that William pulled out read, “If you believe you can or you can’t, you are probably right.” I read it aloud to him and said, “Yes, I think that’s true. What do you think, William?”

He scrunched up his face as we walked along the corridor toward the swimming pool and asked me to read it again, which I did. “What does that mean, exactly?” he finally asked.

“Well,” I started. “If you think you can do something, and you believe in yourself that you can do it, then you’ll get it done. But, if you think, ‘Oh, I can’t do that,’ then you probably can’t do it because you don’t think you can.”

William looked unconvinced. For a moment or two, I wished we had gotten a nice easy-to-understand Bible version from some uncontroversial part of the Bible (which, er, is a tall order, now that I think about it). “A little easier to understand, my rear end,” I thought. But this particular bon mot had some real merit, and so I pressed on.

“It means you need to have confidence in yourself,” I said. “The best way to accomplish something is to have faith in yourself and do your best to get something done, not to just give up and say you can’t do it.”

(That wasn’t too bad, was it?)

At that point, we had reached the door to the pool area. Willliam charged inside, and we dropped the conversation. But the more I ruminated over William’s “Spiritual Vitamin,” the more relevant it became to his life–and mine.

William is trying to learn how to swim, and it’s a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process. He’s finally gotten comfortable letting go of me in the water if he’s got a firm grip on a pool noodle or something. But he’s still not yet ready to try floating on his back with me standing guard, no matter how many times I tell him that I’m right there and he’s not going to drown. Maybe all he needs to do at this point is to tell himself that he can learn how to swim…and then set about doing it.

And I need to realize that perhaps this process is just his way of doing that. Just because it’s not a completely linear way of learning to swim doesn’t mean it’s not valid, even if it frustrates his mom.

That, I think, is a good lesson for me in another way. Our faith journeys don’t always have to be linear, always-going-forward. But if we tell ourselves that we are learning, that we are making progress, and then do it…then we are. If we believe that we can, we can.

With God’s help, of course.

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For the past almost four years, I’ve been a member of a small group studying the ecumenical Disciple Bible Study curriculum.

One of the most satisfying parts of the entire experience–and there have been many!–has been studying the Old Testament and learning much more about the history of our faith from the beginning. I mean, we all know the story of Noah and the Ark and Moses parting the Red Sea, but there is so much more there. The New Testament is so much more vibrant, so much more meaningful, with the context of all the history and prophecy of the Old Testament behind it.

More than once, I’ve admired the Jewish faith for maintaining the rituals that mark their holy days. As Christians, I feel like we’ve let go of a lot of our faith heritage in some ways; we don’t always remember or reflect upon where we came from and what that means. It’s not that I am suggesting that we go back and begin living by the law prescribed in the Old Testament; I’m not. But I think we can learn a lot more about our faith and our faith traditions by remembering how it developed.

While we may not actually celebrate Passover, we surely must remember it. The Last Supper, after all, was a Seder meal. When we refer to Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” that’s an allusion to the sacrifices that the Jews made to God so that the angel of death would pass over their homes.

Passover begins next week; the first full day of Passover this year is Tuesday, April 19. To that end, I interviewed an old high school friend of mine, Beth Marler, because she and her family have recently started honoring some of the Jewish holidays like Passover in addition to the Christian holidays.

Beth said that she discovered, while studying the Old Testament, that God told the Israelites to observe certain days so they would remember what God had done for them.

“God knew that humans are quite forgetful, and indeed, the Israelites routinely forgot what God had done for them,” Beth told me. 

Beth noted that, no, she’s not Jewish. So it’s fair to ask why she believes she’s been told by God to remember and celebrate.

“I don’t know that I”m not a descendant of one of those brothers [of the 12 tribes of Israel],” she said. “I think it’s very possible that I am. Don’t know, but could be. Look how many decendants of Judah (modern day Jews) there are.”

But beyond that… “I want to REMEMBER what God has done,” Beth said. “I also want my kids to REMEMBER what God has done.”

So she and her three young daughters do things like make special treats for Purim, blew a shofar (ram’s horn) at Rosh Hashanah and put up tent for the Feast of Booths. And this year, they will try honoring Passover for the first time.

“I may try to cook a lamb,” Beth said.

Pretty thought-provoking, isn’t it?

The title of the fourth year of the Disciple curriculum is “Remember who you are.” Perhaps it will help even more of us in our faith formation if we think more about where we came from, theologically speaking.

Now, someone recently mentioned to me that, when doing this sort of thing, it’s important to stay true to the remembering-who-we-are part, and not cross over into the co-opting-another-faith’s-traditions territory. I completely agree. And I think Beth would agree, too.

It’s important to frame the observance with the context. My church hosts a Seder meal each year to educate church members about the origins of Passover–and how the Last Supper fits into that context. It’s all in the approach and the intent.

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My older son, who is almost five,  is playing soccer for the very first time this spring. He was a little reluctant when we first registered, despite the fact that he has always loved kicking around the soccer ball in the backyard. But by the time practices started a few weeks ago, he had embraced the idea.

His team is mostly soccer rookies. There’s one boy who I jokingly refer to as “the ringer” because this is his third season, and he’s quite good. But the rest of them are still novices. Enthusiastic novices, but novices nonetheless. Which is fine. You have to start somewhere, I’ve always said. 

Also, this particular league is a low-pressure league where there are actual rules spelled out to govern good sportsmanship on the part of coaches and other involved parties. Which means that it’s less likely to be full of Those Parents. You know. The dads (and moms) who are hard core about the sport. The ones who yell constantly at their kids to work harder, play harder, run harder, do better, beat up the other kids and win at all costs. Okay, so the last two things are (mostly) implied. But you get my drift. Low pressure situation. People there to learn. People there to have fun. Emphasis on having fun and learning to play, not on winning games. Check, check, check, and check.

So it was a little disheartening to hear a little boy on the team that mopped the floor with my son’s team on Saturday (hey, I said they were novices, right?) crowing loudly about how many goals he’d scored. He and a couple of the girls on his team were scoring over and over again, and our little bunch was starting to droop a little bit.

Now, I’m realistic about kids. Five- and six-year-old kids don’t always do the right thing every single time. Heck, adults don’t always do the right thing, so why would we expect children to? Children do have one excuse, though: they have to learn how to do the right thing. And that means someone has to teach them. From what my husband and my friends said, no one from the boy’s team was gently advising him that it wasn’t about all the goals that he’d scored, that it was about playing the game the right away.

It wasn’t all the boy’s fault that he wasn’t behaving in the most sportsmanlike way. But someone should have said something to him, so that he’d recognize that what he was doing wasn’t very nice.  No one begrudged him the right to be proud of his skill. But we didn’t want the other kids to get discouraged. We didn’t want our rookie soccer players to start feeling so low that they just gave up. And with a bunch of newbies, that’s always a possibility. All the parents and fans tried to cheer things like, “Good try!” and “Good hustle!” to keep the kids’ spirits up, to let them know that we appreciated their effort more than anything else.

Luckily, the kids on my son’s team didn’t seem to suffer any long-term ill effects from the experience. Kids are pretty resilient. Thankfully. Also, there were plenty of other kids on the other team–and parents, too–who weren’t acting like that. Of course, they were will demolishing our team, but well, that was pretty inevitable.

As my friend said after the game, “Were our kids having fun? Were they playing by the rules?” Yes and yes. So we were all good. That’s what we are trying to emphasize, and as long as we continue doing that, we’re succeeding. Maybe they’ll also gain a few soccer skills and score a few goals, too.

The point of this long anecdote, as you can probably guess, is that it’s another example of how important is it to both 1) lead by example, and to 2) make the effort teach our children what we value as important.  Colossians 3: 12–“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience”–has always been one of my favorite Bible verses. If I value compassion and kindness, which I do, then it’s up to me to try to instill those qualities in my child. And to show him what compassion and kindness look like. That’s my goal as a parent. (C’mon. You knew I was going to make a soccer pun at some point.)

Even–especially?–on the soccer field.

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When I was a little girl, my father had a standard before-meal blessing that he always used. I have to say it out loud, with the exact same inflection, to make sure I get it right. It goes like this:

Father, we thank you for this food…and all our many blessings. We pray…in his name, Amen.

Every once in awhile, I use it at my house, too. But usually I defer to my older son, William, when it comes to choosing a blessing to use before dinner.

(Confession: we don’t always say a blessing. There are too many nights when I’m frantically trying to feed the baby and keep him from getting upset while preparing food for the rest of us, and things get hectic, and David calls from work to say he’s coming home, and so on. Before I know it, William is halfway through his plate of food, and I haven’t even sat down at the table yet. I know. No excuses. I am trying to get better about this. I really am.)

William’s favorite blessings are all songs. The list includes the old faithful “Johnny Appleseed,” a ditty called “God Our Father” which is sung to the tune of “Frere Jacques,” and a version of the A-B-C song that ends with “Now I know my ABCs, thank you God for feeding me.” He likes them all more or less the same, and he uses them with a pretty evenly-divided regularity.

I’d love to learn some new ones, though. What blessings does your family use? Will you share with me here so I can expand our repertoire? That is, if I can convince William…

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I serve on the board of directors for a non-profit organization called All About Women.  All About Women was founded about a decade ago with the goal of helping women improve their lives, their health and their well-being. Last year, we launched a really wonderful blog series that focuses on the lives of two very different women, Lily and Z, who are negotiating the journeys of their lives with humor and sincerity. This week, the character of Lily blogged about counting her blessings.

It made me stop and count my own blessings. And I have many, many blessings. For example… Last night, my husband and I had to take our younger son to the emergency room because he developed a wicked-sounding croup. As he breathed in and out, he made a horrible, striderous sound that made both of us very nervous.

Luckily for him (and his parents), he responded very well to a breathing treatment and an oral medication. We walked out there in less than three hours with a healthy, smiling baby. Not everyone is that lucky. But we were. And we were grateful. So grateful. So grateful for our healthy son. Two healthy sons, actually.

In about five minutes, the women of my Disciple class will be taking a few moments out of their busy days to say a prayer.  We meet as a small group each Monday morning, but we are doing a communal prayer on our own each Friday at noon during Lent. Our leaders send out an email each Friday morning to remind us to stop, close our eyes and say a few words to God.

And as we do it, we know that our friends are praying at the same time. It’s still being part of the community of faith even when we’re not in the physical presence of that community.

I thought I’d share my prayer this week with you, my blog readers.

Creating God, Thank you for all the blessings that you have bestowed upon me. Help me to remember those blessings whenever I get down or discouraged. Help  me see and feel the Holy Spirit within me–and within others–this week. Please give comfort to all the people who were affected by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Please give strength to all the people who are fighting for freedom and justice all over the world. Please be with all the women in my Disciple class–these women who support me, shape my thoughts and faith and give comfort to each other when we need it. And please let me find new ways to respond to the amazing miracle that is your love for us. Amen.

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I have found that one of best places and times to have a really good conversation with my older son is in the car on the way to and from school.

That’s when we find ourselves talking about all sorts of things. William likes to pose questions that he’s been pondering, and we often have really wonderful discussions as a result. In the last few weeks, we’ve talked about a range of topics, including whether the Loch Ness Monster is real or not, how ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak was sort of like the Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, and why Godric Gryffindor would have needed a sword if he was a wizard and all the wizards had wands.

A few days ago, he hit me with another good question.

“What’s underneath the Earth?” he wanted to know.

“Underneath the Earth?” I repeated. “Well, there’s space underneath, as far as I know.”

“But what’s underneath that?” he persisted.

Ack. A few months ago, William had asked me what was beyond outer space. (Readers of my family blog might remember that conversation.) I sort of stumbled around for awhile before finally resulted to that tried-and-true resource of all modern parents. Nope, not the Bible.  That’s right. As soon as I could get to a computer, I turned to Google. Unfortunately, I didn’t find much of anything useful. I think I told William something about how the universe is still expanding outward, but we don’t know really what’s out there for sure. I read to him a little bit about how there’s gas, plasma, dust and some other molecules in space, but that didn’t really address the heart of his question.

His question, of course, is really: “What’s out there?”

The funny thing is, I don’t think it really bothers him that no one knows for absolute certain what’s out there. He’s curious, yes, and he wants to learn more, but young children are accustomed to the fact that there is so much they just don’t know. And it doesn’t bother them. As far as he’s concerned, heaven is “up there” above us, although I don’t know how he logistically reconciles that with outer space. But he does somehow, and he’s comfortable with that. I remember when I used to think that heaven was just “up there,” too. I kind of wish I still did. It becomes more of a tricky existential concept as we become adults, though. 

And while we’re on the subject of tricky teleological questions…William also asked me around the same time if we would understand everything about God (that we don’t understand right now) when we get to heaven. I told him, honestly, that I don’t know.  Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. Maybe it will be enough just to be in the presence of God. Maybe our questions will be satisfied just by that. We won’t even know that ’til we get there…wherever “there” is.

As confounding as they can be, I like that he’s asking these questions. I like that he’s asking me, even though I have to tell him that not only do I know, but I have a whole series of my own questions that I’m asking. But I’m trying to raise my son to  know that it’s okay to ask those questions. 

In church, we talk a lot about the mystery of faith, and I think we have to grapple with that. And for me, at least, grappling involves asking a lot of questions and pondering the possible answers. It looks like William may be taking that route, too.

***

What’s the trickiest question your child has ever asked you? How did you respond?

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A young mother’s prayer

Dear God,

Thank you for my beautiful wonderful marvelous children. I am so grateful to have the privilege to be their mother. Thank you for blessing me with the gift of these two bright-eyed little boys.

But would it not have been possible to have included a “mute” button or something? 

Amen.

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