I was raised in a church, just as my parents were. Faith and God were givens in my house. The stories of the Bible seem as old and familiar to me as any other story I heard as a child. It really has served as a foundation for who I am as a person, to believe that there is a God and that this God is good and that love and truth and justice are all values for which we seek to achieve and champion.
There’s a lot I don’t know about God. I think that if you were to graph my certainties about God over my lifespan it would be a steadily decreasing line, perhaps leveling out a few years ago just above the zero line. Maybe it peaked at age three or four, I’m not sure. I suppose I started forming thoughts about God around the time I could ask questions of the adults in my life. You know the kinds of questions children ask: “Where does God live? What does he look like? Has anyone ever heard him talk?” Children are concrete thinkers, and we talk to children in concrete terms. Which is crazy when it comes to issues of faith, although it’s amazing how many adults still think about faith in concrete and literal terms.
I worry sometimes about that, about we are setting up our daughter to be disappointed when it comes to God. We give children concrete answers to their questions because anything less feels like an evasion. “God lives in heaven. He looks very kind and old. You can hear him talk, but you kind of hear it in your heart.” One of the first things I learned in seminary is that using masculine-gender-specific pronouns for God is wrong; not just academically wrong or theologically wrong, but morally wrong. It assumes God is male, which supports patriarchy and the oppression of women. This is true, of course. But damn, how everyone resisted this. And why? Because a) all of us grew up talking about God as “he” and “him” and “Father,” and b) because we like concrete thinking and it’s scary to admit that you can’t talk or think concretely about something that seems of utmost importance.
Our little girl is still a little too young to be asking questions about God. We pray at dinner time, as I’ve written about earlier. But no theological debates have broken out in our family yet. This comes to mind for me now because this past Sunday was Sunday School Promotion Sunday for children’s Sunday School classes and our little Curly Fries was promoted into the toddler Sunday School class. She has a wonderfully gifted and energetic teacher and a good class of peers. And her skills and comprehension in English are rapidly increasing. So I know it won’t be long before I get a question about God from a bright, inquisitive, and extremely concrete thinker.
So when my sweet little Curly Fries asks me one day, “Daddy, what does God look like?” will I have the courage to tell her that I don’t know?
Of course, that’s not entirely true. I do have an idea of what God looks like. Maybe I’ll say, “Well, Curly Fries, God doesn’t have a face or hands like you and me. But remember what Ms. Terri and Ms. Jane or Mr. Jerry looked like when you hugged them in the hallway at church? Or what Ms. Nancy looks like when she helps you make crafts in Sunday School? Or what Ms. Caryanne looks like when she plays hide-and-seek with you in the sanctuary after the service? Or all those backpacks that we filled with school supplies in the Fellowship Hall for kids who don’t have much money? Or those cans of food that we put on the altar to feed people who are hungry? Or how Pastor Mike and Pastor Lin look when someone comes forward to join the church or be baptized? You know how it looks to have everyone singing together in the chapel? Well, that’s what God looks like.”
I know that answer probably isn’t concrete enough for a toddler. But it is really concrete to me, and I am so thankful that these concrete expressions of love will help to raise our daughter.