Mitali Perkins, award-winning author of books for young readers, shares a heartbreaking adolescent experience and losing her way spiritually:
“I was raised in a Hindu home, where Dad taught his children that God was a divine spirit of love. Dad’s job as an engineer took us from port to port, so that by the time I was 11, we had lived in India, England, Ghana, Cameroon, Mexico, and the United States. No matter where we were posted, Dad led us in a daily practice of gratitude to God.
I believed in this good God until high school, when a friend was killed in a car accident involving a drunk driver. Clayton’s death opened my adolescent eyes to a world of suffering. What kind of God would allow this and then, according to Hinduism, reincarnate us into a painful world? I grieved for my friend and put my questions—and God—aside for the rest of high school.”
In conversations with young people about difficult topics…
- Let them think, speculate, imagine. Resist the impulse to answer their questions for them.
- Mirror back their thoughts to them so that they can hear themselves and continue their conversations with you.
- Don’t minimize the complexity of the issues.
- Aim for spiritual growth, not answers.
Trust that God will show the way to greater resolution of a young person’s confusion and upset as they remain open to allowing God’s various ways of communicating with them.
Time and space to pursue understanding
Mitali Perkins did remain open-minded. Here I’m paraphrasing part of her article, “When God Writes Your Life Story.” In her junior year of college, she went to Russia where she toured cemeteries, prisons, museums, and churches. At the Hermitage, an English-speaking museum official was taking her group from room to room. She was deep in thought as she looked at the many religious paintings.
As her group was leaving, the museum official pulled her aside and asked quietly what she was thinking about so deeply. “A loving God. Human suffering. How can both exist?”
He spoke briefly to her about being at an intersection of choice. She went away determined to read the original source material for those paintings, the New Testament. What she found there carried her to a deeper understanding of the heart of God, newfound faith, and eventually to represent and champion the marginalized child in her writings.
Tweetable: Let young adults speculate, imagine and think their way through spiritual questions. You may set them on one path in early childhood (could be a path of no religion) but give them freedom to approach God in their own style. Great example here. Click to Tweet
Recently I spent time after school with a 5-year-old in my extended family. Her homework assignment that day was, “List at least five words that describe you.” After she gave her list I called out to her siblings, “Hey, do you want to do this too? And they did. Then it was my turn. I started my list of words describing myself when one of them added, “Mean—sometimes you are mean.”
Well, that was a new one for me! I’d never been called mean, at least not that I could remember. Selfish? Sure. Insensitive? Sometimes. But mean??? That’s pretty harsh.
“Sometimes you are mean.”
Overcoming a first impulse to be defensive, I began to investigate: “Tell me about the last time I was mean to you.” I listened without comment or criticism to several minutes of conversation, and the evidence became clear. I was mean anytime I said no to a request, or when I said “Wait and ask your mother; she’ll be home soon” to something the child wanted to do.
That’s a normal response to get upset when we’re told no. We all want life to go our way. So I simply acted as a mirror for the child: “You want me to say yes–not no or wait–when you ask for something. You seem frustrated with me.” There was a momentary silence (I’m inwardly hoping it was an Aha! registering in the child’s awareness) and then we moved on to something else. Just planting a seed.
It got me thinking…. Do some children believe God is mean, too?
Most children (and adults), at one time or another, want God to use God’s power to give us what we want. A child will pray. In the midst of upsetting circumstances, the child might pray with tears, “Don’t let my parents get divorced.” “Please make my cousin get well.” When the outcome is not what the child asked for, some children can turn away and accuse God of not loving them. Who wants to get close to a God who is mean? Other kids might conclude that there is no God.
Be aware and keep listening.
Encourage kids to tell you how they arrive at their conclusions about us, or about God. Let them speak without criticism or argument. The topic will arise again and I want to be a trusted listener when it does. Don’t you?
Tweetable: Do you sense that your child believes God is mean? Despite their outward compliance with your family’s religious beliefs, something else may be brewing under the surface. Click to Tweet
“Even more desirable than being able to die peacefully is being able to live fearlessly.”—Dr. Alex Lickerman. Fear, worry and anxiety are so complex in their origins and in the ways each of us manages these emotions best for ourselves. But as adults, we can adapt and offer two spiritual tools to kids that may be helpful for them in managing their fear of death: 1) loving reassurance, 2) communication with God, others and self. In today’s post, we look at the first of these tools.
Spiritual Tool #1: Loving reassurance of God’s protection from fearing death
In Part 1 of the discussion about children’s fears of dying, we discussed that there are no guarantees of being protected from harm. Bad things happen to good people. But God does offer children protection from fearing death.
Healthy fear protects children
Part of God’s protection is seen in the presence of healthy fear—fear that produces brain chemicals like adrenaline to propel the child out of harm’s way.
Love dispels fear
Another side of God’s protection from fearing death is found in the child’s confidence that God’s love is there and love dispels unhealthy fear. “How they choose to perceive a threatening event dictates their response to the situation,” observes Becky Bailey.
Kids might relate to this word picture—God’s love is like an umbrella that can protect them from fear. Using this spiritual tool can allow children to still see the world as a beautiful place, a friendly place. They can think about how their family loves them and God loves then. “Love is the very best thing for making fears and worries go away,” Molly Wigand says.
When love increases, healthy thinking, good judgment and peace of mind all improve.
Children who trust in God may find themselves able to live fearlessly, even through the valley of the shadow of death.
Next week: Spiritual Tool #2 — Communication with God, others and self
Tweetable: When children look for reassurance as they face of their fears and worries, spiritual resources can play an important role, in addition to emotional and psychological helps. Here’s one such spiritual resource. Click to Tweet
I wrote a recent blog about children’s fear of dying. In response to that entry, a reader wrote me about the specific way school shootings play into that fear. She wrote: I think if a child asks a parent about dying these days, it is likely to be a fear of dying at school, shot to death by someone with a gun. The Columbine massacre occurred in 1999 – the year [my twin grandsons] were born – which means there are kids who have grown from infants to legal adulthood never knowing a world where school shootings don’t happen. It might be helpful to do another blog post addressing this distressing issue.
Here is that post.
From a spiritual perspective, a children’s fear of dying a violent death may center on two issues:
- I can’t count on God to protect me.
- How do I manage my fear and anxiety?
Issue #1 — I can’t count on God to protect me.
Yes… and no.
God is powerful and he (or she) could make people stop the violence. He could make people do what’s right. Yes, he could, if he wanted to control people’s lives. He would have to eliminate choice so that no one ever chose to do wrong or make trouble again.
What kind of world would this be if God forced people to do right? Or insisted that they feel happy all the time? Wouldn’t God become the dictator of the whole world? What kind of person would you be? Your freedom would be gone. You could not make choices.
Violence is here to stay, and with it, people’s right to think their own kind or cruel thoughts, feel their own hate or love, do good or bad. God upholds humanity’s freedom, even when humanity doesn’t like the results.
… and no.
God does provide protection for you, but God — being invisible – often acts in hidden ways or unexplained paradoxes. You might not recognize God’s presence.
For example, God’s voice of protection is heard when courageous people speak up and report danger signs, thwarting violence. God is also protecting you when good people spread love and kindness in their community, especially toward those who are difficult to love. Sometimes when “prickly” people are offered a sense of belonging and dignity, they drop their plans to do harm, and we have been protected.
God does provide protection for you, but God neither guarantees us a long life nor a trouble-free life. It’s an unexplained paradox flowing from the loving heart of this supreme being.
Stay away from simplistic answers
So whatever you do as an adult, stay away from simplistic answers, such as, “It was God’s will that those people died and these people didn’t,” or, “Those who died were being punished. If you do what God wants, that won’t happen to you.” Answers like these are not only simplistic but can be extremely damaging to children’s evolving and developing views of God.
The truth is that none of us knows why bad things happen.
And we don’t know why they happen to some people and not others. This world containing evil is not the world we were created for and designed for, and there are no easy answers or guarantees. So how do we help kids manage their fear and anxiety over the unknowns?
Read Part 2– on helping children manage their fear and anxiety– next week.
Tweetable: A spiritual perspective on school shootings. It may be a useful piece for some children as they cope with their fears and anxiety around violence. Read more. Click to Tweet
One of our Christian readers shares a teen-centered idea. The same format could be adapted to any cultural or religious style.
Faith and Doubt Night
“We have a relatively small youth group… maybe 10 high school aged kids if everyone shows up. Faith and Doubt Night has gotten positive feedback from them. It’s not a typical ‘youth group’ thing. No games, no icebreakers, just a living room full of teens and the senior pastor (no parents), and any questions the kids want to ask. As a parent, I’m not allowed to attend, so my husband and I watch something in the basement while the kids meet in our living room.
“What about this?”
Because of the personality, education and demographics of our church, it tends to be rational, intellectual, debate-style, “What about this?’ kinds of questions. The unfairness of hell, the reliability of the Bible, the character of God, injustice in the world, etc.
We’ve had one so far and the kids really liked it. They thought it was interesting and relevant. After seeing how the first one went, some are now open to inviting friends who have expressed interest in spiritual things.
What parents say
I’ve talked with some of the parents and we mostly agree that most high school kids– whether raised in the church or outside of it– aren’t really sure yet about what they believe. They may give general assent, but they haven’t really kicked the tires and decided what they think for themselves.
How we advertised it
At [church name] we value all honest questions, doubts, and hesitations about the Christian faith. If you are in 9th-12th grade, the floor is wide open for you to bring ANY question you’re wrestling with about Christianity. Pastor Bill will lead conversation as we talk through each other’s questions, and help us think through issues together. Bring your questions. Dessert will be provided.
Got an idea to share with readers? See comment box below.
Tweetable: One of the happiest discoveries for teens can be that asking questions is far more interesting than making statements about their own views. Read about one church’s Faith and Doubt night. Click to Tweet
When I was about 11, I went to my mother in tears about my fear of dying. And my fear of my dad or mom dying. Her conversation on that warm summer afternoon stays with me to this day.
Indestructible until my work is finished
My mother’s sacred text of choice was the Bible. The wisdom flowing from that book informed her comforting words to me about dying. “God gives purpose to every life. When you read a book there’s a plot carried through the entire story. Your life has a plot that you and God are writing. You are indestructible until the story of your life is finished. Until that time, you are safe and secure.”
She continued, “When your work here on earth is done, the ending of this chapter of the book gets written. God calls you to come and live with him in the place where there’s no more sadness, pain or tears. It’s the same for your dad and me–and everyone who has made their peace with God.
Make peace with God
We choose what we believe about God. Why not choose to trust that we are writing our life’s plot line with Someone–God? That God knows each of us by name and provides the way and the truth for making peace with God? If you have questions about making your peace with God or just want a listening ear, leave a comment for me in the box below and I will reply.
Stop and pay attention
As an adult my understanding of my mom’s words grows. I look at life, as Frederick Buechner wrote, as “not just incident following incident without any particular direction or purpose, but things are happening in order to take you somewhere.” I’m gaining a way of living an abundant life in addition to receiving a rather fearless perspective on dying. This is what I share with the children in my life.
Tweetable: Is your child afraid of dying? Or afraid that you are going to die soon? Here’s one mother’s words that brought comfort to her daughter at the time, and continue into adulthood. Click to Tweet.