The Ties That Bind Us: An Imperfect Love Story of a Father and Son

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With Father’s Day around the bend, we’ll be celebrating dads here on the blog for the rest of this week, and today I’m inviting my own dad to share.

My brother called me early this week, after spending the weekend with my dad up north, and told me how much they enjoyed their time together.  It launched into a conversation about how all of us have changed the past several years–further away from young people who analyze, complain and pick apart the people we love and closer to the people we really want to be–accepting and loving children and spouses and siblings and friends, understanding that those whom we love are not perfect. That the things that drive us crazy about our loved ones are often manifestations of their own pain and past. We all have those. And maybe our acceptance of those around us for everything they are mirrors the journey of our acceptance of our own weaknesses, our own pain and past, our own paths. And maybe when we accept both–ourselves and those we love for exactly what they are–flawed, coming up short now and then–we create the perfect environment for growth and improvement and the greatest love stories.

The older I get, the more I love my parents. The more I experience in life, the more I understand everything they’ve been through. The more I struggle and try and break from the pain of loving people, the more I feel how much my parents ever loved and continue to love me.

I asked my dad a while ago if he’d ever be interested in doing a guest post. I reminded him a few weeks ago and asked if he’d like to write something for Father’s Day.

This is an imperfect love story between a father and son.

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The Ties That Bind Us
By: Rik Cryderman

When I was young, we lived in a tri-level home, which in real terms simply meant, wherever you were going, there were steps to get there. His bedroom was up the five or six steps, kitty-corner to the right, off the landing. It smelled of Old Spice cologne and my mother’s moisturizing lotions. Our home had old-fashioned rules. We never went into their room without permission. Sometimes we were sent there for school lunch money. “There is a five dollar bill on my dresser,” my dad would say as I was sent to get it. Sometimes I would knock, if he were in there, and be invited in, like when my mom would say “Go ask your father.” I would knock quite often for another reason—for his help with something he would always tell me I needed to do for myself.

I would go to his room on Sunday mornings, school picture days and later days when I had to give a speech, go to a job interview or maybe a formal banquet. I knocked on the door, stepped into the room and asked him to tie my necktie. He’d always sputter, “It’s time you learned to do this yourself!” He once even cut out an article from the Detroit Free Press that provided instructions complete with illustrations on how to tie the perfect windsor knot. I took the article and tossed it away. He didn’t know. I already knew how to tie a necktie. I sometimes retied his because I could do it better. But still, I knocked, stepped into that sacred room and stood in front of him, tie in hands. I endured the sputtering. It was what he did next that made me keep coming. It was how he tied my tie. He couldn’t do it facing me—standing in front, flipping and looping the long tails of the tie over and around like some wardrobe wizard. It was backwards from the task he did himself each day when he tied his own. He’d have me turn around, facing the same direction, looking at the same world he did, and he’d put his arms around me, more like a warm embrace than he realized, and with a quick flip, slip and slide—my tie was neatly pulled into a knot.

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But he was tying something else in those moments before I went off to the job interview or stood at the podium for a high school debate. He was tying me to him—the bigger-than-life man whose feet I once stood on, clinging to his legs while he “walked” me around, or who, with his hand on my back, ran beside me as he launched me on my two-wheeled bike, or who, when I returned from Orville’s Barber Shop, ran his large weathered fingers over my fresh Princeton haircut and announced, “Nice haircut, Ricky!” I wasn’t done with that empowering embrace, even when this toddler became a teen and hugs were replaced with handshakes. He tied my ties until I married and left the house.

I always looked up to him. When I was very young, I was nervous to be just with him. I was afraid I would make a mistake, mess something up, make him disappointed with me. I was afraid I wouldn’t know the answer, understand his instructions or find what he sent me to get. I think it was more than fearing disappointing him—I think I feared that if he really knew me, saw me, realized what I wasn’t, he might hold from me what I needed most—his love. I know now, that  fear was something within me, not him. He was always quick to forgive, sure to understand, ready to stand behind me. It was me. And it didn’t go away.

As time went on, I would build my confidence and find my voice. I would tell him things—things I thought important. And I would often, in those cathartic, crucial conversations, realize that while I was talking, he wasn’t really listening to me, he was just preparing what he was going to say next. I know that now, because I find myself sometimes doing the same and realize, “I’m  becoming my father.” But in his defense, I think he did that because he felt he had to have the answers, he had to produce a profound response, he had to fix everything in his boys’ lives. Sometimes we have no answers and are lost for a response. Sometimes a quick solution diminishes the telling. Still, we listen. Sometimes, just listening is the very best fixing.

He was a wise man. He taught me how to remember my first telephone number: State-22228. “Ricky,” he explained, “2 plus 2 plus 2 plus 2 is 8.” Amazed, impressed, I remembered. He was calm in a crisis. When my older brother, a star football player on our high school team, was injured on the field, he turned to my mother and said strongly, “Stay,” (she did) as he ran onto the field and assured my brother all was well.

Sports, with me, was safer. I never liked it and only tried to please my father. “With that height,” others would say of my gangly pre-teen body, “he’ll be a natural on the basketball court.” So I found myself on the team in junior high school. I hoped the coach wouldn’t put me in. When he did, I prayed no one would pass the ball to me. In fact, I learned the strategy of never making eye contact with the one who had the ball. I would pretend to be guarding someone and simply stare at him and sort of jump up and down around him, looking semi-official, hoping I would soon be on the bench. The locker room smelled bad. I had a nice duffel bag. The stripes on my white socks matched my basketball shorts. Perfectly.

I ran cross country in high school. I ran to earn a letter. My brother won medals and his name was on lists in papers. I threw up a lot. We were often in the same races, he was one year ahead of me. My parents would come to our cross country meets. I didn’t see their response when he crossed the finish line. That was long before I made it there. When I arrived, they were usually folding up tables and some were already in the bus. But my mom and dad were there. And they would cheer. I knew I wasn’t a winner. I knew they knew I wasn’t a winner. But the fact they tried to make me feel one meant the world to me. I finished the year. I got my letter. I wore my jacket proudly. I wore my running shoes to mow Eva Rensberry’s lawn. They became really, really green. I was quite happy to have left the team.

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Far right: proof that I ran Cross Country

In high school I was also in theatre. I was confident there. I had the male lead in Jane Eyre, was Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer and once, when given a small part, enlisted Jann Wilson, a good friend, who was also robbed of the glory we deserved, and we embellished our little parts, stole the show and angered the director. My dad didn’t come to my theatre productions. He didn’t tell me he wasn’t coming. My mom did. She would remind me how busy he was and that she wasn’t sure if he would be able to attend. I can remember slipping my fingers through the heavy velvet curtains and looking through the rows of folding chairs in the high school auditorium, which also served as our cafeteria and the setting for dances after games. I would look to see if he had come, and I would see my mother, often with a lady friend who sat in the chair I had hoped to hold my dad. I never knew he wasn’t coming until I saw he wasn’t there. Later, he would tell me that my mother said I did a wonderful job. When he’d say that he was sorry he had missed it, I would always say that it was fine. Once I even said, “I think you would have found the chairs really uncomfortable.”

A minister, prominent leader in church and community, ultimately a national profile in our denomination, my dad never said “Remember whose son you are—don’t tarnish your family name.” He let four sons be four distinctly different individuals, each with his own strengths and struggles, gifts and guarded weaknesses. In my senior year of high school, I wrote and produced an underground newspaper—after all, it was the hippy, rile-against-the-system-in-power generation. I was suspended from school for two weeks. I received a lecture from my dad on the respect for rules and the importance of finding expression within the accepted structure. And later that evening, I overheard him on the telephone—he didn’t know I was listening—as he spoke with a school board member on my behalf and in my defense. “You have to admit, Ken,” I heard my father say from his office, “His writing is very good.”  Strangely, I felt his strong embrace.

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He was generous beyond measure.  But responsible.  I remember their visit, when I was in seminary, and my wife and I were struggling to even keep kitchen cupboards supplied and food on the table—we were expecting our first baby soon. After they left, for days, we would open the medicine cabinet, pull out a dresser drawer, flip up the little door of the butter compartment in the refrigerator and find money he had helped my mother put there to surprise us. Loans were arranged and later forgiven. Care packages of groceries and goodies were given as we left their home. He never let others pay at a restaurant.

A strong and respected leader, he was of the management style that believed, and he actually said: “If you make a wrong choice and lead those who follow you the wrong way—you work all the harder and you make it right.”  I remember wondering if I was adopted. I wasn’t wired like that. It seemed clear to me to simply stop, say “Oops,” turn around and head another direction. Maybe that was why, when I finally met myself, accepted what I had for too long tried to hide from me and everyone, I worried he would think I was just to “work harder and make it right.” I was afraid he would see me and my life as a mistake. I was afraid he wouldn’t love me like every child longs for his father to do.

My father was a man of principles, living them and lauding them…loudly.  I can remember when the lotto came to Michigan, I would attempt to warn the cashier at Meijer’s to skip the customary “Would you like to buy a lotto ticket today?” when my father stood behind us. If she didn’t understand and asked, my father would launch his ever ready sermon, delivered in the evangelist voice, citing the evils of gambling and the impropriety of the state’s partnering with a corrupt system to fund the education of children. By his rousing conclusion, my mom and I had loaded the groceries into the cart and were ready to make an exit to the waiting Buick getaway car. The cashier often used the time to sort coupons and look befuddled. But he lived by the principles he had proven. And somewhere deep within, I had a profound respect for those principles and even more for the man who lived them.

That may explain the lack of conversation about the issue of being gay. I didn’t want it. I didn’t need it. I certainly loved my father too much and cherished his role in my life to force him to make a choice between his faith and his family, his belief and our belonging to each other. For that generation, it was either/or. I didn’t want him to change his views or adjust his values. I had no desire for him to join PFLAG or march in a pride parade. I didn’t need him to embrace gayness. I just needed him to embrace…me. And he did. So, we didn’t need to speak about it. Not at all. I know he knew about Gary, my partner for over 25 years. He actually met Gary after my mother died. I introduced him saying, “Dad, this is my friend, Gary.”  He knew we arrived together. Because each of the sons shared tributes, we brothers sat together on the platform with my father. I was glad for that. I wasn’t going to, nor was Gary going to, ask that the two of us sit together with the family. Gary sat with a close friend, but sat with me for the luncheon that followed. The cousins included him. My brothers spoke to him. I needed him near.

It was soon after the funeral that my dad called me. He wanted to do something to show his appreciation to the Care Center and their staff for loving my mom and making her last days a treasure. “Do you think your friend Gary could get us a nice tree to plant at the Care Center?” he asked me.  He knew Gary was a horticulturist and a manager at a large nursery. I said, “He’d love to.” Gary picked a beautiful tree, wrapped it well for the trip from our house to Spring Arbor. Gary was there with all the family when we shared some words, prayers, tears and hugs and planted the tree in the yard of my mom’s final home. My dad was pleased. He hugged me and…he kissed my cheek. He had been doing that lately, especially when saying goodbye. Then, he thanked Gary for the tree…and hugged him.

It felt like I was home again and remembered, wherever you are going, there are steps to get there. It is strange, the older we get and the more we know and accept who we are, the more we understand and appreciate our parents. And about the time we do, they leave us. My dad left us six weeks later. He left me more than he knew. We would plant a second tree, because sometimes a family tree needs company.

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I love you, Dad. Those ties still bind us.

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Dad, I love you. Happy Father’s Day.

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More Father’s Day love to come later this week….

Me and God?

So whenever I touch on faith and my past church conflicts on the blog, I get a lot of e-mails—most of them really kind—from readers who are interested and/or concerned.

Some sound like: “What the hell happened in your faith past?”

Some sound like: “Honey, run to Jesus and stop pushing him away. You’re going to lose your chance.”

And most sound like: “My faith brings me so much peace in my life. I am praying for you. I’m so sorry your past has presented issues with God. I hope you figure it out. God loves you so much. Just the way you are.” These ones feel like a hug.

I will write more about my faith past. I am writing a lot about it off line. I realized after Bloom, many have conflicting faith pasts.

It is hard to write about because it involves people. People I love. People who read this blog. People who loved me and offered me a lot of good and support as well as their version of faith. But I was told a lot of things about God that I don’t think are true anymore, and not only do I think they’re not true, I think they are very damaging. I realize I have to fight tendencies that make me want to view myself and the rest of the world in a skewed way, due to ten years of input and reactive behavior to that input. And all the people who were involved in teaching me this—I still love them. We are human, we make mistakes.

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Last night’s moon.  Feel’s fitting to include.

The basis of what I believed for a very long time, along with a lot of weird stuff that went along with it, was that God commanded and demanded us to be PERFECT, no exceptions. “Examine yourself” was a phrase frequently thrown around, and I’m not talking a shower breast exam. If there was sin, sinful feelings, sin-like thoughts, anything that resembled sin (“even if you don’t sin but you’re thinking about sin,” we were told), you were going to hell. So, in order to please God, we were basically trained to become professional Sinbusters, constantly examining our thoughts and everything we did to make sure we weren’t sinning. It was exhausting. There was lots of repenting, might I add. For years, it was a completely normal thing for me to walk into the house, call “Is anybody home?” and if someone didn’t answer within twenty seconds, I was immediately paralyzed with fear that the rapture came and I didn’t go. Beginning around nine years old. I had countless nightmares that I was left after the rapture or that I died in a car accident and went to hell. Because of that one little feeling of resentment or jealousy or unkindness I felt.

A lady once stood up in our church and repented to the entire congregation, kids included, for her sin. You want to know what her sin was? Going to a garage sale, seeing a jar of buttons for a dollar and buying them. Why, do you ask that’s a sin? Because she saw another lady eyeing them and she bought them anyway. I guess it was unkind not to offer them to the other lady who wanted them. Not only unkind but SIN. Sin that sends you to hell. And when people heard this, they shook their heads and said “Amen” and applauded her for her stellar sin detection skills—a Class 1 Sinbuster (okay, we didn’t really call them that). And I remember even at twelve years old, listening to this story and thinking WHAT. THE. HELL. But then I repented later for thinking “What the Hell” because I didn’t want to go to hell. When hell was described in sermons where children were present, nothing was held back. “Gnashing of teeth” was a common phrase because somewhere in the Bible it says that about the people who burn there. And we were told that it’s so hot and miserable and tortuous that people BEG God to forgive them, but NEVER. They were already warned, it’s over. It was important that we knew that time never ends in hell. As a kid, I’d ask things like “even longer than 100 years?” and be answered with things like “100 times 100. Time NEVER ends in hell.” Imagine going there all over a jar of frickin’ buttons. In all fairness, we knew that heaven never ended either. This was supposed to be a really exciting fact, but A: the hell thing kind of took over, and B: heaven was described as endless sitting around listening to Jesus teach and singing for hours, and—well, that sounds kind of boring, even now.

This is one among hundreds of stories like it. Ten years of repenting, waking up with sweaty palms and a racing heart from rapture nightmares. I was never good enough for God, and I knew it. I couldn’t shut off sinful thoughts and while I smiled and told all the church people when they asked (and they did) that I was Tony-the-Tiger Grrreeeeeaaat with God, I knew inside that I was doomed for hell.

When we were feeling the energy to extend beyond our own heart examinations, we took it upon ourselves to do it for others too—telling people when they were in sin. Separating from them. Cutting off anyone who “called themself a Christian” but lived otherwise according to our superhuman standards. We cut my cousins out of my life. My grandparents. I didn’t see my dad for four years because he was gay, gay was wrong and 1 Corinthians says, “put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” It also says you couldn’t eat with these people. So we didn’t. One time, when we were still seeing my dad, we went to a restaurant and sat at a different table—just me and my siblings—while my dad sat alone in a booth behind us. I was nine.

All the things that could send you to hell—I realize now that they are the things that make us human. Imagine. Going to hell for being human. So you had to be something better than human, a perfect subspecies. I carry remnants of these feelings today. As if we don’t have enough guilt to deal with in motherhood and trying to do it all. It’s okay to be human, I say to myself a lot. It’s okay to be human. If you need to know this, I’m your girl.

I get hung up on wanting to know the answers to things I might never know, but I’m okay. Me and God? We’re good, we’re getting there, and sometimes, many times, we are beyond good–a peaceful, settling, oh-so-loving “so this is what it’s supposed to feel like.” As far as Jesus and the Bible and all that other stuff—well, I don’t know. Telling me to run to Jesus is like telling a beaten dog he should come out and trust people. I heard a song the other day that said “Get out of the box and come into the clear,” and I think that’s a good description for where I am. I don’t ever want to be in a box when it comes to anything in my life. There’s a giant clearing around it, and it’s full of daisies and sunflowers and grass as far as you can see. There are so many more experiences to learn and grow in the clearing than I could ever find in the claustrophobia trap of the box. I think God is in the clearing. And I know he wants me to run around and find him in the many places he exists. It’s a challenge.

Our old church has pretty much dissipated. I don’t see “church” now. I see humans. Humans who make mistakes and get confused sometimes. I may not have always felt that God loved me, but I did feel love from people. And I always felt loved and accepted by my parents.

I realize that my church past is a unique situation, and I’m so glad there are churches around the world that do so much good. Can you imagine a world without church? We’d lose a lot of comfort, a lot of good and a lot of love for people who need it. I’m so glad there are churches.

The thing about God that I hang on to the most? It’s being loved simply for existing. I think that’s a pretty powerful thing.

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As for the rest, I’m going to take this broken glass and glue the shards together to make some amazing stained glass windows. I’m going to build a cathedral. Actually, I think I’ll just shoot for a little hillside chapel. With lots of love. And a nice mix of dandelions and daisies on the hill. So much better than a cathedral.

The regular blog will resume next week. It was ETST Deep Week. Kind of like Shark Week but with less blood.

Oh, and HAPPY FRIDAY! (confetti, confetti, confetti!!!)

A Faith for my Children

Five Children’s Bible Books. That’s what I found tucked away on our overstuffed bookcase this weekend while cleaning and sorting our ever growing stash. I have to admit, I didn’t buy any of them. With the exception of one that came from a sweet group of readers I Skyped with last year, I think grandparents can be accounted for the rest—gifts that carried the subtle plea of Dear-God-please-don’t-let–my-grandchildren-grow-up-heathen.

It’s not that I need the little Bibles to learn the stories in them. I know every single one of them by heart—how Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day, how God sent a rainbow after saving Noah from the flood, how a great big whale swallowed Jonah because he wouldn’t go to Ninevah to preach God’s word. These stories were taught to me from early Children’s Bible days of giggling at pictures of fig leaves covering Adam and Eve’s—ahem, privates— to somewhere in my early twenties when I stopped going to church.

I flipped through the pages of a few of them yesterday and tried to remember the last time I read these to the girls. By Lainey’s age, I not only had been read these stories and sang their tunes (“Who Built the Ark? Noah, Noah!”), but I knew their lessons—yes, that God loved us, but also: Don’t Piss Off God. He might send a flood or turn you into a salt pillar.

The latter lessons are the reason teaching faith to my children is a complex subject, one I stew over quite a bit. I was submerged in church for more than half my life, experiencing both the good—fond memories of flannel graph Sunday school lessons, church potlucks and Nativity plays—as well as the screwed up: fear, fear, judgment, fear. Oh, and we-are-superior-to-those-who-don’t-believe-like-us. The combination makes for a hell of a faith identity crisis. It’s taken me years to reprogram my brain and heart and replace the painful scars of judgment and empty guilt with love; even now, I struggle.

For a long time, I viewed my faith issues much like I view my house when it gets too messy—I stand back, take it all in, conclude the mess is too overwhelming, so I make a cup of coffee and walk away. But then I had babies and babies started growing up. And when babies start growing up, you begin thinking about everything you believe—how it matters, how it transfers, how the responsibility of passing things on suddenly bears weight. For six years, I’ve been asking myself “What do I believe?” Because, honestly…I don’t know. I do know that I believe in God, that God is Love, and that there’s enough truth in that statement to provide everything I need to teach my children about faith.

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My friends and I have been talking a lot more about these issues as our kids are at the age of asking questions. Last week, Lainey and her friend Aleena were overheard discussing heaven—how when they went there, they’d make sure to take their favorite toys and blankets, as if it was just a summer road trip. Heidi’s daughter pointed out an image in the story of Noah’s Ark in her children’s Bible last week—a picture of a woman standing on a rock, holding a baby while flood waters swirled around her—the “unsaved,” apparently.

“What’s going to happen to that woman and her baby?” Peyton asked her.

“I didn’t know what to say,” Heidi admitted. “So I told her Noah was going to swing the ark back around to pick her up—he was on his way.”

I smiled. “Bravo.”

This is the exact reason why I’m not so sure of what role the Bible—the book that literally guided every decision and thought in my life for years—will play in lessons I teach my children. And my former self would be quivering with fear right now for the blasphemy I just typed. I did that a lot—quivered with fear. Say the word “rapture” and my knees go weak. Among meaningful stories of love and kindness, there are a lot of passages in the Bible that make God out to be He Who Demands and He Who Punishes. And for fun, He Who Tests You to See How Much You Love Him. As a mother who understands a little bit about loving children, these concepts aren’t things that align with the ultimate truth of parenthood (that’s what God is, after all)—Love.

I know that I want my children to know the limitless love of God.

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I also know that I want my children to know their worth—worth that doesn’t hinge on things they do or the way they believe.

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Although I believe in God and am confident of his presence in my life, I have a hard time teaching my kids statements like “we are nothing without God” or “you won’t know the answers until you ask God to help you.” Those teachings crippled qualities within me for years and, for a long time, paralyzed me from thinking for myself. I want my children to know that God made us all equal—that we are amazing from the start, that we are equipped with greatness and good decision making capabilities just because we exist. There are plenty of people who don’t, per say, “believe in God” who are living their one wild and precious lives with significance—founding organizations to help those in need, spreading kindness, choosing good, loving, loving, loving every day. They are happy and living a life with purpose. Their God might not be defined by my terms—perhaps they call him a higher power, the Universe, their inner self, what have you. But they are in no way less deserving of what we all are entitled to—love, albeit here on earth or life after death. I will tell my children to learn from these people and listen to them. Sometimes I think I’ve learned more about God and love and kindness from good people who believe differently than me than I ever learned within the establishments intended to teach the world about God.

But I also realized I’ve made the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as they say. Because of the pains of my past, for a long time I blacklisted all of it—organized religion, church, Bible studies. I thought I escaped the black hole all these people were tricked into believing, and I realize that’s just the kind of judgment I thought I was better than. Thinking I’ve got the truth, and they don’t. I left one kind of arrogance and replaced it with another.

I’ve since readjusted those beliefs, picking up a lot of the broken pieces of the faith of my past and realizing they’re not all bad. I quite like many of them and look forward to reincorporating lessons and experiences of that old faith into the truest faith I’ve known so far—an evolving one. One of love and kindness and acceptance both for those around us and for our less than perfect selves. I like feeling small compared to something, someone bigger, and I call that bigger thing God. I pray to him every day not so much in “Dear Gods” but in Be kind, How can I help?, Come sit by me, Let’s take a walk, Look at that!, Thank you, I’m sorry and I love you.

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What my Sunday morning looks like:  God is very present.

I am truly learning this year to open myself up and learn from others—to listen; to be curious, not judgmental. In my closest core of friends, I have a few Protestants, a few Catholics, an Atheist, two Agnostics, a Buddhist, a Hindu and several who don’t have names for their faith. I am intrigued by each of their beliefs and learn from all of them. It’s amazing how, when we look at our beliefs with different perspectives, so many of us really do believe in the same important life truths.

So, what to teach my children?

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Well, just in typing this, I’m feeling confident that my children know God. You know, last year I had this random moment of guilty panic that I wasn’t telling my kids the things about God that I was supposed to teach them—the Sunday school basics, the Children’s Bible stories I wasn’t reading to them. We were driving, and for some reason, I suddenly felt like I had to do something to catch up for all my kids didn’t know—something right now in this car to get it started. We’d begin with creation.

“Lainey, do you know who made the trees?” I asked her. She looked at me like I was crazy. She didn’t answer so I went on.

“God did. God made the trees,” I told her, repeating something I had been taught as a child and consequently sighing a breath of relief for completing the first course of Godly wisdom for children. The grandparents would be so proud.

But there was a rebuttal from the back seat.

“No he didn’t,” Lainey argued. “Someone planted them.” Ah truth, my little Darwinist.

I realized I was being silly. The details of creation, the many stories, whether they be allegory or not—they aren’t as important as the truth we live every day. Love. Love this earth, love each other, love yourself. I am teaching that to my children through terms that literally include God but more so through events that breathe him. We pray “Dear God” when we remember to say the words, but we live “Dear God” when we forget.

And with all the unanswered questions I have right now about faith and my mission to explore them simply by living and learning from others, I’ve never felt closer to God in my life. I am confident my children will know him too.

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I’ll end this with a story my dad once told me. A woman in a faraway country, who knew nothing of religion or God, had a son who grew very ill. Desperate to save him, she tried everything—village witch doctors, potions, medicine—until finally, she threw her hands into the sky and prayed to a higher being she knew nothing of. “Please,” she pleaded, “if you’re there, save my son and I will serve you my entire life.” The woman’s son became well and, although she knew nothing of this higher being she prayed to and believed saved her son, she did things she knew to be good—things she thought to be of service. She was kind, she helped others, she tried to make good choices, she loved, she practiced selflessness. One day missionaries came to her village and taught the people about their God, how he loved them, how their lives could be changed if they gave their heart in service to him. The woman smiled and patted her heart. “Oh, I’ve been serving him for a long time,” she said. “I just didn’t know his name was God.”

Last night, we said a real “Dear God” prayer before bed. I started with “Thank you for—,” and Lainey filled in the rest. Food, her mommy and daddy, her siblings, her friends, her puppy blanket, hair ties, pink crayons, Dora shampoo. And then we prayed for those who are hurting, for those in need. “Let them feel love,” I said, “and let us find ways to give love.” We talked about what it means to feel and give love. “Like when you color a picture for someone?” Lainey asked.

Yes, that.

Sometimes we make things so much more complex than they need to be.