September 18, 2013
I recently listened to an interview Krista Tippett did with iconic Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. As someone who is usually very down-to-earth, I love Nadia. It was very interesting and almost humorous to listen to her have a conversation with Krista Tippett, the soft-spoken, spiritually ambiguous host of “On Being.” Nadia is always captivating with her unique mix of blunt honesty and spiritual reverence, but what most caught my attention in this interview was her answer to an audience member who asked about her children and how her faith has influenced her parenting. She began by explaining that she avoids writing about her children in her books because they didn’t choose a life in the public spotlight. Then she said,
I can say that they’ve always been a part of community, which is something that I really hope has formed who they are. But we are not the kind of family that does a lot of, like, family devotionals. We don’t pray together as a family. We don’t do this faith stuff in our home. Do you know why? My kids are around it all the time. I just feel like they need a break at home, you know? I know it’s like a big deal to build faith in the home and all that stuff…we don’t do that.
Cue uncomfortable laughter from the audience.
Now, I can relate to this on one level. I’m a pastor too. To others, Nadia’s words might sound sacrilegious or even hypocritical, but I understand her.
I find it doubtful that Nadia, who specializes in sarcasm and overstatement, actually never prays with her family (she could be serious, but you never know with her). So behind Nadia’s at least slightly hyperbolic statement, I hear something else that applies to more than just clergy. I hear her saying that it wouldn’t feel natural for her and her family to do some of the things that many others consider the basics of Christian parenting or “spiritual practices.” Somehow, for her, it would feel forced and unnatural. As she says, her kids have always been a part of Christian community, and that is where their faith formation is. The Bible reading, liturgy, and other stuff happens for them many other places than the home. That’s the rhythm they’ve found.
Jesus once said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This comes after Jesus and his disciples are criticized for not properly observing it. Jesus says that something like the Sabbath does not exist for its own sake, demanding allegiance or prescribed rituals for its own satisfaction. It is a gift to humans; a gift we can use to rest, renew, and reconnect with God. To say it another way: however we observe the Sabbath should actually connect us with God, not satisfy some religious requirement.
I suspect the same could be said of the rest of our “spiritual practices.” Though I personally have great respect and admiration for the more liturgical versions of Christianity, and though I think it’s neat that it’s experiencing a resurgence, it’s not for me. I have always been fascinated by the spiritual classics in which people describe their mystical connection with God, but I don’t connect with it. I’m glad others do. It makes life and faith much more interesting.
As parents trying our hardest to raise children with proper Christian teaching and values, we can place a lot of pressure on ourselves. Our insecurities (and past failures) can make it easy to read about what someone else is doing—who we may consider more spiritual than us—and try to imitate it.
But, “the Sabbath was made for people.”
Any view of “spiritual practice” that makes our family feel obligated to do something that feels forced is worth reevaluating. God has created each individual and each family differently, and our spiritual practices will be as varied as our personalities. But all spiritual practices share a common starting point: the desire to connect with God. Whatever our liturgies, practices, or props may be, they are all a means to that end, not ends in themselves (which is what they had become for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day). In fact, I have found that the best “God moments” happen when we integrate this stuff into the natural patterns and fabric of our lives. The other day, while we were driving in the car, my son was bragging again. He likes to brag. A lot. As we were talking, I took the chance to teach him Proverbs 27:2. “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips.” Though I have no illusions that he will remember and heed, it strikes me that these real life teachable moments are often the best times for “family Bible reading.”
But here’s the tricky part: though we are a family unit, my wife and children have their own personalities. I’m reminded of it daily as I try to navigate being the only introvert in an extroverted family! Though our habits and patterns will rub off on each other, they will also always have their own personalities and their own way of connecting with God. It can get messy, and all I know is that navigating that reality and sharing that space is a great opportunity to learn what grace is all about.
We’re not a morning devotional, prayer-before-bed kind of family either… although we do pray before every meal, and Sabbath is deeply important to us. (Heck, I wrote a book about it.)
But I do want to ask Nadia: what practices do you engage in? It’s one thing to say that the traditional disciplines just don’t fit your particular context or family, so other modes and practices take their place. It’s another to give the impression that faith is something that happens in the church and on the mission trip and that’s it. I suspect with Nadia it’s the former, but I would like to hear how that looks in her family.