My wife and I have from very early on with our kids created a rather involved bedtime ritual. All of our prayers are sung, and with the exception of the first, a variation of "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" sung to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", based on elements of the compline liturgy. This bedtime liturgy evolved out of a first child who would not stay in a toddler bed alone. Many nights I would lie on the floor with my head resting on his mattress until he would fall asleep. In that time, he seemed to soothe easiest if I sang. I had lots of tunes that I would use, but I fell into the habit of singing parts of compline because I was praying it fairly regularly. The traditional tune of "All Praise to Thee My God This Night" fit the moment. And the verse which precedes the nunc dimitis, "Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping..." even though sung to Gregorian chant was perfect before we eventually said the Lord's Prayer.
This routine has remained for nearly ten years. Even now, with three kids, we all gather in a bedroom and sing our prayers. I do not know if this ritual makes bedtime a natural place to reflect theologically, but I know I have come to many realizations about faith in the song or the silence of bedtime. But it has often happened that, as I have spent a moment or two with each child tucking them in and saying good night after the prayers, that questions around God and life surface. The other night was no exception when our second oldest child opened up with questions like a dam bursting.
Just as I was preparing to leave his room, he asked, "Whose life matters more, our life or God's life?" I had no idea what he was asking, so I asked some more questions to figure out what he meant. It is hard to explain what he answered, but what he really meant, what he was really getting at were questions about God and faith and life as a seven-year old thinks about them. Once we got to that questions they just came rapid fire one after another. I did my best not to give him the "right" answer but what I believed (and I think he really wanted to know what I believed because he knows what I do; a few years ago as we were walking out of church one day he said, "Dad, I know what you do. You're the bible teller" that is I tell people the stories from the bible and help them make sense out of it), but I also tried to give him space to think and question. As I have looked back on my own life, I have always felt that I was blessed to have pastors who were never threatened when I asked questions. While I know there are some other traditions that ask questions freely and safely, and that there are plenty of Lutherans, clergy and lay alike, who want to force some things out of bounds, I have always felt that Lutheranism opens life up for questions and we needn't fear any punishment for asking about anything.
So I sat there with my son, in the dim light cast from the hall, and I listened and talked. "What if God didn't make the world but the myth gods did?" He of course means gods like the gods of Greek myth, whom he knows through his older brother's reading and interest in stories such as those of Percy Jackson. I pointed to our story and mentioned that in so many of the myths of other gods, those gods had to have some material through which the world was made. Our God, I told him, needed nothing and simply spoke the universe into being. "How?" he replied. There I could resolutely say, "I dunno. That's what makes him God, I think." He kept on by wondering aloud, "Why did God cause sickness?" Well, he didn't I said. Humans brought that about when we acted differently than how God wanted us to. And he ran into that stark reality that we cannot always live the way we think God wants us to. "But I try to control my anger!" And soon he brought up heaven and hell.
Tears were coming now in slow drips from his eyes. I could tell where this was going. This was fear. In some ways all of his questions and doubts were fearful, but this question brought something up that was deeper. This question got to more of a "How much does God love me?" sort of way. After all, why worry about all of these questions about who created things or what matters, if this God was only going to dump me. So I looked at him, and I said, "This is what I know. That on a Sunday morning one August, your mother and I stood holding you, surrounded by people who love us, at a font filled with water. And there you were baptized and God said, "You are mine. I will love you forever and ever, even if you mess up. No matter what." God promises that nothing will keep us apart. This proclamation was good news for him. And perhaps it was no coincidence that he quieted down shortly thereafter.
Perhaps this interchange would lead some to wonder about why I would even continue to have this sort of bedtime ritual. Would these sort of interchanges freak some people out? Make them fear what might come out of their children's mouths? I lean the other way. Having such a time set aside when we engage in prayer and conversation is a moment of incredible privilege. I long for those sorts of moments with the college students I serve. Why would I not want the same thing with my kids? I suppose there are some parents who would feel incompetent dealing with their children's questions about faith and life. But parents need not fear. Be honest and open. Don't be afraid of the phrase "I don't know." And when all else fails, tell the good news.