“Dad, where is heaven?”
Don’t kids say the darndest things!? My 4 year-old son Peter recently asked me this great question. Now I have fielded questions from young ones my entire ministry ranging on faith, God, the commandments, life, vocation, etc. Of my three kids, Peter is my thinker, often centering himself in quiet reflection before asking one of this thought provoking questions, as well as the obligatory “how many more minutes until we get there” questions.
A few weeks back our family took a little trip down to the Great Smokey Mountains. We took in the incredible scenery, the fresh mountain air, the winding roads up and down the hillsides, the sighting of bears and even embarked on a few trail hikes. With three little ones, we started early and did just enough before their little feet wore out. It was amazing to see the tall massive trees, the beautiful cascading waterfalls, the views from high on the valleys below. As we were hiking I was struck by the roots of the trees. Some of the roots were visible exposing their massive, mighty, thick and twisted nature.
The root system of a tree is one of its most important elements, providing several vital functions. Roots store nutrients for the plant during the winter and transport water and minerals during the active part of the growing season. Roots also provide an anchor to the plant, keeping it from toppling during extreme weather conditions. Roots grow through the entire life of the plant or tree. While most roots are under the surface, some grow exposed above the surface. Seeing the strength and power of these roots got me thinking about how we allow our children and ourselves to be firmly rooted.
How can we root others in God?
More research and surveys show church attendance, and for that matter religious instruction or formation is continuing to decrease at rapid levels. A recent Gallup Poll from March 2021 showed church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century. Today, that church membership stands at 47%- a drop of nearly 25% in just 20 years! For the first time in nearly 90 years there are more non-believers, other-believers and non-affiliated believers than those belonging to an organized faith community.
So, what do we do? How can we root ourselves, with purpose in the God who loves and draws us near? I have seen parents be overzealous in the athletic and extracurricular activities of their kids- going to every game and practice, doing the fundraising, etc. Yet when it comes to faith formation (aka Sunday School, Confirmation, Worship attendance, etc), that zeal tends to fade.
I think we all want our children and grandchildren to be well-rounded, kind, service-oriented people in this world and yet our practices seem to say otherwise. Don’t get me wrong here- this is not an attack on sports. I love seeing kids compete and excel and learn all the wonderful things that comes along with being on a team. I’m talking about “deeper” roots that will help sustain and nourish them the rest of their lives.
Ethicist Barbara Holmes once wrote “We come from mystery and return to it at the end of the life journey.” If we are attentive enough, though, we will realize that mystery in the here and now only if we find ourselves rooted with purpose. This begins with faith.
Peter’s wonderful question “Dad, where is heaven?” was only realized because Amy and I have spent the time and hard work in helping lay a root system to help anchor these precious gifts God has entrusted to us. We take our three kids to church (not just because I am a Pastor) but because we believe in it for them. We made the promise at baptism. Here are some simple things you might try to help plant and grow roots of faith in your child’s life:
- Pray. Pray for them. Pray with them. Show them how you pray. Pray at meal times and bed times.
- When playing a game or going for a walk, tell them about God in creation and how they are loved. Listen to what they have to say.
- Trace the sign of the cross on their forehead as a way of blessing them.
- Attend worship as a family even if online. Establish a rhythm they can count on. Growing up, I knew we would be going to Saturday 5:00pm mass every week. It was something I looked forward to.
- Teach your kids to write thank you notes. Faith is being grounded in a spirit of gratitude.
- Read and talk about some of your favorite Bible stories. Let them hear this incredible Word and promise God has made for them.
All these little rituals over time will help to build our little one’s root systems so that when the winds of this world come (and they will come), they will have a support system that will help them withstand the storms. These roots provide an atmosphere and base where they can simply ask about heaven, God, faith and their place or vocation in it.
Instead of focusing on answering Peter’s question, I wanted to relish the fact that he even asked the question. His mind was thinking about something faith related. I wanted to just en-joy the fact that this little boy, who at times can drive us crazy, was stretching his roots in the soil of faith. The truth is that sometimes our kids can teach you and I a whole lot about God, faith, and joyful living. We just need to give them the chance.
What would it look like if you simply tried to help a child, grandchild or young person in your life to grow roots of faith? What might it mean for a young person to hear why you believe in the stories of Jesus or why you belong to a church or read the Bible? Giving ourselves and our little ones the chance to grow their roots intellectually, athletically, emotionally, and spiritually is one of the best things we can do for them. I give thanks for my parents, pastors, teachers, family members, coaches and all those who have helped me to build my own root system. When we create a space for others to think, wonder, love and grow, we follow in the footsteps of the One who created the root of life for us. For when our roots are deep in Jesus, there will be no reason to fear the wind. “So dad, where is heaven?” It’s right here, buddy with you and me.