Oh, that's a pretty church! his grandmother said. Is it nice inside?
He looked at her without comprehension, and his mother shot her a warning look from the passenger seat.
Later, she explained. They had told him it was his church because he wanted to have a church like his friend did, but they didn't want to force him into any kind of a religious mold. He'd never actually been inside. She said it was important to them that he be allowed to make up his own mind.
"On the basis of what?" the grandmother asked me, rhetorically. "Ignorance?"
She was ignoring the cooling cup of coffee in front of her. Her eyes filled with tears. She wanted to know if I thought it would be wrong if she had him secretly baptized. "I don't know what we did that was so terrible," she said. "My daughter acts like we're the Spanish Inquisition if I just ask whether they'd like to go to church with us while we're here."
I told her that a clandestine baptism probably wasn't a good idea. "You know," I said, "The Church hasn't taught that unbaptized people don't go to heaven for years and years now. You don't need to worry about that."
"Oh, I know," she said, tearing up again. "That's not it. I just want him to have, you know"-her voice quivered again-"all the stories, and the songs, and the Christmas pageant-all the things she loved when she was little. She loved all that stuff. She wanted to be the Virgin Mary all through elementary school, and then in sixth grade, she finally got to be the Virgin Mary. I never saw such a happy child. What happened to her?"
But the really important things in life are too important to be decided by someone else-even by your mom, much as you love her. We each work it out for ourselves. So we're stuck with this particular sorrow. We're not going to be able to insist that our adult children believe as we do, or raise their children as we raised ours. They will raise them in their way.
But there are some concrete things you can do make this situation better.
1. Pray for them. This so obvious that one might overlook it altogether. Do it every time you pray. Every day. It need not be great oratory-it can be simple and childish, just like it was when you were little, and ran through the names of your whole family, Bless-Mommy-and-Daddy-and-David-and-John-and-Grandma-and-Caesar-and-Puff. You're not alone in this problem, as you are not alone in anything else you face. We're not the lonely gods of our own affairs. We have a God, one who loves us and those whom we love. We can turn what hurts and worries us over to God, and ask for help.
2. Make your faith attractive. Understand that attraction is a stronger force for change in human beings than fear of punishment. It isn't true that being part of an organized religion is the only way to become a moral person. The world abounds in cheerful, kind, and self-giving people who have no religious beliefs at all.
3. Be open-minded and curious. Show them that religious faith doesn't have to turn off your brain. God gave us wits, and intends us to use them. Intellectual timidity has nothing to do with faith. If we are frightened of new ideas, circling the wagons of our faith so as not to let any in, we cannot expect to be seen as relevant to the lives of those who must walk into an unknowable future without us. We don't have forever with our grandchildren. While we are here, we must show them that we are not afraid to think and puzzle and reason for ourselves, and that such a thing is part of being godly.
4. Use stories and gifts to pass on your faith tradition. Great religious art is the creative heritage of the whole world, and many beautiful picture books for children make use of it. The Glorious Impossible, by Madeleine L'Engle, for instance, uses the paintings of Giotto to tell the story of Christ's nativity; contemporary artist Tim Ladwig's beautifully illustrated Psalm Twenty-Three warms both your hearts with its loving paintings of two children's safe haven with their grandparents in a tough inner-city neighborhood. Read with them the hymns of your childhood-All Things Bright and Beautiful, Now the Day Is Over, and others-in the gorgeous books illustrated by Preston McDaniels. Give them a nativity set for Christmas, or an Advent calendar, or a Noah's Ark, complete with animals-or have these things at your house for when they visit. Bake hot cross buns with them. Take them to a museum and tour the medieval section, exploring the religious imagery as you go. You'll both learn.