"That's very beautiful, Debbie," I said, impressed with my daughter's burgeoning artistic ability. "Tell me more about it."
"Well, Mom, the counselors asked me to draw a picture of God--" She paused in her explanation, noting my rather startled expression. "Don't get excited," she reassured me. "I know that God is not an old man. When they asked me to draw God, I handed them a blank page, but they insisted that I had to draw something. This was all I could think of."
At first, I was delighted with my daughter's answer. She had grown up in a religious and home setting where gender equality was the norm. She did not think that God was a man! A precocious 6-year-old, she had recognized that God was beyond human perception. I was ready to enroll her in seminary!
But then I realized that for her, God was nothing more than a blank page. At age 6, it was hard to imagine this first grader an abstract theologian. For her and others her age, a blank page is exactly that: empty. I asked myself where the rich images were to fill her spiritual world.
For children, abstract ideas are arranged in concrete ways. The question is not whether children will or should have images of God, but what images of God they have and who will supply them. Much of my writing for children has been an attempt to fill the blank page--to paint a picture that moves beyond the graying grandfather, to encourage our children's religious imaginations.
Some have said that we should not anthropomorphize God. After all, God is infinite, beyond human comprehension. Our words and images--a set of metaphors and approximations--merely limit the Divine. Yet, if we stay too abstract--or worse, if we say nothing about God--then God is largely irrelevant to our lives and meaningless in the lives of our children.
By offering our children a variety of images of God, we help them name God out of their own experiences. A single image becomes an idol. A multitude of images helps our youngsters to understand that all images are incomplete, that each image is only a partial knowing.
We often don't give our children the opportunity and permission to look in that mirror. We give them names that they don't understand and have nothing to do with their own life experiences. When I've asked children what their favorite name for God is, they always choose the names they've been taught by their parents or heard used in their religious communities. Often they say "Father." Jewish children frequently say, "Adonai," a Hebrew word; Christian youngsters often say, "Jesus."
Then I tell them about people who called God by different names, about how they argued trying to decide which name was best, until finally they realized that all the names of God were good. Afterward, I ask again what is their favorite name for God. Most frequently they say, "Mother" and "Friend." Once they are given permission to speak what they feel, children will name God out of their experience. In doing so, they tell us about what is of importance in their lives.
I've tried a similar exercise with adults. I asked them to think about a name for God that best reflected the place where they were in their lives. I reminded them that there were many names for God and that people throughout the generations have called God out of the depths of their souls. After a period of silence, names came pouring forth. One woman wanted to call God "an Old, Warm Bathrobe." We all acknowledged and affirmed her naming, but I'll admit I thought it a little unusual. One year later, the same woman made a point of telling me how much that exercise had meant to her. Her mother had died that past year, and she took her old warm bathrobe and wrapped it around her. She felt the presence of God.
If we want our children to have a meaningful relationship with God, we need to help them fill the blank page with images that speak the language of their souls. Simultaneously, we need to allow ourselves to do the same.