by Phoebe Farag Mikhail

Last month was the anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, a national tragedy that still haunts us, especially parents. Since the day it happened, every time I drop off my children, I give them a hug and a kiss, and then I tell them “God be with you, have a good day, and I love you.” I do this even if we’ve argued that morning. Recently, I have added another phrase to this parting blessing: “Remember who is on your team.”

The children at Sandy Hook confronted their worst nightmare at school five years ago, but it’s worth remembering that children confront daily difficulties at school, and while they are not nightmares, they are big problems in their eyes. My children are no different. “No one wanted to play with me at recess today” complained my daughter one evening. “They all wanted to play tag and I wanted to play cops and robbers” complained my son. They like their teachers, they get along well with their classmates, but they face these challenges, and a great day full of wonderful classroom activities, art or music, a movie or even a birthday party can still end in tears if recess didn’t go well, or if they didn’t get to be line leader that day. And there are children who face worse problems, who face bullies, who are made fun of for being different, who endure cyberbullying as well as school bullying.

I’ve given my children the typical advice. “Find someone else who is playing alone – perhaps you can play together.” “Try a new game – maybe you’ll enjoy it if you try it.” “Be yourself. The people who want to play with you will come if you be who you are instead of changing yourself for the crowd.” This advice is useful only if there is someone else playing alone. Sometimes they try a new game and they don’t like it. And sometimes, being yourself means being alone sometimes. I went to school too. I know what that’s like.

The truth is that there will be days when my kids face struggles alone, and there is nothing I can do about it except pray that they figure out how to deal with those circumstances. Not everything I did to cope with those days feeling left out (reading books, writing stories in my head, weaving lanyards, hanging out with other teachers, looking forward to the weekend with my church friends) will all necessarily work for them.

What did work for them, what did comfort them on our last tearful evening, is the reminder that even when their peers don’t or won’t play with them, they are still not alone. I remind them that even while they are at school, their dad and I are thinking about them, praying for them. I remind them that they are a part of something bigger than they are – a family, an extended family, a church family — and even more important than that, they always have God with them, ready to love them when they are feeling unloved.

“Imagine that,” I told them. “The Creator of the Universe is on your team. He’s got saints and angels to do whatever He wants and send you help at a moment’s notice. Who can beat that?”

“But I can’t see Him,” my son said. I reminded him of this verse from John 20.29: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

“Imagine that,” I told him. “You are more blessed than Jesus’ disciples, who saw Him and believed, but you don’t see Him, and you believe.” With those words and a few hugs, the tears dried up and peaceful sleep ensued. The next morning, my usual parting blessing, “God be with you, I love you,” became “God be with you. I love you. Remember Who is on your team.”

I am realizing that this message I give to my children also applies to me as a parent. I am not alone, even when I feel alone on my parenting journey. I also need to remember who is on my team. I too have a family, an extended family, a church family, and most importantly, God’s help. As a parent, I also now have access to a wealth of resources available to parents right now – an almost overwhelming wealth — and I thank God for the parents who have taken the time to share their experiences to learn from. These parents are part of my team, too.

There are two books I am reading right now about parenting and family life, both written by remarkable families on different paths but with similar values to mine. This Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, released on the anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, is written by a mother and son team, the son a survivor of the massacre. The second one, Belonging and Becoming: Creating a Thriving Family Culture, is written by a family that left their comfortable country home to serve in the mission district of San Francisco. The books are written by both the parents and their children, offering valuable experiences and insights for raising children who are connected to God, and for nurturing a family environment that helps all family members feel connected to each other and to their communities through God’s work.

Sophronia Scott and her son Tain Gregory don’t teach us “how” to raise a spiritual child as the title implies in This Child of Faith, but simply share their experiences along a path of faith in God and finding a church community. Considering how different their path to God is from mine, I found this way of telling the story taught me more than if they had been more didactic.

My favorite takeaway as a parent also trying to raise spiritual children in a secular world is Sophronia’s emphasis on finding “teachable moments.” She often discovered that it was her son teaching her, rather than the other way around, but also that when it was time for her to teach something to her son, God had equipped her with the words and ways to respond. My evening conversation with my children about knowing who is on their team was one such teachable moment. Sophronia recounts one of hers on their way home from church:

I asked Tain what he and his friends had discussed in church school. “We talked about faith,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “That’s a tough one. Faith is when you believe in something even though you can’t see it. Like with God. Do you understand that? It’s about having faith in God who you can’t see.”

“But Mama, I see God everywhere. I even see him at the post office!”

My head spun around and I looked at him settling himself into the backseat and fastening his seatbelt. I was stunned speechless … what Tain said did make me open my eyes and think anew. Was I looking for God anywhere and everywhere?

The importance of a faith community shines brightly through their story, and it’s that community that would sustain Tain and his family in times of grief and crisis as well as in times of joy.

It was a gift I hadn’t expected—here was a community, a place where Tain would encounter and know adults of all ages and they would know him … getting connected with people who can model belief and affirm his faith. He is surrounded by people, young and old, doing the same activities—singing hymns, reciting psalms, consuming the bread and wine of communion, praying—who all profess and praise the presence of the living God.

This experience recalled my own childhood growing up as a first generation immigrant and feeling the warmth and love of my faith community every weekend, even when the rest of the world was cold and uninviting.

Scott and Gregory’s story also reaffirmed my husband and my insistence on regular church participation and a daily prayer ritual with our children. During her first Holy Week in the Episcopal Church, Sophronia decided to attend service every day. During the services she participated in, she began joining the church in the repeated congregational hymns and responses. Soon after Easter, she found herself standing and singing along during Tain’s weekly school assemblies, something she had not done before. “I had acted from muscle memory, from what I had done service after service for those eight days: when you stand, you sing … I knew that this was the way I would be from now on, an automatic participant in a corporeal body whenever it formed and gave voice.” Later, she would begin personal prayer rituals with her self and Tain, starting with the Book of Common Prayer as a guide. In that same chapter, Sophronia includes “Tain’s take,” where he lists his ten favorite places to pray, and concludes it with, “So from reading this list, it is kind of easy to tell that you can pray anywhere as long as you are comfortable and relaxed.”

In Belonging and Becoming, Mark and Lisa Scandrette also emphasize the importance of family rituals. In chapter 4, “A Thriving Family Discovers a Common Story,” the Scandrettes offer practical examples of how families can create their own spiritual rituals at home. Here I enjoyed their honesty about how difficult that can be:

There are times when parents are tired, children are distracted and wiggly, or teenagers roll their eyes at yet another conversation. That’s ok; keep at it. You can communicate, “This is our habit. It’s what we do as a family. We connect, pray, read Scripture and talk about what matters most.” Your spiritual engagement will not be magical every time, but consistency makes space and opportunity for moments of real connection to occur.

In the same chapter, their daughter Lisa Scandrette shares her experience with these practices at home, and how they have helped her now as an adult:

Our parents attempted to present us with what they believed to be the most important truths about the story of God’s relationship with humans: that we’re deeply and unconditionally loved, that Jesus shows a better way of being, that we’re called to love others unconditionally as we’re loved, etc. They also encouraged us to discuss these truths and the passages that contain them, which gave us ownership of our personal beliefs … As an adult, I don’t think I fully understand how grounding it has been to find myself in the larger context of the grand story of God’s relationship with humanity. It gives me a sort of baseline context for who I am and provides a reference for understanding when I’m struggling with a false narrative.

Although Belonging and Becoming is more didactic than This Child of Faith, it is full of stories of experiences not only from the Scandrette family, but also with their experiences with other families trying to create a “thriving family culture.” Each chapter shares some of these stories, as well as a toolkit of whole family activities and individual activities to implement the principles they discuss. I found their chapter on discussing sexuality with children very useful, and it has equipped me with ideas for how to appropriately but accurately discuss these topics with my growing children.

In chapter 8, “A Thriving Family Celebrates Abundance,” they share a teachable moment about how their five year old daughter wondered if her friend’s family was poor because both parents worked. “You get to stay home with us. So are we rich?”

Her question surprised me because at the time we had very little money, and I actually did work with the nonprofit we ran from our home. I realized that how I responded would help shape Hailey’s view of abundance. So I said, “We’re well cared for and have everything we need. We have each other. We have good friends and relatives who love us. We have good food to eat. We have a good place to live in a city with lots of parks and museums and fun things to do and see—and we have good work to do. Yes, we’re very rich.”

I love this perspective, and in the same chapter there are ideas for cultivating gratitude, contentment and generosity in the family, including a “family gratitude log” which I plan to start with my family.

Both This Child of Faith and Belonging and Becoming have given me new perspectives and tools for parenting and family life. Paraclete Press and InterVarsity Press have provided me with one giveaway copy of each of these books, respectively. To be entered for the giveaway, subscribe to my email newsletter here and then comment below, telling me which book you want to read, and answering the question, who is on your team? Giveaway closes on Wednesday, January 31st, at 11:58 pm.

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