Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Life (Bruce Epperly)
In the fourth essay in his series on parenting from the persective of process theology, Bruce Epperly speaks to the issue of cultivating trust in a child. I found this to be an interesting and compelling post, especially after recently being with Martin Marty at the Academy of Parish Clergy annual meeting, where he spoke to the topic of his most recent book: Building a Culture of Trust. Bruce reminds us that the process begins as soon as children are born.
Nurturing Your Child’s Spiritual Life –
Bruce G. Epperly
The world regularly disappoints us. Things don’t work out as we expected and our best laid plans are often thwarted by unexpected instances of Murphy’s Law. Our trust in the essential goodness of life and humankind is, on occasion, betrayed by institutions, employers, friends, and spouses. Illness strikes and our once predictable world is turned upside down. Beyond that, we know only too well the realities of natural disasters and unexpected accidents. We are never ever fully secure or safe in life on a personal or planetary scale.
Yet, trust, even in a world where death can strike at any moment, is essential for creativity, healthy relationships, and personal and community flourishing. Trust in the world and trust in oneself are intimately related. But, how do we cultivate trust in children in a constantly changing and often insecure world?
Erik Erikson spoke of basic or primordial trust as the most essential need of infants. To grow spiritually and emotionally, infants must answer what Einstein called life’s most important question: “Is the universe friendly?” with a resounding “yes” if they are to find personal and relational fulfillment. But, how do parents cultivate trust that lasts a lifetime in the first months and years of life? Obviously, the infant can’t produce her or his trust. This trust must come from the infant’s experience of the goodness of life, at a deep and unconscious level, through positive and supportive relationships with an infant’s most significant people, most especially mother and father.
Nurturing basic trust in an infant is a matter of parental character and spiritual maturity. Trust is nurtured by faithful and trustworthy persons, who can be relied upon to deliver what they’ve implicitly promised to those who are absolutely dependent and completely vulnerable. In fact, I believe that one of the roles of religious and spiritual traditions is to restore and promote the trust we may not have received in infancy. Healthy religion tells us that we are ultimately safe, cared for, and affirmed regardless of our life situation. The apostle Paul captured the essence of trust when he proclaimed that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” – not even persecution, illness, fear, or death. Centuries earlier, the author of Psalm 139 asserted that if we ascend to the heavens God is there and if we descend to the depths God is there. God is there even when we run away from God and cover ourselves in darkness.
Cultivating trust in infants is grounded in trustworthy and faithful parenting. And, this requires parents to cultivate a sense of consistency in care and love. While an infant can’t intellectually articulate the meaning of love, he or she knows love in action – in an available breast or bottle, in a soothing voice in the night, in the reading of books and massaging of skin, in the tone of our voice, and in the touch of loving arms. The Dalai Lama once said that we are blessed to be born into loving arms and later to die into loving arms.
As a grandparent, I seek to be faithful and trustworthy with my six month old grandson. When I’m visiting him and his parents, I wait till later in the morning to take a walk. My grandson tends to be an early riser, so his mother brings him down to me at 5:00 a.m., so she and my son can get a little more rest before facing the challenges of parenting, householding, and professional life. I place his concerns ahead of my morning rituals - writing or even meditating. I have learned that you can’t give a child too much love, nor can you say “I love you” in too gentle a tone. He learns trust as I securely hold him, come to him when he cries (nowadays after letting him cry a moment or two to begin to learn patience). He discovers trust in loving arms and gentle words.
Cultivating trust invites us to develop our own characters and spiritual growth. As parents, we learn to be trustworthy by taking time out for prayer and meditation, by learning to be patient with ourselves – and this is best learned through prayerfulness and trust in God’s care. We need to remember the flight attendant’s counsel, “put your oxygen mask on first” so we have the resources to be faithful through hours of crying, interruptions at night, and changes in old routines. Our own spiritual nurture reminds us that “it’s not about us” and that peace and well-being involve balancing our own needs with the needs of others.
Cultivating trust also requires a “village” not just to raise a child, but support and nurture parents. We are blessed at this time of our lives to be able to spend a couple days each week with our son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. We hope to do this for years ahead to support his professional parents’ balancing a career with family. And, beyond grandparents, a community of friends and a just and supportive social structure, including the government, contributes to an environment of trust.
Ultimately, we need to cultivate our sense that “all will be well” and that even when we reach our limits, we will have the resources to face life’s challenges with hope, courage, and equanimity.
Trust is a gift; the gift of community, of caring parents, and a trustworthy God. Life is challenging, but trust enables us to live through life’s challenges knowing that we have power to shape our lives and that, when are most vulnerable, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org