Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dogs, Voodoo and Google

On one of my frequent driving routes I pass a local cemetery run by a large funeral home conglomerate in our city. They have recently added a sign out by the road that says, "Ask your Veterinarian about Palmer's Pet Cemetery."

I am a lukewarm pet owner at best, and while I love my current pets and loved my childhood pets, it has never once crossed my mind to be concerned about their souls or in reality their bodies after they have left this life. I will admit to being startled when I learned that the earthly remains of my childhood dog would be incinerated along with other animals in a mass cremation, but after a few minutes to think about it, I moved on.

As a pastor, the question that I get most frequently from parents is what they should tell their children has happened to their dog's soul now that they have died. I am in no way prepared to answer this kind of query, so I am not going to spend any time here contemplating the age old question of whether or not dogs go to heaven. I am more interested in what is behind a parent's decision to come to their pastor with this question. Here are some possible motivations:
  • Maybe they honestly don't know how to explain to their children that though they have treated a pet like family for so many years, it is still in fact simply an animal, not a human, that has died.
  • Maybe they themselves are struggling with how to mourn the loss of a pet, and don't know how to deal with their own feelings.
  • Maybe they think that as a pastor I can suggest proper theological language that will help a child make sense of this.
  • Maybe they actually want to know what the Church or the Bible says about the souls of animals and what happens to them after they die.
  • Maybe this is the first conversation they have had with their children about life and death, and they are worried that if they simply tell their child that all living things eventually die, it will lead to an uncomfortable discussion about mortality in general.
There is a very common, and I would say politically correct, notion in pastoral ministry today that when a child asks a difficult question like this, what that child really wants is to know is what their parents think about it. Accordingly, we are supposed to encourage parents not to come to the pastor or send their child to the pastor for The Answer. Instead they should answer them honestly from the heart.

I am 100% in favor of this policy when it comes to questions about dogs and heaven. But is it really the best policy for ALL of our children's questions?

A few months ago a 3rd grader came to me with some questions. His dad didn't know the answers, he explained, so he was sent to talk to me. I chuckled when I heard the question: "Do people who practice voodoo believe in God?" What a great question, I replied, and totally understood why he was sent to me. While I paused to consider who would be a better resource on this question that me, he went on: "I know that Jewish people don't believe in God, so I wasn't sure about the voodoo thing." Ack! I was going to have to deal with this myself.

I quickly affirmed that indeed Jews do believe in God, the same God that we Christians believe in, the difference being what we believe about Jesus of Nazareth. He seemed to quickly understand, and I regained a little of my faith in our Sunday School curriculum. On to voodoo - I said honestly that I wasn't sure how to answer, but that if he would give me a few minutes I would see what I could figure out.

After a variety of Google searches I tracked him down in the church gym, and we had a very brief discussion about voodoo beliefs. Just to cover all the bases I tracked down his dad and had a brief conversation about voodoo theology with him as well.

It is certainly the case that his dad could have done the same Google search that I did and answered his questions, but what was gained by them coming to me?

First, it is a good habit to start early with children. To help them feel comfortable with their pastor. To see the pastor as someone who is available to them even for what some people might think of as trivial things. Interestingly, I find that what people think are the important things to come to me about - a typo in the bulletin, a piece of gossip, or a comment on what a teenager wore in church - are actually the trivial things. Yet, almost every time someone comes to me with a biblical or theological question, they always start by apologizing for bothering me, and then make some kind of statement about me being too busy for this kind of thing. I wish I could start every day with a question about voodoo practices and how they relate to Christian faith, instead of my normal busy work.

Second, when a parent and child come to the pastor together to ask a question, it helps the child understand that the church is an important resource for their parent. Kenda Cressy Dean, who teaches youth ministry at Princeton, has noted that many parents would not hesitate to turn to a tutor if their child were struggling academically, or to a trainer to help their child excel athletically, yet parents are often hesitant to seek out professional help for their children when they struggle with faith.

Third, it helps to teach a child and a parent what resources are out there besides the pastor when it comes to children's questions - resources beyond Google and Wikipedia. Just as a librarian showed me how to use a card catalogue and an encyclopedia as a child, a pastor can help families find resources and teach them how to discern a helpful source from an unhelpful source.

Finally, it can help children and parents have conversations about what the "church" says about certain issues. Depending on your tradition or denomination there may be different answers to a child's questions, and we live in such a post-denominational culture that unless a parent is steeped in the theology of their chosen tradition, they may wind up articulating a belief that falls outside of the tradition in which the child is being raised. This is not to say that we should accept without question all of the tenets of our denomination - I have started more sticky conversations than I can count with the phrase "faithful Presbyterians disagree on this issue." But it is often helpful on certain questions to know what the church's answer is. Sometimes I will make my answers two-fold: 1. Here is what the church says and how they say it. 2. Here is what I believe. The next step then is 3. What does the parent believe?

It is vitally important when a family is in the midst of grief, transition, or even the daily grind for a child to hear from their parents, how their parents understand faith to be a part of what it happening in that moment, and parents should never be so worried about giving the perfect answer that they avoid the questions. It is also important to legitimize our children's questions and seek together with them to find the answers. Hopefully a pastor will be welcomed into that journey as well. We have nothing more important to do today than just that.

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