Four and a half years ago I sat on my sister’s couch cradling her newborn child in my left hand while slowly typing a Grow Christians post about being an aunt with my right. It’s amusing looking back at what I wrote. My hopes for this child and the role I would play as her only aunt. ‘I plan to shower this baby with love, prayers, and oh so many books, but I also want to share an example of authentic Christian discipleship.’
We live 700 miles apart, so showering this baby with love, books, and living examples of discipleship takes a bit of creativity. My two children and I regularly record ourselves reading beloved picture books then text the recordings and snail mail the books. It means that my niece and her younger brother hear our voices regularly in addition to the stories that mean so much to us. These audiobooks combined with frequent FaceTime calls close the 700 mile gap quite a bit. It feels like we see one another in person more than we actually do. Although when I hugged my niece at the airport six weeks ago for the first time since December 31st, the tears in my eyes reminded me just how long it’s been.
But how do we model discipleship when we live so far away? The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program at my sister’s church teaches the children about their relationship with Jesus. So it’s not uncommon for my niece to bombard her parents with questions about Jesus and his relationship with God the Father on their three minute drive home from church.
A couple of Sundays ago I received a text informing me of her desire to become a priest when she grows up. I immediately responded with a celebratory emoji, but then my sister reminded me that the previous week she wanted to be a teacher so ‘she could walk around the school outside whenever she wanted.’
This month I received a copy of the new book My Love, God is Everywhere written by fellow clergy moms Victoria Robb Powers and Cameron Mason Vickery and beautifully illustrated by Joanna Carillo. As soon as I saw this book I knew that I wanted to share it with my niece. It felt like the perfect opportunity to talk about love, faithfulness, big questions, and of course, books.
It took a few days to line up our schedules, but finally I was able to read to her via FaceTime as part of her bedtime routine. The child in this book could very well be my niece. Or my own children at her age. Or really, most four-year-olds. Four is the age when children finally start looking beyond themselves and take note of the world around them. It feels like they need to understand everything about life and how things work, which means they ask endless questions. I cherish this curiosity, especially now that my children are 12 and 14 and seem to know everything.
This book begins, “One day I asked my mom, ‘Where is God? Is God here? Or is God there?”‘ The mom responds that God is everywhere. But that’s not enough for this child. There are follow up questions to be asked. She’s really trying to figure out where God is through binary questions. Is God up high or down low? Is God in the silence or is God in the loud noises? Is God with me when I’m happy or there when I’m sad?
Each time I read one of the child’s either/or questions about God’s location, my niece answered with the one she felt was right.
‘God is up high, because God lives in heaven.’
‘God is in the quiet because that’s how we pray.’
‘God is with me when I’m sad to comfort me.’
As adults we know that these are not either/or questions, but rather both/and. It’s our job as adults to expand children’s understanding of God. God is up high and down low. Yes, God in silence and God is also in the noise. That’s how the mother responds in this book. ‘My love, God is here when you’re happy in your joy and celebration. God dances with you because you are God’s creation. And God is there when you’re sad, holding you when you’re blue, hurting alongside you because God gets sad too.’
My favorite pair of pages comes when the child asks if God is with her when she’s good or there when she’s bad. My niece’s eyes grew so big when she saw the destruction the character caused within her room in the book. She 100% knows what the consequence would be for such behavior in her own house, but I wonder if she’s ever thought about God’s response.
She was shocked to learn, ‘God is here when you choose goodness and are living from your heart….And God is there when you mess up, if you make a choice that isn’t best.’ I love that the mother reframes the question in her response. It’s not about being a good person or a bad person, but rather about the actions we take. And, sometimes that means we ‘choose goodness’ while other times we ‘make a choice that isn’t best.’
If I read this book in person with my niece sitting right beside me, I would have certainly closed the book several times, marking our spot with my finger. There are so many questions and discussions that come from these pages. I long to dig in deeper with her—asking what she thinks about the mom’s responses or where she might experience God herself. I’d like to talk about the two pages that caused me to stumble a bit because of their gender binary language. I wish I could have been there to answer the questions she posed to her mom the next day. After searching around a bit, she admitted, “I can’t see God. Where is he?”
Those 700 miles suddenly felt like an insurmountable 7 million. So I make a plan to call more often. Read more books. And ask a lot more questions.
How do you close the distance gap with godchildren, grandchildren or niblings?