Navigating one’s own faith journey can be complex. When you become a parent, the journey grows all the more complicated as you harrowingly lead your eager disciples down a path you are not always fully sure of yourself. But add a transition to the mix and the difficult but dynamic dance suddenly devolves into survival of the fittest … and then fittest, you may sometimes find, is not always you. Major life transitions present their own set of difficulties, including (but certainly not limited to) managing logistics, finances, emotions and faith, the latter of which is often neglected as we are busy trying to attend to the crises of the urgent. How in God’s name are we supposed to help guide our children in faith and life during transitional seasons when we as adults are barely (and I use that term generously) getting by ourselves? After living in an overseas ministry context for ten years with children, my family made a tremendous faith leap to move back to our passport country. It was a radical, unsettling, and reframing journey for us all.
When my family and I made our epic move to leave southern Africa after a decade of cross-cultural ministry, I worked hard to process each step with my children. At the time, I did not know of any resources that were specifically geared to help children who had lived abroad their whole lives to return “home” to a country that really wasn’t home at all. Regardless, my background in education and childhood development told me that it would be imperative to debrief my then three, six, and nine-year-olds. It seemed a no-brainer task, as God was “in charge” of the whole process. The God who called us into overseas ministry was now calling us out. The only problem with that notion was that I loved living abroad with my family, and so did my children. It was confusing to explain to them as I had so little understanding of the direction of this new season, and so few answers myself, so I kept it light and positive. We had a nomadic lifestyle during our decade overseas; what was one more move, anyway? I didn’t know what I didn’t know …
Several months after settling into our new location I began to notice some “red flags” in my children. The first notable marker was my children asking when we were going back home. Our passport country had never been “home” to them, and because we had moved so often, they were feeling the natural rhythm of our family lives nearing the time when we should have been prayerfully planning our next ministry location. Instead, there was a foreign steadiness, and for my children this was uncomfortable. Even so, their questions and sad longings seemed, according to my research and reading, to be natural enough.
My next concern over my children’s transition was anger. Little disputes or seemingly small agitations escalated to intense emotional battlefields, nothing harmful to themselves or others, but uncharacteristic nonetheless. Anger, being one of the stages of grief, again seemed a natural response. I understood; I was going through my own difficulties during our readjustment. I tried to balance respectfully offering my children the space to heal and move forward while barreling forward with false positivity, burying my own struggles in order to “keep it all together” for the rest of the family.
Lastly, my children grew disinterested in praying. They did not want to participate in this ritual for any of our family routines: mealtimes, preparing for school, going to bed. Their desires to engage in the biblical narrative or community fellowship waned. I did not press it because, truthfully, I did not know what to do. I thought it was like everything else: natural. But after some time, it appeared the much-anticipated healing was not taking place, for any of us. As each family member seemed adrift in his or her own anger, frustration, disappointment, and despair, we also seemed adrift from one another and from God. I began to fear that our transition was leading our family to join the statistics of depression, rebellion, and a falling out of relationship with God which are so prevalent among children who return to their passport countries. I felt hopeless in helping my children to move successfully into this new season of life and faith.
In the midst of our transcontinental transition, I was also working on my Master’s Degree in Christian Formation and Discipleship. As it came time to choose a final project for graduation I was reminded of when I was first accepted into the program and explaining to my three littles why I was going to attend this school: to grow closer to God, to better know His heart, and to know myself better in the process. All three children nodded as if they understood; though I am sure they had questions which they simply did not know how to articulate. Then my oldest daughter, who was seven at the time, asked, “Mommy, is there a school like that for kids?” I told her that I didn’t know of one, but that I would share with them everything I learned. Little did I know at the time that everything I was about to learn and experience through Christian faith formation would equip me not just for the journey of life and faith, but for the transitions of life and faith for myself and my children as well.
Through the process of completing my Capstone Project, I came to better understand the faith formation of children, especially those in transition (and more specifically in our family’s repatriation). I also grew in awareness as a parent of and disciple-maker to the tiny humans entrusted to my care. Like the airline preflight emergency instructions for a parent to first place an oxygen mask on themselves before attending to a child, I began to recognize what I needed as a parent in transition in order to better help my children to successfully span this literal and spiritual passage. This is what I will address in the next blog.