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Family Prayers in The Mixed Belief Marriage

Family Prayers in The Mixed Belief Marriage

 A few years ago, a fairly typical family scene occurred at our dinner table.  Engaged in a rousing song of her own creation, our 6 year old daughter refused to settle down for our mealtime prayer.  It wasn’t a malicious act, simply a silly one.  You know, like when you’ve got the giggles in church and just can’t stop.

“Let’s finish the song for now then you can sing more after dinner.”  I said.  She quieted—until I began our prayer.  “Thank you Lord…” was interrupted by the sounds of humming and clapping to “if you’re happy and you know it.” 

   “Ok, let’s try again.”  I said, then started over.  This was met with a childish shriek, the fun turned to anger as her comedic talent went unappreciated by her boring parents. 

“That’s enough.”  My husband interjected.  “This is prayer time.”

  “I DON’T WANT TO SAY PRAYERS!!!” She escalated toward a tantrum, fully into her six-year old boundary testing.

 You’ve all been there, right?

The surprising part of this story isn’t that there was a conflict between child and parents, it’s that there wasn’t a conflict between the parents themselves. Since my husband and I navigate a mixed-belief marriage (I’m religious, he’s not) there’s often curiosity about how we handle these day-to-day parenting moments when questions of faith are on the line.

I wish the answers were sexier and something I could market for big money but the reality is simple: we navigate these issues with respect and love. The difficult part of this advice is that “respect” looks different to each individual. Until I started talking to other mixed-belief couples, I thought that our way of handling religious issues was the only way. This wasn’t because other ways were wrong but because it didn’t even cross my mind that other ways existed. We had been doing things our way, and happily, for so long that I truly didn’t know that others had found different solutions—or different struggles.

For Hannah and Toby, the question of prayer is a trouble spot. Toby, who grew up in a conservative religious tradition but left it as an adult, worries about his children being taught to pray. For him, this triggers memories of a faith life that he found oppressive. For Hannah, prayer is a central part of her life.

For much of their marriage, they had an easy solution. Hannah prayed, Toby didn’t. This difference has come to a head as the couple has had children. Toby is uncomfortable with family prayers before meals, even if he doesn’t have to participate. When pushed on the topic, he will quickly become defensive, even antagonistic. For Hannah, thanking God for even the simplest of meals is an important spiritual practice—and one she wants to pass on to their children.

In their case, solving this disagreement with respect looks very different than the way my family has solved the question. For some time, Hannah was the one who gave in, setting aside the idea of blessing the meal in order to preserve family peace. As this decision began to weigh on her, she began to look for other solutions. We brainstormed some possibilities:

  1.  Alternate prayers at meals. This is a classic “sharing” style solution, one that many interfaith couples use. For my Jewish/Christian family friends, on one night a traditional Jewish prayer is said, on the next, a traditional Christian prayer. For a mixed-belief family, it may be as simple as saying family prayers at one dinner and skipping them at the next
  2. Find a non-religious “blessing.” At Thanksgiving, I created a list of non-religious meal blessings. As extended families and friends gather, I think the responsibility falls heavily on Christians to make others feel welcome. This isn’t the time to press our beliefs on others with words, it’s the time to show a deep-seated love and welcome in the spirit of One who ate with all the people.  A mixed belief couple I know uses a similar approach at every meal. They take the time to give thanks but there is no reference to God, Jesus or religion. Still, this simple act of giving thanks centers them both in the realization that even the food we take for granted is cause for gratitude.
  3.  Make prayer a priority in a different way. Use bedtime, bath time or the drive to school as a prayer time with children, leaving the non-religious spouse out of it. Any of these daily times can become imbued with the same significance: giving thanks for the simple necessities of life. This is how we do bedtime prayers. When I put our daughter to bed, there’s prayer. When my husband does the good night duties, there isn’t.
  4. Create a family prayer routine, for example at mealtimes or bedtimes, but let the non-religious spouse participate (or not) as they feel comfortable

  I offer these solutions in part as ideas for those who are wrestling with this and looking for ideas–I get asked a lot about the nuts and bolts of mixed belief families. However, I also offer them with another purpose in mind: to reaffirm that there is no one right answer. In any marriage, the process of resolving conflict is far more important than the resolution itself. In this, as in the myriad of other religious practices families navigate, the route we take is a greater predictor of success than the destination we reach. So if prayer is a sticky subject in your house right now, as it is for some, then by all means, try a few different things. But whatever you decide, do it in a spirit of love and grace and you won’t go wrong.



Celebrating Easter in a Mixed Belief Marriage

Celebrating Easter in a Mixed Belief Marriage

The spring sun is streaming through the sliding glass door as I write on my yellow legal pad. Outside, I can hear the prairie dogs giving their early morning squeals of delight. Spring always washes over my soul with a combination of exuberance and relief. This has more to do with the short days of winter than actual cold—our winters have been so mild lately, we barely get to play in the snow, much less become sick of it. But the short days and deep, dark nights wear me out in a way that defies explanation.

It’s no wonder we celebrate Easter at this time. It would be nearly impossible to rush into spring without some celebration of God’s grace complete with all the symbols of new life. I know, we’re all a little confused about what eggs and rabbits have to do with Jesus but you know what, I just don’t care. I’m in love with the whole shebang. Resurrection tinges our whole life with new meaning and if that lets us see an ordinary breakfast food as a riotous celebration of creation then I’m in favor.

My husband, well, that’s a different story. I suspect Easter marks for him the occasion of being dragged to church and forced to sit through a boring service in uncomfortable clothes. Unlike the children, who probably experience it the same way, he doesn’t even have the lure of a post-service Easter egg hunt to get him through. There is no whispering to a grown man, “Sit still, there’s cake after church!”

But there we’ll be on Easter Sunday, me in front corralling the Sunday School children and him in the pew, corralling our child and smiling through it all. This is the dance of our marriage: I’m religious and he’s not. By “I’m religious,” I mean, “I’m actually ordained” so it’s not just that I’m more spiritual than my husband in some amorphous way, my calling requires some real commitment from all of us.

Usually at this point, I’m asked “how does that work!?” with perhaps an incredulous gasp. The short answer is that it works fine. We’re far more likely to argue about my vegetarian cooking tendencies and his need for meat (and lots of it) than our differing theological views. Our faith differences are simply something we exist in.  

Of course, there’s still a part of me that envies the adorable church couples I know, the ones who serve on all the committees together and then go out for Sunday brunch afterwards. But then I also envy the adorable non-church couples I know, the ones who spend Sunday mornings sleeping in and reading the paper on their couch with large mugs of coffee. The grass is always greener on the other side and right now, I’m in the middle of two fields.

Our field is a little muddier, I suppose. We straddle the ditch, soaking up the run-off from both sides. It’s messy, yes. But it’s also fertile ground. Living with someone whose faith (or non-faith) differs from your own makes you both humble and brave. I am stopped daily from assuming that my white-suburban-woman-Christian way of viewing the world is the one and only way of seeing the world. Yet, I am also learning to hold my beliefs proudly, even when not safely ensconced among “the church crowd.” Spend 18 years with an atheist and you’ll discover they’re not all out to get you.

I don’t need to point out to any of you that our world is increasingly polarized. By all appearances, we’ve lost the ability to disagree without demonizing each other. We categorize ourselves into neat little boxes, seeing everyone outside those boxes as “the opposition,” and believe that anything short of getting exactly what we want is losing. We’ve lost the entire art of conversation and inquiry.

At the same time, our world is shrinking. Diversity in America is on the rise as we become a more mobile world. We’re connected to people across the globe through technology—being exposed to their views, needs and hopes virtually if not in person. Clearly, shutting down and refusing to acknowledge “the other” is not a viable option. And, I would argue, neither is fighting tooth and nail for “the other” to become more like us.

This is the gift of mixed-belief marriage. It’s also the gift of interfaith marriage, mixed-political marriages and mixed-race marriages. These are the places where people are given the opportunity to learn what it is to love across boundaries. More than that, the waves of people they touch are given the opportunity to love across boundaries. Given the increase of mixed-belief marriages in recent years, I’d say we’re all standing on the edge of a transformation. We’re witnessing to and creating a changing world, one in which the rules of both love and religion are changing.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more about mixed-belief marriage. I’ll be delving into a little bit more of the nitty-gritty. What’s hard? What’s works? How do we navigate holidays, spiritual practices at home, raising a daughter, career issues? And what about that Bible passage about being unequally yoked? For now, though, I’ll leave you with this: I believe in an Easter God. I believe in a God who is working through bunnies, colored eggs and empty tombs. I believe that in the hands of this God, all sorts of mundane and messy things become holy. And I believe that’s equally true of our relationships with one another, whether they fit into a neat box or not.