Virginia Politics and the Trial of Governor Robert McDonnell

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 28 August 2014 0 Comments
Please login with your account to read this essay.


An eight-year-old girl in my congregation has a father who has cancer and will likely die soon. She told a family member that she knew her father would not die because she was praying “really hard” to God. How would you respond to this child?



Dear Amy,

There is a considerable distinction between reality and desire. This child is expressing her desire in very typical eight-year-old forms. At the age of eight, one believes that one’s parents can do anything and God is presented as a kind of parent figure with supernatural power. If one pleases God like a child pleases the child’s parents, there is an assumed payoff, i.e. the child gets the desire of his or her heart. Of course, life doesn’t work that way, but superstition and religion both feed that mentality. Christian liturgies are filled with unimaginative clichés: “Have mercy, O God”; “reward us not according to our deserving, but according to your gracious will.” In liturgy we act as if there is nothing working in our lives to commend us to God and so we are taught to throw ourselves on God’s mercy. This eight-year-old child is simply reflecting this permeating theology of Christianity. Perhaps it made sense when our primary picture of God was that of a super father or super parent, who lives above the sky, keeping record books on our behavior up to date while rewarding the faithful and punishing the wicked. If the church reflects this Santa Claus view of God, it should surprise no one that one of our children reflects it. I suspect this child has said this before and has been praised for her faith and faithfulness. What can we do or say to keep this child from having a rough time when reality moves into her fantasy world. She will survive. Most of us deal with reality when we are forced by reality to do so.

In the long term, we must start by educating the adults who pass on this theology to this eight year old child. The first lesson that adults need to learn is that Christianity does not make one secure. It does not create peace of mind amid the chaos of life. Christianity rather gives us the courage to embrace the radical insecurity of life. It gives us the courage to live creatively when there is no peace of mind, to continue putting one foot in front of the other when chaos is the reality of our lives. No one escapes the difficult times of life – not the righteous, the sacred or those who are convinced they possess the true faith.

Love this child. Set up a relationship with her that is so supportive and so honest that she may be able to give expression to her fears, which are well repressed in one who believes that her prayers can control the will of God.

I wish you well. Life is tough, there are no easy answers. That is why Paul Tillich referred to the Christian life as having “the courage to be.”

John Shelby Spong




Leave a Reply