Goldfish crackers, Eucharist, and the lost art of waiting to be asked

Every Sunday, we take our almost-three-year-old daughter Elizabeth up for communion. In our church, baptized children are welcomed at the altar even before they understand what’s going on. Grace is, after all, a gift.

And every Sunday, Elizabeth’s rapidly growing mind takes in more and more of her surroundings. Yesterday, as we knelt by the altar rail, she started telling us what to do next, parroting the whispered instructions we’d given her countless times before: Don’t eat the wafer yet. Wait for the person to dip it in the cup and give it back to you.

Afterward, we were talking with our priest during coffee hour (a tradition every bit as sacred to Episcopalians as potlucks are to Baptists). Elizabeth had a cup of goldfish crackers; and right there with the three of us, she began reenacting the ritual she’d just been a part of, solemnly handing each of us an orange, fish-shaped wafer.

Our daughter is noticing. Absorbing. Processing. Becoming an active participant in this ancient and slightly bizarre ritual.

Someday soon, she’s probably going to ask why.


Christians of a certain stripe have long been preoccupied with getting kids to make a decision about God as quickly as possible. From an early age, we start peppering our kids with answers to questions they haven’t even thought to ask yet.

The truth is, we’re scared.

We’re scared something bad might happen to them before they make a decision about God. Which probably says more about our notion of God than anything else.

So we settle for methods that short-circuit our kids’ natural sense of curiosity, imagination, and wonder. We reduce faith to a decision, a transaction, an exchange of goods and services.

Is it any wonder, when we rob faith of its ability to capture the imagination, that it has so little staying power in the lives of our children?


The rituals prescribed in the Torah — Passover meals, phylacteries, mezuzahs — served many purposes, but one was made explicit to the ancient Israelites on at least two occasions in scripture.

In Deuteronomy 6, the Israelites were told to etch the Torah onto their hearts, bind it to their foreheads (hence the phylacteries), and scrawl it onto their doorframes (hence the mezuzahs).

Parents were also told to “impress” or “engrave” these laws onto their children. To teach them in such a way as to make a lifelong impression.

So let’s all break out the spiritual hammers and chisels then?

Not quite. The text goes on:

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

A similar decree was made concerning the Passover meal in Exodus 12:

And when your children ask you, “What does this ceremony mean to you?” then tell them, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes…”

The best way to make a lasting impression on your kids? Nurture their curiosity. Honor it. Allow questions to sprout and take shape in their minds. Wait to be asked.

I don’t mean sit back and do nothing. After all, something has to spark our children’s curiosity. Something like kneeling with them at an alter and receiving a round wafer dipped in wine from somebody wearing a white robe.

Something like watching a priest sprinkle water over a child’s head while onlookers clap, cry, snap pictures, and promise to support that child in their newfound life in Christ.

Something like practicing justice and mercy, loving our neighbors (even the difficult ones), welcoming outcasts, relinquishing power, serving others.

Rituals and practices like these are not likely to go unnoticed by our kids. They observe and absorb more than we think.

So maybe all we have to do is nurture their curiosity. Maybe we don’t have to butt in with answers to questions they haven’t even asked yet.

Of course, this begs the question: what should we tell our kids when they do ask?


Four Spiritual Laws. Romans Road. The Wordless Book. The sinner’s prayer.

All of them methods, tools, or techniques for extracting a decision from people.

The Torah suggested a rather different approach. When parents were asked the meaning of all the laws and rituals they followed, this was the answer they were to give:

“We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Instead of using abstract concepts or clever techniques to cajole a profession of faith from their kids, they simply needed to share their story.

Of course, there was always the implicit invitation to enter the story, to activate it, to make it your own story. And of course, doing so means there is a decision to be made at some point.

The question is how.

Do we go about introducing faith to our kids in ways that respect their personhood, nurture their curiosity, and engage their imaginations?

And if we did so, would they be more likely to make a decision that lasts?

My election night

By the time I arrived at the church building, I could already feel it. That slow, inexorable, churning agitation. The anticipation and the uncertainty of it all.

Who’s going to win? Will we even find out before we all stagger into our beds at 2 a.m.? What if the other guy takes it?

Just how easy is it to emigrate to Canada, anyway?

I love and hate election night. Love it… because, well, I’ve always been a political junkie. Hate it… because I don’t handle uncertainty very well. (More than one person has helpfully pointed out this combination is a recipe for a disorder.)

Inside the church, two liturgies were playing out side by side. On the left, a line of voters waited quietly to cast their ballots — the last of the evening in my state. To the right, inside the sanctuary, a small gathering prepared itself to receive the bread and wine of holy communion.

The tension drained from my body the moment I sat down. Bread and wine were the antidote for my ballot box anxiety. This ancient ritual, repeated over hundreds of years, has endured while politicians and parties come and go.

And yet…

We allow politics to govern our lives in a way the Eucharist does not. We allow politics to dictate our anxieties to us, to decide for us who we’ll associate with and who we’ll disown. All of which is another way of saying we’ve fashioned our political loyalties into an idol.

When we who are knit together in Christ’s sacrifice break fellowship over political differences, we have swallowed the lie that ballots matter more than the people who cast them.

When we who kneel at the altar of a crucified servant despair at our candidate’s defeat or gloat in his triumph, we’ve been duped by the propaganda that says it’s more important to win than to love.

Back in the sanctuary, as we lined up to receive the body and blood of Christ, the last of the voters outside were lining up to receive their sacraments, ballot and pen, by which they would pledge their political allegiance.

It may well be a valid thing to do. Many would call it our civic duty. I did mine earlier in the day. But it’s worth remembering: for all that our favorite politicians and parties promise, they deliver shockingly little, apart from another four years of anxiety and division.


When we line up to reaffirm our allegiance to Christ through holy communion, we are given something far greater in return. In the bread and wine, we receive the grace of God all over again. It is a grace that will not discriminate according to political affiliation, race, gender, orientation… and it will not allow us to do so, either.

God’s table is for everyone. That was far and away the best news I received on election night.