We sat on the floor of the used bookstore, my 4-year-old and me, sat amid the books and grabbed from among the treasures in the children's section. She sat in my lap, and as I read aloud to her, the proprietor's daughter slipped timidly toward us.
We invited her to join us, and inquired of her name and age, as is the custom when meeting children. Her name escapes me, these five years hence, but her age I remember because of another fact I soon learned about her.
We weren't reading classics at that moment, only a short tale about the gang from Sesame Street. As I often do, when reading books that aren't specifically Christian in nature, I introduced the spiritual element myself. "Who made Big Bird, Samantha?'' I asked. To which she replied, as expected, "God.'' (Church-going children learn that's a pretty safe answer to almost any question from a parent.)
But Samantha's answer apparently wasn't what the little bookstore girl expected. "Who?'' she asked, her face wrinkled Shirley Temple-like in question. I turned to face her directly and said: "God made Big Bird.'' I suppose she expected to hear that Jim Henson was the creator, but whatever her preconceived notion, clearly our answer didn't strike a chord.
Six years old. Growing up in a bookstore. She doesn't know God, not even his name. And we wonder what's gone wrong with our world.
Two months ago, I was sitting in a rocking chair before 25 kids, mostly six-year-olds, in a public-school room. As the local newspaper columnist, I was the low-rent celebrity for the day, invited to read some of my favorite books to the children. One of the books I read was Old Noah's Elephants, a fanciful tale by Warren Ludwig about how Noah seeks God's guidance when two elephants find the food and the boat begins to tip as they put on weight. (God's solution to the crisis, by the way, was, "Tickle the hyenas.'')
I was cautious not to bring too much "religion'' into the classroom, but before I read the book, I did ask if anyone knew who Noah is. Four children raised a hand. Only four six-year-olds out of 25 knew about this major figure of the Bible. You don't even have to attend Sunday school to know about Noah, reduced as his tale has been to the realm of legend, folklore, jewelry, and music boxes that play "It's A Small World.'' Everybody knows about Noah. Once upon a time, rather, everybody did. And we wonder.
As the product of Southern Baptist raising, going back at least a generation on both sides of my family, I don't remember a time when I didn't know about God and Jesus, from "Jesus Loves Me'' in the Beginners to the stories the grandmotherly Ethel Frost told in Vacation Bible School. Even as an adult, working at daily, secular newspapers, everybody in my sphere possessed at least a cultural knowledge of, if not a personal relationship with, Jesus. Now I'm encountering a generation of youngsters, in the Bible Belt South yet, who don't even know the name of God. These children don't even know in whom they are not believing.
When my children visit their grandparents' homes, they hear and participate in prayer and in conversations about Christ; they hear Bible stories; they watch videotapes about, of all people, Noah. On the wall in her dining room, my mother has hung a framed note from her grandmother, declaring, in the shaky hand of a woman nigh upon death at 79, her day of salvation. Mama has, in the spirit of Deuteronomy 6:9, written it "on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.''
Those verses also instruct us that the commandments "are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.'' That is how children learn about God and his law, grace, and mercy. God is our heritage and the heritage of our children, passed down in a way that we pray daily will make natural the belief and surrender of their own lives to our Lord.
Based on my experience in public settings-that is, outside the circle of church and believing friends-I've come to believe that our children, with their early knowledge of God and faith, are the minority. Too many parents, who themselves have lost the way, are failing their children.
So, children ambush children and slaughter them. Children share illicit relationships, then kill their newborn babies. Children know Johnny Bravo but they don't know God. And we wonder what's wrong with our world. But we shouldn't. The wonder, instead, is that our world is no worse than it is.
I often remember our little bookstore friend. She's eleven now, and I wonder if she yet knows who made Big Bird.