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It takes many forms, but the candle burns brightest at home

The challenges of child rearing are mounting and inescapable. American popular culture -- much of it aimed squarely at kids, pre-teens and teens -- celebrates violence, soul-numbing gadgetry and technology, hyper-consumerism and precocious sexuality. Add to this a nearly ceaseless flow of violent or foreboding news, a striking decline in the tone of American civic discourse, and family time that's increasingly foreshortened by economic "necessities."

To the observant child, many adults must seem to put status, self-interest, anger or frustration first. This is cause for alarm. The lessons children take from the world help shape society's future. Now, teaching our sons and daughters to be ethical, considerate and grounded is especially crucial. We need a strong foundation for conducting our lives and relationships; based on awareness, compassion and "other-directedness."

Call it a practical, modern-day spirituality. It can certainly be built upon in a church, synagogue, temple or mosque. But, say a number of parents we spoke to, the candle must burn brightest in the home.

That's important because Washington state -- especially its more secular and liberal Western half -- doesn't always cotton to organized religion. The American Religious Identification Survey 2001 revealed that one quarter of Washingtonians -- the highest percentage of any state in the nation -- reported having no religion, or said they were secular, agnostic or atheist.

This brings us to Kathryn Gish, a former project and process manager at an energy industry software firm, and 42-year-old Bellevue mother of 8- and 5-year-old boys. With her accountant husband and sons, Gish practices a secular humanist spirituality and religion known as Ethical Culture.

The family belongs to the Ethical Culture Society of Puget Sound. The local ECS congregation meets every Sunday for lectures, group discussions and socializing at Talmadge Hamilton House, a community center for seniors in Seattle's University District. Part of the program is "Secular Sunday School" for children, which Gish teaches. The local "society," as it's called, is part of the nationwide American Ethical Union, which grew out of the Ethical Culture Movement founded in 1876 by professor, writer, philosopher, social activist and education pioneer Felix Adler.

Teaching an action-focused, ethical framework to children and their parents is at the heart of Ethical Culture. "People who believe in God are welcome, but we don't prescribe a theology or non-theology," Gish says. "We believe in living by ethical standards, and acting in a positive way to bring out the best in others -- and thereby in one's self."

ECS members in Puget Sound have assisted in food drives, joined efforts to clear weeds along the banks of the Duwamish Waterway, and helped Habitat for Humanity build low-income housing in Redmond. According to Gish, plans this fall included assisting People For Puget Sound build heron nests and establishing a Camp Fire Kids chapter, open to all.

"Spirituality is different for each person," Gish says. "To me, it is an awareness and understanding of the good aspects of the world, and having the free will and desire to promote those good things. That means, for instance, increasing knowledge of the ripple effects of man's influence on the earth, doing things for other people with no expectation of reward and listening sincerely if you're party to a heated discourse -- asking without antagonizing."

At Sunday school, Gish is using local and global maps to get students talking about transportation patterns and energy consumption, political boundaries and civic duties, and ethnic heritage and diversity.

There are no prayers said in Gish's household, but each night when her children are tucked into bed, she shares with them five reasons she's feeling lucky and happy, and asks them to do the same. "It's a recognition of how fortunate we are not to be destitute, to have things, to have each other," she says.

To Gish, it all adds up to an affirming and, yes, religious community. ECS provides "a basis and foundation" for imparting to her children the same "values and morals" she and her husband have; and the congregation connects her kids "with people they can trust, people they'll grow up with."

"It's not much different from why people go to church," she observes.

Gregory Wolfe, 45, is the father of four children, ages 8 to 20, and represents a middle ground between Gish's approach and that of the more "churched." He shares her focus on family as crucial to spirituality, but God is in the mix, as well.

Wolfe is a writer-in-residence at Seattle Pacific University, and founder and editor of one of America's leading literary quarterlies, Image: A Journal of Arts and Religion. It is full of edgy, well-written commentary, especially focused on the intersection between less traditional Christian-themed art and artists with the secular world. With his wife, novelist and SPU English literature professor Suzanne M. Wolfe, he's also co-author of a handy and inspiring book titled Bless This House: Prayers For Families and Children.

He says, "A lot of people, as they are thinking about their children's spirituality, are thinking of their own as well. Parenting raises these fundamental questions because we want our children to have the inner resources to deal with life's difficulties, we want them to be good people and we want them to be better than we are." Many parents "want to pass on something they yearn for themselves, but fear they don't have," Wolfe posits.

Seeking spirituality is a choice for the individual, and we are stronger for coming to the pursuit, or pilgrimage, aware of our failings and with the active, involved support of those closest to us, Wolfe says. Or, as he concludes in an editorial he penned for the 15th anniversary edition of Image: "One false alternative to pilgrimage is the arrogant belief that one has arrived. But the other is wandering alone."

Wolfe tells me that he believes prayer deepens the primary relationship between the individual and God; that the same "faithfulness, compassion, trust and openness" you and your children bring to family prayer time, you will also bring to your relationships within and without your house. He says prayer "conditions you to improve every other relationship in your life. Even a secular psychologist or neurologist could see the utility of this."

In Bless This House, the Wolfes begin with a discussion of "Why We Pray," and then offer up a valuable, user-friendly compendium of Judeo-Christian prayers by occasion, ranging from religious holidays and graces for meals to blessings for the home, friends, neighbors, relatives, pets and safe travel.

In his family's household, Wolfe says, some members may occasionally miss the 10-15 minutes set aside for daily prayer, due to soccer practice, music lessons or other commitments -- and that's OK. But overall, the practice and ritual are important.

"It becomes a place where we can touch base" about important personal concerns while at the same time learning to become "other directed," Wolfe says. "We're asking our children to contextualize the way others are behaving toward them. How would you look at the world if you were not the center, but the other (person) was?"

Sandy Cobel of Renton is a 51-year-old mother of a son, 9, and a daughter, 7. She's retired after 25 years of work as a molecular biologist, including a long stint in the Puget Sound biotechnology industry. Now she concentrates on raising her kids, teaching science to preschoolers during the week and leading weekend classes in Judaism for second-graders at two different congregations.

Her family makes a practice of observing Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, which runs from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday.

"At home, we don't do anything because we have to. We do it because we're happy about it," she says. "Friday night, there is a kind of a calm. There is challah (a traditional braided, sweet egg bread eaten on Shabbat and special holidays), a good meal, two candles, a blessing and a big deep breath.

"The pace changes," Cobel adds. "We go around the table and give thanks. My daughter is very into it. On Friday night, we never scold. We keep it upbeat and try to connect."

That, says Cobel, helps set a civil, engaged tone during the rest of the week at the dinner table -- a place many parents have found to be a landmine of behavioral challenges. She notes, "dinner is a time not only of talking, but listening."

Cobel says she embraces spirituality through role modeling to her children in other settings, too. Taking a walk, or out in the park with her children, she likes stopping to highlight what she believes is God's evident hand in creating a beautiful sunset, a flower or rays of sunlight poking through clouds. "It's really important to bring God into conversation with your family and children" she says.

Barbara Nunn, 39, the director of youth ministry at Mt. Calvary in Seattle -- a Pentecostal and primarily African-American congregation -- believes that the home environment is crucial in the spiritual development of children. Across race, class and income lines, she believes that kids are "crying out for a sense of wholeness and safety," but too many parents are "masking" real intimacy with gifts of pricey "jerseys and shoes," and other material goods.

She advises parents to "sit down, turn off the phone, put the bills aside, forget about the traffic on I-405, and level with that child. Empty your mind and listen." Nunn, herself the single mother of a 14-year-old son, says that one of her most frequent prayers is a simple one-liner -- "Lord, show me my child's heart."

The Sunday "Kids For Christ" youth service over which Nunn presides in Mt. Calvary's teen center at 23rd Avenue East and Union Street, is energetic, enveloping and passionate. Forty kids, ages 2 to 15, fill the room. There are games and play beforehand, plenty of food and visiting afterward, and pumped-up pop-gospel music throughout, on a killer sound system. In the midst of one of Seattle's toughest neighborhoods, these kids look and act as if they're in the warm embrace of family.

She draws them in, first to a vigorous scripture recitation; followed by "hand praise" (rhythmic clapping and banging on tambourines), and then an interactive sermon on sharing.

"What kinds of things do you share?" she asks them. The answers fly back fast and furious: clothes, video games, "my basketball and skateboard," "food," "my room, with my sister," and "everything." The whole point, Dunn says, as the kids fasten on her, is "What did God share with us? His Love! His son, Jesus. God did not have four sons and 10 daughters. Did God give us his trash? His leftovers? God shared his best with us. What in your life is your very best? Are you sharing it with others?"

Prayer circles are formed, one for younger kids, another for the older ones. Nunn leads the latter. "Let us pray for parents with holes in their souls, pray to bring the word of God into these childrens' homes, lives and classrooms." The kids follow suit with their own petitions.

Afterward, Nunn issues one final question. "How has going to church helped you?" Some of the answers:

"I've learned to pray over people and love them when they hurt me;"

"I'm getting better grades;"

"It helps me not be late for school;"

"It has saved me from doing the wrong thing;"

"I'm doing things I've never done before;"

"It has shown me how blessed I really am;"

And finally, "It has taught me self-control."

When they're done, Nunn lets out a delighted whoop. "We don't have to wait until you're 45 years old to hear your testimony," she exults. "We can hear it when you're 7."

Nunn wants to drive it home, literally. Remember, she says, next Sunday is a "meet and greet" breakfast at 9 a.m., "so we can get to know your parents!"

Nunn is eager to meet parents because she has taken to heart the synthesis between the every-day and spiritual realms. She tells me, "when you raise your voice, or use a sharp tone, or act disinterested, you shatter their souls, their spirits. What God is looking for, is that we acknowledge these challenges," and strive to model a better example.

What Gish, Wolfe, Cobel and Nunn all say in their own ways is that relationships, most especially that between parent and child, are at the core of building spirituality in the individual and family. Perhaps this is because so many of us -- whether we are churched or not, prayerful or not -- instinctively know that becoming a parent is one of life's highest callings.

Seattle writer Matt Rosenberg contributes to ParentMap, Seattle Magazine, Washington CEO, Washington Law and Politics, and Jewish World Review. His biweekly guest op-ed column appeared in The Seattle Times from April 2001 to May 2004. His work has also appeared in The Weekly Standard, National Review Online and the Chicago Tribune. His web log is

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