Grace At Home -- Faith and Families in the Hudson Valley



Local religious leaders speak on how they bring faith home

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Religious or spiritual faith may not be for every individual or all families, but many who do subscribe say that their belief system provides the backbone and moral compass that helps guide them as parents, as well as providing them with a community that they can draw strength from.

It’s not just those sitting in the pews who find that their faith is an invaluable source of support as parents. It’s a source of strength to those who are preaching from the pulpit or reading aloud from the torah as well. For many religious leaders in the Hudson Valley, the journey to becoming a good parent and the journey to find grace through religion are one in the same.

Slowing down and finding solace

“We live in highly anxious times, and parenting magnifies that exponentially,” says Ben Larson-Wolbrink, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Beacon.

Social media, iPhones and the rest of the trappings of our gadget-centric society have made it increasingly difficult to truly wind down and check out, not to mention devote one’s undivided attention to family.

“It’s a pretty isolating culture that we live in,” Larson-Wolbrink said, “but for me, my faith is grounding in that it invites me away from anxiety.”

Larson-Wolbrink’s wife Gretchen, —who is a Parish Associate at First Presbyterian— agrees. “Our lives are hectic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pause as a family and breathe together,” she said. 

Ben and Gretchen have also both found that sense of solace from the spiritual community that they lead. “Finding community is key,” Gretchen said. “We can’t do this all on our own, so we’ve sought out a community that will share our joys and challenges with us.

The power of prayer

Brent SpodekBrent Spodek, the head rabbi at the Beacon Hebrew Alliance, emphasizes the need for spiritual parents to take their own practice seriously. A practice rooted in faith will not only positively influence one’s children, he says, but it provides the foundation for the wisdom and values the parent imparts upon the child.

Spodek, the father of one boy and one girl, ages 4 and 8, respectively, calls this work “enlarging your soul.” So, how does one enlarge his soul?

“That takes work. It’s called a spiritual practice for a reason,” he said. “Don’t think of religion as a ritual you perform as a sign of loyalty to your past, but as something that helps you sensitize your own being in the here and now.”

He too, like Pastor Larson-Wolbrink, thinks in twos when it comes to religion and parenting. Spodek has two rules of “spiritual” parenting, the first of which is simply stated: no hypocrisy.

“You can’t lead someone someplace you haven’t been yourself,” he says. “Go on that journey with your kids, and do it with integrity.”

Rev. Lieta SingletonThe Rev. Lieta Singleton, the leader of the St. James African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Beacon, cites daily prayer as a means of strengthening the bond with her two daughters, ages 26 and 7. That mother-daughter dialogue, she says, reinforces their individual and collective relationships with Christ.

“As a parent, I try to make time each day to talk to my daughters about what happened during their day,” she said. “Many times our conversations center around school, friends and even more personal issues. We incorporate those things as a part of our nightly prayers.”

Singleton added that the prayer-driven bond extends throughout her extended family as well. 

“Recently my youngest daughter had an operation and we asked our extended family to lift her up in prayer,” she said. “Knowing that her great-aunts, great-uncles and cousins were praying for her made her feel ever more loved and cared for. When she came through her operation doing well it built our faith that God answers prayers on behalf of others.”

“It’s a gift.”

BuddhistMany would argue that the essence of all religions is the same. For a parent seeking guidance from his or her spiritual tradition, it’s hardly arguable, says Sean Jones, who in 2008 completed a three-year-plus meditative retreat at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra Buddhist monastery in Woodstock.

Now the new father of a three-month-old daughter, Jones strives to cultivate Buddha-like qualities such as kindness, compassion and mindfulness—and recognizes that those same qualities are inherent to nearly all spiritual traditions.

“Everything that we learn in Buddhism, you can apply to raising a child,” he said. “I view my daughter as my newest guru. We talk about caring for all beings, and now she’s giving me an opportunity to put that into practice.

“This is not separate from my spiritual practice,” he continued. “It has helped my practice by making me more human.”

Spodek also finds that compassion and kindness in a daily prayer expressing his gratitude to God. Called “Modeh Ani” in Hebrew, the prayer—generally offered first thing in the morning—thanks the creator for returning the person’s soul to them upon waking.

“I love that framing,” Spodek said. “It turns the question of ‘Do you believe in God?’ on its head and affirms God’s faith in you. It’s like, ‘You’ve got another day. Go do something wonderful. This is a gift.’”

OTHER WAYS TO STRENGTHEN THE BONDS OF LOVE

What works for you

For those uninterested or unsure about spirituality, many of the principles shared here in the context of religion are universally applicable.

“To be a human being, what distinguishes us is that we can be creative and we can be grateful,” said Ben Larson-Wolbrink. “We can be in awe of this reality. And if you’re honest and attentive as a parent, that can’t help but impact your kids.”

Speaking from the Buddhist perspective, Jones agrees.

"I think it’s in our DNA,” he said. “That capacity for love is there, whatever you believe in.” 

Asked how his own spiritual practice has influenced his communication with his children, Spodek reached for a bowl on his desk with a handful of Legos inside.

“This is what I’ve built,” he said, picking up a simple Lego vehicle with four wheels. “If you want, you can use it just like this. But if you want to add more Legos and change it up, by all means do that.”

As a parent works to instill values in his or her children, it’s not necessarily based on a cut-and-dried system of “beliefs,” he continued, but a more all-encompassing framework that influences how one functions in the world.

“I encourage people to find something that works and take it seriously,” he said. Then, what you offer to your kids, you’re offering from your own truth, and you offer it with integrity.”