Children's Ministry, Faith Practices
What 3-Year-Olds Already Know (And We Can Learn) | Open to Wonder
August 23, 2022
Updated August 29, 2022
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As a child, ‘Lib’ Caldwell was introduced to the spiritual practice of wonder by her mother: a woman who loved earthworms in the garden, set up art easels in the kitchen, and embraced spontaneous prayer. Now an author, teacher, gardener, and quilter, Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Caldwell shares what the practice of wonder looks like in her life today, as well as a do-able suggestion for the practice that anyone can try. The following is a transcript of Lib's episode on Open to Wonder. It has been lightly edited for clarity.
Listen to the episode online or on your favorite podcast app.
Karen: As a child, Lib Caldwell was introduced to the spiritual practice of wonder by her mother—a woman who loved earthworms in the garden, set up art easels in the kitchen, and believed in the power of spontaneous prayer.
As an adult, Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Caldwell taught for 30 years at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and then, after moving to Nashville, continued teaching part-time as adjunct faculty at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
Her most recent book for adults is called I Wonder: Engaging a Child’s Curiosity About the Bible. It’s one I recommend all the time to pastors, parents, and ministry leaders. Along with Carol Wehreim, Caldwell is the editor and author (with the help, she says, of many friends) of the fabulous book for children, Growing in God’s Love, A Story Bible. She’s also the co-author of the children’s picture book, God’s Big Plan.
During our conversation we talk about wonder and the fear of it, how 3-year-olds can be theologians, and a simple step you can take to invite more wonder into your life. Our delightful conversation with Lib Caldwell is coming up next.
Karen: So, Lib Caldwell, we are so grateful that you have taken time out of your day to explore wonder with us. And so I just want to start with, when Chris and I read your work for both children and adults, we see wonder woven into every single page. It’s the approach that you take. And so we’re curious about the role that wonder has played in your life and we're wondering how you became aware of wonder as an intentional practice.
Lib: You know, it's your phrase wonder as an intentional practice. Because I'm not sure I was really aware of that, but you see it. So I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and my mother was a natural lover of children and enabling children's wonder, gardening, and spending time in the garden. And I didn't particularly like earthworms because I thought they were yucky, and 10th grade biology didn't help. But she would always pick them up. And she was a Biology major in college. And she said, “Oh, Lib, these are these are so important to the garden. And these help the garden and the dirt get air, and they move around.” And so she loved earthworms.
And then when I got to be three, she decided that she better start teaching Sunday School because she wanted to know what they were going to be teaching. I was the first child and for four years I was an only child until my brother was born. And I think she was just curious about “What are they teaching my daughter? It really matters.”
And so she got involved teaching three-year-olds and that’s what she did the rest of her life, and then in a week-day program. Her approach to teaching was really wonder-based, I think. I can remember I was 14, when my younger brother and sister were born. And I came home from school one day and there was the easel set up in the kitchen for my sister to paint while my mother was making dinner because Kathy wanted to be close to her. And she wanted just art materials and supplies.
So I was in this environment of openness and wonder, invitation. And I think when you're nurtured in that environment, I think like they say about language—like I grew up in Memphis and then I lived in Chicago 30 years and so some might say “you don’t sound like you’re from Chicago” and so I say “well I think some things are so embedded in your speech patterns” and so even if you live outside of the South, for example, it doesn't change that much.
So much is embedded in the way our brains work. By that nature experience with my mother, of experiencing God's presence. And so she believed in spontaneous prayer. So in the garden “Well, thank you God for earthworms.” And so that's what she would try to teach the parents, that prayer is not something out there to enforce or that you have to read or memorize. It can be this spontaneous connection to God's work as Creator.
So I think for me, beginning theologically, and for children today, to begin with God's work in creation is such an easy entry into wonder and questions.
Chris: It does to me seem like an easy place to enter into wonder. But I'm also aware that not all Christians embrace wonder. In fact there's some skepticism or even fear of wonder. I'm curious in your experience, having taught as a professor of pastoral theology, how do you respond to those who say “Can we trust wonder? Is it actually a good thing?” What do you do in response to that?
Lib: You know, that is such a great question. And I've never been asked that question. I just love it. So I retired after teaching 30 years at McCormick and then I started teaching at Vanderbilt Divinity School and they needed somebody in religious education and so I taught there for about seven years. And then finally in 20, that’s it. I'm done. And I look back over the years and I think some people really need right answers. And some people have been educated by the church that a Bible story is a story that we tell and it has right answers. And the Bible is a book of answers and if you just know the answers, then that's what you need.
So I think when people have that as their relationship experience, then they don't trust wonder. Because wonder invites you to ask a question and to wrestle with the question and just say “Well, what do you think?” and “Well I don't know what I think because nobody's told me what I think.”
And so, in some ways, I think our wonderful programs in religious education, which you all do and I do as a Presbyterian all these years—but have we helped parents and teachers wrestle with their own questions? And I guess what I see today in the culture, what's going on with young adults particularly is rejecting that model, their confirmation model, that “Here are the answers, here’s what you need to know, and I’m going to tell you what to think.” And then they reject it and they don’t know to replace it with anything because they haven’t been taught to wonder with the question.
Sandy Sasser has these great questions. You know Sandy Sasser the children’s author? Rabbi? Probably one of my favorite children’s authors. She talks about these questions that enable a child to think about a text: “Well, what do you think is the most important thing in the story? Where are you in the story? Is everything in the story needed today or is there something you would like to leave out?”
So those are radical questions. And when we ask a child to think about a question and bring their own questions, then we're opening up a world that some people are afraid of. Because if I'm a teacher and a parent and I don't know the answer—if we could just let go of “I've got to have the answer” then maybe the wonder could happen. To say “All right. It’s okay to say...‘well I don't know but maybe we could find that out together’ or ‘maybe we can wonder about this week’ or ‘maybe we could talk about that question every night at dinner.’”
What do you think, Chris? I mean in your experience. Or Karen.
Chris: Yeah. You know that it is one I struggle with. Myself, I enjoy the wondering. I talk about imagination as the first toy that I had. And so for me personally, I go there, but I also recognize the environment I've been brought up in does lean into those answers. And what we’re judged on, quite often, is do we know the answer? And not the practice of do we know how to ask good questions? And I would love to be in a space where the way we ask questions and the way we encourage questions would actually be emphasized more. And I think that's one of the places our churches struggle with in terms of discipleship these days, is around that relationship between question and answer.
Karen: I was just going to say, I think from a parent perspective and as an educator, I know and I've learned more and more now that my kids are young adults. And that wonder actually grows faith. It invites you to sit inside God’s story and look around and connect it with your own life. But it feels to me, from my own experience, that when kids or teens ask wondering questions, fear can enter a parent's heart. “If I answer it wrong or if I don't give a firm answer, what if they run away from faith? What if they turn away from God?”
And so the response is you just want to tie it up with a bow and give them the answer to hold them when what I've learned is that's actually not helpful if they're at their faith formation. It's more helpful to wonder along with them in the way you have described, that that is what is going to grow their faith. We can't hold them down.
Lib: Yep, and so maybe the issue is not as much as children but it is working with parents and teachers in their own faith. Because I love your “Should I give a firm answer?”
And if you think developmentally about children, and maybe we need to learn more about that, too—3-year-olds are my favorite, just like my mom’s, because they have such incredible responses. And I think they’re such incredible theologians because they don't have any filters on their imaginations—like you, Chris, your first toy was your imagination—that's their gift. You know it's like, what’s the movie that's out there for children? It’s a little Hispanic girl and I think it’s a Disney movie. She wondered what her gift was.
Karen: Oh, Encanto!
Lib: Yep, Encanto. She didn’t get her gift and she wondered what her gift was. The gift with three-year-olds is this wonder. And then it goes up to five year-olds and then you have this window from five to seven. And then all of a sudden as they get abstract thinking level and moving out of concrete-level thinking into abstract thinking—they are still in concrete level before they move into middle school but then they want right answers. Middle school is a window of possibility again, but it depends on how you work with them and how you invite them into a conversation or into their questions.
And then you’ve got high schoolers with one foot out the door, and if you get them confirmed—so we give them firm answers and then all of a sudden they start to question because they are around people who might not believe what they believe and they don't know how to answer them if we haven’t helped them nurture that wonder ability that was there when they were three-years-old, and keep it alive.
Karen: Well, you know, that leads me to our next question, Lib, which I think you started to answer. You know in the opening pages of your book, I Wonder, you say that “the chance to wonder about the Bible as they wander through their life is essential for a child’s spiritual formation.” So I'm wondering, what makes wonder so essential for a child’s spiritual formation? And, I mean, an adult, too? You know you've just touched on how once they get to middle school and teens and young adulthood and they're starting to question. So it sounds like wonder is important for us as adults too?
Lib: Yeah. I mean I think for me, when I think about wonder, the next word I put next to it is “pause.” Because I think wonder requires a slowing down and pausing. And it's not something our culture encourages at all. Because our culture—I’m not sure about where you are, Karen in Ontario, but here maybe it's the same way. The culture is fast-paced. Everything has to move quickly. Children have to be busy all the time. And that's a good thing—to help them find their interest and what they like to do—but when do we pause to notice? When do we pause to notice the habits of the heart? Like the things that you are looking at in these spiritual formations, the power of listening and serving and celebrating and remembering and wonder. So I think it requires us to step back and say “How busy am I in my life? And what time is there for wonder? Is there a day or is there a moment during the day when we just pause?”
I love the ancient spiritual practice of the examen, where you look back at the day and ask: Where did you see God's love? Where did you give God's love? Or with children: thorns, roses, and buds. I used to do this with my adults in the class, when we had to do this by Zoom two years ago, this children and families class, okay: thorns, roses, and buds. And here they were around my screen, twelve young adults, going to class on Zoom because it couldn't be in person and thorns, roses and buds. And they just got into them. What are the things you’re looking forward to? And what thorny stuff? And what’s the happy stuff? It’s those practices that connect into that spiritual place in your life and do you have any time for it?
I don't know. Maybe some people, when you think about what spiritual practices are, I mean Bible reading and prayers are at the top of the list. And some people are so, back to your question Chris, some people are afraid to wonder because they don’t how to read the Bible or they think they need this firm right answer, like you talked about, Karen. But really it’s a matter of being open and finding some kind of practice that connects you to God's spirit. And don’t you think that’s different for everybody? I mean some people love to walk labyrinths. I don’t want a labyrinth. I like to write a lot and I’ve tried journaling, but you know maybe my practice is gardening. Maybe my practice is sitting at my sewing machine, which I was doing earlier this morning and there's a bird feeder outside in the garden. Like we were talking about before, we started watching the Columbines emerge from the soil and looking out of seeing the first blooms and saying “thank you God for this day.” And don’t you think it has to do with that spontaneity of acknowledging wonder? And of acknowledging God’s presence connected to wonder.
Chris: Yeah. One of the things we’ve been talking about on our team when we talk about faith practices, we say that they're training us to be attentive to the Spirit. So it’s not that the practice is an end in itself, but when learning through the practices to be attentive to the Spirit. And I think that makes more room for the spontaneity that you're saying, for observing something in the day and going “well I think that was God at work around us. I think God’s working here.”
Lib: Don’t you think it’s that naming that people don’t know how to do? They don’t know how to name it and bring it to words. Or like you just said it’s not an end in itself, but don't you think—I think sometimes ritual is an end in itself. “If I just bring my child to church school and they learn about Jesus and they get the Old Testament stories, then I've done my job and I get them confirmed and then my work is done.” It's an end in itself. And then a lot of times you see when the kids graduate from high school and we confirm them out the door and the parents go out the door to because “been there, done that, my job is done.” And, it’s an end in itself.
I think back when I was working on a book on Making a Home for Faith years and years ago—it’s so funny because I look back at it now and I’m thinking that what I was advocating for was that parents are the spiritual partners with their children. They're the best teachers of their children. Not just us in the Sunday School. Because they live with them seven days a week and they know when the grandmother dies, or the beloved dog or goldfish, that they have to be there. They have to be the spiritual partners with their children. And here we were in the pandemic and asking them to do that and do that and they're worn out because of everything else.
And so when did faith become an end in itself? That is something we teach. And it’s not. I mean I just see all these young adults wrestling with questions because they never got the chance to.
Chris: to ask them anywhere else. Yeah. I think part of what we're seeing here is these practices of being attentive to the Spirit, of making room, of pausing—I like that word that you used, Lib, of pausing—just to let whatever surface and give us time to observe things. I wonder what that practically looks like for you. I mean you mentioned sewing and looking out the window at your garden. You've mentioned gardening. Are there other ways that you find that have been helpful to you to get to that space of pausing or of encouraging your own wonder to surface?
Lib: That’s a great question. I think slowing down. And I know that's not easy for everybody. And I was pretty…You know, I worked 50 years full time. And the time I had for pausing was, you know, when I got home from work at the end of the day or on a weekend. And so I had to fit stuff in. But now in this wonderful thing they call whatever retirement looks like—and I keep failing at it— it's a choice about time. How I use time. And every day looks different to me. Of course that's the way it was when I worked too. I would have been horrible at job that had me doing the same thing every day. But I'm trying to be more intentional about engagement with others, conversation.
I was on my way to go buy some plants last week and I drove through to get a yogurt at McDonald's through the window. And decided to speak to the person, you know, “how are you doing today?” I figure all they do is take orders. What a job, you know. And she told me a story. And I said, “I hope the day gets better for you.” And she smiled and said “thank you. Have a good one.”
I thought “well I never used to do that.” Because I was just too busy. So intentionally trying to just be open to others is one thing I've been trying to do. And of course during the pandemic, I was in Nashville, locked down for three months. And we joked that my age group would never be let out of our houses again. They would never let us out, never let us out again! We all joked about it.
And I live with these neighbors around me and I’m in a big condo neighborhood. There are like 130 units and they are 11 of these units. So it’s just a really big open space, lots of green space. And my family gave me a KitchenAid mixer for my birthday in January of 2020. And so I started making bread. I had always wanted to make bread. And one of the ways I survived the pandemic was making bread and giving it away to neighbors. And I could walk up and we could stand appropriately distanced and masked. And then people started bringing me soup. It’s kind of like the stone soup story. And stuff started appearing on my patio table.
So what was the question again? Have I gone so far away from the question.
Chris: no, I think you’re actually getting at it, Lib—what does this look like in practice? To wonder? And I love how your natural response to this is to start talking about slowing down enough to pay attention to other people. That's a really powerful direction for wonder to lead us toward being attentive to the people around us.
Lib: I mean you know the thing about my nephew—my sister would bring her two-year-old to Chicago to see me. And we would walk to the Greek restaurant with my mother, the four of us to get breakfast, because it was like three blocks to this great Greek restaurant to get eggs and bacon and fruit. And Josh was two. And so it was a fifteen minute walk and he’s two. And you know two year olds don't walk to get somewhere. They walk. And because the way his mind worked, every gas meter that he found he had to stop and examine the gas meter and look at it. Well, the walk would take us 30 minutes. And I thought “we’re never going to get there. We’re never going to get there.” And he explored.
So he’s now a daddy. And he brought his baby daughter to see my sister. And I got down there too. And there she is: his daughter, their daughter, being he and his partner's daughter. This beautiful child and I thinking “she’s just the age when he was wondering about how things work.”
And he's an engineer now of course. And he lives in Michigan. And so it’s that 2 year old sense of wonder and awe. And maybe we forget just the nature of pausing and slowing down and maybe not having that thing that it has to be done—the end in itself thing we’re talking about Chris.
And so walking became—you know, everybody was concerned about exercise. How many pounds they gained during the pandemic. And for me, after my husband died and he died the summer of ‘19, I started walking in this park. And it saved my life. To notice what was around me, the wildflower, the deer that would come up. And I didn't have to make the path and do it in a certain amount of time and I wasn't measuring it on a Fitbit. A lot of people do that. What if you didn't measure by a Fitbit what if you just did it because it connected you to God’s beautiful world?
I used to start a class one time and say “take off all representations of time and put them in a basket.” Well, today I can do that because they’re everywhere. “Take all representations of time off. I’ll manage time for you today.” But now you’d have to collect all the cell phones and everything. “Let me manage time for you in this class we’ve got.”
Karen: That's great. Lib, when we're having these conversations with people we always try and end by asking our guests to just give one practical way for our listeners to become more intentional about practicing, in this case, wonder? And I'm hearing you talk about pause. Forget about time for a portion of your day. Notice. Is there anything you'd add to that?
Lib: yeah, it’s that whole kairos/chronos thing about time. You know, kairos: God’s time. Chronos, so I think a simple practice: put it away.
Karen: she's holding up her phone.
Lib: have you noticed, when people get together, they’ve always got their phone with them? Is that happening to you? At the dinner table, everybody’s immediately “well, let me look it up.” What if a practice was—this would really be hard with teenagers—but let's all turn our phones off. Let's have a meal together. Now I know that everybody talks about how hard that is. But what if one night a week? If anything's going to happen in the family—now if things are dire, if things are happening, somebody’s in the hospital, you can’t. But what if you’re having friends over for dinner, what if you agreed that we're not going to keep our phones on?
I mean I think for me that related to wonder and conversation and connecting and is God's presence at our table, a meal together
Chris: I think you're right. I think that even by saying “what if one night of week…” you're inviting us to imagine and wonder about a new way of engaging together? and I think that's a helpful posture.
Lib: and then a conversation, I mean y’all do so many creative things for families. I've used some of your things for years. You know, a bowl on the table with some inviting questions, wondering questions. And there are some little tabs that are blank and everybody could write a question and then you’ve got enough for a month.
I mean, I had lunch with friends yesterday and I'm in a restaurant and this person said “how have you been changed by the pandemic?” She just started the conversation and all of the sudden I thought “oh, wow!” I have an Alexa and she has a question of the day. And my sister does a Bible study every Tuesday at noon, looking at the text for next Sunday. And so she started a question of the day that relates to the texts that we’re talking about. And so a question of the day that invites us to wonder either about our day, what we’ve seen what we've experienced. And then you can back your way into it— if you really wanted to— “does this remind you of any story in the Bible? Does this remind you of anything that you’ve heard or read?” That might be too hard for some people again. And again, parents— “I don’t know enough Bible stories. That would be too dangerous for me!” But it's back to that where we started about why are some people afraid to embrace wonder?
Karen: Yeah, and what I love is that you can't Google the answers to those questions. So it's okay if your phones are gone. Because when someone asks you “how has the pandemic changed you?” or “how does this remind you of this Bible story?” You can't Google that.
Lib, we're so grateful that you were failing terribly at retirement because it allowed you to spend this time with us today.
Lib: oh, I loved it. Y’all are great. This was so much fun.
Karen: This was a gift. Thank you for the encouragement to wonder. And thank you for the practical ideas. Lib’s books and resources will be in our show notes so folks can look those up too and we encourage you to do so. Thank you and we hope you have a wonderful day.
Chris: Thank you, Lib.
Karen: Thank you.
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