“God doesn’t like that,” my mother said to my five-year-old son, who had been whining about what was being served for dinner that night. My body tensed. While I, too, hoped that my son would grow toward a posture of gratitude, it was hard for me to get on board with the image of God that my mom was conveying—that of a disapproving, finger-waggling judge. On a more meta-level, I didn’t love that she was putting her own beliefs into God’s mouth. If she didn’t like my son’s behavior—and there are plenty of reasons why she would be justified to dislike it—I’d hope that she’d speak with him directly about it, not bring God into the discussion, at least not in this way. I felt trapped, not wanting to contradict my mother, but also not wanting my kids to absorb this image of God.
The term “sandwich generation” is usually used in terms of caretaking: Middle-aged millennials and Gen Xers are carrying the responsibility of raising kids while also needing to care for aging parents. They feel squeezed, overwhelmed, and stretched thin.
I’ve felt squeezed in a different way: theologically. I grew up in a theologically conservative Chinese immigrant household, and as I became a young adult, I chafed against some of the rigid black-and-white frameworks I’d been given. I had a lot of questions, and the pat answers that apologetics books offered weren’t working for me. My questions involved why a loving God would create a universe that includes hell as ceaseless, conscious torment, why it was fair that where someone was born—which has a huge effect on whether they even hear the Gospel—would determine their eternal destiny, why women couldn’t preach, and why evangelicals insisted that being gay was a choice when the science clearly showed otherwise.
Yet I was scared. I didn’t want to explore these questions further, because I was afraid that once I started unraveling that ball of yarn, I’d find nothing at the end of the string. I also knew that questioning my theology would cause conflict with my parents. (It wasn’t just me: My Taiwanese American friend had a sustained, pitched argument with her mother about her church’s communion, which offered non-alcoholic wine and yeast-risen bread, and which her mother deemed false communion). So, I buried my questions and put theological inquiry on the backburner. After all, I had plenty to keep me busy as I tackled pre-med coursework, medical school, and residency. Not having time became the easiest excuse.
Nevertheless, my questions persisted. I felt stricken by conscience from both sides: The side of my parents’ theology that said that it was their way or the (hellish) highway, and the side of my own soul whispering “this doesn’t sit right with me.” I went through the motions of faith, participating in church and a small group, trying to read the Bible and pray, but my heart wasn’t in it. This place of guilty détente was unsustainable.
It was when I hit age 30, finally finished with residency, that I thought, “I really need to figure this out.” My kids, aged two and four at the time, were a key motivation. They deserved a mother who had confronted her doubts, questions, and God, who wasn’t running away from challenging Bible passages. Someday, they would ask me questions about faith, and while I likely wouldn’t have the answers, I wanted to at least be able to say, “I have wrestled with this, too.”
As I started reading from a broader array of theologians and Christian writers—not just those included in the normal conservative canon—I experienced life-giving hope that there could be a faithful response to Jesus that didn’t compromise my intellectual integrity. These theologians brought perspectives from their real-world experiences as women, people of color, and people living outside of Europe and North America that no amount of reading John Piper and Tim Keller and Andy Crouch could give me.
A sandwich without any filling isn’t very appetizing. As I explored the teachings of these diverse theologians and writers, my faith started acquiring flavor, color, and texture of its own. This new “filling” is distinguished from the layer of bread above—my parents’ Christianity—and the layer of bread below—what my kids might believe one day. But the filling also holds the sandwich together. I’m not trying to sever ties with my family’s faith roots nor disconnect my kids from any spiritual moorings at all; at its best, the filling serves as a bridge.
Yet fostering a distinctive faith life comes with a cost. In some families, developing nuanced theological beliefs that don’t exactly align with your parents might be acceptable, but not in my family of origin. My parents’ worldview comes with strict boundary lines: You’re either in or you’re out. I don’t fault them for this; I wish I could accept such certainty, such clear answers to every question. But since I was seeing the world increasingly in ombre, this was a set
up for conflict.
This conflict is constantly brewing under the surface, and it rears its head frequently. Mostly, it involves how I parent my own children. I’ll be the first to admit that wrestling with theological issues – or with God – doesn’t make for easily packaged faith transmission to kids. Since I’ve been going through this period of deconstruction and reconstruction as my kids progressed from preschool to elementary school and into middle school, I haven’t raised them with the absolute certainty of a “firm foundation” as advocated by Christian parenting books. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I’m sure it wasn’t age-appropriate to give such wishy-washy answers when they asked whether the stories of the Garden of Eden or Jonah and the large fish or the parting of the Red Sea were true.
But my honest grappling is what I’ve had to offer them. My children have seen me grow increasingly comfortable with uncertainty. They’ve seen me trying to pray even when I don’t hear from God. They’ve seen me get genuinely excited about learning new paradigms from Asian and Asian American theology. They’ve seen me remain committed to our church community even if I don’t always agree with everything. They’ve seen me advocating for a Christianity that embraces diverse viewpoints. They’ve seen me devoting myself—though very imperfectly—to values I learned from Jesus: intrinsic human dignity, love for all people including our enemies, and a preferential option for the poor. I don’t know if that will be enough, but I pray that it is.
Some of the advice that’s given to folks in the “sandwich generation” phase has also been applicable to my feeling of being sandwiched theologically:
- Share the load. For me, that’s meant having a whole community of other adults in my children’s lives who know them well and can model different ways of following Jesus—because there are so many ways a love for Jesus can manifest in one’s life. These adults have a wide array of theological beliefs, parenting approaches, and spiritual gifts, and I am grateful every day that my kids get to learn from them. Sharing the load means that the burden isn’t on me to have all the answers or to be the perfect parent. It means my kids will have other trusted adults to turn to in times of need, especially as they enter the teenage years.
- Let go of the desire to achieve a perfect balance. In many Asian American households, keeping harmony and filial piety are such strong values that it’s hard to stick out our necks even when our conscience tells us otherwise. The idea that I can perfectly balance my parents’ demands on my theology with what I think my kids need to nourish them spiritually has quickly fallen by the wayside. It’s impossible. While I still seek to honor my parents in how I interact with them, I cannot please them without forcing the cookie-cutter white conservative theology that I grew up with onto my kids. And as my kids start developing more and more of their own beliefs as they enter middle and high school, I cannot prevent the clashes this will entail with my parents. One scenario that I’ve given a lot of thought to is if one of my kids comes out as queer. If my parents hold on to beliefs that being queer is a corruption of God’s intent for humanity—and speak those beliefs aloud to my queer child—this would not be a time for balance or harmony. It would be a time to protect and love my child. Again, I acknowledge that some readers may have different views on LGBTQIA+ issues, but I hope the underlying message of a child’s sense of self-worth and belovedness being more important than intergenerational harmony tracks, even if you’d apply it in different ways.
- Determine your non-negotiable needs. For me, this means that my kids need to respect their grandparents, but the grandparents need to respect the kids’ increasing autonomy (and my theological differences). This has been an area of great struggle, especially when clear boundaries (such as not speaking about the kids’ weight) are not honored, because boundaries are seen as a secular, Western, therapeutic (and thus false) construct. We’re deep in the weeds with this, which is why I’ve been thinking about sandwich theology—a theology that acknowledges it roots but also develops its own flavor and allows the next generation to do the same—so much.
While my parents may disapprove, I try to remember that their disapproval is a form of love. They’re concerned that I—along with my children—are on a path to perdition, and they want to save us from that fate. I respect that, even when living with the day-to-day commentary can be hurtful.
I’m hanging onto the ways that sandwiches can be pleasant and not just feel like a squeeze: the multiple layers and the combination of ingredients all make for a beautiful diversity of texture and flavor that can become cohesive. I’m thankful that when my parents visit, we can all attend church together as a multigenerational family or enjoy our church’s Christmas concert. I’m grateful that my parents have supported some of our life choices that haven’t made sense to non-believing family members, such as adopting a child, because they share a faith that God cares for the most neglected. I’m thankful that we can pray together before meals. Even if it doesn’t look the same in each generation, I’m grateful that I can pass down this legacy of faith to my children, who can know that their Gung Gung and Po Po also welcome strangers with hospitality into their home, read the Bible, and worship God through song.
These are the moments I try to appreciate whenever I do feel the pressure of being in the middle. Trapped between my parents’ theology and the more expansive theology that I’ve embraced, and needing to mediate disagreements when my kids—who are developing their own beliefs—push back against my parents’ worldview, I don’t know if I’ll ever stop feeling caught in the middle. I may feel trapped, but discovering a theology that allows me to maintain my emotional and intellectual integrity also helps me feel grounded. And that is a much better feeling than those years when I was ignoring my theological questions for the sake of family “harmony.” True harmony is not found in burying our true selves, but in receiving and giving God’s love, which binds us together even as we may express it differently.