The other day I was talking with someone about God and church and the way that the current political climate and denominational decision making has “unveiled” the seedy underbelly of her religious tradition. Despite her unending frustration, this person continues to stubbornly self-identify as both a “Christian" and a "Southern Baptist," and has particularly weighty ideas about the role that church and God and potlucks should play in the life of her family and especially in the lives of her children. But at the same time the crushing anxiety kicks in because, in her words, “it seems like the only end game for my kids in this kind of environment is that they either become Franklin Graham, or they turn 20 and immediately find Christianity pointless and backwards and empty.”
For starters, I totally get that.
There are moments, and moments in between moments, when I wonder if maybe the most recent news cycle has finally broken me to the point where another massacre or another conviction or another #metoo or another tweet or another tweet or another tweet or another tweet or another tweet (infinity et al.) will finally push me and my religious tradition to a place where we can’t work it out. And now that I’m a father, I find that in those times I don’t ask myself what happens to me or to my weekend plans or to my mortgage if I break up with being generically Baptist and/or casually Evangelical, I worry about how my son will make sense of the universe if he isn’t introduced to the divine in the same way I was. Like if he doesn’t take “The Lord’s Supper” once a quarter with flavorless white squares and Welch’s grape juice (because drinking alcohol is something you hide from everyone including your shift manager and THE LORD) in a 1950s velvet-infused sanctuary/mausoleum, then somehow he will find the way of Jesus a ridiculous happenstance of being birthed to well-intentioned dummies from the South who just didn’t know any better.
“Mom and Dad were just a product of their time. You know, in their teens, they even used to eat $5 pizza in a church gymnasium on the regular while people played basketball and hid in the bathroom to avoid “youth group". Can you believe all this happened without metal detectors, psychiatric screening, and armed security? WHAT A QUAINT TIME TO BE ALIVE!”
-Probably my son 10 years from now.
In especially dark moments, I even consider sending my son to the ostensibly “great” children’s programming at (area mega church has been redacted for legal reasons), hoping that his overwhelming zeal for the Lord would blind him to the fact that mom and dad had been reading the paper and quietly eating breakfast together at the adjacent Panera during KIDZ worship.
And it isn’t just me, I hear stuff like this all the time from you guys:
“Yeah, I know the sermons are borderline hate speech couched in v-necked platitudes and “I LOVE MY CHURCH” bumper stickers, BUT THE MUSIC IS LIKE THE STUFF I HEAR ON THE RADIO!”
“Yeah, I know they sold all of our emails to a lobbyist campaigning for the inclusion of an upcoming amendment to the state constitution I don’t agree with, BUT THE YOUTH GROUP GOES ON FUN TRIPS (to the Ark Encounter)!”
“Yeah, I know that when I disclosed that my spouse had been abusing me I was callously told to return home as a way of 'bearing my cross' for his redemption and the good example it would set for my kids, BUT THE MUSIC IS LIKE THE STUFF I HEAR ON THE RADIO (I feel like I may have already said this?)!”
“Yeah, I know that they recently voted to never allow women to serve as leaders, deacons, elders, head pastors, head janitors, head van drivers, and heads of families, BUT ERIC, THE CHILDREN’S PROGRAMMING IS INCREDIBLE AND (said through heaving sobs) ALSO THE MUSIC IS LIKE STUFF I HEAR ON THE RADIO!”
To be fair, I haven’t been a therapist for a terribly long time, but it sounds like we’ve all been staying together with Southern Baptists (or Evangelicals or whatever weird religious baggage you’ve got bound and gagged in the trunk of your soul) for the kids.
And that maybe it's time to split up.
I know it’s scary to imagine life on the other side of something you’ve spent the better part of your formative years lovingly pouring yourself into. It feels like failure to give up now, as if releasing yourself of the responsibility to sacrifice your life in an effort to right a ship that has already run violently aground is going to leave an indelible scar on your soul and the lives of the young’uns who are ALWAYS in the back of your van (even when you think they aren’t THEY STILL ARE). We all have this way of thinking that maybe we can be the ones to fix it, maybe we can be the ones to work it out, maybe we can ‘be the change,’ maybe we can catalyze a return to our “roots” as a tradition (which for most of us in the South were denominationally forged in the interest of perpetuating slavery).
But we can’t, and deep down we know it, and we know that if we keep trying the dissonance is going to destroy us, and our kids as well.
At the bottom, Baptist life cared for many of us, and fed us grease and sodas past 7:00pm on Wednesdays (when we were too young to feel bloated afterwards), and launched us into the world, and gave us a purpose, and made us feel like we were heading somewhere important. And sure, the scars and weird emotional baggage it left behind also ended up enabling our therapists to finally build that new addition on their houses, but that’s all part of the fun, right?!*
(*NOTE: this is a joke, therapists, much like teachers, are CRIMINALLY underpaid.)
It’s hard to leave what you know, especially when what you know has skewed the way you look at everything else. It’s especially hard to sign up for the unknown pitfalls and scars and baggage of another tradition (or no tradition at all) because at least in our current relationship we already know where all the bodies are buried.
I’ve found that one of the most important parts of having a therapist (sorry, shameless plug) is bringing someone with enough distance from your particular pain as a way of non-anxiously reminding you that you already have within you what it is that you need. Therapy is about helping you to see what’s been there the whole time, but often it starts by pointing out the ways that your current situation precludes you from seeing things rightly.
Good therapy is about giving people the bad news they already knew was true but are unable to acknowledge.
Maybe this lame blog you read on your lunch break could be that for you.
Because the bad news is that the way you’re currently practicing, or not practicing, or just holding your nose and kind of practicing your current Christian tradition for the sake of your kids is actually going to be the thing that leads them to the conclusion that faith is always performed for someone else’s benefit, and never for their own.
Or, that much like St. Nicolas around the holidays, Christianity is something we all pretend to seasonally believe in for the sake of people who can’t go to the bathroom on their own.
Or, that much like Thanksgiving dinner with extended family, Christianity is something we all pretend to seasonally believe in for the sake of people whose best years and opinions about the world have aged TERRIBLY.
Or, that the practical outpouring and concrete interpretations of the faith our congregations have (passively or explicitly) introduced to us have so much to say about the sex lives of people we don’t know, and so little to say about the economic, racist, sexist, and political lives of everyone we do know.
If you’re actually worried about the likelihood of your children having a transformative encounter with the resurrected Jesus and the redemption he’s unleashing into the world with every heartbeat and headache, then for starters it’s probably best to just start with a group of people willing to let both males and females be pastors.
"At the least, man. I mean, come on. Who told you ladies couldn’t rock the mic? Oh, Paul?! THAT dude? I remember when I had to literally blind him for a long weekend before I could convince him to stop murdering Christians.”
-Jesus of Nazareth (probably)
Or a group of people willing to admit that life and human sexuality are oftentimes more complex and painful and beautiful than we realize when we spend the whole of our lives righteously bumper sticker-ing the backs of our cars.
Or a group of people willing to admit that most of us are often wrong about the way the world works, and that finding that out isn’t terrifying, it’s incredibly normal and healthy and even saving.
Or a group of people willing to say out loud that our current geopolitical climate is destroying all of us. Or a group of people willing to say out loud that the solution to said geopolitical destruction isn’t by first destroying other people before they can launch a counteroffensive.
Or a group of people willing to envision that the practice of the Christian faith probably encompasses a fair bit more than just enduring a Christian cover band, a 35 minute lecture, and a small group where we complain about the aforementioned Christian cover band and 35 minute lecture each week.
Or a group of people non-anxiously willing to be themselves, and non-anxiously willing to let you be yourself, and non-anxiously willing to let other people who disagree to be themselves…but maybe from a safe distance.
At the end of the day, the faith you often leave to your kids isn’t the one you paid for at the house of worship you begrudgingly attended for their sake, or the one you outsourced to religious professionals or Christian “counselors” anytime they had a “crisis” of faith, or the one you hoped they would happily swallow at Christian schools or colleges, it’s yours. The faith our children inherit is what they see us living and breathing and eating and sleeping and doing with every moment and every breath.
It was probably misguided to ever say that “Southern Baptists” or “Evangelicals” or any “religious institution” raised any of us, it was always people, with flesh and blood and weird religious baggage of their own. The best parts of any community of faith have almost nothing to do with denominational fealty or the tweets of Christian celebrities desperate for a photo-op at the White House, and almost everything to do with the eyelashes and fingernails of the people we let encourage and challenge how we make sense of life on Earth.
If your faith community inspires you to risk, and love, and fail, and admit you’re wrong, and enter into complex situations in an attempt to resurrect them, and to put flesh and blood on the radical inclusion of an executed 1st century rabbi, then it’s safe to say that the one thing your kids will probably walk away with is that all this Jesus stuff mattered to you, like on a cellular level.
In a world of performative fakeness, your wholehearted practice of the way of Jesus would probably be a refreshingly welcome change for them.
It doesn’t mean they’ll believe in it, but it will mean that they got to see it, and live down the hall from it, and eat beside it, and serve with it, and ask questions of it, and not hide things from it, and to be loved unconditionally by it.
Christianity, at its core, is an incarnational faith, meaning that it's about “the word of God” becoming a living, breathing, thinking, loving, disagreeing, confusing, redeeming sort of person, and then that person reminding you that you are invited to become the very same kind of incarnation for someone else.
And so on, and so on, and so on.
When we risk breaking up with our disempowering, anxious, fearful, regressive, and desperately self-serving traditions in order not to get back at an "institution" for the pain they’ve caused us, but in order to faithfully embrace the person we are becoming for the sake of our families and our lives it is an act of attempting to believe (maybe for the first time) that God actually inhabits normal people and not just well-funded institutions with a large marketing budget and a ROCKIN' live band.
What could be more compelling and contagious and Evangelical (dare-say) than that?