My brothers and I grew up attending an evangelical non-denominational church whose theology ranged from Baptist all the way to Charismatic depending on the pastor. Everything was described as “epic,” there were electric guitars during worship, and weekly we heard about somebody being healed of something.
When my grandfather died (after having been prayed over by the pastor), this faith revealed itself as being too shallow. Since then, after a lot of drifting and learning, I’ve landed in the Presbyterian Church.
I try my best to give the benefit of the doubt to the sort of evangelicalism I left behind, but sometimes I can’t help being cynical and nasty about it. My brother is a youth pastor in this tradition still, and he and his wife are having a “baby dedication” for their daughter in April (we do infant baptism in the PCUSA) and my knee-jerk reaction to the invitation (fortunately said only in my head) was “she’s not a book.” I understand both sides on how to bless a baby, but a dedication seems pseudo-religious to me–all the comfort of having performed a sacrament with none of the substance.
Do you have any tips on how I can restrain myself from being a jerk and just keep the peace?
I ran out of “epic faith” in my early twenties, about the time the 367th Church Person told me to get plugged in and reminded me that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.
Or maybe it was when the pastor at that one evangelical church we were attending freaked out about The Da Vinci Code book and decided to start a Bible study about it.
Or maybe it was when I made a last-ditch, desperate effort to connect with the Church Ladies and found myself at a Beth Moore Bible study, answering an “ice breaker question” about what type of fruit I would be if I were a fruit.
Look, in junior high, when I was on fire for Jesus, I had “God won’t give you more than you can handle” puffy painted on my prayer journal in glow-in-the-dark pink, and I would have been all over an anti-Da Vinci Code Bible study.
But it my early twenties, Depression moved in like the densest kind of fog. I couldn’t find God and I couldn’t find myself, and all the platitudes and Bible study answers that once made perfect sense to me were no longer adequate.
It WAS more than I could handle, and I didn’t want to get plugged in with the kids’ ministry, and I sure as hell didn’t want to talk about the demonic lies behind The Da Vinci Code…or what kind of fruit I might be.
I wanted something deeper than the Depression and more solid than my own broken, emotional faith. I needed a way to articulate what was happening to me, and the evangelical lexicon didn’t seem to have the words.
So I began to search.
And I don’t think that it’s an uncommon story. This is how it goes: we view our life and our faith through a certain lens, and through that lens, everything makes perfect sense.
Until it doesn’t.
Something changes, and then everything changes, and you can’t see it the way that you used to. For me, that hinge was my Depression; for you, it sounds like it was the death of your grandfather.
Your grandfather died after all that epic prayer, and it changed everything for you. You found yourself wandering, searching, making your home in a new Christian tradition that feels to you to be better equipped to handle the questions that your grandfather’s death dredged up.
You left, and it was the necessary next step for you.
But your brother stayed.
And this is the real question, isn’t it?
How can two people, two brothers, experience the exact same thing and have such completely different reactions? How can this approach to faith still work for him…when it just doesn’t for you?
For you, the Presbyterian tradition and the substance of its sacraments resonate like a tuning fork, ringing clear and true in your heart. And if I had to guess, I’d say it’s not the child dedication itself that’s got you feeling sinister. It’s the fact that your brother doesn’t hear what it is that you hear.
It’s lonely and sad and hard and frustrating when you find yourself diverging in your faith journey from friends and family. And the cynicism and nastiness, I have to tell you, is a pretty natural part of the whole thing.
Our hearts are made like pendulums, and when we swing away from one thing, we tend to end up on the far opposite site. Passionate devotion to a certain viewpoint turns to total disdain, even embarrassment. I can’t believe that used to make sense to me. I can’t believe I used to say “epic” so much. I can’t believe I wore a t-shirt with a giant bloody picture of Jesus on the cross on the front. To school. (“He did this for you,” the t-shirt said.)
It’s easy to be hard on the person you were; it’s easier still to be hard on the people who are still there, who still see it this way, who still find comfort in the phrases that make you chafe.
It’s easy to believe that they’re wrong and you’re right; that they’re stuck, and you’re enlightened. It’s easy to look back at them with a mix of pity and pride, as though they are somehow behind you on the journey.
I don’t think that’s true.
The more I walk this path of faith, the more I’m convinced it’s not a straight line – start at Point A, end at Point B, whoever gets there first wins.
Rather, it’s a spiral, a labyrinth. We’re circling the hidden heart of God. We’re revisiting, relearning, going around the whole thing again and again, seeing it new every time.
And maybe the fact that there are so many different churches and denominations and books and worship styles and blogs and websites and points of view isn’t actually because we’re a bunch of blowhards who can’t agree…but rather because we’re all different people at different parts of the journey.
Maybe it’s because God is more multifaceted than one church or denomination or book or worship style or blog or website or point of view can articulate.
Maybe it all belongs. Maybe there’s room for us all.
A few years ago, I drove from Minnesota to Florida with my two young sons – a desperate, spontaneous road trip. I went because it was the darkest winter, and because every time the Depression comes back, it sets me on the move again along the labyrinth of faith, looking for God expansive enough for my darkness. (It’s a long story. I wrote a whole book about it.)
When I finally made it down to the beach (dozens of hours and thousands of miles later), there was a woman there, lying on a blanket, reading her Bible, underlining with reckless abandon.
When she saw me, she popped up like a jackrabbit to tell me all about Jesus.
(There was a time when I kept my Bible in my backpack too; there was a time that I went to the beach in the earliest morning to meet with God and quoted John 3:16 in awe to strangers.)
She wasn’t wrong, this brand new Christian, all lit up in her new, charismatic faith. She felt God, and she was swooning over the Bible, and I think that to her, it all was probably epic just then.
And I wasn’t wrong either, in the dark chaos of my searching, trying to make peace with the fact that faith cannot always be felt.
We were both circling that labyrinth, looking for God. And we happened to pass one another for a moment – she in that first sweeping loop, me somewhere in the confusing middle.
I almost didn’t recognize it as a holy moment. But of course, it was.
So your brother is having a child dedication for his daughter. Your niece.
I think you should go.
This is where your brother is on his journey. You cannot rush him out of it; you can’t talk him into hearing what you hear. The only thing that you can control is how you choose to be present with him right now, in this moment.
They will dedicate your niece to God, and if I remember right, they will ask the people in the church congregation to walk with her on her faith journey.
What a good thing it is that you will be there.
Because what she really needs is not just the people from one local church, one denomination, one view of faith – she needs the whole Church, every facet of it.
At some point, she’ll need the electric guitars and the colorful kids’ ministry and the youth group lock-ins; at another, she’ll need the liturgy and the sacraments, the bread and the wine.
Most of all, she’ll need her uncle, whose faith journey took a turn but who didn’t turn away.
An uncle who left and searched and wandered, and who found himself in the beautiful, resonating sound of a new song of faith.
All the grace,
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