My Faith–The Beginning, Pt. 2

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My family was Presbyterian until the summer between my sixth- and seventh-grade years. My grade-school ears soaked up the Presbyterian message that God would forgive my sins. That we were all unworthy of that grace, but that God had sent Jesus to die in our place and we should be grateful, because we couldn’t ever be good enough to deserve that grace.

I listened hard. I couldn’t be perfect, but I at least wanted to try. I was a good girl. Approval is our drug—the harder to get, the better. But I also heard the message that God forgives us for not being perfect. Really heard it.

I believed. I loved how I felt in church. I was a shy bookworm whose best friends had a troubling habit of moving away at the end of the school year. I don’t know quite when I started to internalize it all, but at church I felt seen, understood, and reassured. God could see my inner rooms, and I was OK.

Sometime around fourth grade, I decided I’d better incorporate the Presbyterians’ weekly prayer of confession into my nightly bedtime prayers, just to be safe. That turned into a habit that continues to this day. After “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord to watch me while I sleep,” then the Lord’s Prayer, which is a prayer of praise and request for provisions and forgiveness, I still try to stumble my way through asking forgiveness for both what I’ve done and what I haven’t done before I fall into sleep. I hadn’t given it much thought until a few years ago, when a Methodist friend who grew up in an evangelical church mentioned having been put off by the “we’re not worthy”-ness of a similar prayer at a church she was visiting. I still say the prayer largely out of habit even though as an adult I think specificity about where I’m falling short is preferable to regular half-asleep confessions of unspecified wrongs.

The spring of my sixth grade year, the high school kids came home from a retreat. One by one they got up in front of the congregation to report on having been born again on the trip. It was the beginning of the 1980s, and fear of the kind of groupthink that led kids to join cults was in the air. As the kids all explained how they’d experienced Jesus in a new way on the retreat, my parents were concerned. This was not their style, and they were nonplussed by the idea of kids being peer pressured into claiming conversion experiences. Everyone in the same weekend. Really?

So by the time I hit seventh grade, we’d become Methodists—exchanging an imposing sanctuary ringed with tall stained glass windows for a contemporary, two-sanctuary church that met in a five-year-old building the Methodists shared with Congregationalists and Baptists. The sanctuary had the design sensibility of the mid-70s. Instead of stiff-backed pews, our new sanctuary had removable chairs and moveable platforms that allowed for mixing up the sanctuary layout every now and then.

Instead of being above the congregation, the Methodists’ organ was right down next to the platform with the pulpit, which gave an up-close view as the accounting professor who served as the organist played with a swaying verve that my musical teenage self envied. A grownup—a dad of kids about my age, no less(!)—was just plain enjoying the music he was making. I was an awkward young teenager in a restrained culture, and that kind of unapologetic public enthusiasm made an impression.

Also, the words from the pulpit were generally reassuring. Overall, the Methodists were much less focused on our unworthiness and much more focused on how happy we were to be loved and forgiven.

It wasn’t a giant shift in theology. Neither place tried to keep us in line with tales of the fiery pits of hell. We weren’t threatened with expulsion from the community. And we weren’t encouraged to feel like a private, closed-off club in sole possession of Truth with a capital T, aligned against the forces of evil outside the church walls. But the church change was a significant shift in tone—like one day we were hanging out with cats and the next we’d thrown in with the dogs. Both make fine companions, but one is way more obviously enthusiastic and way less worried.

My 12-year-old self was incensed that we weren’t sticking with the cats. I was unhappy about being uprooted from a church I liked, and I wasn’t about to change my ways. So I protested.

The Lord’s Prayer is said in one form or another in the vast majority of Christian churches. Versions of it appear in two of the Gospels—the four books of the Christian Bible that describe Jesus’ life and ministry. The prayer includes a line that different churches translate differently. Our Presbyterian congregation said it as, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” In some cases, it is prayed as, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” For years, when the Methodists recited “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I murmured “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” under my breath, just to make sure everyone knew I was unhappy about the church switch.

By “for years,” I mean until I was almost 40 and hadn’t thought about why I was mumbling in many, many years. And by “everyone knew I was unhappy,” I mean I actually told my parents about my little protest when I was 44. And we all had a good laugh over what a pathetic rebel I was.

During junior high and high school, my Wednesday nights were a progression of church choir practice, dinner at church, then confirmation class or youth group. I was an alto, but my friends were sopranos and tenors so I’d sit between those two sections and sing whichever part my voice could reach.

Most Sunday mornings involved church. Despite my initial resistance to changing churches, I made friends who went to different junior high schools than I did, which helped me through a period when I was socially adrift at school. I’d had best friends move away at the ends of fourth and sixth grade. I was too shy to blithely shift social groups, and the friends I made at church made junior high a titch less miserable.

That was two decisions?

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Before we married, we made two decisions that seemed like one at the time. Any children we had would be Jewish, and we would look for a synagogue that fit both of us. We were clear that we wanted to find a synagogue where we were both comfortable—that sending Joel and our then-theoretical offspring off to synagogue while I stayed home wasn’t going to work for either of us.

For me as an individual, this was a big decision that I didn’t recognize as one at the time. Back then, it felt like a natural part of deciding to raise a Jewish family. Of course we would find somewhere that I felt comfortable. But treating the synagogue search as something we were doing together as a family, not just as something Joel was doing, was the first in a series of baby steps.

Here’s what I thought: I would come along to services sometimes and try to be enough a part of things that I’d feel connected when kid activity time rolled around. My primary commitments would be at a church. And my relationship to Christianity would not change.

As the Yiddish proverb goes, “Men plan, God laughs.”

As it turned out, the decision to make the synagogue choice a family decision nudged me toward not just parachuting in, but really and truly trying to—and increasingly succeeding in—being part of Jewish community, sometimes by baby step, sometimes by leap.

The fact that we both saw involvement in a faith community as an important part of settling in and making a life for ourselves was important in and of itself. It wasn’t that one of us felt strongly about engagement in a faith community and the other was averse or apathetic. We both wanted to feel connected, to start making friends in our new home; and we both saw synagogue membership as an important step in that direction.

My need to feel part of a community is heavily influenced by being an introvert who has spent much of her adult life starting over in new places. I love knowing people; I do not particularly enjoy meeting them.

I can happily wade into a crowd of people I know and ask follow-up questions—How’s your mom doing? Have you heard from the school yet? Did you see we changed the meeting time? But making small talk with a clutch of strangers exhausts me. On a good night, I can chat away about anything. But if I’m tired, I have a hard time starting a conversation with a stranger, and if one does actually get started, I’m terrible at keeping any momentum going. I start into rounds of, “uh huh, uh huh, that’s great,” that even while I’m doing it I know is conversational death.

My years as a newspaper reporter helped teach me how to talk to people I don’t know. I got so I could pick up the phone or walk up to a stranger without an internal pep talk first, but it was learned behavior, not my natural way of being. As a reporter, I had the news judgment but not the conversational fearlessness I needed. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors (a copy editor) told us that if you’re basically a salesman, you’re a reporter, if you’re basically an accountant, you’re a copy editor. At the time I resisted the analogy, but it was only about a year before a city editor recognized which one I was and sat me down in front of a computer to edit to my heart’s content.

In a conversational pinch I will use those years as a reporter to fall back on just interviewing the other person if they’ve said something that intrigues me, but that’s not a very balanced way to have a conversation.

In a faith community, I know I have something in common with the other people there—maybe not all of our specific beliefs, but at least certain common ideas about what is important in life, and that we should take care of each other. Since I can plod along for too long at the small-talk level, being in a religious community, where people have relationships, where they talk about life cycle events—the good and the bad—is the ideal place to form friendships, because it gives me somewhere to ask how I can pitch in and then feel like I’m contributing something while I’m getting comfortable—or really, more accurately, as a way of getting comfortable. Who knew that joining something could be an introvert’s way in?