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.

My Faith—the Beginning, Pt. 1

I grew up in a homogeneous culture in a mid-sized town in southern Minnesota.

After four years at a small Lutheran college and one year at a small newspaper, I went off to journalism school in Chicago. One day, a professor asked my urban reporting class whether our high schools were integrated. A friend who grew up in the valley of the Jolly Green Giant, 25 miles from me, quipped, “Yes! They let the Norwegians and the Germans sit next to each other.”

Religious diversity in those parts meant a mix of Catholics and Lutherans. A really diverse crowd would include some non-Lutheran Protestants—meaning Methodists like me. I knew a few kids who didn’t go to any church, but most of us spent Sunday mornings dressed up and squirming in the pews, waiting for the moment when the children’s sermon would start and we could get up. Once we were summoned, we’d go up front to sit on the floor for a few minutes of ministerial storytelling. Immediately after that, we’d be sent off to Sunday school, where at least they had crayons.

I believe there was only one Jewish family in my high school when I went there. I have missed my past two high school reunions because they were scheduled during Rosh Hashanah—a detail I haven’t even bothered to complain about because as far as I know it affects  precisely two members of my high school class: me and my high school sweetheart–the two Methodists who have Jewish families. This year, if I fly home the morning after the reunion, I’ll make it home just in time for Rosh Hashanah dinner.

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In my earliest religious memory, I am roaming my house singing “I’m No Kin to the Monkey,” which I learned at friends’ Baptist vacation Bible school. Despite an ear bending from my horrified uncle, my parents took the long view. Mainline Protestants have no quibble with science on this point, and my parents grasped something my uncle did not: I had no idea what the song was really about. In fact, I was singing it for several fine non-scientific reasons. Namely: a) It was about monkeys; b) it was catchy; c) it was about monkeys; d) it said teachers who said I was kin to the monkey belonged in a zoo(!); and e) it was about monkeys. Seriously. What more could a 6-year-old ask for?

My mother grew up Presbyterian, and my father grew up Methodist, both mainline Protestant denominations, but with some important theological and tonal differences.

The idea that life is a test that determines whether you get into heaven permeates Christian preaching and worship. Is the path to salvation a narrow ladder spanning a crevasse or a wide thoroughfare with the doors at the end flung wide? The answer given by any particular denomination informs everything about how Christianity is practiced within the walls of its churches. It determines whether congregants are scolded or exhorted, and whether hell is something concrete to fear or is largely ignored in favor of a vision of a forgiving God. The former tends toward heavy use of shame and fear, the latter can fail to grapple with the real evil that exists in the world.

What are the terms of God’s forgiveness of human sin? Christians give widely different answers to that question, but the question itself remains the basis for conversation about faith. Whether you are a southern Baptist or the most liberal of Protestants, you recognize this as being what the religious conversation is about. Not that you talk about it all the time in worship. If forgiveness is there for the taking and offered to all—not just Christians and not exclusively through Jesus—you’ll certainly talk about grace a lot, but you don’t need to talk about being fallen every week. Whether spoken or unspoken, “who does God forgive” and “are any strings attached” are the central questions of Christianity. How any one Christian answers points them in the direction of a particular form of practice.

This is a fundamental difference from Judaism. Obviously Jesus is not part of the Jewish discussion about sin and forgiveness. But the very question that Christianity swirls around is Judaism’s main theme once a year—during the High Holidays. Traditionally, Jews spend the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish new year—assessing their sins and apologizing to people they’ve wronged. Eight days later, Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement—arrives. This is a day of fasting to atone to God for sins against God. The services between Kol Nidre, the haunting evening service at the start of the holy day, and the break fast at sundown the next day are focused on sin in a way that most Jewish services are not.

The terms of the larger discussion, the day-in, day-out understanding of the meaning of faith, are built on different rocks. Even though Jewish and Christian scriptures overlap and the teachings sometimes share a sensibility, the terms of the discussion about what religion means are different in such fundamental ways that a person who thinks they know what it is to be religious from a Christian standpoint can be startled as they learn to worship Jewishly.