“I want to be Jewish,” I told my mother. I was in the middle of that time when, as I now know, all children wonder about their place in the cosmic dimension. Our urban Presbyterian church had an exchange program in which, one Sunday a month, our senior minister would preach at the local Reform temple and their senior rabbi would preach at our church. The rabbi’s deep voice and mysterious words moved me.
“You might first want to see how much work is involved,” my mother replied. As I’ve written before, though not lately, she was a very good mother.
Middle schoolers are fickle, though, and mere weeks later my quest to become a Jew was replaced by a desire to become Catholic so I, like Mary Zanone, could wear jeans and attend church on Saturday evenings instead of Sunday mornings. Again my mother replied that I should first investigate the work involved and that she would ask one of her Catholic friends about taking me to Mass. By the time she had that arranged, I’d of course moved on to something else.
I bounced around through high school and college, a Methodist one week and Wiccan the next, sure that I believed in something and equally sure it didn’t fit any convention.
In my 20s I started attending an Episcopal church. It had the perfect one-two punch: a PR master as the rector and an angry-young-man intellectual as his associate. One reached for hearts while the other challenged minds.
With their two bookends I felt comfortable among God’s frozen chosen, free in the structure of the liturgy to cultivate some belief that I couldn’t ever articulate. I decided to make that place home base for my infrequent Sunday check-ins. I told the priest before I told my mother, though, and didn’t have the benefit of her counsel first to investigate the work involved. I found myself in a required nine week confirmation class with a group of other adults who’d clearly given the process more thought than I had.
Early in the class we were asked to talk about the person with whom we most identified in doing God’s work. I listened as others said “Ruth,” “Thomas,” and “Mary the mother of James.” I said that I was a cross between Mary Travers and Mary Poppins, and I thought for a minute I might be asked to leave. I wasn’t, but I also wasn’t called on to share again.
I made it through the process and have stuck with the Episcopal tradition these last 25 years, though I’ll confess freely to having spent more Sunday mornings in a park, on a river or enjoying casual fellowship than I have in a pew. I married a baptized Catholic who never made it through confirmation and has scarcely darkened a church door since. Both of our children are baptized Episcopalians, a small feat since I’m the first non-Dutch non-Catholic mother of Balinks in more than 400 years.
Since becoming a parent I’ve been more attentive to a Sunday morning schedule. When my children complain I give them my standard intellectual line that knowledge is important for making informed decisions, knowing full well how easy it is for the knowledge of words to obscure their meaning.
My children are now in that age of exploration. Through school they have friends who are Jewish and Hindu, atheist and Church of Christ, Muslim and Catholic. Given this diversity, I’ve been expecting questions like the ones I had at their ages. But children are not their parents, and children’s quests are their own.
My daughter likes to sit on the front row, in school and in church, so she can see all of the action and take notes. She has a clinical fascination of the liturgy and wants to come home and practice it.
My son, more like his mother, prefers to observe from the sidelines and choose carefully how he’ll participate. On Sundays, he typically chooses not to participate at all, and I wonder sometimes if my reticence has left him without an anchor.
He’s playing football this year in a league organized by a local Evangelical church. Last week he reported, not surprisingly, that the coach talked a whole lot about God. When I asked how that he felt about all that talk, he said this:
“I think Coach is a good guy. He pushes us to do our best, but he doesn’t yell or criticize. He makes us do stuff over again if he knows we didn’t try hard the first time, but he isn’t mean or unfair. I think he coaches us because he likes to help people and wants us to help each other. That’s what really matters.”
This, we both believe.