Friday, July 6, 2012

Distinguishing between church and faith

Matthew 22:15-22 (NIV)

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?”

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.
As I may or may not have alluded to earlier, I am a card-carrying* member of a congregation that is part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which according to its own website has 2.3 million members in all 50 states and Puerto Rico broken down into more than 11,000 individual congregations.

(*Only joking — we don’t actually get cards.)

As we are in the midst of the denomination’s 220th General Assembly in Pittsburgh, and as I count among my social media friends more than a dozen people ordained in the denomination (people I actually know in real life and also connect with online), I’m getting links to quite a bit of information about the proceedings. None of it is anything I want to delve into at this point, although I’d be happy to engage in such discussions outside of this context. What I would like to explore, however, is the notion of religion and faith, specifically as it relates to children.

I like to think I’m raising my children in a Christian household. And while that is technically true, what I’m really doing, at this point, is raising them in a church. All the boys are baptized. We go to church every Sunday unless someone is sick. The boys go to Sunday school. They go to Vacation Bible School. We go to the Easter egg hunt and drag them with us when we have to be there early for bell choir. My parents belong to the same church and are in a variety of leadership positions, which gets the kids (and us) plugged in a hair deeper than the average member. At least I think the average eight-year-old member does not know where the clerk of session has her mailbox or get to ring the bell a several Sundays a year.

But all of this is much more about establishing the idea of the church and church family as a standard component of a full life than it is developing faith. I mean, I trust the church and its Christian education programs are doing great work with our kids and all the others. But we, as parents, are not yet doing much to directly teach faith. We are teaching the idea of going to church.

I’m not entirely worried about this distinction. I know my children and I do on occasion talk with them about what they’re learning at church. Charlie’s just 17 months old right now. He doesn’t have a vocabulary yet; I’m not worried there. At four, Max is clearly remembering the stories and songs he learns, but I’m not expecting him to be soaking up deep life lessons. Jack is a tougher nut to crack because of his age and also his inability to fully express all the thoughts he has in his overactive brain. So there I’m in a more delicate feeling out process as I begin to help him navigate the ways he can actually make his own decisions about these matters of the heart.

I grew up in the same church. When we lived in Iowa I joined a Reformed Church in American congregation in Kristie’s hometown. I was actually on staff there (in a part-time capacity) for about a year as the interim high school youth group leader, and I also conducted a tone chime choir for fifth- through eighth-grade students. During our two years in Ottawa, Ill., we church shopped on and off and failed to find a home. When we moved back near my parents, the church I grew up in was a natural fit, and we’ve been members for about three years now.

I consider us pretty typical white, college-educated, married, middle Americans. Kristie grew up Catholic and I grew up Presbyterian and though we had differing exposure to organized religion through our childhood and varying degrees of interest in church while in college, it’s safe to say we got churchy again once we had Jack (though, to be fair, involvement in handbell choir and other musical groups was the first domino to fall).

Now it seems the church — and I am speaking specifically of the congregation — is fairly central to our family life. We are there at least once a week, much more, it seems, during the school year. Though Kristie has established a good network of friends who have similar parenting philosophies, it’s safe to say all our couple or family friends are also church members. After work, which is rarely obtrusive, our calendar is dominated by church and school activities. And not all the church stuff amounts to “drop kids off, pick kids up” — some of it is for us as adults, too. These are all good things in my book.

All of this is a rather long-winded way of saying “We go to church. We are a church family.” And to then consider how that dynamic may shift as our children age. Surely we are fully entrenched now. I assume my boys will take to youth group the way Kristie and I did, though I could well be proven wrong. I don’t know how they will react to all of the religious instruction they’ll get over the years and what steps they’ll take to embrace (or reject) these teachings as core components of their own lives.

I don’t care at all if they cling to the Presbyterian flavor of Protestant Christianity, but I care deeply if they share my beliefs about Jesus, his teachings and his sacrifice. To some, that statement probably undercuts my first 900 or so words, but again, I’m not at all sure how to cross that bridge with an eight-year-old or if it’s even possible or necessary. It would be helpful to come across a highway sign telling me how many miles until I reach the span, but that’s not quite how life works, is it?

While I believe a person can be a Christian without belonging to a church, and while there are many, many regrettable actions attributable to organized religions of all shapes and colors throughout recorded history, I also am a staunch advocate of the power of a community of believers to positively impact individual lives and strengthen families, a position I have taken specifically based on personal experiences living both in and outside of such a community at different points. Can you fall in with such a group outside an organized congregation? Surely, though perhaps not easily. Can you be a good person without faith or religion? I don’t see why not. Is my church or my denomination better than yours? Heavens no. Even the best church or congregation (whatever “best” means) is, in no small part, a human construction that would pale in comparison to a fully God-created community.

What do I want for my children? To live lives worthy of God. And yeah, that leaves a lot of room for interpretation. But I have to go big picture at this point in their lives. I’m sure this is one of those issues I’ll have an entirely different take on a decade from now. But I can’t live in the future — the present is challenge enough.

A prayer for July 6:

Lord, I thank you for the various church families you have led me to over the years. The people I have met and come to know and love have enriched my life in ways uncounted, encouraging me, challenging me, supporting me and especially looking out for my children, giving a sense of an overwhelming number of people who love and care for my boys as if they were their own. I ask you to help me be a productive member of this same family and that we may collectively seek your will, both for how we conduct the business of life on Earth and how we prepare ourselves for eternity with you. Amen.

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