Looking back at my family’s “church history”, I can see that my parents’ church experiences frequently left them dissatisfied or disillusioned. My dad, born into a loyal and tight-knit family and born again in the early 70’s, clung to the ideal of a “Family of God” that both tolerated and supported one another. I knew the word “ecumenical” was pejorative in some circles, but we embraced it in the best sense. It offered us room to maneuver among the believers; when tension increased at one port, we could wait out the storm in a different harbor. It was all the same water, after all.
My parents lived in the same house for 23 years. Perhaps it is telling that during that time period they were associated with at least half a dozen different churches and visited many others. Growing up, I was exposed to all types of Christianity:
- dancing Charismatics prophesying in tongues
- Mennonites singing a capella hymns from shaped notes
- earnest Baptist altar calls
- Pentecostal Bible-thumping
- Quaker silence
- Nazarene and Wesleyan and Reformed Presbyterian services
- somber Lutheran Lenten services with pipe organ in minor keys
- friendly guitar-led home fellowships
- an Episcopal Christmas service that struck me as “ornate”
- even a Catholic Mass.
We were sufficiently well-rounded to discover the kernel of shared faith in each group or denomination. We all addressed the same God in the same language, just with different accents. Like the blind men and the elephant, each had a piece of the whole Truth. In my adult mind, I figured one could "collect the whole set", as it were, gleaning fragments of Christ's image from each source and discarding what didn't fit.
What set Christianity apart from other faiths was that it was a Relationship, with a Person, symbolized by heterosexual marriage itself. A marriage, I learned, could only be dissolved if it turned out to be a fraud (like if one partner was gay, or already belonged to someone else). Mutual unhappiness was not a church-condoned justification for divorce, and penalties would apply to anyone thus betraying their vows. Since marriage would be a permanent state, I spent many years pondering what qualities I would want in a husband, what characteristics I could live with and what I could not.
We learned to evaluate the Body of Christ the same way we would shop for a home. These features were nice, we could adjust to that, other things were completely intolerable. Sometimes we would stay at a church for several years before looking elsewhere. But as we accumulated ex-churches around town, even Dad became reluctant to make his commitment official, preferring to participate in a more freelance fashion.
Stories of fresh starts resonated strongly in our home. The Apostles, the Anabaptists, the Reformers, the Pilgrims, the Campbellites, the Great Awakenings, and so on. We looked forward to heaven where we'd all enjoy the same beliefs and the same worship styles and nobody would have to worry about offending God or each other. At last, no one would be deceived--or cruel. Because deep down, the Christianity we knew in this life was always disappointing.