Sunday, June 30, 2013

Making Family Transitions

When we had exited fundamentalism and wrung the last nourishment we could get from the breast of evangelicalism, we switched to a church in a liberal mainline denomination (United Methodist). And the kids kept us there longer than we likely would have stayed ourselves.

Making that leap was hard on our littlest one, because she had friends at the old church and missed it sometimes. But the older two were willing to explore new territory with us. And by that time, they were beginning to be aware of the unpleasant side of fundamentalist Christianity.

We saw the continuity as important for our children. We also realized the value of socialization, especially since we were still homeschooling and few of our local friends had children.

The Methodist ladies who volunteered in the Sunday School were so nice and they adored our children. We liked the positive reinforcement from adults who generally shared our values. The church was intentional about encouraging the kids to serve the community, to think globally, to embrace diversity, and to be sensitive to the needs of others. Our kids loved the crafts (I really hate cleanup!) and the emphasis on the arts was tremendous.

So we stayed while we tried to figure things out. We prayed less and less at home, but we still read Bible stories, still had an Advent calendar. I joined the church's bell choir and C-- joined the pastor's weekly Bible study. At one point we even talked to our oldest about getting baptized.

We tried many different small groups at the church, but every one was worse than the last. We began to wonder if the church was changing, or if we were. We got invited to join a prayer class even though the Sunday recitation of the Lord's Prayer had become the only time that we prayed. We kept dropping the children off at Sunday School and choir practice, but then we would sit in the balcony with library books about agnosticism, evolution, physics.

Public libraries have often been my salvation. During our transitional year or two, I brought home stacks of children’s books: books on mythology, legends, “just-so stories”, creation myths, sages and proverbs, gods & goddesses--from every culture and era I could find. It helped immensely to see how human societies have always tried to imagine, interpret, and illustrate the intangible from what can be observed. I especially enjoyed the Jewish creation tales, which have a long tradition of maintaining relevance through addition, embellishment, daring imagination, and constant re-interpretation.

We saw how societies have always attempted to illustrate and inculcate their values through their religious narratives. And how too frequently those narratives were also used to keep the powerful strong and the downtrodden weak.

Eventually my husband and I just knew *we* were done--done with church, done with prayer, done with the Bible, done with faith and belief and doctrine and God. Done with the whole package. Life means what we say it means so let’s make it good, and better!

We'd tried to keep tabs on the kids' emotional connection to the church throughout our time there. So now we asked again how they were enjoying the programs they were involved in (which had continued to evolve while we were there). Our kids were 9, 8, and 5 at the time. And their answers surprised us. One said, “I think Mrs. _____ says some things because she thinks that what she’s supposed to say in church. I don't think she really believes everything she says.” Another said when they sang, he “tried not to think about the words”. Okaaayyyy. This was not quite the response we expected!

The youngest had the best experience there—she’s an extrovert and it was more like “playing church” for the preschoolers, complete with a miniature chapel with its own stained glass and child-size pews. But when we asked, “How would you like to stop going to Sunday School and go swimming at the Y with Daddy instead?”, she was game, too.

So we set a date about a month out—time to sing the choir songs they’d rehearsed and serve out the acolyte schedule. Being a bigger church we’d only attended for two years, it was easier to slip away from than a more intimate congregation would have been. Also, the senior pastor was transferred to another city right after we made our decision, so it was a natural time for us to move on, too. We even helped staff the kids’ activities for Easter (that was strange!). We already knew two of our kids were going to public school in August, so socialization was less of an issue by then. And though the people were kind, we hadn't developed any close friendships.

For a while I encouraged the kids to keep reading their Bibles, and we would talk about what they read. That lasted several months, until M-- reached some of the more horrible stories in Joshua and Judges and was incredulous that the God her grandparents serve would approve—even insist on—such carnage. The children started wanting to get rid of Bible story books and and Christian music and Veggie Tales movies and fish necklaces they'd received at church. We tried to make those changes at their pace. All three are happy atheists now.

Last Christmas, we pretty much hung up all the tree ornaments, religious or not. We used a secular advent calendar (our first with chocolates!). We listened to fun holiday songs with lyrics about kindness and friendship and taking time to enjoy life (instead of carols about sinners, curses, virgin wombs, and "Satan's tyranny"). We talked about the Winter Solstice and the many traditions surrounding that season. As we took the tree down in January, we considered what the ornaments represented and which ones we wouldn't really miss next year. We have a Peanuts advent calendar for this December's count down to Christmas Day.

We didn't display the wooden cross model for Lent this year, and we didn't watch The Gospel of John. (M-- says she might want to see it again sometime, but the other two have no interest.) We paid attention to the new season unfolding around us: the robins' reappearance, birds nesting, budding branches, baby bunnies in the backyard, bulbs bursting out of the ground and making colorful blooms, the fragrance of flowering trees. For Easter weekend, we participated in fun community events. We colored eggs and celebrated spring.

Sunday mornings are so much more relaxed now. We can sleep in if we need to. Nobody has to dress up. Sometimes I make a fancy breakfast or brunch. During the school year, the kids often go swimming at the Y with their dad. This summer, we've had time to sit together on the front porch together sipping coffee while the kids eat their cereal on the steps or play in the yard. We listen to the bells from the church down the street and chat with neighbors out for a stroll with their dog.

Most of our family traditions are unchanged. We celebrate birthdays the same way. We still go to see fireworks on the Fourth of July and swap candy with our neighbors on Halloween. We still roast a turkey and see family for Thanksgiving. We still put up a Christmas tree and bake cookies and watch the Rose Parade on New Year's Day.

And there is always room for trying new things that could turn into traditions down the road. Like getting milkshakes at Sonic before bed or playing along with the Beatles on Guitar Hero. 

As we discussed a church sign we'd passed last week, my daughter and I agreed that once you leave the religious mindset, it is difficult even to imagine being in it again.

1 comment:

  1. Open hearts, open minds, open doors--the United Methodist motto. That's a good final note to leave on.