When I was growing up, my mother dressed us in crisp new outfits and bundled us off to church twice a year, on Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve. For a few years, my religious education was expanded to include an after school program at the Methodist church on Wednesday afternoons, but my motivation in attending was only that my best friend was going, and my mother’s motivation in sending me was that it meant she got an extra hour to herself every week. Despite this spotty upbringing, I knew that, when I had my own kids, I wanted our family to be part of a faith community, and here’s why.
1. Community: Penelope and I are newcomers to a small town where most of the locals grew up here and already know everyone. While we were attending grad school and settling in to our present careers, we moved seven times in ten years, and in the course of all of that transition, we learned that when you find yourself adrift in a new place, church is where you go to meet people and to get involved in community events. The best part is that church is familiar: so long as you stick within your chosen denomination (we’re Congregationalists), services are more or less the same all across the country. No matter how disorienting your relocation — perhaps the climate is not what you’re used to, perhaps everyone has an accent, perhaps you haven’t yet figured out where to buy your groceries or get your hair cut or check out library books — if you go to church, you will have at least one hour in which you will feel a sense of belonging, of welcome, of home.
2. Music: Music used to be an integral part of our culture. Before we all had televisions with hundreds of on demand channels, people made their own entertainment at community events where everyone would sing, and everyone knew the songs. If you ever have a chance, go to a Sacred Harp/Shape Note sing near you to get a sense of what those events were like: I promise, that music will knock your socks off. (See, for example: www.fasola.org .) Music played an integral part in the civil rights movement: Imagine the Montgomery Bus Boycott without “We Shall Overcome.” These days, though, the only place where people regularly gather together to sing is at church, and even there, we’re not as good at it as we used to be. Penelope and I want our kids to know the power of human voices raised in praise, not anger. Even if you don’t have a prodigious musical talent (and I certainly don’t), there is value to learning to sing with other people: you learn to listen to others, to make your voice blend with the group, you develop confidence to stand up straight, lift your head high, open your mouth and pour forth a joyful noise.
3. Behavior: Our 18-month-old son has been going to church since he was three weeks old, and already, he knows how to behave. Our church has a nursery where he can escape when he’s not able to sit still, but he doesn’t always need it. He knows that when the organist starts the prelude and the choir sweeps up the aisle, it’s time to settle down and sit quietly. He doesn’t always make it through the sermon, but he can generally be counted on to behave through the opening prayer and hymn, call to confession, and the children’s sermon. During the children’s sermon, he’s learning how to speak for himself in front of a crowd (a task that makes many adults quaver with fear), how to listen to a teacher or pastor, and how to respond appropriately (yes, socratic method works for toddlers, too, in very small doses!) — all years before he will be old enough for school. Then, he goes off to nursery, where he learns how to play with other children, how to respectfully enjoy books and toys that aren’t his, how to behave for caregivers other than his mamas or grandmothers, how to clean up the nursery when the service is over.
4. Respect for Differences: We attend church with all kinds of people: people who are much older than Hank’s grandparents, people who get around using walkers and wheelchairs, people with glasses and hearing aids, people of different colors, temperaments, shapes, and sizes. I grew up without much opportunity to interact with people other than my parents and their friends, and so to this day I harbor a private unease around the very old or very ill, but not Hank: he loves them all, and they all adore him.
5. Christianity is a Cultural Touchstone: We would like our children to be people of faith, but even if it doesn’t work out that way, even if Hank rejects Christianity, this teaching is not wasted. Even if you don’t believe that Christ was born the Son of God, that He lived and walked and taught among us, that He died for our sins and is risen, as we may be — even if you reject all that, it’s still a damn great story. This morning as I listened to our Pastor tell of the Passion according to Matthew, and I was seized anew by the drama of the tale. I can only imagine how Judas’s hands must have trembled under the table at that Passover Seder, as Jesus broke the bread and announced that one of the twelve then eating together would betray him. “Woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would be better for him not to have been born!” Imagine Peter’s guilt when he realizes that Jesus’s prophesy has come true: that despite his professed loyalty, Peter did indeed betray Him three times before the cock crowed in the morning! That’s great stuff!
You may be the most rational, dyed-in-the-wool atheist around, but like it or not, Christianity and the Bible have shaped our culture, our history, even our language. If you don’t have a basic knowledge of religious parables, you won’t understand half of what’s going on when you try to read Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer, or any of the other canons of English Literature. You won’t understand the poetry of Emily Dickinson or Gerard Manley Hopkins. You won’t understand hundreds of everyday idioms that come from scripture: a house divided against itself cannot stand, an eye for an eye, as old as Methuselah, beat swords into plowshares, by the skin of your teeth, give up the ghost, how the mighty are fallen, my cup runneth over, out of the mouths of babes… I could go on and on, but I won’t.
6. It’s Fun: Today, as I mentioned, is Palm Sunday. Our service began with the children of the congregation parading around the sanctuary, waving palm fronds and shouting loud hosannas. Hank was so excited, the smile on his face literally brought tears to my eyes. I took this photo on the drive home. You can tell he’s exhausted, more than ready for his morning nap, but the palms are still fascinating. He calls them “flowers,” and he will enjoy them (under close supervision) until he’s ripped them to shreds with his toddler-love. For me, a new favorite Easter tradition is born.