By Kathryn Libel
Have you ever read “The Fire Cat” by Esther Averill? It’s a picture book that was a favorite of my kids. There’s a cat who lives in a barrel, gets wet in the rain, and bullies all the other cats in the side yard he lives in, even though he knows he shouldn’t. The neighbor lady sees his potential and brings him in to live at her house. But Pickles just can’t stand the soft chairs and convenient playthings in her house and he quickly returns to his home in the barrel.
Lately, I’ve been feeling like Pickles a bit. I have come to own that the branch of Christianity that raised me is full of problems that it won’t acknowledge or work to repair. Everything from the repression of women to facilitating and covering sexual abuse to overt systemic racism to outright violent hatred of LGBTQ+ people. This is the right-wing evangelicalism that I can no longer embrace. I have come on a long journey to believe in my mind that doctrine is secondary to behavior and that behaving like Jesus is the most important thing.
Then, last week…
The pastor from the Lutheran church we’ve been attending came and sat down on my Reformed-raised, Anabaptist-bred sofa and asked to hear a little bit about me. I informed him of my theological history and casually checked his eyes for any hint of stake-burning or stone-throwing there. I didn’t see anything except genuine care. I didn’t experience anything in our conversation except openness to questions, an embrace of curiosity, and a devotion to living like Jesus, with our hands engaged.
But. He considers baptism to be a means of grace, not a symbol of rebirth. He considers communion to be open to everyone, and that Jesus invited everyone to the table. It isn’t solely for those who know they have been “saved.” Also… did I mention he baptizes infants???
My point here is certainly not to debate Anabaptist/Lutheran theological differences.
The point is, every time I think I’ve finally abandoned the very Evangelical comfort of being theologically “correct”, every time I think I’ve given up having the answers in exchange for demonstrating unconditional love, every time I think I’ve managed to really become someone who cares how you behave toward others more than what you say your brain believes, I find out I haven’t really “become” at all.
And just like that, I’m Pickles. Back out in the yard with the rain and the mud, bullying the little cats again. I know it’s not right, but it’s oh-so-comfortable.
Pickles eventually finds his calling, abandons the barrel, and becomes a great fire cat.
Me? I still feel homeless.
Church, with its comforting certainty, familiar prejudices, and loving solidarity (as long as you conform), raised me. Gospel songs and Gaither specials and spontaneous prayers and long expositional sermons are where I feel at home. But after really meeting Jesus, I can’t feel at home with the messages there anymore.
Our foray into the Lutheran church in our neighborhood has been challenging. I literally had a panic attack the first day we went. After the great pain I have endured at the hands of the church, COVID was such a welcome relief. I didn’t have to go. Life goes on, pandemics lift, and churches reopen, and children ask to go to church.
I thought that the Lutheran church in our neighborhood would be good to try. Many of the neighbors go there, and it’s totally different from anything I’ve experienced “church” to be in the past. Surely, that will be more comfortable.
It’s just. So. Different.
The liturgy. I think I’m going to love this, actually. It’s wonderfully predictable.
The music. I like it. But kids don’t know many of the songs, and they miss singing praise songs. Truth be told, so do I sometimes, but it’s nice to not be triggered by them.
The formality is SO weird. But the pastor is very approachable, both as a person and in his preaching, and I appreciate that.
The infant baptism…
Can I get over the differences between us, our theology? After all, I’m an Evangelical.
AM I an Evangelical? I believe in addressing the injustices of the world from the pulpit. I believe in reaching out with hands of love to those in the community without insisting they prove they really need help. I believe that confession and assurance are beautifully vital to a church service. I believe that Jesus’ followers should care about equality and justice and protecting those whose voices are silenced and caring for creation.
Maybe I’m not an Evangelical.
I wish I knew the answer to tell my kids when they come home starry-eyed after a baby was baptized, and want to know about their baptism. I wish I knew what to say when they ask me why it’s so different at Daddy’s church. And I really wish I knew what to say when they ask me why my leg was shaking in the middle of the service.
Faith is so hard.
Parenting is so hard.
How would you explain to a 7-year-old what the difference is between faith and religion? Or that Mom’s views on baptism are different than Pastor’s and I’ve been waiting for them to want to be baptized instead of deciding for them? Or that I equally, passionately, love and miss church and also never want to go to church again? How about that I don’t actually know what I think about anything, but I know that Jesus and the God he’s a part of are good and kind and loving and that they rescued me from unbeatable despair?
How do you parent through this?
Clearly, I have no answer to that question.
I do have a couple of things I’m trying. I’m letting them see me struggle with questions. I’m finding it easier to admit that I don’t know the answers the more I practice. I’m trying to parent from love and grace, not shame and fear.
I’m trying to find an expression of faith that feels authentic for me. I’m trying to give my kids the safety of a few absolutes while also giving them the room to ask questions and make their own ways.
I just looked back over what I’ve written, and realized that maybe I do know a way to parent them through my spiritual homelessness:
Love them. And keep on trying.
Kathryn Libel is a Midwestern mom to a boy who loves books and a girl who loves dirt. Words, big thoughts, coffee, and good food really turn her crank! If she isn’t busy navigating big thoughts and big feelings with her kiddos, she is usually reading, writing, or eating something delicious!