How I Grew Up Loving the Church, Even Though I Didn't Really Like Church

[This is one of the posts telling a story from the life of my Dad. Click here to see the others.]

As I mentioned in the tribute that I wrote for my Dad's funeral service, one of the things for which I am most grateful about the way that he and my Mom raised us is how they passed their commitment to church on to my brothers and me. I've written quite a bit about how they've influenced my faith, but in this post I'm trying to address something that's certainly related but also not quite the same: the commitment to those communities of people in which we learn to live in Christ, to love one another, and through which we represent Christ to the world (our churches).

As the tribute mentions, I don't recall either of my parents ever laying down a verbal rule about church, but it was undeniably ingrained in us that if it was a Sunday morning, we were always going to be in church. Even on the last Sunday of his life, when later that night he went into inpatient hospice care, my Dad was in church. A week after his last Sunday in church, when all of our family had gathered after his death on Thursday, many people were surprised to see us in church together. If they were surprised, it was because they didn't know my Dad well. We were simply doing what he had always done: it was Sunday morning, and we were in church together as a family.

As grateful as I am for this, something about it has puzzled me for a long time: I know that I'm not the only person in the world who grew up going to church every Sunday, so how is it that I came out of my childhood loving the church while many others who went often like I did grow up to become nominally committed to a church at best, or even wanting nothing to do with any church at worst?

I have two very early church memories with my Dad that begin to shed light on what may be the answer. He volunteered in various ways in the church we belonged to when I was very young. I was young enough not to have any idea what the role was that he was playing, but I remember two ways that he often let me tag along and play a role myself. One of those was that at the end of the worship service, he would carry me, holding me up high enough to where I could blow out the candles at the front of the sanctuary (obviously I had to have been pretty young). For me, blown out candles are one of those examples of how a smell can carry tremendously strong memories attached to it, so that about 30 years later it's hard for me not to have a flashback whenever there's a candle blown out, particularly in a church.

The second memory is of being with my Dad in the church office on Sunday mornings while everyone else was in their Sunday School classes. Again, I don't remember what kind of work he did in there, but what I do remember was that in that office there was a small button on the wall. Dad watched the clock and would let me know when the moment had come to push the button, and it would ring a bell throughout the classrooms indicating the Sunday School hour was over and that it was time to go to the sanctuary for the worship service.

I looked back on that memory while I was working for a couple of years in charge of a large Sunday School program, and something interesting about that memory occurred to me for the first time: I wasn't in Sunday School. That realization didn't surprise me. I have vague memories of really disliking Sunday School as a child, so the irony wasn't lost on me that a boy who disliked Sunday School grew up to be in charge of it.

Yet even though I disliked Sunday School so much as a kid (and I really have no recollection as to why that was the case), I never remember disliking the church. In fact, as far as I can remember, I've always liked it. I think the reason why is that even though it took a while for me to really like church (the things that we did on Sundays), I have always loved and been loved by the church (as in the people with whom we did those things).

From as far back as I can remember as a child, there were people who made going to church fun for me. And the really interesting thing as I reflect on it is that all the people who come to mind when I think of those who did this for me were adults. I liked my friends like every young person does, but they weren't the difference maker for me. Obviously I liked spending time in the office with my Dad and being held up by him to blow out the candles. I've also written here about a hero of mine named Chester (see The Man Who Never Had a Bad Day) who made church fun for my brothers and me. Then there were others when I was a bit older, and later it was youth ministers... always adults, and the difference they made for me always happened in small ways apart from the plans of the normal church programs. They knew my name, liked it when I sat next to them in a worship service, and offered me candy or a high five. Those things meant the world to me as a kid, even though I didn't realize it at the time.

I love the church we are a part of now that I have my own family. It's the first time in my life I've been part of a larger church, which certainly comes along with its advantages, as this church is able to do a lot of things that we'd never been able to do in previous churches. But one of the drawbacks can be that since we have so many good programs, it's a temptation for us to think that kids will grow up to love the church as long as we have them in those good programs. But what it really comes down to is adults who love God going out of their way to help the young ones grow up knowing that they matter. Any adult in a church can do this, and every Mom and Dad in a church must do it. So with my little ones growing up in church now, it has me wondering two things: Am I giving my kids the chance to develop those kinds of relationships with adults in our church? And am I playing that role for the young ones in our church (both my own kids and others)?

I don't know why my parents decided to let me spend the Sunday School hour in the church office with my Dad rather than making me go to a Sunday School class I didn't like, but the lessons learned in that office were just as valuable as what a Sunday School teacher would have tried to teach me (and I probably wouldn't be writing about a regular Sunday School lesson three decades later). I saw my Dad serve his church in the ways that he could, and whether or not he realized it, a boy being by the side of his Dad who was so dedicated to his church, and by the side of other adults whom I looked forward to seeing, made an impression on me that will never go away.


When Our Friendship Grows

[I'm working on finishing up drafts for the chapters to Live Prayerfully: Three Ways Ordinary Lives Become Prayerful. The general of the aim of the book is to provide guidance on historic practices of prayer in simple ways. Below is an excerpt from the conclusion of the third chapter (Praying With Your Own Words).] The day when my son told me, “If you were going somewhere by yourself, I’d want to catch up” was a day worth remembering for me. He is older now than when he said those words to me, and though he’s still very young, there are already beginning to be times when he wants some distance from me rather than being right by my side. And adolescence hasn’t even hit yet. Although I hope it never happens, there may well come a period of time when he doesn’t want much to do with me. But his own words to me that day when he was three years old came from a very sincere place in his little soul, a place that knew he was loved, that his daddy delighted in him, and that it was a good thing for the two of us to ride around in our pickup truck together. Whatever the future may hold for us as father and son, I will always know that place in his soul is real and is still there, even if one of these days he completely stops paying attention to it. 

There have been times in my years of seeking to follow God when, whether in joy or pain, I have expressed my love for God in sincere and authentic ways through using my own words in prayer. I’ve come to believe that those words delighted God is much the same way that my son’s delighted me. There have also been times in my years of seeking to follow God when, like a confused or rebellious son, I didn’t want to have much to do with him. Thankfully, though, even when those times came, I was eventually able to go back to words that came from a very sincere place in my soul that has known I am loved, that God delights in me, and that it is very good for us to do things together. Looking back over the decades, I can see that it’s when I talk to God about those things in my own words that our friendship grows.

I Might Be a Great Dad. Or, I Might Be Pretty Bad.

The other night at supper, my four year old son suddenly burst into extemporaneous song, and with a big grin on his face sang: "Are youuuuuu a caterpillar or a milkshake? Caterpillars and milkshakes are very good things."

We were all laughing. He loved it. I loved it. It was pure fun. It can make anyone feel like a good parent to see our kids that happy.

Last night, on the other hand, I had him in tears, inconsolably, because of a questionable decision I made to discipline him. I still haven't made up my mind whether I did the right thing or not, but seeing our kids that sad can make anyone feel like a poor excuse for a parent. We do our best to try to have the best idea we can about how to raise our kids well, but parenthood seems to be a constant adventure in pure, unadulterated guessing. Once we feel like we're getting the hang of it and figure out how to parent one of our children better, they grow into a whole new stage and it's a different ballgame.

I certainly want to keep trying to learn. I learn a lot by watching my wife. And surely the best education of all was being raised by good parents. I read parenting books now and then, and I can always find awful parents on television to compare myself to who make me feel better.  Still, I'm never going to have it all figured out. So, instead of dwelling on how much I don't know about being a good dad, perhaps it's a better idea to come up with a list of non-negotiables for myself as a parent, and realize that as long as I'm fulfilling these (or moving in their direction), I'm mostly being the kind of person I want to be for my kids, which in the long run will hopefully matter more to them than whether or not I made the perfect parenting decision on this particular issue last night.

  • I want to ingrain it in my kids that they are loved- loved like crazy- both on the occasions when they do something great and when they do things that disappoint us. The things they do and don't do definitely matter and I've got to continue in the guessing game as to how to address those, but I've also got to communicate that my love for them is never at risk.
  • I want to control my tongue around them, not speaking negatively of others and not insulting them.
  • Though every one of us have patience muscles that inevitably wear out at some point, I want to act toward and around my kids in such a way that there will be many more examples of patience to remember than examples of when it ran out.
  • I want to show my kids how much I treasure their mom, and how much I hope they always will too.
  • I want to talk about God often enough with my kids that it will never be awkward to them when I do, but I also want the way that they think about God as children to primarily be shaped in positive ways by the way they see me live. In other words, my kids don't yet need to hear the kinds of things I try to say to adults about God in the things I write or say at church. They just need to see it in me and the other adults around them.

I'm sure this list is a work in progress. Perhaps one of you knows where I can find the complete parenting list...

When God Does Not Respond

[This is one of the posts telling a story from the life of my Dad. Click here to see the others.]
[This is also part of a sermon I preached on Father's Day 2012. Click here to listen to and/or download the audio.]

After I graduated from high school, I lived other places for 11 years, and when we did move back to my hometown, it was a surprise. So for those years of living away, I really thought that my years of living close to my Mom and Dad were behind us and the thought of that was often very difficult for me. Even if you didn't know him, if you've read any of these other posts about my Dad, you might be able to guess that he never was much for talking on the phone, and since we only got to come home and visit once or twice a year, I really missed being with him.

My Dad was impossible to buy presents for. It’s not an exaggeration to say that there were times when we would open presents on Christmas morning in our living room, he would open his, say thank you, then put his gifts neatly in a stack to the side of his chair. And, literally, you might come back two months later and those presents would still be neatly stacked there by the side of his chair. It was just impossible.

So one year while we were living away, his birthday was coming up, and I didn’t want to go through the gift game with him, so I thought I’d do something different and start writing him letters. My idea was that I would write him a letter each month, and though I didn’t keep that up very long, I did end up writing several to him.

I had come up with this idea a bit ahead of time of his birthday, and even though I knew it was a good idea I was surprised to find myself being pretty resistant to going through with it. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to write to him- these weren’t going to be the first letters I’d ever sent him, but there was something that was different and caused me to keep putting it off.

Finally, I was able to put my finger on what was going on. I was resisting beginning to write him these letters, because the very real fear was in my mind, “What if he doesn’t respond? What if I write this, and put myself out these in this way, and his response is... nothing."

I knew that this wasn’t just a possibility, but that it was almost surely what would happen, and so I had a decision to make. Do I write the letter, take that risk, and see what happens, or do I not write it and play it safe?

Well, I chose to write the letter, and I was exactly right. He never responded.

I didn’t think about this at the time, but looking back on it now, nearly a decade later, I think I can see why I ended up being okay with mailing the letters knowing there was a good chance no response would ever come.

Think of the stories of Jesus on the last night with his disciples. He washed their feet. He took the bread and said, “this is my body, broken for you,” and the cup, and said, “this is my blood, poured out for you.” Then also, Judas has already agreed to betray him, left that meal and went to do so. Jesus, after the meal, went to a garden called Gethsemane.

It’s there in that garden that Jesus said that his soul was troubled to the point of death, where his sweat became like drops of blood, and three times he prayed that anguished prayer, “Abba, if it’s possible, let this cup pass from me,” speaking of the suffering he was about to go through.

We know that story, and are right to kind of have a silenced awe about it, and particularly about Jesus also praying, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

But there’s one thing about the story that I never noticed until recently. Jesus was in his worst moment, pouring out his soul to his father, and none of the gospel writers give any indication that his father responded in any way. He expressed himself to his father in the deepest way possible, and his father’s response was, apparently,... nothing. Then Jesus returned from the garden, went to face his betrayer, and the rest of the events ensued that lead him quickly to his crucifixion.

How could Jesus do that? How could he continue to walk that path, even when his father had just offered no response whatsoever to him?

In my letters to my Dad, I can look back and see now that I could make the decision to write them, knowing there would probably be no response, because of how I had known my Dad’s love in all of the years leading up to the moment that I stamped that letter and put it in the mail. I knew that even if he said nothing in response, he loved me, and I could always trust him. I could put the letter in the mail because of all of the years of riding around in the truck with him, all of the time we spent together watching ballgames, all of the pats on the back when I faced disappointments, all of the times that he told me I’d played good even if I’d just blown the game for my team. I knew he loved me.

The first book we use in our Apprentice groups, The Good and Beautiful God, talks about this with Jesus’ experience in the garden. It says that Jesus could continue to love and trust his father, even in that moment, in his father’s silence while he’d just poured out his soul, because all of his life, he had known his Abba to be loving, reliable, and faithful. His father’s love had been steadfast and unfailing every day of his life, and therefore Jesus was able to continue trusting him, even in those horribly difficult moments when all there was was his father’s silence.

Regardless of what your relationship with your father has been like, there will come a time when you feel the need to pour your soul out to God, and you may choose to do so or not. Even when we make make the brave decision to do so, sometimes God responds, but there always exists the possibility that God will remain completely silent, and if we continue in the life of seeking God, this is almost sure to happen at some point or another.

But the thing that will make a difference in that moment, and which will determine whether you continue to follow, even if a cross awaits you, is whether- in the months and years leading up to that moment- whether you’ve been with God enough to know and trust his love for you.