Tuesday, December 20, 2016

In God We Trust

Jesus Loves the Little Children

So it's Christmas, all over, again.  While I would argue that Christmas has essentially become a full fledged secular holiday, it obviously does have some religious roots.  It's also that time of year when churches that might otherwise be half-full on your average Sunday have to bust out the metal folding chairs to accommodate all of the prodigal sons & daughters who tend to return on a biannual basis - sometimes to referred to as the C & E Christians.  It's also the time when we can all get bent out of shape about whether it's more appropriate to say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" or "Festivus for the rest of us!"  If you're worried about offending someone, you can just wish everyone you see a "Happy Gus' Birthday".  Just please, no gifts.  Seriously.

The most recent data I could find (based on my 10 second google search) found that in 2015, 75% of Americans identified as Christian.  While still a relatively high number, that percentage has been on the steady decline since the 50s, when nearly 90% of Americans identified as Christian.  As the article points out, in a very easy to read chart, the age groups with the lowest percentage of people who identify as Christian are the youngest demographics - the 18-34 range.  Not surprisingly, this demographic also has the highest percentage of people who don't claim a religious identity.  It may not seem like it based on my boyish good looks, but I am soon to be at the very top of that age demographic.

I grew up Presbyterian, just like the President-Elect apparently.  Ours was a pretty religious household in that we went to church every Sunday.  My parents weren't fanatics, but they valued the importance of instilling Christian morals in us.  They were involved in the church community and encouraged/forced my sister and I to be active members too.  We went to Sunday School and Bible School, participated in the Youth Group, even sang in the choir when Mom was really mad at us.  Believers definitely weren't in short supply in our community either, as our small town of 1,500 people had six churches available to its residents, with the neighboring smaller towns boasting a comparable person/church ratio.  Growing up we went to the same church that my Dad attended as a kid, the one my 95 year old Grandma still goes to today (when the roads aren't too dicey).  A small church country church just outside of town where every Sunday used to be an extended family reunion*.

Like a lot of young adults who have recently left the daily supervision of their parents, I pretty much stopped going to church when I went off to college.  I went to a Catholic college, but certainly not because it was a religious institution.  I liked the community feel of the school, which in hindsight, was probably fostered because of the religious nature of the school and the monastic community that supported the school.  There is no way I had the intellectual capacity to understand that at the time.  Even though it was a Catholic school, they welcomed heathens like me, along with various other religions and those who claimed no religious affiliation - I met both my first Jew and my first actual Atheist there.  I did have to take a required religious course or two, but no one was dragging me to chapel on Sunday morning.  I even went to mass on my own volition a few times, usually when my weekend behavior was highly suspect.

I did my fair share of questioning of my religious beliefs during my college years, like your typically obligation-free 18-22 year-old who is searching for the meaning of life.  I hadn't done so before because it never occurred to me that I could.  I went to church because my parents told me to, and for the most part, I did what my parents said.  I followed the Ten Commandments (to the best of my adolescent ability) because I had to memorize them, along with the books of the bible, the 23rd Psalm and the Apostles Creed, in Sunday School.  I didn't contemplate the pastor's sermon or the words of scripture because was I spent most of my in church fantasizing about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Models.  Like I said, best of my adolescent ability - that tenth one is tough.

During college I did take a philosophy class, in which one of the topics was discussing the existence of God.  As I started to critically think, I began to consider the somewhat arbitrary nature in which we become socialized, or not, into a religious belief.  For a large swath of people, myself included, we do what our parents did, who likely did what their parents did, and further on down the line.  While "religion switching" is becoming more common, if you were raised in a certain faith, you are more likely than not to practice that faith as an adult.  Currently, I consider myself to be a Christian unaffiliated with any particular denomination.  I have some personal beef with some of the religious doctrinal interpretation and implementation by some of the more mainline Christian denominations.  However, as I wrote in a paper for that philosophy class 12 years ago, I believe in God because having faith in something is a way to help me explain things I lack an ability to explain, particular the good things.  Jesus also seems pretty cool in my view - nonjudgmental, accepting of everyone despite their flaws, a make-love-not-war pacifist, etc.  I seem to have heeded Macklemore's advice to, "find God, but leave the dogma."      

If you get married it would serve you well to consider the religious beliefs of your spouse, especially if you decide to start a family.  My wife is Catholic, and luckily, the overall resistance to interfaith marriage is not what it was of the good old days pre-Vatican II.  Nor did we have any relatives boycott our ceremony because it took place at a Catholic Church and included a Lutheran minister^.  Comedian Jim Gaffigan, himself a practicing Catholic, has said that "kids and disease are the true gateways to faith."  I can't really recall my wife and I ever having a conversation about what our approach to religion would be with our kids.  It seemed well understood by both of us that they would be raised Catholic, my wife would be taking them to church, and I was welcome to join them.  If I had any strong opinions about a different course of action (which I didn't and still don't) then I would have to make a case for it and take the responsibility to follow through.  Seemed like a lot of work to me.  In her book Til Faith Do Us Part, Naomi Schaefer Riley points out that mothers are typically the ones in charge of a family's religious practices, and children of interfaith marriages are twice as likely to adopt the faith of their mother over their father.  

So we go to church, all of us.  Not every Sunday, but most Sundays - typically always on the Sundays when they have donuts after.  We also sit in the front pew, or as close to the front as we can, as we were once told by another family with small children that your kids pay better attention up front because they can actually see.  It's not true 100% of the time, but it certainly has helped.  Plus the front pews are usually open anyway when we come strolling in midway through the opening hymn.  I go because my wife appreciates the fact that I go, and trying to wrangle three kids at a Catholic Mass can probably draw similarities to purgatory at times.  I guess I'll find out when I get there.  I've likened taking small children to church like walking on ice.  You can be doing just fine, until you, or someone, falls flat on their ass, or backside, I should say.  Fortunately the church that we go to has a fairly young congregation, so the frequent child screams tend to blend into the joyful noise being made to God by the rest of attendees.  I did have to remove one our children (who will remain nameless) after he/she sucker punched my wife in the face in a fit of rage.

I've found that I've come to appreciate these weekly doses of religion that my kids are getting.  I figure for the abundance of secularism that they get everywhere else, it's nice to have them be exposed to the Bible and the tenets of Christianity, because in the aggregate, they are pretty good things.  Havi even goes to the preschool at elementary school run by the parish, and Isla did as well for two years.  Less because it is a religious school, and more because it is two blocks from our house and we adore the teacher.  But any place that has; care deeply, share generously, serve willingly, and speak kindly as their core values is a great community to be a part of.  Yes, these values are not exclusive to Christianity, or any religion, but essentially all religions have, at their core, messages of love, peace and service to one another.  If exposing them to a religion is going to help them better understand how to be a kind and thoughtful person, then I'm willing to surrender an hour on Sunday mornings.  We're up anyway.

From a parental perspective, there can be a sheer superficiality to it all.  It's cute when our kids make the sign of the cross and fold their hands to pray before dinner, even when Gus adamantly refuses to join us.  It's heart-warming when Havi sings and signs "Away in the Manager" after learning it in preschool.  Or when Isla sings along with the songs in church that she has heard multiple times or tries to recite the Lord's Prayer.  It's reassuring when an elderly couple come up to you after church to inform you that your kids were "just little angels" during the service - since they're a little hard of hearing, they weren't privy to all of the empty threats.  Certainly this is all a titch vain, but a silver-lining nonetheless.  And then there is the convenience of using Christian teachings as parenting tools.  When Havi was having a hard time dealing with the fact that she couldn't be first for everything, I evoked Matthew 20:16 (yes I had to google it), where Jesus says that the "last will be first, and the first will be last."  Obviously she doesn't get it, but it has averted a meltdown or two.              

As I've aged I've realized more and more things in hindsight that I'm glad my parents did, like make me go to church.  While I very much disliked it at the time, I certainly see its value now, especially since I have kids.  Even though I'm not necessarily practicing the faith I was brought up in, having been exposed to a religion like Christianity has helped me understand the benefits of exposing my kids to it, with major assistance from my wife of course.  They are too young now to question, and typically they are eager to go to church or read one of the bible story books at bedtime.  There will probably come a point when they will do their own questioning of their faith and beliefs, and I look forward to having in depth and thought provoking conversations with them on the subject.  While my own skepticism on organized religion will likely persist, I'm glad that they will have been exposed to religion and the virtues it can teach.  Whatever they ultimately decide to believe in, or not, is fine by me, as long as they use what they've learned along the way to bring more joy, peace and love to the world.  Based on most of the Christmas cards we've gotten this year, that seems to be the consensus pick for the reason for the season.

Sorry, dude, you have to wear this dress for baptism.  It's tradition.
But mom made you this delicious cake.  You just can't have any.


*A few years ago, I went back to the church Christmas Pageant with my Grandma, an event I played a variety of lead and supporting roles in during my tenure at Ebenezer Presbyterian Church.  She proceeded to point out every kid in the program and explain to me how I was related to them in some form.

^If they had any reason to boycott our wedding it would have been because we got married in January in Minnesota.      


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