From an early age, I have been confused about the criteria for believing in order to belong to a faith community. My early exposure to faith was a mixed bag. My parents did not attend church or ever speak of spiritual matters. (Other than when my dad was cursing.) My maternal grandparents were Baptist through and through so I went to church with them during my summer visits. It was in their church that I learned what white grape juice and stale crackers tasted like, Jesus was a white man with a long light brown beard, heathens were not to be trusted but if you got baptized all was forgiven and you could belong (My grandfather was deathly afraid of water so he was an outsider for 30 years before he screwed up his courage after a heart attack and took the plunge. However, he panicked and flailed around which resulted in the pastor taking a plunge and the two men splashing around in that baptismal pool for quite awhile before choir members rushed to their rescue.), all other denominations were heathens especially the Catholics, you don’t go to church unless you are dressed to kill (that was confusing), baptists drink (often excessively) but not together, and... baptist pastors have this habit of running away with either the choir director, pianist or church secretary (there was a stretch when they were three for three in that department). I learned a lot of other lessons too, but who has the time to read all that?!? Anyway, all of this was going on with the backdrop of sermons that preached: behave. Behave. Behave. Like I said, it was confusing.
When my husband and I were newlyweds we joined a beautiful Southern Baptist church in our community and loved it. Our Sunday School teachers became spiritual parental units for us - loving and encouraging us and seeing potential in us that we didn’t even dare to dream might be true. They challenged us too. They taught us the scriptures and cast a vision for what it might mean to bear the image of God and take it with us in our daily lives. They sacrificed for us, serving our entire class Sunday lunches around their large farmhouse table made of pine and waxed until you could see your reflection in its surface so long as you moved aside the steaming plates of food and the baskets of Mama John’s yummy yeast rolls. We met on Thursday nights as families for bible study (with the babies) and the women returned on Friday morning for a women’s study. These folks were NOT confusing. They were clear, consistent and oh so very kind. In their presence, everyone felt like a favorite child who belonged. If I have any instincts about what it means to love Jesus and follow him, it is because they planted them.
So what made one experience so confusing and the other so clarifying? To be continued….