In conversation with another parent, my wife and I shared that we are pastors (you never know how that’s going to go). A few minutes later she asked us what our week is like. As we started to describe what we had been doing, I felt an empowering assurance that we were both doing worthwhile things and that they were absolutely appropriate for a pastor.
She then shared somewhat sheepishly that she hadn’t been raised in church and didn’t really know much about it. She was so kind and clearly a good mom, I felt a bit sheepish that she felt sheepish. But I also know she was being quite brave, too. Then after these initial proddings, she jumped right in: her daughter came home from 2nd grade and shared how some other kids told her she was going to hell for not going to church. Apparently there are a collection of apostolic kids that are well-versed in who God accepts and who God rejects. Presumably, most people are rejected and only the holy hoop jumpers, like themselves, are saved from the wrath to come.
I always take these things with a grain of salt, but Meredith was almost in tears. She got it first: what a terrible thing to say to another. I got the latter part: how horrible for the apostolic kids to receive a gospel so wrapped in shame and anger that it will never actually feel like good news.
The conversation went real from there. The mother asked for books and materials for her daughter and her to explore together. I shared that the giftedness of her daughter–her inquisitiveness, her concern for what her classmates told her, her unabashed need for both truth and goodness–were natural gifts from God and I spend a lot of my time trying to help adults reclaim those gifts for themselves. It is amazing how competent I felt: I understood her concern, I had some understanding of the developmental stage of her daughter, I felt the sin of the church and I felt the pathway out of that sin. Some of that I can chalk up to experience. I have 10 years of parish ministry under my belt plus 18 months helping young adult missionaries plus 2 years helping kids at the children’s home as a US-2 plus 3 years of formal seminary training plus intensive training through CPE. I don’t know if I’m at Malcolm Gladwell levels of mastery, but in conversation I could see the angles and I knew how to navigate them.
The most pertinent aspect of my background during this encounter has to be the philosophy training I received in undergrad. Just the ability to deconstruct a matter and construct a relevant engagement of the issues comes from knowing how to think. That ability was hardened and honed in seminary where each student has to defend their answer to someone who has heard it all. I am so grateful for a rigorous education with a strong philosophical foundation.
I finally shared with this mom that all churches have a set of beliefs and in that regard we United Methodists are not unique. I then shared that emphasis and starting point are what make a difference. Somewhere in her town there are a set of adults who just think the world is hopelessly lost to sin. (Never mind the unexamined assumptions made there.) The starting point is an angry God who’s pissed at the world. And that belief is so potent that it is the only thing they are telling their children. This is where all that training becomes a burden: I can see very tragic consequences for those children due to the beliefs about the world they are being fed. Yes: our friend’s daughter is probably going to be okay. But I weep for the apostolic kids.
Dear ole John Wesley: yes he also latched on to the wrath of God in a very real way. And I’m probably cherry-picking by downplaying that aspect of his thought. Nevertheless, I do have the benefit of history in that I know his journey led him to grace. And like Martin Luther, grace genuinely became a new starting point for him. And it’s my starting point, too. And it is the alleged starting point for my church. And I feel a great burden to reappoint this troubled but beloved church to its first love. If theology matters to a 7-year old, then it matters to every inch of creation. It behooves us to start right, to think deeply, to engage truthfully and to love effectively.