In January, I began serving as Director of Children's Ministries at the Episcopal church my family and I attend in Palo Alto. Part of my work in the position is administrative — I organize events for kids and families, recruit volunteers to teach Sunday School, plan curriculum, order supplies, and correspond with parents.
But the other part of the job is more "big picture" and involves asking questions: What's working well? What isn't? How might we better serve the needs of children and families in our parish? This week, as my supervising priest and I met to discuss curriculum for the upcoming school year, we raised a more thorny question: Why bother?
Why bother with the religious life, with church, with Sunday School — at all? Why commit ourselves to spiritual things in a secular community where such commitments are viewed as quaint, obsolete, and even regressive? As we dream of welcoming more children and families into our church, what case can we make for the Christian life? Why should kids nowadays hang onto a belief in God when the majority of their peers do not?
When I was growing up, I never heard anyone ask such questions. The community that raised me was so tightly Christian, so uniform in its beliefs, so self-reinforcing, there was no need to ask why we did what we did. The answers were obvious — obvious and therefore invisible. Like the oxygen we take into our lungs.
When I was a kid, we went to church on Sunday mornings because that's whatSunday mornings were for. We professed faith in God because God was self-evidently real, and he both demanded and cherished our faith. We pursued spiritual things because the very health of our souls was at stake in the pursuit. Religion was no joke; we had eternal destinies to secure. Heaven or hell? God or Satan? Salvation or doom? Of course we bothered with the religious life.
These days, regardless of how we might quibble (or not) with the theological assumptions that undergird traditional Christianity, the fact is that what used to be obvious to a majority of people in the Western world is no longer obvious. Or compelling. Or even tolerable.
In his exhaustive historical study, A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor argues that in contemporary Western culture, we no longer have available to us the "bulwarks" which made faith easier in previous eras. We no longer view the natural world as testimony; we view it through the lens of science. That is to say, the phrase "acts of God" is now a dead metaphor.
We no longer live in societies where God is deeply implicated in civic life — where religious ritual and worship underlies our social, political, educational, and economic activities. For good reasons, we've erected walls of separation between religion and state.
We no longer live in an "enchanted" world — a world in which spirits, demons, and moral forces are believed to play active roles in human destinies. Though we indulge our children in these fantastical beliefs when they're young, we fully expect them to shed their fantasies before adulthood.
We no longer live in a world where "fullness" — that numinous sense of "more," of wonder, of awe, of profound meaning and significance — is believed to exist in religious commitment alone. Fullness is available in many forms, along many paths; Christianity can make no exclusive claim.
Of course, none of these cultural shifts have been intentional or self-conscious. I don't have kids coming up to me on Sunday mornings to discuss disenchantment, or the loss of the numinous. I have kids coming up to me and asking things like this: "None of my friends have to go to church. Why do I?" "If your parents hadn't raised you to be Christian, would you still be one?" "Why should I pray to God when I have no proof of him?" "If Jesus is so important, why doesn't anyone talk about him outside of church?"
Some years ago, my daughter asked, "What's God for?" when a fervent prayer of hers went unanswered for over a year. And my son, coming straight from a social studies lesson about World War II, asked why the God of history is nonexistent in his middle-school history class.
It was last Wednesday morning that my supervisor and I met and wrestled with some of these questions. Only hours later, the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston, South Carolina (in which nine African-African people gathered for Bible study were brutally gunned down by a white supremacist), flooded the headlines.
I have to admit that what I felt — and still feel, to a large extent — is despair. Devoted worshippers, brutally murdered in their own church. While gathered around sacred Scripture. While welcoming — in love and pure trust — a man who sat down with them before God's Word, made a pretense of devotion, and then killed them in cold blood.
I have to ask: is nothing sacred? Does this faith we profess make any difference in real life? Where is God in our alarmingly disenchanted world? Why bother?
This essay will post on June 21st — Father's Day here in the United States. I didn't know until this year that the holiday has a religious history borne of tragedy, but it does. In December 1907, a mine explosion in West Virginia killed more than 360 men, leaving 1000 children fatherless. A resident of a nearby town, named Grace Golden Clayton, petitioned the pastor at her local Methodist church to dedicate a day to honor fathers — including those lost in the explosion.
This week, my heart aches for the two children of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel A.M.E who died alongside his parishioners in Charleston. I think about the role my own father has played in my life — a layered, complicated role, as is the case for many of us — and notice that what stands out — what shines — is his fierce and uncompromising devotion to God, to faith, and to the Church, regardless of the cost, even in the midst of a hard, rough-edged life.
What is it about Christianity that calls forth such fortitude? Such courage? Such faith?
My priest and I didn't solve any grand puzzles last Wednesday; the "why bother?" question is far too difficult to answer in haste. But as we sat with it honestly, the question reframed itself this way: "If we could offer a child (or her parents) a few reasons to stay, a few reasons to bother, a few reasons to pursue God and put up with his admittedly imperfect Church, what would those reasons be?"
We named two:
First: there is eternity here. In all things. In every action you take and every thought you think, the tiny seeds of eternity are present and growing. Nothing is superfluous, nothing is wasted, nothing is in vain. What you do here on earth — how you live, what you give yourself over to, what you profess, what you worship — matters. There are stakes. It's easy to forget this, but it's true. And the Church, if nothing else, will help you remember.
And second: there is Love here. When you need it (and you will), there is a Love here that nothing else on earth will ever explain, diminish, or destroy. It's a Love that overcomes every barrier of suspicion and hatred we humans contruct. It's a Love that cleanses, blesses, challenges, and fortifies us. It's an eternal Love, the Love of the broken, resurrected Christ. It's a Love worth dying for.
In the end, God bothers. He bothers with us. That's why we must bother, too.
Image credits: Wikipedia.org.