My ecumenical crisis

I hope I don’t offend many of you with this one. As you read it, please know I realize it only takes a few bad apples to sour one’s experience, and I’m trying not to paint with too broad a brush. Like they say in so many movie break-ups, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Unlike the movies, I hope I sound genuine.

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Protestant boy meets good Catholic girl: it’s a classic story repeated through the ages.

Or not, exactly.

Cheryl and I went to church regularly growing up and as young adults, but she went to The Church, while I was raised Lutheran. It was the subject of a serious discussion early in our relationship. I think we both felt we were in it for the long haul, and it was a talk that needed having sooner rather than later. We learned we had similar thoughts about God and religion, and in the end Cheryl left to spend the years with me out in the Protestant wilderness.

Three years ago our blissful time in the wilderness started to come apart, and it was my fault.

It’s been three years since leukemia and I became acquainted. It marked the beginning of the end of my regular church going days, but it wasn’t the only reason. At first it was because my oncologist said I had to stay away from groups of people, after chemotherapy beat the stuffing out of my immune system. No people meant no church. Then it was momentum. Cheryl eventually pushed back, dragging me back for a little while, but then depression struck. I haven’t been back (much) since.

Even though the rest of us weren’t going on Sundays, Beth kept going to confirmation classes.

She’s stubborn that way.

Adam started going to pre-k a year ago at the Catholic School/Church where my in-laws attend Mass. Since I wasn’t going to church, Cheryl decided she’d start going to Mass with her parents. For a list of reasons I don’t have the energy to slog through right now, we decided Adam should stay at the Catholic school beyond pre-k. Then Cheryl joined The Church. She’d been going anyway, and membership came with a tuition discount.

Now she is once again… wait for it… a Catholic in good standing. She’s back in the fold with the One True Church (TM).

We kid because we love.

I like to think of myself as an enlightened guy, but you’ve probably already deduced I’ve got my prejudices like everyone else (though some are bigger or more grotesque than others). I’m not proud to admit it, but Cheryl’s return to The Church is part of the reason I haven’t been back.

The idea of splitting up the family along religious lines on Sundays seems wrong… and yet… I don’t want to go to a Catholic Mass. Some folks think it’s because I don’t understand Catholicism, but it’s really because I do. I grew up Lutheran/Protestant, which probably predisposes me to anti-Catholic bias, but I’m almost sure it’s more than that. I know the Lutheran Church has its problems too, but there are core principles of Catholicism I can’t accept, principles I’m reminded of every time I go to Mass.

Although I’m far from a biblical scholar, I studied various religions in school, under people who didn’t have an axe to grind or a product to sell. I’ve sat through my share of Catholic services. I was even married in one. It’s not a problem born of a lack of familiarity. There are many Catholics in the world who are wonderful people – people I’d be proud to worship with: like my wife, my in-laws, and my son’s old babysitter (who’s become a dear friend of the family). I try to respect their beliefs. I suspect there are more bad Protestants in the world than Catholics. Still, I don’t want to go. I won’t. I haven’t.

Before I get carried away, I have to say this wasn’t the biggest reason I stopped going to church. I hadn’t been going for a year or more before we reached this point, so it wasn’t exactly a grand stand on religious principles.

For a while we went through an awkward religious transition. Cheryl took the kids to Mass on Sundays, taking care of their weekly worship obligation, while I stayed home. Then on Wednesday nights we would ferry Beth over to the Lutheran Church for confirmation class. Cheryl tried taking her to the Catholic version, but she didn’t like it.

When Beth had a crisis of faith the working hypothesis was: it’s my fault too. Can you see a pattern developing? Beth’s a smart kid. We thought she saw me skipping church and figured dear ‘ole dad had gone atheist. If dad didn’t believe in God, one of the adults forcing her to go to church all these years, what was she supposed to believe?

It turns out we overestimated my influence (in my opinion). She’d been harboring doubts for a while.

One Sunday not so long ago, Beth went up to the priest after Mass and asked, “how can you accept what we learn from science and still believe in God?” It was a great question, but the poor priest wasn’t prepared to be ambushed by a twelve year old right after Mass. One thing I can say for Beth, she’s not afraid to ask the tough questions. I think she gets it from Asperger’s. She doesn’t get it from me.

Later, she approached our old pastor at the Lutheran Church after confirmation class and told him she didn’t think she believed in God anymore. Afterwards, he told us he didn’t think it was a good idea for her to come back. That stung, but he did give a reason – or try to. He said if she was going to continue going to Mass, it would be too confusing for her to continue taking confirmation classes at a Lutheran Church. I called bullshit, though admittedly I called it from a position of weakness. Beth’s a smart girl. Set aside a few sacraments, saints, the Pope, the attention given to Mary, the roles of women in worship, the rhythm method, and celibate priests, and it’s practically the same religion, right?

A crack formed in my nice, comfortable bias, and my objections to going to church crossed further over the religion line.

I’ve since had several Science v God talks with Beth. I’ve shared a few of the reasons why I stopped going to church. I’ve reassured her I DO believe in God (over and over), but I’m forced to admit actions speak louder than words.

I wonder if she believes me. I wonder if she senses I’m holding something back. I wonder how she’s been affected by my debates with the in-laws over religion, and specifically over Catholicism.

Sometimes I haven’t been very nice.
Sometimes I’ve been an ass.
Sometimes my wife has told me to stuff it.

It seems like a long time ago, but there was a time when I thought of myself as an optimist. I might not have always carried myself that way, and others might not have seen me that way, but I saw it. More importantly, I felt it. In between bouts of major depression – which weren’t that often, I generally thought things would work out. I didn’t have any reason not to. I was an upper-middle class white kid who didn’t have to work a day in his life, until he graduated from college. I did mow lawns in the neighborhood so I could buy a motorcycle suitable for tearing up the abandoned orange groves. I had a stable home life. I did well in school. Things did generally work out for me.

Over the last few years a few things seemed to pile up on top of each other. My mother’s horrifying fall into mental oblivion and institutionalization, my dance with cancer, my longer than expected tug of war with depression, the long road to finally finding a diagnosis for Beth, the headaches that bothered me for a while, the sleep disorder that has defied treatment, that keeps me perpetually tired, and the icing: cancer’s return – all have tested my optimism. Mostly, I’ve failed – under circumstances better people would shake off with relative ease.

My failure isn’t complete though. I haven’t lost my capacity to enjoy myself. When I’ve temporarily crawled out of depression’s grasp, I’ve regained enthusiasm. My sense of humor, such as it is, returns. Still, I always feel a little darker, and of all places I feel it acutely in church. It goes beyond Catholicism v Protestantism. No matter where I go, church goers seem to toss around certain platitudes and reassurances with no more thought than throwing beads at a Mardi Gras parade, but with feigned enthusiasm and absent genuine concern. It’s like everyone reads from the same script, and even they’re bored with it. It’s like fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul.

“You just have to have faith.”
“It’s all part of God’s plan.”
“We’re all praying for you.”

It all sounds rote.

I do believe in God. In some way, I think he/she/it cares what happens to me – though I’m not sure I understand the relationship. Does God’s love mean what we think it does?

I do not believe God is going to swoop down and cure me because I’ve prayed the best, the hardest, or had the purest faith. God may have a plan, but I’m not sure this is ALL part it. (I think it’s more of a rough outline.)

I’ve been asked if I pray. I do, but not the way others do. I don’t see prayer as a shopping list. I don’t go in expecting miracles. I believe they’ve happened over time, but rarely. If you could just dial one up with a prayer wouldn’t it dilute the brand? No, I see prayer as more mundane – if speaking to your creator can be considered mundane. Prayer for me is more meditative. I ask for things, but often they’re things I have the capacity to do for myself. I ask for strength to cope with the challenges life brings. I ask for the opportunity to make a small difference in someone’s life. I ask that someone might be there when someone else finds a need.

I see the power of prayer suggested by others as a kind of faith trap. What happens when you ask and you don’t receive?

I’m not looking for a faith healing. When I offer my prayers to others, I’m not handing out empty reassurances that all of life’s challenges are a small cog in the machine of “greater good.” I’m praying that people, myself included, will do the right thing. I’m praying because I believe in God, but I have trouble believing in people.

You may not believe me, but I do. I believe in many of the teachings of the religion of my childhood (from what I remember – I am not a Lutheran in good standing). However, I sit in church looking around and I fear many of the messages preached won’t survive their passage through the doors. When I look at my family and friends near me, I feel warmth in my heart. But when I look around, I imagine town hall meetings in churches much like mine, over-run by Tea Party crazy. I see people with hate in their hearts, and hateful things spewing from their mouths with the spittle of fanaticism. That’s when the darkness settles in, when church stops being a celebration and starts pulling me down depression’s hole. I know it’s petty. I know it’s ungrateful. I know it’s cynical. I know I’m more than a touch hypocritical. After all, I’m judging – in many (if not most) cases unfairly.

I’m not proud of myself, but there it is.


  1. John…

    I disagree. Completely. In fact, I couldn’t disagree more.

    We’ve “known” each other for years now, and I think you should be proud of yourself. You’re one of the kindest, most thoughtful, and most decent people I know. You’re a wonderful father and husband — I know this to be true — and you’re a talented and moving writer.

    I often think that a lack of faith is the purest expression of faith that one can find. I don’t think that it matters if you have the answers — if you ask the right questions.

    And clearly, you are, and you do.

  2. My depression was first diagnosed in seminary, and after too many “you just need to pray harder”s, I left (I went back, but not because of guilt – I wanted that Master’s Degree, dammit!) So much of what you’ve written strikes a chord with me (that my son is autistic is only one). So much I want to say and to talk to you about but I don’t want to steal the power of your post. I hope you will find a place of peace, in or out of the church. Shalom.

Give the gift of words.