Perplexed Parents
November 15, 2013

Dear Theo,

We raised our children in the UCC church: Sunday School, youth group, church camp, confirmation studies, and attended (almost) every Sunday. Now two of our children are atheists, another is agnostic/noncommittal, and the fourth has become and is raising her children Catholic. We are still very active in our church, but mourn our children's rejection of it. We haven't given up hope that they'll someday return, but are greatly saddened by this.

Sincerely,

Perplexed Parents

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Dear Perplexed,

Don't confuse wandering from the church with rejection of it. And remember: all who wander are not lost.

There's a compelling argument for adult children needing to leave home in order to come back to it on their own terms: as mature, self-defining adults. The same can be said for our church home. Your kids, in the words of Anne Lamott, are on their own hero's journey. Can you be grateful for that? Can you cultivate an open-ended curiosity about it—ask them questions that aren't loaded or leading? Can you resist pressuring them to attend high holidays with you—but always invite them, graciously? Can you let them go, and trust that they have their own relationship with God, and that God knows what God is doing?

We misread Proverbs 22:6 a lot. Someone who was really into rhymes as a mnemonic device translated it, "Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray." That translation allows us to perpetrate the idolatry of raising our kids to be carbon copies of ourselves: with our values, our virtues—and our vices.

But a more accurate translation of the proverb is: "train your child in the way meant for them." Anyone who has more than one kid knows how surprisingly different siblings who share 99.9% of the same genetic material can be—they learn differently, see the world differently—and relate to God differently. So, our job becomes: nurturing them into who God intends them, as individuals, to be.

I have to be honest, Perplexed—it sounds like you feel you discharged a duty in ticking off the list of things you did to give your children a good religious upbringing. How often do we go to church "for the kids" but ourselves find no joy in being there, only duty? Our kids sense this—and flee at the first opportunity. Why wouldn't they?

If you have found real joy, solace, honest sharing, laughter and tears, meaning-making and vocation from being in your church community, your children will know this—and it will have affected them at a core level. They will see the good that the community of Christ has wrought in you, and will want that for themselves—though their communities may not look quite like you imagine church to be (a garage band, a roller derby team—church comes in many forms).

As for your Catholic daughter—rejoice! Despite the righteous distinctions so many of us continue to make between churches, your daughter has chosen to root her Christian faith in an ancient, storied and (thanks to Pope Francis) also a still-speaking tradition. Maybe she, raised UCC, will be one of the ones to raise her voice for justice within her new expression of faith!

Bless you, and may you be a blessing,

Theo

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