I am an interfaith minister who preaches a doctrine of love, tolerance and peace, and usually my route is an easy one. I believe that all altars, followed in good faith, lead souls Home. I embrace the teachings of the prophets from the major (and sometimes minor, or less popular) faith traditions. Jesus was the Son and the Savior, but believing in him as our Savior is not the sole route to paradise. Living like Jesus (or following the path that he and other prophets, saints, and spiritual leaders have followed) is what matters, both for this life and for life afterwards.
I am also the mother of three children, and church for us will soon consist of worship services I lead in Front Royal, but for now, church is mostly what I teach at home. I don’t limit my teachings to Sunday mornings, but I do read from the scriptures and teach from the Word on Sundays. Most of the time, we work on the Bible, but I also teach from eastern scriptures. Sometimes we will read from the Mahabharata (the Hindu holy works); sometimes from Rumi (a Sufi mystic from thirteen-century Turkey); sometimes we will delve into poetry from Walt Whitman. In other words, our church embraces all well-intentioned routes to finding God.
So what happens when my daughter says, “Hey Mom, Dad wants to take us to church with his new girlfriend? And he says we gotta pack our church clothes?”
The honest answer for us at least was somewhat humorous. The kids and I looked at one another, each with a bit of apprehension and perhaps a tad of annoyance. “Church clothes?” My daughter said.
“Church clothes?” My middle child said.
“Huh?” My youngest child said.
It took us a while, but we found some clothing that was more or less church-appropriate. Our scavenging was not without a few remarks about the lack of guidance in the Apostle’s Creed regarding church attire (a train of thought that I may have started). But we got it figured out, and I also had a chance to go over the Apostle’s Creed with my children.
To be clear, as a servant of God I do accept the main tenets of this creed. I don’t believe in the supremacy of the Holy Catholic Church. I don’t think it’s necessary to accept the pope or the catechism to be okay with God. I’m also not quite sure about the phrase, “he will judge the living and the dead” as applied to Jesus, for I do not think that Jesus is co-equal to God. Jesus was God’s Son, and he obeys his Father’s orders, but does he wield the staff at Home? I was thinking through these doctrinal matters as we searched for “proper” church attire.
And then my daughter piped up, “Mom, is it okay for us to go to his church, or his girlfriend’s church?”
A funny thing happened inside me. I hesitated. I had to think about it. I didn’t immediately say a loving, fearless, “Well, yes,” because I didn’t feel it. I felt uncertain. I pictured in my mind several different churches at once, and some of what I saw was good; some was not so good; some was innocuous but uninspiring. The worst of what I saw was an intolerant, fear-instilling Baptist preacher commenting on the sins of gays. The best was a Methodist minister reminding his flock at Christmas time that “we can’t take it with us,” so we should not focus on earthly material gain. But mostly I saw a little girl sitting in a pew reading a Bible instead of listening to church announcements. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; after all, anytime someone gets curious about the Word, one more soul is hearing God’s call.
As I was thinking, my daughter said, “What if they teach things we don’t believe? What if they say it’s sinful to be gay or what if—”
“—I don’t think any minister in Northern Virginia is gonna go there,” I said.
“Better not,” she said. “I couldn’t stand it when they went off on that during Bible study last year.”
I issued a quiet nod and remarked, “If they were to refer to that same passage in Romans, you could remind them of what?”
My daughter’s face screwed up in concentration. “Doesn’t Paul say you’re not supposed to judge anyone else’s sins, because we all sin?”
“Okay,” she said, “But you don’t really think homosexuality is a sin.”
I nodded again. “Yeah, but you don’t need to argue that every time. You can always peacefully remind someone that the very same thing they’re using in the Bible to condemn others says you shouldn’t condemn or judge anyone, seems like a better way to change their minds right? More peaceful.”
I smiled at my daughter, who was shrugging and shaking her head. “I don’t feel so peaceful when people say mean things at church,” she said. “In fact, I feel like kicking them.”
“Not good,” I chuckled.
“But Mom, they’re hateful.”
My daughter stopped and thought about it, and then she said, “Mom, you teach a different way, and it’s never hateful. Will it be okay?”
“You mean, will it be okay to go to church, maybe hear what some other folks have to say? Or do you mean, will it be okay if they say some things you don’t agree with, maybe some things I don’t agree with either, do you mean will you be okay if you sit still and listen?”
My daughter was trying to roll her eyes at the direction my question was going, but her curiosity was piqued. “So would you go, if you were invited?”
I smiled and then laughed. “Well, I don’t think I’ll be invited . . . but . . .”
We both chuckled, and then I continued my line of thought. “I always go to worship services if I’m invited, if I’m able of course. There are probably a few churches I wouldn’t go to, like Westboro Baptist—”
“—They’re the ones who protest at funerals, like when soldiers are killed, they protest against gays?”
“Yeah, that’s the ones. I wouldn’t go to their church because for sure they’re spewing hateful stuff, for sure. But the vast majority of Christian churches are good, they teach some fear-based stuff sometimes, that’s not good, but mostly they share the Word and they do their best to help people.”
“—Mom,” my youngest son interposed, “Are Catholics also Christians?”
“Yeah, Catholics are Christians, so are Protestants, so long as you follow the Apostle’s Creed you’re Christian.” I glanced at my daughter, who appeared thoughtful. She didn’t say anything, so I continued talking. “You should never be afraid to hear other people’s opinions, whether they’re right or wrong, accurate or completely off-base, you need to assume that they’re trying their best to get it right, especially when you’re going somewhere to worship God, even if you don’t love the service, even if you don’t feel totally comfortable, you can see a different way of worshiping him, and while you’re there, you can talk to Him yourself or you can think about Home, it’s never a bad thing to think about Home, it’s never a bad thing to see how someone else thinks about Home.”
“Mom?” It was my youngest son again. “Are we Christian?”
I rubbed his head. “We are all whatever we choose to be, I for one follow the teachings of Jesus, and I think he is God’s Son and the Savior, I just don’t think Jesus and the Father are the same. I guess this makes us nondenominational Christian, because most denominational—”
“—What’s denominational?” My middle child now was listening in.
“Oh, it’s a specific church, like Lutheran, Methodist, that’s what you all were baptized in, Baptist, Episcopalian . . .” I paused and waited for my middle child to nod at me. “So most Christians who belong to these denominations, they follow what they call the Trinity, but when I read what Jesus said, I think all along he said he was the Son, and he was obeying the Father, he was ‘doing the will of Him who sent him,’ but it’s okay to disagree with folks on this issue, it doesn’t make them bad or us better or them good and us worse, it’s just a different interpretation.”
My youngest son bounced away. He was done asking questions. But my daughter was still a little stuck. “It doesn’t matter who’s right? What does the Apostle’s Creed say?”
“You mean about the trinity or about gays?”
“Trinity, I know they’re wrong about gays,” she said with a winsome smile.
“It says nothing, it says the Father and the Son, treats them as separate, but a billion Christians think they’re the same, it’s just what is taught to kids when they’re young. But it doesn’t matter, trinity or no trinity, one God or Father and Son, it doesn’t hurt people if they’re wrong about some doctrines, what matters is that they’re well-intentioned, and the same goes for people who actually deny that Jesus was the Son, who say he was just a man—”
“—But you are sure he was God’s Son, and you’re adamant about it, right Mom?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” I poured a glass of water and checked the time. It was Thursday morning and I wanted to take the kids to the mountains for the afternoon, so I needed to wrap it up. “The thing is, it’s important to be accurate, but it’s not so important to be right.” I smiled because I was repeating some advice a close friend had once given me. At the time, I had thought being right was incredibly important, but I had realized that being right is only important to those of us who have too much pride. I still struggled with this, and that was probably the gist of the issue for my daughter too.
Sure enough, she said aloud, “But aren’t you right, I mean about doctrines like the trinity?”
I lifted both hands and smiled. “Doesn’t matter.”
“What matters is how you love and how much you give. What matters is using your abilities to serve others. Those things matter so much more than being right. It’s really important to just do your best, and that applies to ministers and to preachers as well. I don’t sit here and judge other ministers. I don’t want it to be about figuring out who’s right and who’s wrong. As long as ministers are trying to help people get Home, that’s good. Whatever the faith, whatever the dogma, whatever the creed is, so long as it’s based on love and is taught with love, it’s good.”
A few days later, my daughter called me. It was Sunday afternoon, so I asked how church had been.
“It wasn’t bad, actually, it was really cute, Ben sat and read the Bible the entire time, I think he got as far as Leviticus.”
“Awww,” I smiled into the phone. “That’s what I used to always do in church, I’d get bored and then I’d start reading the Bible, always loved it.”
“Yep, he says he wants a new Bible, a blue one.”
“Yeah, that’s what he said, Mom.”
I grinned and added, “Tell him I’ll find a blue one.”