I’m a Catholic music minister, and I’m wearing gray as I stand at the front of the church and sing the opening notes of the entrance song. A gentleman from the funeral home leads pallbearers with the casket down the aisle, and following them are a group of tearful mourners, wearing black and clinging to one another in what might feel like the longest walk of their lives. They’re here to say goodbye to their dear one in a place that once held meaning for them, but now they’re swimming in grief and desperate for something to hold onto.
I stand at the front of the church and sing the opening notes of a festive carol. It’s Christmas Eve and the pews are packed. Everyone is full of cheer and excitement, especially the little ones who are dressed up in red and green. For many, this is their only mass of the year. They sing Silent Night and the looks on their faces range from bored to inspired to quizzical. They’re here in part because of tradition, in part because of the requests of family members, and in part because it’s Christmas and that’s what you do. You go to church.
I walk through the grocery store, meeting the gaze of friends and acquaintances who used to go to mass but don’t anymore. Because they see me as a representative of our church, some are apologetic, some embarrassed, and some angry. Regular church attendance doesn’t make sense to them anymore. Life is busy and the church and with its occasions of hypocrisy, judgment and shocking history of abuse has become irrelevant to their daily lives and has been discarded. There’s something missing now, but they’re not quite sure how to fill the hole. For them, there’s no going back.
I get it. I read the same news articles they do, follow the same debates on twitter. I see the many ways in which some broken, prideful people are representing this church I love in leadership, in the pews, and on social media, and it makes me want to turn away, too. I read about abhorrent, criminal behavior, and also the clericalism, dysfunction, disordered priorities, and intolerance that has seeped into our church at every level. It’s hard to be a Catholic Christian these days.
There in the grocery store, I feel the weight of the unasked question, “Why do you stay?” and there’s no short answer. There are lots of reasons why people stay in the organized religion of their youth, but for me the answer is not ‘why’ but ‘how’? How is it that I’ve experienced enough light in this church to counteract the darkness? What were the breadcrumbs that led me down the path I’ve walked as an adult Catholic Christian? Who have I encountered that has influenced my thinking? What did I experience? How am I still here? As I look back, I can see the people, experiences, ideas, and actions, both inside and outside of church, that led me to my present-day faith practice. Everything from C.S. Lewis, Amanda Lindsey Cook, and Rachel Held Evans to yoga, tulip bulbs, journaling, retreats, and the ocean, a million books, podcasts, and experiences that helped me question, discern, and know the person of Jesus, know His love for me, and choose to walk with Him with my life.
To every person who’s wrestled with organized religion and found it wanting, I commend you. You’re not blindly following a map someone gave you long ago, checking the box every week out of obligation. God knows there are untold people who do that, living out their Christianity in the pews without questioning or examination or real-life application. The reasons you’ve left or remain on the perimeter are many, real, and I share your thoughts on a lot of it. But maybe there’s more to discover on the other side of your wondering, more about God, yes, but also more about how you’re loved and how there’s a plan for you and how we’re all in it together. Maybe it’s bigger than you thought.
I was born and raised Catholic and there’s a term for that: cradle Catholic. And though I see my Christianity through a Catholic lens, I see that there’s a ‘cradle’ element to every faith. As children, we’re trained in the basics, learning rote prayers and stories, and then we’re meant to grow in it as we grow older. Sadly, many of us, both in and out of the church, are stuck on a primary understanding of what we were taught and, not surprisingly, it no longer rings true. The judgment we see, the rigidity we experience, the shocking abuse – we rightly find it repulsive and we reject it, walking away entirely, or closing our eyes and ears and sitting numbly in a pew week after week, waiting for Heaven.
The cradle is a place of comfort. It’s a place of feeding and it’s a place to sleep and it’s a perfect place to start. We weren’t meant to stay in the cradle forever, yet here we are, many of us who were never told we could leave, that we should leave, that we should question and stretch into the bigger world around us. And because the unquestioned teachings of that “cradle” faith sound ridiculous to our adult ears, we leave it right there, attending church only on special occasions and gaining spiritual truth outside of the church walls, wherever we can find it.
But what if there’s more? What if there’s so much more to discover about God and His love for you and what if you have permission to wrestle and work out those truths? What if it was never about checking boxes but really about a relationship and what if that relationship is the whole reason you’re here? If I can offer a little advice from the perspective of a cradle-Catholic music minister who frequently has a first-row seat to a church full of people who may or may not know what they believe (also this frequently describes me as well): don’t wait until it’s you they’re walking down that aisle when your life here is done. There’s more than one way to claim a fulfilling adult faith in this time of broken church, and it’s worth the time and energy to wrestle out yours. Find a little space, inspiration and courage to seek God and claim your own faith relationship with God who is crazy about you, loves your questions, and who’s been walking with you all along, wherever you are. And if you ever find yourself in a church I’m in, I hope you’ll sit by me.