Making an ultimatum about church attendance to a sleep-deprived teenager may be my own version of hell on earth.
“We are leaving for church in 10 minutes,” I said, summoning my most authoritative voice before the lifeless lump under the covers.
My seven-year old Annie Sky watched the tense exchange between me and my 14-year old daughter Maya, who made periodic moans from the top bunk. With furrowed brow, my first grader sat on the couch, as if observing a tiebreaker at Wimbledon with no clear victor in sight.
For a moment, I wondered why I had drawn the line in the Sabbath sand, announcing earlier in the week that Maya would have to go to church that Sunday morning after an all-day trip to Dollywood with the middle school band. Somehow I didn’t want Dolly Parton’s amusement park to sabotage our family time in church. (The logic seemed rational at the time).
When Maya lifted the covers, I glimpsed the circles under her eyes and sunburn on her skin. But I repeated my command, with an undertone of panic, since I wasn’t sure if I could uphold the ultimatum.
When she finally got into the car, I breathed deeply and turned to our family balm, the tonic of 104.3 FM with its top 40 songs that we sing in unison. As the drama settled, I realized one reason why I made my teenager go to church: I want my daughters to know that we can recover from yelling at each other (which we had) and disagreeing. We can move on, and a quiet, sacred space is a good place to start.
In the pew at All Souls Episcopal Church, Maya leaned her head onto my shoulder, either in penitence or fatigue. “You can close your eyes in church,” I whispered. “It looks like you’re praying.” I made her come to church because I want my daughter to know that sometimes you have to show up, even when you are exhausted.
When I opened the bulletin, I realized that Sunday was the “Senior High Service,” that day when a high school senior from the church gives the sermon. With her long brown hair and sincere gaze, Miranda Nolin walked to the pulpit after the Gospel reading and told us that when she reads the Nicene Creed, our profession of faith, she often doesn’t believe any of the words she says. (Well, she got our attention).
But she repeats the Nicene Creed each week: “Because they are an act of community, a binding tradition, they have value.”
From the pulpit, Miranda assured us that traditions “allow us to have faith, to show up, to be present when we don’t know what to believe. I might be able to write a creed that said, exactly the right words, what I believed in that moment, but it would probably be outdated by the next week. Instead I come to church.”
Baptized and confirmed last year, Miranda shared that she comes to church with her family because she is welcomed as a questioner in a community where no one hesitates to reveal their doubts. She comes because of the community, the Holy Spirit. “Most of you are here, I’d guess, because you believe this component of the human experience is important and because it is something that is hard to access alone,” she said.
By this point in the sermon, I felt tears welling up in my eyes and spilling down my cheeks. I looked across the church and saw other adults wiping tears from their faces. I made Maya come to church because I want her to know that she can question and feel vulnerable and cry – and she doesn’t always have to do that all alone.
In her essay, “Why I make Sam go to church,” Anne Lamott writes: “The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by.” I want Maya to know that those people working to confront poverty, inequality, and environmental injustice in our church are vulnerable souls, but they are acting for the greater good in spite of their questions. I want her to know that church is not a social club, but she has to take actions to ensure it is a foundation of justice for all.
In this age when the “spiritual but not religious” seem to have more relevance than churchgoers, it’s easy to wonder why church attendance matters at all. But I believe that we need common spaces, more grounded than the corner Starbucks, to discern right actions in a world faced with crises like climate change and stark economic disparities.
Our teenagers and our children must shape these sacred spaces where we can grapple with our questions but act in faith through practices of forgiveness, feeding, hospitality, and care of creation. As Diana Butler Bass notes, “Right now, the church does not need to convert the world. The world needs to convert the church.”
To that end, after making Maya go to church, I took my daughters to an interfaith creation care vigil that night in downtown Asheville, N.C. (By that point, I had nothing to lose). When we arrived, one of the volunteers gave Maya a basket of candles, which she helped to distribute to the 250 people gathered for the vigil.
That evening, a film crew was documenting the vigil for a Showtime movie, produced by legendary filmmaker James Cameron. As she passed out candles at dusk, the videographers followed Maya with their cameras and asked her, “Do you know why you are here?”
“I’m not really sure,” she said, laughing. “I’m just the candle person.”
I made Maya go to church because we may not know why we are here, but we can pass along a little light to others on the journey. And maybe that’s what we need to create a little heaven on earth.
Mallory McDuff, Ph.D., teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She is the author of Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate and Natural Saints.
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