By Lyz Lenz
On Sunday morning, I find myself facing off with my toddler. She is dressed in a hand-me down Easter dress, sparkly shoes and a plastic tiara. Her face is covered with the chocolate and sprinkles that comprised her breakfast. I don’t even have time to wipe her face, we’re already late for church. She is screaming because she doesn’t want her coat to make her dress “smushy.” My voice is tense. The baby is in his car seat crying for his pacifier. My husband is in the car. I just want her to put on a coat so we can go to church learn about the love of God. But I’m already swearing under my breath.
Sometimes I wonder why we wake up early every Sunday morning, wrangle two unwilling children into outfits that they hate, force them to eat breakfast and then haul them out the door, only to then force them to be quiet in uncomfortable chairs while we listen to words they don’t understand. Church inevitably overlaps with naptime, so we have to rush out with a crying baby and a toddler who doesn’t want to leave. And some weeks, I’m more than just frustrated with the routine; I’m frustrated with the politics of church, the power structure and false hierarchies. I get tired of the implicit acceptance of women as less—a belief that still persists, only now we use coded words and phrases like “helper” and “partner” and “letting men be leaders.” I hate that church seems to be the only place in my life where people talk with distain about giving gays the right to marry in one moment then sing about the love of God in the next.
Why do we take our children to church when so many of our peers are fleeing? According to a Pew Study, an increasing number of Millennials are skipping church and religious institutions. And not because they don’t have faith: a whopping 73% of Americans still consider themselves religious. Millennials eschewing church is often equated with a lack of faith, but I think it means something more. I think it means a dissatisfaction with a church, a religion that often forces people to choose between God and intellect, science and belief, love and righteousness. This is not the legacy I want to leave my children.
I grew up Fundamentalist, one of a quiver full of children, my parents took us to church three times a week. I remember as a 10-year-old, asking a pastor at a church potluck, “If God is light, then is the absence of God darkness?” He patted my head and answered me with a mouthful of brisket. “Don’t worry about it honey. God already answered all your questions. Just stop asking.”
When I escaped to college, I stopped going to church, I considered myself agnostic. Then, after I got married, I found myself still looking for something else, still believing in that omnipresent “other.” So, my husband and I began church shopping. We struggled to find a place where we could belong. We left one church after the pastor railed against “The Da Vinci Code” from the pulpit, holding it up as evidence of a depraved and fallen culture. My husband and I went and saw the movie the following week. We left another church after having a woman scream at me over whether I should or should not sew aprons for the people who worked in the coffee bar. And then, there was the church that sent elders to our house. And when I didn’t let them inside, they prayer walked around our apartment for twenty minutes.
Three years ago, frustrated and disillusioned, my husband and I, along with some friends, started our own church. Our hope was to create something new, something relevant, and something that used faith to reach out to the people around us. Although the majority were Evangelical, we didn’t want to be affiliated with a denomination, we didn’t want their baggage, their oversight or their rules. This church, we hoped, would be a home, it would be a community. A place where questions would be welcome, along with crying babies and overwrought hearts.
Yet, like all utopias and new worlds, our experiment has fallen short of our goals. We’ve had low attendance, infighting, and a leader who was a serial cheater. But we’ve also had moments of transcendence—we’ve provided meals for people who are sick, in the hospital and grieving, we built a roof for members who couldn’t afford a new one. And it’s a place where my children are loved and cherished. People love to hold my baby while I drink coffee and sneak my three-year-old donuts. There is something about a community that is built around a common search for spirituality that has the ability to eschew the superficial and directly embrace the heart. It’s dysfunctional, problematic, and—for all the good and all the bad, our church has become a family.
We recently met to decide the fate of our endeavor. Would we renew the lease and continue? Or end the lease and move on? Exhausted, I wanted to leave. I’ve seen little of churches to recommend them to me. I’ve seen little of Christianity that I like. I wanted to walk away. I couldn’t answer why I would make my children come with me to a place so flawed and broken in its search for truth.
We decided to keep our church’s doors open. Not because of what we’ve done so well, but because of what we want to do better. Through our excruciating meetings where we decided the fate of our church, I was reminded, why every Sunday I struggle to put tights on my daughter and fight against the current of the baby’s naptime while trying to listen to the sermon. Not because we are doing everything right, or because we have all the answers, but because I’m still seeking.
In Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments she makes a pointed observation about an old family friend, who became a rabbi: “He’s looking for a way to put his life together, and he’s got no equipment with which to do it. So he turned religious. It’s a mark of how lost he is, not how found he is…” I believe the same thing about myself. I don’t go to church because I am found, but because how profoundly lost I am. It’s a place where I bring my questions, where I bring my doubt, my uncertainty, and where I struggle with morality and purpose.
So, some days I don’t know why I take my children to church—force of habit, tradition, the fact that my husband is the treasurer? Sometimes I don’t go. I keep everyone at home and we eat donuts and nap, and commune with one another. But other days, I do know, I know that we are going not for the lessons that I hope they learn, but for the questions I hope they will one day learn to ask.
Lyz Lenz is a mother of two, writer, and lover of crime shows. Her writing has been published in the New York Time’s Motherlode, The Toast, The Hairpin, the Huffington Post and on her own site lyzlenz.com.