My father left the Missouri-Synod Lutheran Church of his strict Iowa farm-boy upbringing for The ALC (American Lutheran Church), which then morphed, into the ELC (Evangelical Lutheran Church). Over the years Dad became more and more tolerant and open minded towards other faiths. He was always devout however, and eventually rose to the status of Deacon at Gloria Dei Lutheran.
As a Deacon, Dad created and taught a class called Our Neighbor’s Faith in which students visited different churches, temples and synagogues all over Rochester every Sunday and then met to discuss their experiences. His father probably hated that but I never heard about it. Grandpa was probably still angry that the preachers of his church had switched from German to English but I also never heard him express that, or his anger over the country having elected a “Damned Catholic” back in 1960. I heard about these things from Dad. Grandpa was always loving and kind to me. By the time I was old enough to remember that part of him, life must have softened him considerably. I guess life also softened Dad except it started from a softer starting point than with Grandpa.
I can’t recall even thinking about God/Religion though, until my best friend Tim and I declared to our world that we were atheists. Since this coincided with Mom’s story about how I was kidnapped by Baptists (I was around seven or eight years old) perhaps the two are related, perhaps not. To be fair, I wasn’t actually kidnapped by the Baptists. I was only enticed with candy back to their church where I spent the afternoon. I have absolutely no memory of what went on there but I’m assuming it consisted mostly of me eating their candy. I can only recount this very short story from what Mom told me. Like many parents living a Midwestern, middle class cul-de-sac lifestyle, children my age were usually let outside to play completely unsupervised. Mom and Dad had not even noticed my absence from the neighborhood and they would never have known that I’d been gone had I not announced at dinner that I wanted to be a Baptist.
Dad was not amused.
Like his father, my Dad was a strict authoritarian in principal but (perhaps also like his father) always treated me with a gentle kindness I will never forget. Even during those early years when Dad was trying his best to instill his sense of discipline in what he must have seen as an inherently lazy child, he never hit me. And when (shortly after going through our church confirmation) I finally told him that I didn’t believe in God, that I got nothing from going to church and would rather not go with him and Mom, he accepted it without anger or even any disappointment that I could see. He simply said, “Brian… I don’t care what you call yourself. I will always see you as the Christian I raised you to be. “To me” he continued, “a Christian is someone who treats other people as Christ would, and I see you doing that every day. You are a good person Brian, and you are good to others. That is what makes me call you a Christian.”
But back when Tim and I declared that we were atheists I was not feeling so warm and fuzzy about my Dad and his church. I saw it as this oppressive thing that wanted me to waste my Sunday on doing something boring and stupid. At that time my rebellion was no more nuanced than that. Tim was the leader of our little rebel gang of two and although I no longer recall what kind of trouble he and I skipped church for, it must have been fun and interesting. Tim was my friend and he was fun and interesting. He said we should be atheists, so (although I really didn’t know what that meant at the time) I was an atheist.
I wasn’t able to get away with skipping church much and so I’m thinking that may be why Tim stopped being my friend. I was so mad at him for rejecting my friendship I decided to go back to being a Christian for a while. I had to go to church anyway so I thought I’d try and pray and do Christian stuff again. Besides, I was starting to get attention for my singing in choir. I really loved getting that attention. But over the next few years on my way to becoming a teenager, I realized that praying wasn’t getting me the other things I wanted, church still seemed boring and stupid and now I had to actually study the bible in confirmation class. So perhaps as I started getting the same attention for my singing in the Jr. High School chorus, I also started to think more about not wanting to be a Christian again.
I don’t have an “aha” moment but at some point I started deciding that I didn’t even want to get confirmed. So when the time came to meet with Pastor Bervin about my faith after supposedly learning all I was to learn about “The Word” in bible class, I looked directly at him and said that I didn’t believe in God and didn’t want to be confirmed as a member of his church. Pastor Bervin never flinched. I can’t imagine how many thirteen-year-old rebel wannabes had probably passed through his office over the years but I am positive that I was no surprise to this world-wise community elder. As the adult I am now, I can appreciate how blessed I was to have such solid and compassionate adult males in my life. The effects of the opposite are all around me these days.
Pastor Bervin leaned forward and looked me straight in the eye. I sensed that he honestly respected me and cared deeply that I heard him clearly when he said. “I get it, you don’t believe in God. But your parents want very much for you to go through the confirmation service. It’s important to them. Please consider just going through it… for them.” So I did. I stood up there in front of the Gloria Dei Lutheran congregation with my classmates and went through whole the ceremony.
But I’d struck a bargain with my rebellious inner self. Only he and my classmates near enough to overhear would ever know that I was putting negatives in place of the positive declarations of faith in the creed we recited en masse. “I do NOT believe in any God who is NOT the father almighty or the creator of heaven (which doesn’t exist) and Earth.”… I’m sure my parents watched in pride but I didn’t see them. I was too busy noticing the reaction of anyone who did hear what I was really saying. “… and certainly not in this Jesus Christ guy who claimed to be the son of God and who is NOT our Lord…” … And that rebellious inner self was so very happy.
I loved my Dad, and I knew that Pastor Bervin was right about how much it meant to him that I be confirmed. At the time I had no idea what Mom thought about religion but at the time she had yet to express her own rebelliousness towards her husband and the authoritarian oppressive society she knew herself to be trapped in as a woman.
Mom was a feminist before feminism was cool but… that’s another story.