by Robin Bartlett
Many of you know that I go to church in the late afternoons in my neighborhood, and that I bring my children there with me. It’s too long a day for them here in Sherborn, so I don’t bring them here much. I’m here from 8:30 am-2:00 pm on Sundays, and I can’t mom and work at the same time. I’ve never been good at that. (Yes, I just made the word “mom” into a verb).
The church I go to is UCC. Theologically, it is both Unitarian and Universalist, in my humble understandings of those two theologies. These are two theologies that have taught me everything I know. They rest in my bones and in my heart as a life-long UU. That’s one reason why I love my UCC church, because it reflects the best of my own faith tradition and allows me to worship from that deep well.
And folks have asked me this before: “aren’t you worried that the church you are bringing your children to isn’t UU, so you aren’t, in effect, raising your children UU? Isn’t that a problem for a UU minister?” This is a good question. The question has many answers, but the first answer is this: I don’t go to church for my children. I go to church for me. Basically, as long as my kids are safe and there is sometimes childcare for the little ones, and there aren’t any sharp objects like rusty nails jutting out of the floor, and they are made to feel loved and known, that’s all I care about. I picked my church for entirely selfish reasons. 1) Because I need to worship on Sundays, and I can’t when I’m running an RE program. 2) Because this particular church gives me what I need from church: which is to say a reminder that I am not alone, that grace is real, that I am loved just as I am and that I am expected to repay the world with my love because I have been offered that grace. I am sure my kids get the same message, but they are completely secondary in my choice of churches.
And, as a long-time religious educator, the following is a conversation I am very accustomed to. Does it sound familiar to you?
Robin: So, Jane, why did you start coming to this church? What led you here?
Jane: I came to this church originally because my children started asking me questions about God;
I came to this church because my child’s grandmother died, and she started to ask me about heaven, and I didn’t know what to say because I don’t believe in heaven;
I came to this church because I wanted my children to have a good understanding of Unitarian Universalist principles and the world’s religions in a high quality, well-run religious education program with lots of other kids in it.
I came to this church because I want my kid to have a religious education without being indoctrinated into a specific faith.
And so on, in different variations.
“I started going to this church because it is good for my children.” I think that’s one reason why churches like ours’ stay in business, or at least one important way we attract newcomers. And I’m not knocking it, because as parents we are accustomed to considering our children first.
A lot of what we do with our time is “for the children.” We enroll our children in private music lessons and drive them there every Wednesday after school, ensuring that we won’t be able to eat dinner at the appointed hour. We stand in the freezing cold on the soccer field clutching our coffee and yelling enthusiastically for our not- particularly-sporty 8 year old. We bring our children to the doctor to get shots, to school to gain knowledge, to our parents’ houses so that they might know and love their extended family. We even go to the germ factory that is Chuck E. Cheese to kindergarten birthday parties on the weekends, and God knows that’s not good for us. These things are all “good for our children”, and so we do them regardless of whether we’d rather be doing something else.
Therefore, it makes sense that we go to church simply because it will be good for our children, too. We want our children, after all, to know themselves beloved, to know themselves as part of a community in which their doubts will be cherished, their questions will be encouraged, their mind will be broadened, their spiritual explorations will be nurtured, and their friendships will be predicated on shared principles and a deep sense of purpose. Church is good for them, and so we take them with dogged determination, regardless of whether we’d rather be home reading the Sunday paper. I admire that determination.
But I’m going to say something I think is important. I don’t want you to come to church if you are only coming for your children. That’s a fine reason to come in the first place, to get in the door, but I don’t want it to be the reason you stay. Go to church for you. Go to church because of your own needs: for community, for learning, for solidarity, for a good word, for love, for hope, for comfort, even for salvation. Go to church because you can’t imagine not going. Go to church because your church claims you and demands of you. Go to church because you cry in the worship service at least once a month. Go to church because you look forward to seeing the people. Go to church because your church forces you to put your money where your mouth is–to use your financial resources to make a statement about what has worth. Go to church because you are known here. Go to church because you want to be known. Go to church because you pray for this same imperfect, rag-tag group of people all week until you meet again. Go to church because you need to in order to get through your week. Go to church because if you miss a week, you feel like something was really missing in your life. Go to church because your church community helps you to go deeper; to risk transformation; to yank you further down a path–to ultimate reality, to truth, to God–kicking and screaming. Go to church because it is a statement to yourself and your children about what has value and meaning. Go to church to find your purpose and live it. Give yourself the gift of church.
If church is not a gift for you, it won’t be a gift for your children. You know that old trope that we borrow from plane instructions we hear read by flight attendants–that you have to apply your own oxygen mask first before you apply your child’s, right? Well, you are your child’s religious educator and oxygen mask. Not me. Not our UUA’s religious education curricula. Not our volunteer teachers. Not even our minister. You. That’s a big responsibility, and I know you don’t feel up to the task because none of us do. But if we aren’t getting our spiritual needs met–our religious yearnings satiated; our deepest cries in the night soothed; our need to serve and be served; our God-sized hole occasionally filled, emptied and then filled up again– then we are never going to be up to the task of helping our children do the same.
Don’t go to church for your children; go to church for you.
You deserve it. Your children deserve it. And this brutal and beautiful world needs you to.