When I tell people that I’ve only recently become a Lutheran, they usually ask about my upbringing. My standard short answer is to say “it was complicated.”
The longer story is that I was raised in an intentionally ecumenical home. My father’s family was devoutly Catholic; my mother’s, devoutly protestant. When I was young we attended–sometimes on one Sunday–both the little Catholic parish where my dad grew up and a growing evangelical church that met in the local high school gym.
This meant that I received my first communion, wearing a white dress and a wreath of flowers, at about the same time that I was absorbing and memorizing praise and worship songs. I was an altar girl in a white robe assisting with the formal progression of the liturgy, and also learned to raise my hands and close my eyes in worship.
You might think that this would be confusing for a kid, but for the most part, I’m incredibly grateful for my broad array of Church experiences. Here are three things I learned as a denominational free-agent.
Jesus lives everywhere
When I was studying to receive my first communion at the Catholic church, I learned that Christ becomes physically present to us in the elements of bread and wine. At the same time, I was learning that Jesus can also show up in a lengthy, impassioned sermon, and in rock music, and in extemporaneous prayer.
Some of the neighbor kids were worried about my soul; in their minds, Catholics didn’t go to heaven. I knew better from the very start. I never saw my traditions in competition. They were always complementary–different but equally valid ways of experiencing and worshiping a God that is too big to fit into any one kind of service or way of thinking. It’s all too easy to think that God prefers our way of doing things; my ecumenical background nipped that little heresy in the bud.
In the Roman Catholic church, the sacraments are at the center of the life of faith. I grew up knowing that I could find Jesus whenever I needed him in bread, wine, and water. I gained a healthy respect for holiness, and for the formal prayers, songs, vestments and rituals that cradle our experience of God.
The part of me that is Catholic still weeps when I take communion. I mark my forehead with a wet cross whenever I’m near running water. I kneel and cover my head in humility when I pray.
I’m grateful for these physical rituals. They have ingrained the life of faith into my very body, my most elemental self.
Emotions have a place in church
The evangelical church we attended only served communion once a month–a routine that felt like starvation rations for my bread-hungry soul. They had something else going for them, though: where worship in the Catholic church is formal, prescribed, and uniform, worship in my Evangelical church home was vibrant and emotional. People would raise their hands during long stretches of worship music; some would cry, or dance–a real stretch for Minnesotan white people. When communion was served, it became the entire service, all bathed in music and prayer, with a big cross in front that you could go touch and kneel in front of.
This kind of service created space for emotions in the life of faith. I could bring my big life questions, my hopes, my fears, and give them space to tumble up against one another. Singing and moving became a sort of sacrament in themselves.
Of course, my rich denominational background has its challenges as well. The two traditions sometimes clashed. Did my baptism as an infant in the Catholic church count? Or did I need a do-over as a young adult rite of passage? I always wanted whatever it was that I didn’t have that week: great preaching and music; the cycles of the liturgical year; freedom of expression; unity with community.
When I first experienced a call to pastoral ministry, I felt frustrated and homeless. With no ‘home base’ church, who would ordain me? Even now that I’ve found a happy home in the Lutheran church (and that’s a story for another post), I’m sometimes envious of my friends who have learned this tradition inside and out since childhood. I don’t know any one tradition in my bones that way.
All the same, I wouldn’t trade my rich childhood in the church for anything. I may not have memorized anyone’s catechism, but I came to know the Jesus who belongs to everyone, and that is good enough for me.