It is Sunday afternoon and in just over an hour five members of my family of six will be departing for church. The sixth stays home because he’s not sure he believes in God and he no longer wants to be at church. It took courage for him to state his lack of belief to his religious parents. It took much out of his parents to accept his statements and to allow him to stay home. I still have unprocessed emotions about this, some personal, some religious, some parental. I still have hours when my mind runs loose on all the ways I could have taught better, been better, chosen differently. The voices of self doubt tell me that his choices are my fault. Except, my religion teaches the importance of free agency. We all get to choose. Even my son. Even if he chooses to walk away from something that I hold dear.
This leaves me with a set of choices. I have to decide whether to make church attendance a battle ground. I have to decide whether my desire to have him at church supersedes his desire to not be there. I know there is a theory of belief which says I should make him come because if he comes the spirit has a chance to speak to him. I also know that an angry and resentful mind is not fertile ground for belief to sprout. Instead we have chosen to respect the choice that he has made about church attendance because belief can’t actually be forced. Outward compliance matters less than the inward experience of connection with (or disconnection from) God.
I’m now faced with the challenge of building family culture and connection that is not centered in a shared religion. It is possible that my son will find his way to belief. It is also possible that he won’t. Either way I want to have an ongoing relationship with him. I want him to be a connected part of our family. Connection is fostered by common values and interests. We still have many of those. It just requires us to stop assuming common ground based on a set of religious teachings and start having important conversations to find where it actually exists. Which, truth be told, is probably something we should be doing even if we all went to church together. It isn’t just my son I’m trying to discuss belief with. I’m talking with Howard, my other children, myself, God.
The discussions are ongoing and evolving. My son is in the middle of being a teenager and thus doing a lot of work to discover who he is, who he wants to be, and what he believes. I’m also doing a lot of work to build structures to help him face his choices instead of fleeing from them and to help him learn that sometimes the only way to get anywhere worth being is to do all the hard work. Naturally I hope that some of the hard work he will do will lead him to know God and get his own answers. But that is between him and God. Fortunately one of the things that God has been telling me lately is that He loves my son as much as I do and that I need to give them space to work things out. So I will. Even though it is hard.