It’s far and away the most common question I get asked.
You pose it in the comment section, at book signings, during the Q&A session after a talk, in emails and tweets and handwritten letters.
What about your parents? you ask. Do they approve of all these changes in your faith? How have they reacted to your questions and doubts? What is your relationship like?
And I know that for many, there is a question behind the question…and often a world of hurt too.
I remember the young woman in Nashville who pulled me aside, tears brimming in her blue eyes, to tell me about how her mother worried about her, argued with her, and was deeply disappointed in her…for going to seminary and becoming a pastor (when “the Bible clearly teaches” women cannot serve in such a way). I remember too the college student in Seattle who straight-up begged, Can you PLEASE write a letter to my parents and tell them that just because I vote for democrats doesn’t mean I’m going to hell! I’ve listened as a whole group of twenty-somethings exchanged stories of awkward interventions and emotional meltdowns and dramatic lines-in-the-sand, all over differences of opinion regarding theology or politics or ecclesiology.
There are parents who refused to attend their grandkids’ baptism (because they didn’t approve of the method), parents who scheduled pastoral counseling sessions on behalf of their kids (because they were afraid Biology 101 had convinced them to accept evolution), parents who—somewhat endearingly—gift the black sheep of the family a different apologetics book every Christmas (because Lee Strobel is better than socks!). And of course there is the gut-wrenching story of the young man worked up the courage to come out to his parents only to be told by his father, “this is worse than if you had died.”
Lord, have mercy.
When I hear these stories, I empathize, but I can’t relate.
Because my parents have been wonderful.
We don’t always agree on theology or politics, (the 2016 election promises to raise the pitch of our dinner conversations a few decibels), but my parents have always prioritized maintaining our relationship over maintaining ideological uniformity.
They never expected their kids to turn out just like them. They never expected my sister and me to parrot their opinions. Rather, they raised us to think for ourselves, to disagree gracefully, and to tell them the truth without fear of judgment. Even when the local gossip flared up around my supposed apostasy, my parents weren’t ashamed. On the contrary, they bragged. They hung articles about me on the refrigerator and shared pictures on Facebook of me preaching from a pulpit (an act forbidden in the church in which I grew up). They were, and are, proud of me. They are glad that I am following Jesus— even if it’s in my own way, even if it’s with The Book of Common Prayer tucked under my arm.
It has taken me a long time to appreciate the gravity of that, the gift of it.
I cannot imagine what would have happened if, in those first scary years of doubting and deconstructing my faith, my parents had responded like so many of my friends and tried to fix me. Even when I blustered and fulminated and foolishly rocked the boat for the sake of rocking it, they refused to treat me like a problem or an embarrassment or something to fear. They loved me unconditionally.
And I’m pretty sure their response helped preserve my faith.
I’m certain it preserved our relationship.
Which is why there are times when I want to track these other parents down, grab them by the shoulders and shout: Don’t you get it?! The easiest way to alienate your child for good is to make your love and acceptance of them conditional upon what they believe! Are your political and theological convictions really more important than that relationship?
One of the most destructive mistakes we Christians make is to prioritize shared beliefs over shared relationship, which is deeply ironic considering we worship a God who would rather die than lose relationship with us.
I’m often asked about how to preserve important relationships in the midst of doubt and change. (In fact I’m thinking of making this a theme in the next book.) There is much that could be said about this, of course, and I've learned much of what I've learned from making mistakes, but I think the most important thing is this: Invest in love. Risk in love. Because as the apostle Paul put it, “three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” Beliefs will change, political and theological convictions will alter, even faith and hope will falter. But "love never fails."
God does not demand that we all agree. God only asks that we love one another well.
No parent who loves their child unconditionally is a failure.
And sometimes love means biting your tongue and holding back, even when you don’t understand or agree or approve. Unity does not require uniformity.
I’m so grateful for my parents, and for my sister and for Dan, who have loved me through a whole lot of religious change—which has often been public and often been clumsy. And as I finally find myself settling into something of a steady rhythm of faith (dappled, as always, with doubt), it is made all the sweeter by the steadfast love of my mom and dad, which is one of the few things in the world I have never had to question.
Be sure to check out my dad’s guest post from a few years ago: “For Parents of Doubting Children.”
I’d love to hear from you. How have you managed your most important relationships in the midst of religious doubt and change? What mistakes have you made? What have you learned? Which responses have helped and which have hurt?