Monday, June 12, 2006

Arizona Travelogue Day Three: A Day With the Grandparents

Claudia’s parents are a generation removed from my own. Her parents are closer in age to my grandmother (my grandmother is 87; Claudia’s father is 83), so visiting our children’s maternal grandparents is always interesting and always pleasant. Their lifestyle is a simple, focused one that emphasizes relationships with people and their Lord. Everything else is irrelevant.

For days I have been warning Tony that his grandparents view things differently than other good, church-going people he knows. I have been trying to educate him about the differences between mainline and fundamental Christian faith, seeking to remind him that words he uses in our home (not with our sanction, mind you) are not appropriate at grammy and grampa’s house. Phrases like “that sucks” or “oh my gosh” and certainly phrases like “oh my God” (which we do not like either) are not appropriate expressions in the presence of these dear saints of God. I had been hoping that my coaching to Tony would have some subliminal effect upon Kyle, too.

To my surprise and delight, both Kyle (which was not a big surprise; he is, after all, nineteen years old and has learned how to be very appropriate over the years) and Tony behaved like perfect gentlemen at the grandparents’. They expressed appropriate affection in normal ways (no small feat for adopted children with indemic attachment issues), had normal and appropriate conversations, and were relaxed and tolerant of a lifestyle quite different from their own.

The geographical setting of the grandparents’ home is the high desert of northern Arizona, where in June the temperatures can reach 100 degrees plus during the day and dip to the 40’s at night. It is desolate, sparsely populated, and lacking in amusement. In his inimitable way (and not with his grandparents present), Kyle said, “Dad, it would suck to live here. There’s like nothing to do.” I commiserated with his sentiments and suggested that he should feel some gratitude that our lifestyles were such that at least he didn’t have to live in geographically desolate climes. I’m sure he didn’t catch my nuance, but it made me feel better to believe we are offering our children options in life. On the high desert in the small, dust-encircled towns, there is little for teenagers and young people to do. It is no surprise that alcoholism, drug use and crime are at high levels.

We arrived early evening on Saturday night, spent the evening in pleasant conversation, enjoyed a piece of birthday cake and ice cream to celebrate my 42nd year of life. By 9:00 PM the grandparents were ready (and later than usual) for bed. The boys watched a little TV (I’ll never tell grammy and grandpa that their dish tv network was used by Kyle to watch a gambling tournament), and we all went to bed. It had, after all, been a long, exhausting day (see Arizona Travelogue part two).

On Sunday morning the grandparents skipped Sunday School (a significant value choice for these very committed Christian people) in order to spend an extra hour with us. We toured on foot the School where grammy teaches young Native American children, although it is always abysmal visiting any type of school in the off-season. Seeing the classrooms and offices and buildings is so much less invigorating than the hear the din of students eating a meal together or to view the parade of youngsters heading to a group gathering. For Tony the higlight of the tour was seeing both a rabbit and a skink. For Kyle there was no highlight, although he was polite and seemingly interested in what grammy was telling us.

Following the tour it was time for church, and I felt a gnawing sense of anxiety in my stomach. Not for myself (because I had grown up in a sister church denomination and understand the ethos of Christian life in these cirlces), but for my two boys who have only known mainline United Methodism. Even though their father is evangelical to the core, my sons have had little experience outside of our United Methodist tradition, and as diverse as United Methodism can be, our Minnesota ethos has been consistently affirmed in the churches I have served as pastor.

The church crowd this morning was slender, perhaps twenty of us. Because school is not in session, and because this is a church that many of the staff and teachers attend, the low attendance was not a surprise. And because I have pastored churches years ago of this size it was not an unusual or uncomfortable experience for me. Even when the song leaders announced that we would be singing acapella, it reminded me of other times in my life. Truth be known, the reason I began to sing in church is because of necessity. Throughout high school and college I generally did not sing at all in worship services, but in the real world of pastoral life discovered I had to sing in order to lead and often because I had no musical accompaniment in the early days. We sang songs all of us were familiar with (that helped ease the tension for my sons, I think), and also sang traditional songs (“Called Unto Holiness,” a hymn my sons have most certainly never heard nor sung). There was a brief time of sharing concerns and a brief pastoral prayer followed by the Lord’s Prayer.

From my peripheral vision I could see that the younger of my two sons was thinking church was about over. It had been, after all, nearly forty-five minutes since we had begun worship. By this time in our United Methodist tradition things are beginning to wind down. But we were not worshiping in a United Methodist Church; it was time for the sermon, and for the next forty minutes we heard of the transfiguration experience of Peter, James and John as they accompanied Jesus to the mountaintop and met Elijah and Moses.

The grandparents’ pastor is passionate, genial and a direct communicator. Not one to be inhibited by the pulpit he was a few feet away from us and asked numerous rhetorical questions, as well as questions intended to be answered. As is customary in an evangelical church of this type, there were many phrases my boys are unaccustomed to hearing during worship: “Amen,” “That’s right,” “Yes, Jesus,” “Thank you, Lord.” At first it was novel for them, and then they settled into the regularity of the environment.

We were enjoined to seek an experience of God such as the three with Jesus had on the mount of transfiguration. “Could it be today?” the pastor questioned throughout his sermon. We left worship understanding that an intimate experience with God is not only possible, but necessary and available for those who seek Him. (And for those reading these wordes of mine with inclusive language sensitivities, it is “Him”).

The service ended rather abruptly with a final familiar hymn (“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”) and a pastoral benediction, and we were on our way out. Like most churches of its size (the “family” church), there are those who are friendly and take time to greet visitors, and there are those who feel outsiders to be a bit intrusive. We were treated with gracious welcomes, although there were several more interested in talking to one another than to their visitors. (Note to self: remember how prevalent this is in most churches, and be intentional in addressing it again and again in my new appointment).

The three of us left church together to meet the grandparents at their home, which provided an opportunity for a little debriefing. “That church was really weird” were the words I first heard from my younger son. When I asked why he was unable to articulate what this meant, but stuck with his story. Kyle asked, “So dad, what did you think of that?” I said, “Well, I think these are very committed Christian people who know the Lord and really want others to know him, too.” Those of you who know me understand that this sentence is rather unlike me ... although I share the same passion, my verbiage is different, but I wanted to capture with words the worship context we had just experienced.

We didn’t talk much more about our worship experience, but it did cause me to think again about my own departure from a denomination like this one into the mainline. I suppose one of my continuing internal conflicts is justifying to myself why I am a United Methodist. As a result of my worship experience on Sunday, I can make a few assertions with confidence.

(1) I am a United Methodist because we see the world as our parish. We understand our mission to be one of both evangelical love as well as social justice. I was troubled to hear the grandparents’ pastor say, “We are not concerned about the world today; we are conerned about our church today.” And although I know what he meant (that it was time to focus upon the needs of the immediate context), I am glad to be part of a denominational family in which “the world” is always in our purview.

(2) I am a United Methodist because it embraces a large view of life. By its very size (we are the second or third largest Protestant denomination in the United States, depending on which statistician you consult) we are diverse and embrace a large sense of life. Our stated ethos is to embrace the world, and while we often fall short of this goal, at least the standard is held high.

(3) I am a United Methodist because I believe God can speak through numerous channels. In his effort to emphasize the significance of transformational encounters through the Scriptures, the grandparents’ pastor asked, “Can you have a transformational experience through other books? No. It’s the holy word of God, and that’s where we need to spend our time, not reading all other kinds of books.” And again, while I understand his vantage point, I am grateful to be part of an ethos which encourages the opportunity to hear God’s voice in disparate, diverse avenues. I know personally the transformational experiences I have had in reading works other than the Scripture, and while I certainly hold to the foundational significance of scripture for Christian people, would be uncomfortable limiting God’s encounters.

I must, in honesty, though say that one of the things I miss deeply since my departure from the denomination of my youth is the centered, focused passion. These people have a deep and clear sense of life. Their worldview is well integrated into their lives, and they understand what really matters. While I may differ with them as to what matters (for example, I believe as strongly in the necessity for social justice as I do in evangelical conversion), these folks know their priorities and they live them. If only the slumbering, lumbering United Methodist Church could be passionate about what we purport to believe. A little passion could go a long way.

So, we closed our visit with the grandparents by eating lunch together at a Mexican restaurant in a nearby town, bid our farewells, and headed back to Phoenix, where we spent Sunday night. The lingering memories of a simple, focused, Christian lifestyle are ones I hope my two sons can take with them. And I think this is the way their grandparents would always want to be remembered.

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