biden-son-hospitalized

As a kid I always had a hard time understanding why we went to church. I didn’t grow up in the classic Mississippi religious household. There was no family Bible that got cracked open for weekly devotional time. My parents didn’t quote scripture as a means of parenting us. And I never saw a single cross hung on a wall. By all accounts, we looked fairly agnostic.

But we went to church at 8am every single Sunday morning. I remember being around my friend’s mothers who would talk about salvation or the virtue of growing into Godly womanhood and it felt like I was talking to aliens. So one day I asked my Mom why I had to be pushed out of bed Sunday after Sunday into a quiet Episcopal church. And she said simply: Because we want you to have something to fall back on when life gets hard.

At the time, I thought that was the lamest excuse ever for church attendance. It sounded needy. Wasn’t I going to church because it made God happy? Wasn’t this all about me learning not to sleep around/use drugs/talk back? Weren’t we going to church so we could tell people who didn’t that they were bound to end up in hell? Besides, how did she know my life was going to be hard?

I thought of this short but powerful conversation when I saw the interview Stephen Colbert did with Vice President Joe Biden. Whatever your politics may be, there is something incredibly moving about these two men, who have experienced such profound personal tragedy, softly speaking to one another about how faith has carried them through suffering.

Without going into too much detail, I can check many of the boxes for suffering in my family tree: alcoholism, mental illness, suicide, death of children. And while my parents shielded me from so much of our inherited sorrow, they knew that the world would inevitably give me my own dose of heartache. And so they gave me the gift of church. In the words of Joe Biden’s son, they wanted me to have a “homebase,” a place to remember who I am.

They didn’t talk about Jesus much. And to be honest they didn’t have to. And yes, as a faith wielding parent myself that is a frightening proposition. Often as parents we want to control our children’s belief in Jesus. We want it to look and act a certain way. And so we talk at them a lot.

But I look back at my parents and I think their witness worked in a different way. At some point I reconciled their difficult life experiences with this odd church habit our family practiced. And as I have grown older, my mother’s short treatise on church started to make more sense. People we love will be diagnosed with cancer. We will be fired from jobs. Miscarriages happen. Tears flow. Some days it can feel like we are suffering on a cellular level and some days we are.

Church is the place we go to be reminded of who we are and how deeply we are loved, despite our life’s circumstances. There is a balm in Gilead. And it not going to be found in the noisy onslaught of life. As a child, I learned that it was to be found on a quiet cushion-less church pew. Where I heard every week that I was a sinner saved, a lost lamb found, and a broken heart comforted. What has been true for Joe Biden has been true for me:

“When my wife wants to leave me a message, she literally tapes them on my mirror when I’m shaving. And she put up a quote from Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard said, “Faith sees best in the dark.” And for me, my religion is just an enormous sense of solace. And some of it relates to ritual. Some of it relates to just comfort of what you’ve done your whole life. I go to mass and I’m able to be just alone. Even in a crowd. You’re alone. I say the rosary. I find it to be incredibly comforting. And so what my faith has done is sort of takes everything about my life, with my parents and my siblings and all of the comforting things. All of the good things that have happened have happened around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion. And I don’t know how to explain it more than that. But its just a place you can go.”