“And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” Luke 2:49
My dad grew up Lutheran. Two of my uncles and one of my first cousins are in ministry in the Lutheran Church, so you’d expect me to be Lutheran. But I’m not. Why? Well, it’s complicated.
My dad’s biological father – my dad calls him a sperm donor – was abusive to my grandmother, Margery Claire Trowbridge, and to my dad. My dad was sick a lot as a baby, and my grandmother’s husband was jealous of the constant attention he required. The last straw for my grandmother was when her husband put my dad’s hands under scalding hot water as a punishment and held them there. My dad was three and remembers the abuse vividly. Margery divorced him and took her three kids with her. None of them had a relationship with their biological father after that. A year later, Margery met and married Kenneth Merle Stuckwisch who raised my dad and her other two kids as his own. They would go on to have four more kids together.
Before my Grandpa Stuckwisch, the family didn’t have a religious affiliation. However, Grandpa Stuckwisch was a strong Lutheran. His brother was a Lutheran pastor and performed the wedding ceremony. The whole family became Lutheran, and my dad was baptized at First Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska when he was five.
Dad attended a Lutheran parochial school for some of his elementary school years. To this day he is very knowledgeable about the history and theology of the Lutheran church. He was a devout teenager, singing in the adult church choir, serving as an acolyte, and even attending church by himself on days when the rest of the family stayed home. After high school he matriculated to Concordia Teacher’s College, a Lutheran college in Seward, Nebraska. However, after growing up in a strict home, he didn’t adapt well to his new freedom at college. He flunked out after one semester, and shortly thereafter he moved to my hometown of Roanoke, Virginia where his older sister Judy had followed her soon-to-be husband.
Though he was no longer pursuing becoming a pastor, my dad still felt close to his Lutheran faith. He began attending the only Missouri Synod Lutheran church Roanoke, which was located in a wealthy part of town. He also quickly joined the choir.
Singing and music has always been something my dad enjoys. Dad had been in choirs since he was in elementary school, and he had auditioned for and been accepted into two singing groups at Concordia during the semester he was there. He tried to pass on his love of music to my siblings and me by introducing musicals to us at an early age. We were part of this monthly movie club where you tore off stamp-like pictures of movies, stuck them to a mail-in order form, and the VHS’s would arrive a few weeks later. I remember one snow day off of school when I was in fourth grade my dad was home with us, and he told us he had a new movie that he’d been saving for a special occasion. He put West Side Story into the VCR, and I was transfixed. To this day it’s the favorite movie for both of us.
In 1972, my dad was 19, and his only form of transportation was a motorcycle. He had an uncomfortable feeling that some of the church members looked down on him as some sort of motorcycle gang hooligan. But he brushed off his concerns and continued to attend church and their weekly choir practice. Until one day during a break in choir practice, one of the men from the choir looked him in the eye and said, "There are some people in this choir who think they can sing but can't hold a note in a bucket." My dad knew the guy was talking about him. Dad said a few sharp words back and left the church. He felt humiliated by the guy’s offensive remark and equally embarrassed that he had allowed the guy’s opinion of him to cause him to leave. Dad didn’t go to another church for a long time after that.
I love the one story from Jesus’ adolescence in the New Testament because it demonstrates how we’re supposed to feel in church. The Gospel of Luke says that it was a custom in Jesus’ family to go to Jerusalem each year to celebrate the Passover. When Jesus was twelve he stayed behind in the Temple unbeknownst to his family who had started to journey home again. About a day into the journey, they couldn’t find Jesus among their friends and relatives. They went back to Jerusalem to search for him growing more and more panicked about their missing child. It took three days for them to find him in the temple where he had been listening and speaking to the teachers. “Why have you treated us so?” his parents asked him. Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” Like Jesus and like my father, when he was younger, I have always found a second home in the church. However, that second home wasn’t always welcoming for my dad.
It’s impossible to know whether or not my parents would’ve ended up attending a Lutheran church if my dad had had a better experience with that particular church. In any case, his spiritual wound prevented him from attending a Lutheran church at the time that he and my mom got together, and that had a big impact on my life. My mom and dad decided to attend Locust Grove United Methodist Church because my granny was already a member there. And so, I was raised as a Methodist. My dad never held a grudge against the larger church, and attended Lutheran churches frequently after my parents divorced. These days, my dad and his girlfriend, who also grew up as a Lutheran in Nebraska, occasionally attend a Lutheran Church in San Diego where they live.
Like the story of my granny leaving the Catholic Church, this is also a story of imperfect people who don’t make church the welcoming place that Jesus meant it to be. We all know many people who have similarly negative experiences in churches that make them want to reject the whole institution. Even Jesus who called the Temple “his father’s house” and who would spend much of his adult life preaching in temples as a Jew would later be condemned by the leaders of the very faith he grew up in. It’s depressing to think that the institution Jesus created as part of his legacy on earth has been abused by so many in attempt to gain power and prestige. What a risk it was for Jesus to entrust the church to humans. Humans who desperately need the message of the church but who also have the capacity to royally mess it up again and again. The only response to the vicious cycle is to recognize that we’re all sinners and fall short of God’s expectations, to forgive those who are morally superior or unwelcoming, and to start with myself by being as welcoming as I can be at my own church and in my own life.
What about you? Have you been hurt by a certain denomination or by an individual or group at a church in a way that has caused you to question your faith? What practices would you like to see churches adopt to be more welcoming?