We didn’t go to church very much when I was in grade school. When we did, our outings highlighted my family’s mixed religious heritage. Mom and I are Catholic, and Dad is Lutheran, so we alternated.
Lutheran meant the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. In my experience, the LCMS combines a lot of urgent Protestant preaching about sin and justification by faith with an almost Tridentine Catholic liturgy. The pastors at Dad’s church consecrate the Eucharist with their backs to the people, sometimes in chant.
I have this persistent flashback of attending Divine Service when I was eight or nine years old. It is probably a composite of several Sundays rather than a single event. The day is December-ish, crisp and gray. Pastor is draped in his Advent blue stole.
He begins the Confession: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” We respond: “But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The ritual dialogue comes from 1 John, but I will always identify it with Lutheran Sunday mornings. We go on to affirm: “We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.”
I sit with my parents just under the choir loft, next to a Corinthian column touched up with gold leaf. Grandma and Grandpa are one pew ahead. I squirm impatiently in my itchy jeans, wondering why Mom insists on ironing them to a razor crease. Pastor preaches from his pulpit on the Gospel side, and my eyes wander to the painting above him, where the angel of the Lord is whooshing down upon the terrified shepherds of Bethlehem.
Pastor explains that you can do a million good deeds and still go to hell because of only one sin, even a little one. Every sin against the infinite God is by nature an infinite offense. And we are perpetually sinning, so we can only be saved by our faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. While my third-grade mind goes into overload, pondering my suddenly precarious eternal fate, Grandma and Grandpa smile and offer me Starlight mints.
I longed for my alternate Catholic universe. There, Father would gather the kids up front for Gospel Storytime and tell funny stories about a man who couldn’t hear Jesus because he had a banana in his ear.
But, two decades later, I increasingly acknowledge the bit of wisdom I absorbed from the Missouri Lutherans. Namely, there is never an unalloyed motive for anything we do. This is particularly true when it comes to religion and God. And I acknowledge that because I’ve lived it.
My faith history is hardly pristine. When Dad taught me to say my prayers, I originally kept at it so God could intercede with Santa Claus to get me what I wanted for Christmas. Later, legalistic religion was my white-knuckled method of controlling adolescent angst and depression, as well as a lofty, convenient excuse for not having friends or a girlfriend.
In college and afterward, religion-based service activities allowed me to imagine myself a white knight. I must admit it was a role I fulfilled badly whenever push really came to shove. And, in retrospect, some of my commitments were about kissing up to other white knights, ranging from classmates to popes, until their own clay feet emerged. As every mirage wavered and finally disappeared, I wondered if God had ever spoken to me at all.
I came to understand that there would always be mirages. I could never dig back through all the debris to find pure reasons for doing pure things. I came to realize our reasons for thinking we do God’s work and hear God’s voice are always partly self-serving and irreducibly complex.
Yet somehow, after every God created in my own image went up in flames, it always left behind a God who hadn’t been there before. And that God always whispered just a little more about how despite everything, I should continue my stumbling attempts to hear the Word, break the bread, and give of myself. The pretentious messes I made of those things did not, finally, kill their worth or power. All my houses would start on sand dunes, but fire would fuse each dune, one by one, into a rock.
If we do not acknowledge our complexity and darkness, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our mixed motives, God, who is faithful and just, will somehow dwell in us and shine through us.