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Clinging to the core

A religious snob finds a church home in the middle

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My dad remembers being a little boy, looking out a window and praying, “God, I can’t be good!”

He grew up Mormon, just miles from the upstate New York spot where Joseph Smith supposedly found his holy tablets. This explains why my defiant dad now drinks coffee, verboten to Mormons, by the gallon.

In a miracle more profound than Smith’s because it was real, my dad converted to Christianity in juvenile detention. My father couldn’t be good. But by the stunning grace of God he now was.

Decades later, around the time I was 10, he graduated from plain old Christian to Calvinist.

A Calvinistic reading of the Bible fit my father like a glove. And why not? It’s a reasonable paradigm for someone so clearly called out of death to life by God. He who couldn’t be good was, not by virtue or choice but by grace. And why shouldn’t I, his daughter, follow in his footsteps?

Without Dad’s conversion, there’s no me—because the fiery Baptist lady who birthed me wouldn’t have married a Mormon or a profligate. Without Dad’s Calvinism, though, I may never have become a religious snob.

In the New York I grew up in—frozen nose hairs, snow in May, ham and leek dinners at the grange—the Wesleyan symbol, a little fire, branded weathered signs all over county roads. I was raised in a Wesleyan church until the family Calvinism dawned. At daybreak, our household left childish ways behind.

We trekked instead to a church whose leaflet read, “Welcome to Hornell’s UNIQUE church.” Compared with the Wesleyans, our sermons were longer, our people fewer, and our doctrinal certitude finer. We were doing Christianity right at last. For example: We didn’t sing that fluffy lyric, “I have decided to follow Jesus,” because it was God who did all the deciding.

People refer to a Calvinist’s early years as “the cage stage” because civilians would benefit from the dogmatic Calvinist’s incarceration. “I had my cage stage at 12” may be my most well-worn party anecdote from that period besides “I fell down the stairs into the baptismal,” which is also true. Theologically aggressive for an adolescent, I kept one line of “I Have Decided” close to my heart: “Though none go with me, still I will follow.”

In college, my theological snobbery sustained three blows: (1) I met a lot of smart Christians from many denominations. (2) I grew infatuated with a Calvinist who wasn’t kind and didn’t love me back. (3) I fell in love with an Arminian who loved me like Jesus does.

I don’t joke about Calvin’s five points as if they’re mere immaterial chestnuts. Theological and ecclesiastical convictions are how we meet God. What’s more personal? What’s more important?

My now-husband and I spent our dating year in blissful concord, except for Calvinism. Once when we argued about TULIP, I tried to stomp away. But he was still holding my hand. Against what I feared was my better judgment, we embarked on the theological journey together. We got married.

Meanwhile, dozens of college students around us had an allergic reaction to their youth-groupy rearings and converted to Anglicanism. These people, whom I called “the Angricans,” discoursed about history, creeds, and the Church Fathers. (Whoever they were: My husband says that in the evangelical imagination of our generation a blank chasm yawns between the Apostle Paul and Martin Luther.) Not only did the Anglicans belong to a club I didn’t understand, many disdained their Calvinistic youths. So: Religious snubbing was cool until I got snubbed. Had they graduated? Was I the child?

Of course, there are no graduations in Christianity. There are only children. You enter at the narrow gate beloved to the uttermost. And when it comes to maturity, the way up is down: If anyone would be great in my kingdom, he must be a servant of all.

After nine years of marriage, my husband and I were confirmed in the Anglican church this fall. Do you know who was an Anglican? John Wesley. But so was the Calvinist George Whitefield.

Each Sunday I take to my knees, confess my sins, and recite the creed with people who came from about every ism and non-ism you can think of. Anglicanism’s nickname, “the middle way,” proves true. If you stand in the middle and cling to the core, you can lavish grace on all “outsiders” evenly. But not if you’re angry.

In other words: All these people go with me. Still I will follow.

Chelsea Boes

Chelsea is editor of World Kids.



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