My twins were baptized last Saturday, February 11th. It was a gloriously beautiful day in Southern California–clear, sunny skies. A light breeze. My girls were full of laughter and joy. The ceremony was lovely–there were readings and prayers, blessings, anointing with perfumed oil and of course, Daddy cradling his little ones over the baptismal font while the holy water was poured over their giggly heads three times. Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
But the joyous occasion also bore its full measure of pain. My parents refused to attend. My fundamentalist father said his conscience wouldn’t allow it. My mother, who originally said she would attend, backed out a couple days before the baptism in deference to my father’s objections.
A few days before the baptism, we met for lunch and my father tried to issue a compromise: would I be willing to let him personally dedicate the twins to the Lord in lieu of baptism? I demurred. He started in on the finer points of ‘unbiblical’ Catholic baptism. To close our conversation–which happened in a public restaurant–he urged us all to bow our heads and join in prayer. He prayed at full-pulpit volume.
I felt the old, familiar, hot shame wash over me as we made a spectacle of ourselves there in the restaurant. This is how it’s always been.
It’s always been very Thus Saith The Lord and bursting into hymns on street corners. It’s always PRAISE THE LORD! and spontaneously busting out a Gospel message to any passing waitress. My father’s numerous dictates of conscience have always come with a side of bombastic braggadocio.
But here’s the thing: I wasn’t asking my dad to deny his conscience. I wouldn’t ask that of anyone. We all must abide by the dictates of our moral compass and I fully respect that. I even said I would understand if he chose not to attend. I simply asked that he respect our decision and not provoke an argument.
Well, he disregarded my request and not only made a scene in the restaurant but also laid out an ultimatum: unless we made a compromise according to his specifications, he wouldn’t attend.
This is precisely the kind of drama I have tried to avoid in the nine years since leaving the fundamentalist church of my childhood. I have respectfully avoided contentious topics of conversation, I have encouraged my parents to maintain active involvement in my children’s lives.
I guess I thought nine years later, things would have changed. But I was mistaken.
Again, it’s not like I wanted my father to deny his conscience. It’s just that….my father’s conscience has so many objections to so many things. Ever since I was a child, there’s never been a theological hill he’s not ready to die on, no point of doctrine he’s not eager to hash out in long-winded arguments.
And here’s the difference between my father and me: I think it is possible to hold differences of belief and still show up for your family’s important events. I’m also wholly weary of theological arguments.
My Dad, however, still finds value in the practice of shunning. Back when he was the second-in-command pastor, our fundamentalist church shunned people all the time. Anyone who left the church or was excommunicated, we treated as dead. It’s an abhorrent practice to me now, a practice I find most graceless and hurtful.
After I was diagnosed with PTSD shortly after leaving our church, my therapist asked me why I always expected people to abandon me or withdraw their love. Hello, threat of shunning.
When we were growing up, Dad loved the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. Dad’s favorite character was Rep Tevye. When one of the daughters marries outside the Jewish faith, Rep Tevye refuses to speak to her and tells the family to consider her dead. Dad found this highly admirable.
At the time, I agreed. But now, maybe because I’ve been on the receiving end of rejection, I see Fiddler on the Roof differently. Mostly, I can’t imagine pretending like my child is dead just because they make choices I don’t agree with.
As an adult, I don’t see Rep Tevye’s actions as admirable, I see them as evidence of his tragic flaw. You don’t have to agree with all the choices your kids make but I believe you should still show up for the important events. You attend the wedding, you attend your granddaughters’ baptism.
Or, at the very least, you refrain from making a scene.
As an adult, I accept who my parents are and I love them dearly.
But I didn’t foresee how my parents would affect my children. I didn’t realize how the long shadow of fundamentalism could reach past me and hurt my own children on one of their most special days.
My twins were upset that Papa and Grandma didn’t attend their baptism. My older kids asked questions and wanted to know why. There were tears all around.
My whole goal in parenting my children has been to show my children unconditional love.
I feel like I’m failing at that because my parents were able to hurt me and my children. My children’s hurt has ripped open a hole in my chest I thought had healed up. I feel responsible for their pain because maybe I should have enforced stricter boundaries, not allowed my parents to remain so close? Or maybe…maybe I should have brokered a compromise?
My father has made his disapproval very clear. Although this is nothing new, I didn’t expect it to still hurt so keenly. I feel the old, awful sense of shame and rejection.
Can’t my parents appreciate the stark, uphill battle it has been for me just to maintain some semblance of Christian faith? Aren’t they proud of me for at least trying to raise my children in the faith–even if it’s a different branch of the Christian family?
But no, it is as it’s always been: no matter how hard I try, I’m never good enough.
Tonight as I tucked my twins into bed I kissed their heads and the lingering scent of perfumed oil filled my nose. It was such a sweet reminder.
Maybe shunning is the price I have to pay to see my babies baptized and wholly safe. Maybe someday when we’re all rejoicing in Heaven together, these tears will be wiped away.