That’s a picture of my family up there—well, part of it, minus a bunch of people (my son—because he was not yet born at the time this was taken—a sister, her husband, and her kids).
Family. Ahh. I have this unique ability to get annoyed by my family when they ask me questions. Does that ever happen to you?
It has taken me a long time to really believe that I am loved and accepted by my family. That’s not their fault; it has been mine. But as I have come to accept and know that I am loved by them for just being myself and that they accept me, as strange as I am, our relationships have gotten so much deeper than they used to be. The conversations we have had about so many things—serious topics, funny topics, and uncomfortable topics—have pushed me and challenged me greatly to be more consistent in what I think and say and to be more caring and compassionate.
Listening starts with family.
If I don’t learn to listen to the people around me who call me “sister,” “daughter,” “cousin,” or “mom,” I will never learn to listen to the people who are outside of my family. Over the years, I’ve learned that the nature of family is unquestioning acceptance… with the caveat that we will call you out on your b.s. when we smell it. That doesn’t mean it gets shoved in your face every time you say something inconsistent, but it does mean that the inconsistencies in your thinking and acting will be fodder for conversation, discussion, and hopefully resolution.
As followers of Jesus Christ, the Church is our family. We are brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers to one another. And if we can’t communicate and dialogue when the going gets tough, if we let uncomfortable conversations divide us, then there is not really a hope for good communication with those outside of our family.
Let’s talk about an experience that is not uncommon in a church community. I attended a dynamic community church during and after college. The people were warm and genuine and extremely passionate about a Bible-centered and gospel-sharing-driven relationship with Jesus. I learned so much in that community, especially about how to share my vulnerabilities and ask others to meet me where I felt weak.
But I have some friends, who after struggling through a lot through different issues of theology and personality, decided to switch churches. It was a good decision for them to make and it has borne good fruit for their family. But unfortunately, switching churches caused them to lose a great number of people who had once called themselves ‘friends.’ It was almost as if, since this couple decided to go to a different church, that they weren’t the responsibility of those ‘friends’ they left behind, and relationship faded almost instantly. That is a sign of two things: 1) relationships with other people are hard and take energy to continue, and 2) the mentality of many Christians is that once someone moves to another church, there’s not much left to talk about.
But we have SO MUCH LEFT TO TALK ABOUT!
The thing about this couple is that, even though they are attending a Baptist church right now (which, unsurprisingly, is very different from the Catholic Church of which I am a part), they have so many deep treasures about the heart of God to share with me, because they have been walking with Jesus for years. And even if they didn’t have a decade-long history of following the Lord, they are still unique human beings with a unique perspective on the world that I can learn oodles from. A change in or a difference of denomination or church does not take away all those pieces of wisdom and love they have garnered over that time. If I let our denominational differences get in the way of continuing relationship with them, it would be my loss!
In writing about friendship in The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis says, “In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets” (61). We need a variety of friends in our lives to shed light on all of the facets of ourselves and on the facets of the Most High.
Think about your circle of friends: how many friends of different denominations do you have?
Baptists, how many Methodist friends can you count?
Protestants, how many Catholic friends do you have?
Catholics, same question?
If the answer isn’t one or greater, it’s time to start making friendships.
When we come together around the basic tenets of orthodox Christian faith (as expressed in the Creeds, Nicene and Apostles‘), we have room to start asking nuanced questions about why we do what we do in relation to God. The freedom of being in family is that we can start a conversation on common ground (a love for the Holy Trinity and a basis in the Creeds), and then we can ask questions about differences.
Why do you believe in infant baptism?
Why do you only believe in believer’s baptism?
Why do you only take communion four times a year?
Why do you take it every single day?
Why do you have a Pope?
To whom do you look for direction on centuries-long debates within the Church?
When we can finally stop deciding that our brothers and sisters have it all (or at least, have very important things) wrong, we can start to wonder why they believe the things they do. There are usually good reasons behind their thoughts, and these positions have–quite possibly–been considered and prayed through. It’s definitely worth our time to investigate and learn. And maybe even change our minds on some things, or at least on how important they are to a loving relationship with Jesus.
Practical pointers on having a conversation with Christians of different denominations? Lay down your weapons.
Instead of asking a Catholic, “So, why isn’t the Bible enough for you?” ask, “Can you tell me more about how you value Tradition and Scripture?”
Instead of asking a Baptist, “How can you prevent people from drinking wine when it’s obvious that Jesus drank?” ask, “Why is there a practice of not drinking in your denomination?”
Instead of assuming everything you have heard about other denominations is true, ASK YOUR FRIEND. And ask with compassion and kindness.
Once we learn how to ask sensitives questions and receive sensitive answers from those we call family, we will be much more prepared to ask insightful and honest questions to our neighbors around us who don’t have a relationship with Jesus, because we have practiced hearing to understand and not listening to merely respond. We will value the people we interact with because they are flesh-and-blood humans with feelings and intellectual thoughts and prejudices and quirks, just like our brothers and sisters.
How thankful I am for all the friends who have asked me good and hard questions as Zachary and I left our familiar Protestant church settings for membership in the Catholic Church! Such good questions and how many deep conversations have we been able to have because our friends have valued us for who we are, not for the church we attend.
If we never have uncomfortable or challenging conversations–without the threat of excommunication–within the family of the Church, how can we ever be expected to handle communication with others well?
So, go out and make a new friend in a different denomination. Or, if you have one already, ask her that question about doctrine that has been on your mind.
But ask with the purpose to learn, not to convince.
Listening starts with families, and family members love each other for who they are.