“Catholic is the same as Christian, right mom?”
I stopped spreading peanut butter on the bread for the girls’ sandwiches and looked up at Libby. “That’s an interesting question, what exactly are you asking?”
I could have said a simple “yes” and let it go, but I wanted to know what was behind the question.
“Well, my new friend from school said she can come to my cookie party and she asked who else was coming, so I told her some friends from church. She asked which church, and when I told her, she said she was Catholic. She seemed uneasy that my church isn’t a Catholic church. I am worried she won’t feel like she belongs.”
And there it is, straight from the mouth of my 13-year-old daughter, who is navigating the worst space in the world: middle school dynamics. Being a “Christian” in this setting has provoked a profound fear of judgement and exclusion.
I told Libby that her friends belong at the party table because she has invited them. Her invitation alone says you belong at my party, regardless of what you believe.
I asked her what she’d told her school friend about our church. “Well, I just told her that I really like it and we talk about Jesus and how much He loves us and how to love others well.”
“What did she say to that?” I asked, while spreading jam on the bread.
“Oh, she is cool with Jesus.”
When I was a little younger than Libby, we moved to Phoenix, Arizona and started attending a conservative “Bible” church. I remember there were a lot of changes that came to our home. I couldn’t wear jeans to church anymore, only skirts or dresses. Stricter rules were placed on TV and music and my brother and I were enrolled in the local Christian Reformed grade school. My parents got really involved in church and learned about “sharing their faith” and “giving people the gospel.”
Eventually, they shared their new-found faith with their oldest friends, who we referred to as Aunt and Uncle. Their daughter was my best friend, and we’d spend hours building Barbie villages in the oleander bushes next to her back porch. These friends were like family, and they were Catholic. There was no room in the teaching my parents were receiving for Catholic and Christian to coexist. The parameters for belonging inside the Christian circle were tight and clear, and years of friendship tragically ended in the name of “giving them the gospel.”
Today we have new tightness dividing us in the name of right doctrine, biblically grounded theology, and protecting the integrity of the gospel. You may or may not belong based on what you believe about a myriad of things: a literal seven-day creation, speaking in tongues, Republican vs Democrat, divorce, women in church leadership, LGBTQ believers in Jesus, same-sex marriage, and the second coming of Christ. The list goes on and on.
When Libby asked me her question, I must tell you that I loved it because it meant she didn’t know the answer. She hasn’t been taught that Catholics don’t belong. Progress!
Nearly 35 years after that fateful evening when my parents walked out of my “Aunt and Uncle’s” home with a broken friendship, they ran into them and set up a dinner date. My mom and dad had the chance to apologize and ask their forgiveness. With tremendous generosity, they forgave my mom and dad and the relationship was restored.
I believe we are watching the start of a reformation. Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed his complaints to the church door about how they’d lost sight of the gospel in exchange for meritocracy and hierarchy. It was the beginning of change and a return to simplicity.
I want to live a reformation life, one in which I’m willing to change and to notice when something other than the simplicity of the gospel is ruling my life.
I believe this kind of life is nurtured by lengthening my table, pulling up more chairs, and inviting others to the party. You belong for the same reason I belong: Jesus invited us…all of us.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories and a reluctant dreamer, living by faith that “Hope deferred makes the heart sick but when dreams come true there is a life and joy” (Pro. 13:12). She is the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for 30 years, she is mother to five kids. After a half century of life, she’s feeling like she may know who she is. She writes about her life and her work here.