This post originally appeared at the now-archived bedlammag.com on September 28, 2015. Go check them out if you want to read some more great thoughts on faith, life and culture. Image found here.
To live as a military brat is to experience constant renewal. Every few years, there’s the opportunity to move to another place and see the world in a different light, maybe even become a different version of yourself. You become attuned to the fact that some good things can be temporary, and that all bad things are not going to last forever. You learn how to adapt to your surroundings; you learn how to blend in at school.
Heraclitus supposedly said the only constant in life is change, and for me growing up, that was all I knew.
Well, there was one constant at least: I had church. Some of my earliest memories are of church pews and Sunday school in Texas, singing “Amazing Grace” in Kansas, being baptized in Virginia. No matter where we lived, my parents always made a point to drag my brother and me out of bed every Sunday and take us to church to learn about our faith. And for that, I am forever grateful.
I don’t say I’m grateful simply because they made sure I was in church; that’s the norm for lots of Christian families in America. I say I’m grateful because by taking me to church everywhere we moved, they forced me to interact with Christians from all walks of life. Those human interactions taught me more about the nature of God than any Sunday school class ever could.
Those human interactions took many forms. In Hawaii, I watched a Southern preacher from Alabama stand on street corners and talk to homeless people, effortlessly showing mercy to “the least of these.”
In Alaska, I watched a pastor concede the pulpit to a disabled man so he could give a sermon on Mephibosheth (the disabled man whom David exalts in 2 Samuel), and at the age of 9 I learned the greatest gift you can give someone is the ability to be heard by others.
In Korea, I sang Christmas carols in Hangul with a native-speaking children’s choir, and dwelled on the fact that the message of Advent crosses all cultural barriers.
In Japan, there was one base chapel for every denomination, which meant I would hear sermons from a Baptist, a Mormon, and a nondenominational chaplain every month. I was ecumenical long before I knew what that word even meant.
And the people. My God, the people. I met friends who were agnostic, atheist, Church of Christ, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Baptist, Lutheran, and Pentecostal; all thrown together under the banner of Uncle Sam. We were all different, and we all wanted something different out of our faith, but we were all united under one truth— we were children of people who chose to work for America, experiencing the constant of change together.
As a result, my faith life was both constant and changing. Constant in that it was always there, but changing in that I experienced a new way to approach it at every turn. To date, I have lived in seven states and two foreign countries, and all of those locations proved to me that while denominations and traditions may divide us, Christians are overwhelmingly similar.
My personality is a combination of everyone I’ve ever met, and my faith is an amalgam of everywhere I’ve ever lived. These things don’t happen in a vacuum.
I have a firm grasp on the Bible because of my Baptist upbringing; I have a somewhat decent grasp of tradition and liturgy because of my later conversion to Catholicism. I’ve never been able to fully embrace one tradition over the other. They are two sides of the same coin.
As a military brat, I was never able to fully answer where I was from. In much the same way, I am never able to fully answer what denomination I call my own. Calling myself a military brat gave me a way to cling to something concrete, as flimsy as that title is. But the more I think about it, the more I think “military brat” is its own religious denomination, in a way. And its congregants preach the message of new experience.
Through my church-hopping, I’ve seen many different traditions. They’ve all imprinted upon me something different, another way to approach God.
As a Catholic I’m taught that there is only one true Church, and it resides in Rome, but I also think to purposefully ignore other denominations and their approach to worship is to deny God’s work in someone’s life.
Who am I to argue with someone if they claim to have felt God at a Pentecostal church service or at a Lutheran liturgy? I’ve seen hula dance praise and worship songs, Easter Vigils, and homeless-led sermons. They were all beautiful in their own way. God was present in all of them.
Perhaps the biggest thing I learned about God through these experiences is this: God doesn’t always look like what we expect, and God loves to shatter our expectations. My view of the world is only as big as my experience allows, and by that metric, it is still very small. A Sunday school lesson is easy to teach in theory but difficult to put into practice, and it’s often the “least of these” that ended up teaching me the real-world versions of those lessons.
When our expectations are shattered and we experience another facet of God that we might not have thought about before, that’s where our faith grows. If Christianity is the globe, then different traditions are the continents. Traveling to other places, so to speak, only aids in experiencing the wonders of this vast faith community divided by denomination, but united in our constant changing.
The constant change also reminded me that the narrative of one’s faith isn’t linear. Much like how I thought I would live in one location for several years only to be yanked out after 10 months, your faith life isn’t always predictable. Sometimes your story stalls and sometimes it hums along, while other times there’s the tendency to dwell on flashback.
Whatever the case may be, the point is there’s always a story. There’s always an experience.
And there’s always another way to experience God.