I DON'T THINK I'M Christian."
It was one of those conversational hand grenades that middle-schoolers so often toss at their parents.
In the midst of their grousing and grouching, about the time you are turning a deaf ear to their attempts to provoke you, middle-schoolers will say something that tells you their stomachs are not the only part of them that is churning these days.
"Joe," I said. "Religion is not like a college major. You don't get to switch just because you are bored or failing organic chemistry.
"Besides, we are in the fourth quarter of Catholicism here. Two more years, and you will be confirmed. If you decide to be Jewish or Buddhist, you're going to have to start all over again."
"I just don't know if I believe any of it," he said. "The Bible stories seem like they are just stories to me. Like somebody made them up for people too dumb to understand stuff like evolution. How can you tell if there is a God?"
That a crisis of faith should strike Joe was no surprise, considering his most recent dealings with God.
A grandfather, a grandmother, the father of a boy his own age -- blameless, benevolent figures in his life -- had died. The father of his best friend was battling cancer and so was a sweet, baby girl "cousin."
Where was God in all of this? Joe must have felt that there was nobody on the other end of the phone.
Even before Joe's faith, such as it is, was tested by tragedy, he was bored by religion. As soon as they stopped making crafts and serving snacks in Sunday school, as soon as they tried to teach instead of entertain, Joe and his friends began their rebellion.
Every Sunday morning in more households than mine, there are arguments unfit for those preparing for worship, and families go to meet God in a fury. Adolescents storm off to class and parents kneel in church, flushed, sweating, their minds fogged with a mix of anger and regret.
This has probably been true since Abraham's time. I can imagine Isaac dawdling and complaining all the way to the top of the mountain. Nothing is more boring to adolescents than the
preaching of adults.
Joe has tried everything to pass the time in Sunday school -- drawing elaborate doodles on his book or the palm of his hand, pulling out hidden soldiers or airplanes from his pockets.
I was suspicious of his cheerful cooperation last Sunday and then found that he had wired himself for sound.
Joe had tucked a radio in his jeans and run a tiny earpiece up the sleeve of his shirt and out his cuff. He sat with his cheek resting on the palm of his hand, listening to sports talk shows. His gleeful confession after church made me laugh in spite of myself.
Joe is not the only bored teen-ager in church, and I am not the only mother praying for patience. The conveyance of faith to the next generation is not going smoothly in any household I know.
A friend who is the mother of four bailed out of organized religion after the first bat mitzvah nearly killed her. She could not imagine doing it three more times. Now she spends Sunday mornings teaching her children to clean house. She feels that she is conveying a life skill -- and she has something to show for it. As distasteful as this is for the kids, it goes more smoothly than getting out the door for Hebrew school ever did.
Another woman friend shares Joe's uncertainty about the nature of God and isn't sure exactly what it is she is supposed to tell
her children. She goes to church and she gets the kids there as often as she is up for the battle. On her judgment day, she plans to tell St. Peter: "Hey. I'm sorry if I didn't get it, but I showed up. I was there."
But many more of my friends can think of nothing more unholy than to be trapped on narrow, hard benches with bored children in dress clothes.
Sunday mornings in those homes are languid and peaceful, scented with fresh coffee and the envy of the rest of us. A day of newspapers, soft music and a modest household chore or two seems heavenly to dual-career, rec-league sports parents who, unlike God, do not give themselves a day of rest.
"Joe," I said, turning my mind to the task his declaration presented me. "Whatever you think of the story of Noah's Ark or the story of Easter, you have to admit Jesus didn't have any bad ideas.
"Hang in there until you've learned what he had to teach about how people should live with each other. Then you will be confirmed, we will have a big party, you will make your grandmother cry happy tears and you will get lots of presents."
What I did not tell Joe was that confirmation will not resolve the debate going on inside his head over whether he is a Christian, whether the Bible stories are more than stories.
It is merely a bon voyage party for his awakening soul, the send-off for a journey that will last his whole life.
Pub Date: 11/10/96