I cannot tell the story of growing up evangelical (and being so glad for it) without first telling the story of my family. So, in this section, you’ll meet them and I’ll talk a lot about how we were raised and how foundational that was to my faith experience. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the way I grew up as a woman in the church–and what a great experience that was.
(Also, a note: I don’t have lots of good growing-up pictures on my computer, but I wanted to add some family pics to this post. You’ll have to put up with the more recent Ortberg shots, though we are not nearly as cute now as we used to be.)
We did not listen to Christian music in our family growing up. This disclosure surprised a number of people later in life, but I remember resonating with Frank Scheffer in Crazy for God when he talked about his mother’s pursuit of beauty in art–music, visual arts, writing–and how that didn’t always land them on Christian expressions of art. Instead, he wrote, the idea was that all expressions of art were somehow Christian, because in art we seek for truth and in truth we find Christ. It wasn’t so explicitly put in our family, but the result was the same: the cassette player in the green minivan was a rotation of Dan Fogelberg and Peter, Paul, and Mary and, inexplicably (unless you know my mother), an album of satirical songs by Christine Lavin declaring her independence as a woman from the men who had wronged her. Savage Garden, Billy Joel, the Beatles, and the Carpenters shared play time on our CD player at home with the result that, to this day, I know every word and inflection of Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits and can’t hear “Truly Madly Deeply” without also seeing the wriggling dance Mom did from the driver’s seat in accompaniment.
My friends now who grew up listening to Newsboys and Audio Adrenaline and Steven Curtis Chapman have another kind of history to draw on, and I don’t want to suggest that it is a bad thing. But this is one small window into the way that I grew up aware of all the goodness and beauty in the world around me, knowing that it was by no means limited to what we called “Christian.” Nichole Nordeman’s album “This Mystery” was a notable exception–I listened to that CD for hours on end, hitting repeat once “Why” had reached its final note, and still am grateful for the richness and honesty of her wrestling with God through music. I hadn’t thought about this until now, but when I was eighteen and had the Hebrew word for “mystery” tattooed just beneath my right ankle, it couldn’t have been without some kind of mental reference to the significance of that music to me.
We prayed together regularly–every night before dinner, and also at moments when something came up. The prayers weren’t formal or overlong or meant to be impressive, and that helped me a great deal as I formed my understanding of prayer as an adult. Sometimes we would hold hands and close our eyes; often we would hold hands and keep our eyes open as Mom’s tumble of words or Dad’s slower gratitudes made their way around the table. Dad was fond of quoting Dallas Willard: “Whoever got the idea that we should close our eyes when we pray must have been a third-grade teacher trying to get control of her classroom.” I often pray with my eyes open now.
There was never an expectation of perfection in our family. I have spoken with and heard from so many children of pastors (and both of my parents were pastors–more on pastor stuff tomorrow) whose downfall was the burden of expectations placed on them to be better than the other kids–more well-behaved, more knowledgeable, less outspoken. And for as long as I can remember, our parents operated from a completely different philosophy about how kids should be able to develop. We were all given so much space to be ourselves as we grew; there was almost no pressure at all to be a certain kind of person or kid because of what our parent’s did. My mom would regularly voice frustration with being called a “pastor’s wife;” by extension, we never had to think of ourselves as “pastor’s kids.” Our parents had great jobs that they loved–that was far more instructive to all of us than being told to dress properly, keep quiet, and respond with total politeness and all the right answers. As the decorous older sister, this embarrassed me at times–my brother would lay down on the floor at the airport while we waited for a flight and no one chastised him! Mom would (infamously) wear grey ankle-cuffed sweatpants and brown loafers to take us shopping at Kohl’s–wasn’t she aware we could run into someone we KNEW? I was the image-conscious kid who wanted us to look perfect, and I needed the freedom from pressure more than I even knew. Without that freedom, I could well have been another evangelical horror story.
One story perfectly captures this inclination towards freedom which, to my mom especially, meant following your giftedness rather than ideas of what we should or shouldn’t be doing. I was in the front seat of the car and Mallory, my younger sister, piped in from the back about the voice lessons she had just taken.
“Mom,” I said. “I think I want to take voice lessons, too!”
It was quiet for a moment. Then, gently, Mom replied: “I just don’t think that’s your gift, sweetheart. But we can find you something else!”
I was crushed in the moment. Why could Mallory do this thing and I was denied it? But it didn’t take long for me to get over it, to remember that I can’t sing to save my life and no amount of lessons would change that. But there were other things I was good at, other things I could do and ways I could serve. So I did those things–and I’m so glad I did.
We spent several Thanksgivings at a homeless shelter on the South Side of Chicago, plopping ladles of mashed potatoes and green beans onto styrofoam plates. We saw our parents give money to people on the streets who asked, saw them talk with those folks in a way that showed us we weren’t so different from them. My dad would often walk away from those interactions a bit teary, saying something I often think about now: “They were someone’s baby once. They were born to parents and had a childhood. That was someone’s child.” He would squeeze us close and we would know that part of God’s cry for justice had just been expressed, and that we had a lot of work ahead of us to make that happen. Politics, when they were discussed, were talked about civilly, and there was no assumption that being Christian meant belonging to one party or another.
Words were our currency and language; an Ortberg without a love of reading was as unthinkable as an Illinois winter with temperate weather. We all read different things and at different paces, but we all read. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my sister and I on either side of our dad, on his bed, while he read Cheaper by the Dozen and The Hobbit out loud, voices and all. Just two days ago he read from The Pilgrim’s Progress, which we are going through as a family. We loved and revered words because they could capture the fleeting beauty of the world that we had not yet seen or had not recognized or had not been able to speak of ourselves. It was not uncommon for Mom or Dad to read an especially lyrical passage from Pat Conroy or Fred Buechner as a prayer over dinner.
There is so much more here–my mom’s story of going to church with her grandmother growing up, the pressure toward perfectionism that my dad grew up with and had to unlearn in adulthood, the generations of faithful people who came before them and landed us where we all were. I wish I had the time and space here to tell those stories, although I suspect that someday I’ll get around to it. But for now, these things will serve to frame the story of growing up evangelical–the joy of family life, the freedom to be who we were and no one else, the love of beauty in all its forms and the belief that where beauty was, there was God and where God is, there is truth and freedom. That is what I walked into the church with, what was imprinted onto my soul far before any youth group made its mark on me.