I am paddling my way through a long book. “Far From the Tree” by Andrew Solomon explores identity by studying families where parents and children face radically different daily realities. Chapters have one-word titles: Deaf, Dwarfs, Autisim, Prodigies, Crime. Solomon presents the struggles that come at the crossroads of vertical and horizontal identities.
Vertical identities encompass traits that match those of our parents. Horizontal identities entail those parts of us that are distinct from our parents. How do relationships work when there are stark contrasts between the two? How do we navigate loving well those whose experiences do not, cannot, match our own?
Is deafness a deficit or a culture? Should parents learn sign or insist on lip reading? In a family with average height and dwarf children, should light switches and sinks be lowered? Who should be inconvenienced or accommodated?
Solomon bluntly states a truth we often don’t want to admit, “Whereas families tend to reinforce vertical identities from earliest childhood, many will oppose horizontal ones. Vertical identities are usually respected as identities, horizontal ones are often treated as flaws.” When those closest to us find their sense of self in ways that are alien to us, it feels like judgment or rejection.
As I read, I began to wonder if our church family isn’t living in the crosshairs where vertical and horizontal identities intersect. Are our children claiming a horizontal identity that feels like a rejection of the vertical one we’ve worked so hard to reinforce? If so, are we naming it flawed when we should respect it?
A friend asked me if I thought my children would remain in the church after they leave the confines of our vertically Christian home. I don’t know. I trust God is at work in them. I think the answer to her question, however, depends at least in part on whether or not the church sees their post-modern, pluralistic, horizontal identity as flawed or worthy of affirmation.
My children did not choose the culture that surrounds them. They are digital natives. They have classmates from many backgrounds. Their uncle is gay and just celebrated his tenth wedding anniversary. Some of their friends have two mommies or two daddies. My oldest went to a camp with a spirit week that included “Gender Bender Day.” Their father and I share household chores. All their grandparents are divorced and remarried. They’ve never gone to a gate at the airport without a boarding pass. The United States has been at war for almost the entirety of their lives.
All of these things shape their horizontal identity. None of them they chose. Perhaps that is why my youngest asks why people care who other people marry. Maybe therein is a clue as to why sitting still and quiet for an hour of worship feels excruciating. It isn’t a stretch to figure out why religious claims of exclusivity, no matter which religion makes them, are concerning to them. No wonder they hear the news and question the efficacy of prayer.
So where does that leave us? Who do we accommodate? What can we affirm, even if we don’t fully understand or agree? Can we love them in all that is unlike us and still grieve the things we wish we had in common?
In the end, Solomon discovers a basic truth. He writes, “The timeworn adage says that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, meaning that a child resembles his or her parents; these children are apples that have fallen elsewhere — some a couple of orchards away, some on the other side of the world. Yet myriad families learn to tolerate, accept, and finally celebrate children who are not what they originally had in mind.”
That sounds like Pentecost. It is certainly the work of the Spirit. God has a church in mind that does not always match our vision. In many ways it will not be like us. Can we accept this unexpected, horizontal identity? Will we recognize our shared vertical identity, the one bestowed on us in our baptism? I pray we see in the intersection of the two the reconciling cross of Jesus Christ and celebrate together.
Grace and peace,