“Why did you do that?? Seriously Dad.”
It was late summer 2011, and we were driving back to Atlanta from the North Carolina reunion of Becca’s mostly Southern Baptist extended family. Even though we differ about as much as can be imagined in politics and religion, it’s a family I’m grateful for. It’s a real pleasure to watch each other raise families and get older.
As we drove, Becca and I did our usual post-game show in the front seat, with the kids chiming in from the back. At one point we hit on something that happened at dinner on the last night.
That’s when I learned that I had embarrassed my fifteen-year-old son.
“It was so awkward,” he said.
Ah. I really should have seen that coming. “I guess so. But I don’t mind a little awkwardness. Helps break the ice sometimes.”
“But this didn’t break ice!” he said, exasperated. “It MADE ice!”
Though it’s almost never mentioned, my worldview seems to be common knowledge in the family. I don’t push too many points, but neither do I leave the lowest-hanging fruit completely unplucked. Most of all, I follow the advice I give in workshops: be out and normal. Act as if there’s nothing unusual about the religious and nonreligious sharing a world, a country, a family, a table, a marriage, a friendship. There isn’t, of course. What’s unusual is for religious people to know they are sharing all these things with nonbelievers, all the time. It’s a good opportunity to see that the world spins on.
Whenever I have to figure out whether and what to say or do this or that as an atheist among the religious, I tend to operate from that one principle: be out and normal. Things usually go just fine. Once in a while, though, I end up embarrassing the progeny.
After that last supper (stop it), the family patriarch, a good-humored Baptist minister in his 70s, gave away some prizes he’d brought with him — T-shirts, pins, that sort of thing. He asked everyone to write down a number between 1 and 100. We all did.
“Now,” he said, “what I didn’t tell you is that each of the numbers I’ll read off has something to do with me.” He smiled. “The first number is…73. That’s my age.” Woohoo, someone hollered, and won a T-shirt.
Next he called the first two digits in his address, then his phone number, then his Social Security Number, giving away prizes to the closest number for each.
Then came the finale. With a bit of ceremony, he produced a small wooden box. He told a story of being approached by a man who was raising money for local church kids to go to camp, something like that. He’s a good storyteller and loves an audience, so when at length he opened the hinged box and revealed the contents, he got himself a nice Ooooooo from the congregation.
It was an unusual pendant, a chain of copper-colored beads, and hanging at the end, a large black cross with splayed ends, a kind of extended Coptic cross. It was made of black glass, maybe obsidian, with swirls of metallic blue and copper.
“Now,” he said. “I want you to write down another number between 1 and 100 to see who gets this cross.”
I could claim that I hesitated a moment, that I pondered what to do, whether to participate, but no. Instead, I did what the other 45 people in the room did — I wrote a number on the back of a piece of paper and folded it up. That was the normal thing to do. But this is the moment that was shortly to embarrass my fine boy.
When at last Uncle Bill raised his fingers to indicate the number he had chosen, I hoped that the family atheist was not the only one in the room who figured that a Baptist minister giving away a cross would choose the number 3.
But I was.
As I unfolded the paper and slowly raised it for all to see, a small gasp went up in the room, or in my head, I’m not sure which. Pastor Bill’s face went ashen, and he looked down, then up again, and sighed, then smiled resignedly. “Okay. It’s yours.”
Here’s where “be out and normal” breaks down a bit. It’s hard to quickly figure out the “normal” way for an atheist among Baptists to accept a cross that he has won by way of religious insight from a minister who is also his wife’s uncle. But it’s not hard to figure out why the same moment embarrasses the atheist’s teenage son, sitting at a table with his Baptist cousins.
That I get.
Still, I can’t picture myself doing it differently — like not writing a number down, or taking Connor’s later advice — “You could have just not shown it!”
But I did show it. And I accepted the cross respectfully, praised the craftsmanship — it really is a striking piece — and later restored color to the pastor’s face by telling him I would give it to his devout sister in recognition of her 20 years as my mother-in-law.
Worth an awkward moment, I think — even if my boy would disagree.