Monday, August 26, 2013

Unholy Alliance: Thoughts on Being Married to an Unbeliever

An older couple sit three rows away from me. They are church regulars. He gallantly hands her into the pew each Sunday. I envy them. A woman attends the later service with her daughter and two granddaughters. Three generations of Episcopalians together in their Sunday dresses. I envy them. A young couple, both choir members, kiss before the procession. I envy them.

Am I a confirmed malcontent, fixated on the sixth deadly sin? If only it were that easy. I am married to a non-believer. I go to church alone. Have always done so, will be alone in my pew until I can go no more. The hour or so that I spend at church each Sunday is the happiest of my week. The words of Scripture feed me. The prayers lift me up. Communion transforms me. I return to my very happy home and that’s the end of it.

To be fair to us, we had been friends for several years and felt comfortable enough with each other to marry without a lot of discussion or planning. And, in even more fairness, our marriage has lasted 37 years and has been generally peaceful. We do not “fight” about religion. He acknowledges that I will go to church every Sunday though he cannot understand why. I accept that he will make fun of religious practices and beliefs and I mostly refrain from countering these remarks.

It’s more than a truce. It’s a mutual understanding of our different needs and positions. He resents (just a bit) the time I spend at church and church activities. I am stung by his smugness. I can understand his unbelief but wish it would change into belief. He thinks my belief is merely a need for “socializing.” We have a 37 year long stalemate.

You will advise me to pray for him and I do. I pray that he will find some sort of faith in his lifetime, not because I think he will suffer eternal punishment for his unbelief, but because I love him and want him to feel the love of God as I do.  How can the most important thing in my life be something I can’t share?

Would I change anything? Yes, I’m sorry to say that I would. 

If I had it to do over again, I’m afraid I might have waited for someone who could have shared my faith, someone who would have served on the Vestry, led a youth group, helped saw down the trees damaged from a summer storm. I would love to be able to talk about the homily, giggle at Mrs. Paulsen's new hat, share concern for an elderly parishioner who is more and more frail each week.

Yet, this is the life I am living and I know that God is with me every day. I know that whatever reason there is that I can’t share my faith with my husband, it’s a good reason and I have to play my part in the story that I am writing of my life.

I don’t believe in predetermination. For me, there are many paths and partners that anyone might choose in life. Some things are best undone and some are best left to flourish in their own way and for their own reasons. If you are considering a relationship with someone who is far outside your beliefs, I’d advise you to think long and hard about it. After you do, however, know that there is really no comprehending the loving purposes of God and no grasping the possibilities of even our imperfect human love. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Blessed Company of All Faithful People

I've been a member of my current church for almost 20 years now. Because of moving around, this is the longest I've ever been with a particular parish. My longevity here has tried me in many ways, a few of which have been unexpected.

It’s predictable that a priest might move on and the parish will be disrupted by a series of interim priests and the search for a permanent replacement. It’s also a given that the music director, faith formation director and parish secretary will change. It was an effort, but I managed to stay neutral on these transitions.

I am not a friendly person. I don’t have friends, or not many. Long friendships tend to frighten me and I can feel crowded very easily. Seeing the same people week after week at church gives me comfort though. I recognize their faith and love them as souls. We smile at each other, pass the peace, chat about the weather or that sweet new Jensen baby.

Occasionally, I will be part of a group and get to know some of my fellow parishioners a bit better. There will be some discussion at Sunday forum and some talk afterwards. Twenty years of this and I find myself with much deeper connections than I had planned. Then comes the hard part.

Betty’s husband dies. I only met him once but I know Betty very well having served on a peace committee together. I attend the funeral. She is strong. A year or two later Jerry’s wife is found to have a serious tissue disease. He is afraid. I am, too. They love each other so much. The world will break if he loses her.

Marion’s husband dies. I’ve met him many times. They attend Stations of the Cross all through Lent as I do. We have a bond, a Lenten bond. Next year she’ll be coming alone. Then Randy dies. It’s sudden. He’s another member of our peace committee and organized a care package project for our troops in Iraq. I loved and admired him. Of course, I never told him. Maybe I gave him a bigger smile one Sunday. I hope so.

Jim and Stella have been at this parish since its founding almost 50 years ago. Both very active and vocal at church and on all committees, they are now old and frail. He cannot come to church anymore and I think it's a matter of days before she will no longer join us on Sunday morning. How can I bear this! My clever plan of never having to face loss by never having close friends has failed. Church has opened me up. It has worn away all my hardness. How did this happen?

I look around church and see the empty spaces. I look at people who are growing older, who are now limping, whose hands have begun to shake and it feels like a knife to my heart. How many more can I lose? These people, who 20 years ago were just pleasant faces and kindly handshakes, have become necessary to me.

But there’s a bonus. That sweet Jensen baby from several paragraphs above and 12 years ago is now about to be confirmed. She is a force of nature in our parish, participates in every Christmas pageant, every possible youth activity and wrote a magnificent blog on a recent trip to the Holy Land. My many years at this church have taken precious ones from me but have also brought new fresh blessings.

If you belong to a church, I have to warn you that certain things will happen to you. You might think you’re there for the liturgy, the sacraments, the music, or even the homilies, but you are in for a lot more than that. God does some crazy stuff with his faithful people. The Spirit moves when you aren't looking and when you look into the ancient face of one or the tiny baby face of another, you just might see the face of Christ looking back at you. No turning back then.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Praying Twice

An old Sunday School song went like this: “If you say a prayer it’s nice, but when you sing you’re praying twice.” Sources are unsure about the origin of this truism. Some like to attribute it to Augustine of Hippo, but it’s hard to envision the great theologian coming up with something so simple and cheery. In any case, hymns are certainly prayers. They resonate in a way that many forms of worship cannot. I often volunteer at a nursing home and when it’s time for religious services, elderly residents who never speak, never even look up at anyone, will sing along word for word with hymns.

I also like hymns and have found a very irreligious use for the practice. Hymns can make house and garden chores go faster and more pleasantly. Singing while working can add the benefit of prayer (or so I tell myself) to a very mundane task. But… not all hymns are suited for all tasks.

The object of this post will be to list which hymns go with which tasks. Please note that the content of the hymns assigned here have nothing to do with the tasks. Our hymnals are sadly lacking in hymns about scrubbing floors or pruning shrubbery. My assignment of tasks with hymns are based purely on the rhythm of the hymn and the rhythm of the job. So here goes. Numbers are from the 1982 Episcopal Hymnbook.

Scrubbing anything           Praise to the Lord #390
                                       sing along 
Polishing Silver                O Master Let Me Walk with Thee #660
                                       sing along

Dusting                           Breathe on Me Breath of God #508
                                      sing along

Vacuuming                     To Be a Pilgrim (aka He Who Would Valiant Be) #565
                                       sing along

Weeding                         I Went Down to the River to Pray (not in hymnal but worth finding it)
                                             or Veni Creatur (coolest if you sing in Latin)
                                             sing along with Allison Kraus
                                             sing in Latin
Ironing                             All Things Bright and Beautiful #405
                                        sing along  
Lawn Mowing                  For All the Saints (if you weep a bit, it won’t matter; no one will see) #287
                                        sing along

Washing Windows           I Sing a Song of the Saints of God #293
                                        sing along

Pruning anything               Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, especially the bridge (Christ be with me, Christ within     me etc) #370

I have tested all these hymns with the tasks assigned many times and can absolutely guarantee that each will match the task perfectly. If I didn't include your favorite hymn, I think you have a solid enough foundation now to apply whatever hymn you choose to the task at hand.

A word about Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. This bridge section departs significantly from the melody of the hymn and is particularly suited to pruning or anything that has to take place in short bursts, like digging out buckthorn. It is well suited to jobs with sharp tools.

The best part of all this is that you can now find any hymn on You Tube (see above) so you can have accompaniment via your mobile device, if desired. Now you can take the exhortation to “pray always” seriously. What are you waiting for? Get to work. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Which Came First? Redemption or Sin?

We humans love a sequence of events. It rains and the flowers grow. You cheated on me so I’m breaking up with you. Discerning cause and effect is both satisfying and necessary to our sanity. Great historical events have causes; we will argue about the cause of just about anything, but we always need a cause. World War II was caused by World War I; the recession of 2008 was caused by speculation in real estate.  But what about the Incarnation of Our Lord? What is the sequence of events for this?

When Jesus told the parable of the wicked tenants (or the absentee landlord), was he delineating a cause and event scenario as a metaphor of his own Incarnation and eventual death? I will begin by arguing in favor of this conclusion and end by arguing against it.

In the parable, a landlord goes away to a foreign land for a long time. He sends a series of agents to collect his share of the produce but each representative is either beaten or killed. In frustration and as a last resort, the landlord sends his own son to collect, thinking that surely the tenants will obey him and do the right thing, but his son, too, is put to death.

If we use this parable as a proxy for Christ’s Incarnation, we conclude that humankind were continually and stubbornly in error, and God, after his prophets failed to reform us, determined to send his son to finally straighten humanity out. Despite fire, flood, covenant, laws, prosperity, prophets and exile, human beings continued in error. The Incarnation was God’s last ditch effort to save his sinful creatures. This view ties neatly into our catechism teaching that Christ died for our sins and redeemed all mankind forever. The theory of cause and effect is served. We can feel more or less responsible, more or less grateful as our inclinations lie.

The problem with this interpretation of our history is that God does not follow a linear timeline. Human beings who wrote the Bible and who teach religion class do, but not God. An all-knowing God would just be kidding himself if he did. He would have to pretend not to see everything always. God sees all time at once. Humans use time to organize experience but God does not require this tool. God is outside of time and beyond it.

God’s decision, therefore, to send his Son to earth was not made under duress. It was the result of neither frustration with us nor desperation for our salvation. God did not look at humanity in 4 AD and say “I’ve tried everything else I might as well try this. You’re up, Son” The Incarnation was not God’s response to man’s sinfulness but his plan for sharing eternal life. It was not an act of frustration. It was an act of love.

I acknowledge that the sequence of events leading up to the Incarnation as recited in all the Eucharistic Prayers implies the popularly held imperatives of sinful mankind bringing about the need for Redemption. This is a traditional retelling of our history, but I believe we need to look deeper into how we know God.

The Incarnation was always going to happen. It was in the plan from the first moment of creation. No amount of sinfulness, no amount of goodness, no amount of repentance could have delayed or hurried it by one day. The God described in Psalm 139 whose

                               “…eyes beheld my unformed substance.
                                In your book were written all the
                                days that were formed for me
                                When none of them as yet existed.”               

always knew our need for redemption.

Our all-knowing God who forgives our sins before they’re committed, who hears our prayers before they’re uttered, needs no cues from us to send his Son to earth. God was not punting when he sent Jesus. God was acting according to his original will. Because people needed to believe that he was the Son of God, Jesus posits a sequence of events in this parable. People needed to identify him with the son in the story. But this narrative device should not blind us to the greater truth.

The nagging question here is that, if God always knew we would need Redemption, did he then create us to be sinful? Religion teachers are outraged when students ask this (trust me, I know). God certainly created us as we are. He created grass to grow and then to die. He created stars to shine and then to fade. He created us with our will, with our desires, with our freedom. An all-knowing God could not have fooled himself into thinking we would never be seduced by these things. But God knew he would win us back. He had an ace up his sleeve in the person of Jesus.

That’s why I believe that our Redemption was always assured. God did not create us to lose us. God was no gambler. His love, which will prove irresistible to every one of us in the end, could not allow us to dangle on the edge of any amount of sin. Our story has only one way to end.  

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from

T.S. Eliot Little Gidding