Monday, February 25, 2008

Poetry as Prayer

Another Mark Jarman poem for your Lenten enjoyment:

Unholy Sonnet #17
God like a kiss, God like a welcoming,
God like a hand guiding another hand
And raising it or making it descend,
God like the pulse point and its silent drumming,
And the tongue going to it, God like the humming
Of pleasure if the skin felt it as sound,
God like the hidden wanting to be found
And like the joy of being and becoming.
And God the understood, the understanding,
And God the pressure trying to relieve,
What is not pain but names itself with weeping,
And God the rush of time and God time standing,
And God the touch body and soul believe,
And God the secret neither one is keeping.
---Questions for Ecclesiastes

This is the God I believe in. This is the God I have experienced in my life. This is the God I love.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Just in Time for Valentine's...

By now, those of you who are paying attention know that I’ve been divorced twice.

It is very fashionable, on both the left and the right, to talk about people who blithely get married with the idea that they can “just get divorced if it doesn’t work out.”

Maybe you know someone this callous and foolish, but---like the fabled woman who goes out shopping/partying after having an abortion---I’ve never met one.

People may end their marriages for reasons that you (or even I) find insufficiently grave, but I don’t think most people start their marriages thinking the relationship will end. I believe that, in many ways, getting married is the ultimate demonstration of faith---the hope, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that true love exists and can be claimed in this life.

That was certainly my take on marriage. Both times I made my vows, I did it with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Both times, that wasn’t enough.

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I started this post because two priests I really admire, Father Jake and Mother Elizabeth, recently said this in the comments section of Father Jake's blog: “I don’t believe in divorce.” (I wish I had copied links to their comments, but I didn't. Mea culpa.)

Their statements got me thinking…

What does it mean to say you “don’t believe in divorce”?

And what are the spiritual and social implications if you say you do?

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I also decided to write this post because I’m tired of being the whipping girl for my friends on the left in the Current Unpleasantness over the full inclusion of GLBTs in the life of the church.

You see, I’ve noticed that the first thing progressives like to do when conservatives yammer about homosexuality being contrary to scripture is pull out The Divorce Card.

You know... “Well Jesus said divorce was wrong, but you never talk about that because so many fundangelicals are divorced...you big bunch of hypocrites!”

I understand this impulse---truly I do. Especially from those who actually are GLBT, and are unable to get married to begin with. It must seem like the greatest hypocrisy of all for the bibliolators to sanction divorce (even while deploring it rhetorically), while doing everything, up to and including destroying the church, to deny GLBTs their place in it.

I understand the desire to play tit-for-tat. I am a former fundagelical myself, and I am much better versed in the Bible than your average bear. There is plenty of scripture we can use to bash one another over the head, and the temptation to engage in proof-texting is well-nigh irresistible, given the hateful rhetoric that is bandied about in Christ’s name.

But there is something hurtful about being hit over the head, repeatedly, with my relationship failures by those who proclaim themselves to be loving and inclusive.

Recently, a regular contributor at Father Jake’s---a gay man whose writing and gentle heart I truly admire---made the comment that those who divorce betray Christ. It was like a completely unexpected slap in the face from someone you’ve always considered a friend.

I got divorced the first time because both my emotional health and my physical health (think 1991 and the threat of AIDS…) were in danger. I got divorced the second time because I came (this close) to killing myself out of despair.

Did I betray Christ by saving my life? And, if I did, what does that say about Christ?

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By now, I can see you shaking your head and saying “Somebody’s got ISSUES!”, and that is undoubtedly correct.

To be clear, however, I’m not asking for absolution or a Get Out of Marriage Free card. My priest offered me the former, without my asking---and, as those of you who have done it or witnessed it know, there ain’t no such thing as getting out of a marriage “free.”

I did not enter marriage lightly---and both times, I have left it, battered and bruised in heart and spirit, if not in body.

I am asking those who make blanket statements about divorce to think long and hard about what they mean---and what wounds they may be opening, or salting, by their words.

And I am asking myself to think seriously about what divorce means from a spiritual perspective.

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Although, as I have noted, I have a pretty strong biblical background, I decided it might be helpful to go back to the scriptures and see what Jesus really said about divorce.

I got a big surprise.

I actually thought I had a biblical “out” for my first divorce, since my gay ex was repeatedly unfaithful to me. Most people instantly give me a “pass” on my first marriage when they find out why it ended.

But upon re-reading the Gospel texts, I noted something interesting. Jesus gives an “out” to MEN...not to women. Almost all of his injunctions about divorce are aimed at men.

Matthew 5:31-32
31. 'It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'
32. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

And this one:

Matthew 19: 3-9
3. Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?"
4. He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,'
5. and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?
6. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
7. They said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?"
8. He said to them, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
9. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery."

But here's the kicker:

Mark 10:2-12
2. Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"
3. He answered them, "What did Moses command you?"
4. They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her."
5. But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.
6. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.'
7. 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,
8. and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
9. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
10. Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.
11. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;
12. and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (italics are mine)
So a man has the “right” to divorce if his wife is unfaithful---but there is no similar right for women. Apparently any woman who divorces her husband and remarries commits adultery. Period.

So much for "in Christ there is neither male nor female..."!

You can reinterpret those passages all you like---can tell me that Jesus really meant this to improve the lot of women who were at the mercy of their husbands' whims, or that this passage was added later and Jesus probably didn’t say it.

But on the scriptural evidence that I've got, not even Jesus is on my side.

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So who, exactly, “believes in divorce”?

Well, having done it twice now, I guess I do. Both times, in some sense, my life depended on it.

Which leads me to some questions I want to ask. Before I ask my questions, however, I feel compelled to state one important thing: I firmly believe in commitment and fidelity.

If I didn’t, I would never have gotten married in the first place.

I know full well that every relationship has its doldrums and hard times, and that working through those difficult periods can bring personal growth and restore happiness to a relationship that seemed moribund. I don't advocate running at the first, or second, or even tenth sign of trouble.

But I also know from experience that there are commitments that can kill you---either physically or emotionally---if you honor them. And I will state categorically (again by virtue of experience), only the individuals involved are in a position to evaluate whether that point has been reached.

So my questions to you are these:

  1. Why is it a “godly” thing to stay in a relationship in which you are miserable? Do you get extra points in heaven for being wretched and staying anyway?

  2. What do you do when you are in a relationship where one person sees the other as the only source of marital problems, and isn’t willing to take any responsibility for improving things? Why does God expect you to stay in a relationship where you take all the blame, but can’t “fix” the problem?
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I didn’t “believe in divorce.”

I got divorced, anyway. Twice.

The funny thing is that I still believe in love. Still believe in commitment and fidelity. Still long for the feeling of connection that---at its best---only the regular, intimate contact of “marriage” (however you define that relationship) can bring.

My idealism is demonstrated by the fact that I am in a new relationship.

We have both failed at marriage, and we are wary of any attempts by others to force our relationship to fit some predetermined mold. We have agreed to be faithful to one another---and we are content to enjoy each day, because we know that there are no guarantees of happy endings.

There is love and joy, despite our bad experiences. Because we believe in miracles and mercy and grace. How could we not, seeing that we are both people of faith?

What would Jesus say to us, I wonder?

Would he tell us that we have forfeited our right to love and happiness because we could not make our marriages work?

Would he call the happiness and delight I feel in life these days a sinful mirage, because I have found it outside marriage?

I do not want to answer those questions glibly, because I feel, in my heart of hearts, that much of the relationship between God and humanity rests on a willingness to take relationships and covenants seriously.

But, somehow I doubt that Jesus would tell me that I've had my shot at love and don't get another. Somehow, I think the last thing in the world Jesus was out to do was to consign people to lovelessness.

OCICBW....

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If you have never heard Eva Cassidy’s rendition of Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” please go and listen. The first time I heard it, I wept. It sums up so poignantly for me the story of my failures, and my hopes for the future:

I never made promises lightly,
And there have been some that I've broken--
But I swear, in the days still left,
We'll walk in fields of gold.

Happy Valentine's Day. May you and the beloved ones in your lives walk in fields of gold.

UPDATE: Alcibiades, over at Caliban's Dream, has written an amazing and heart-wrenching follow-on to this post. Please don't miss it.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Dissatisfied

There are days when I ask myself why I bother with this faith business. Goodness knows that it causes me no end of frustration---and convicts me every time I turn around.

But the truth is, I really seem to have no choice in the matter.

You may have gathered from things I've written before that I am a poetry fan. One of my very favorite poets is Mark Jarman, a professor at my grad school alma mater, Vanderbilt University. Jarman has written some of the poems that best capture my longing for, and my relationship to, God, including this one:

Unholy Sonnets: 11
Half asleep in prayer I said the right thing
And felt a sudden pleasure come into
The room or my own body. In the dark,
Charged with a change of atmosphere, at first
I couldn’t tell my body from the room.
And I was wide awake, full of this feeling,
Alert as though I’d heard a doorknob twist,
A drawer pulled, and instead of terror knew
The intrusion of an overwhelming joy.
I had said thanks and this was the response.
But how I said it or what I said it for
I still cannot recall and I have tried
All sorts of ways all hours of the night.
Once was enough to be dissatisfied.

---Questions for Ecclesiastes (bolding is mine)
I appear to be destined to be dissatisfied. Always longing for the ineffable. Always searching for the "right thing" to say that will bring a response. Always hoping for a repeat of that "intrusion of an overwhelming joy."

I am both blessed and cursed---alert, full of feeling, and anxious to know what it is that has entered my heart, mind, and soul.

This state of dissatisfaction is not all bad, of course. In truth, I have come to mistrust satisfaction. I have come to recognize that feeling content with my relationship to God is the surest sign that I am avoiding the hard work of kenosis.

That's why I love Lent so much. It brings me face to face with myself. Shakes me out of my complacency tree and spurs me to be honest with myself about where I am with God and with my neighbors.

This Lent, my focus is on honesty. I struggle to be a good steward of my time, and to be honest "in my daily life and work," as the BCP liturgy for Ash Wednesday says. I struggle to live an integrated life, in which I am the same person in all contexts.

In some ways, I am struggling to be the wonderful person that Jasper and Grendel think I am...

I wish this were easy. Sometimes I even wish that being a person of integrity didn't matter to me. I know people who see honesty and integrity as weaknesses. I've even voted for some of them... ;-)

But I have heard the call. I have known the intrusion of overwhelming joy. I am dissatisfied, and I have no choice.

I pray that the God of grace and mercy will give me the courage and the strength to respond. I pray that Doxy and Paige will be the same person online and in real life. I pray that I will live up to Jasper's and Grendel's good opinion of me.

I pray that I will never be satisfied if it means that I will be less than God's vision for me.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

My Favorite Day

My favorite day on the church calendar is coming up this week. I am a freak who loves Ash Wednesday.

For many years---long before I became an Episcopalian---I observed Lent. Most of my sorority sisters in college were Roman Catholic, and they introduced me to the practice. I immediately fell in love with the idea of it.

There was something about the idea of a penitential season that resonated for me. Maybe it just fit in all too well with my fundagelical background, but I got it. I practiced fasting and abstinence from things I really liked for about 10 years before I ever joined a faith community that "did" Lent.

Before that happened, the Ash Wednesday service was the only one I ever attended. For probably five years, I would sneak into Christ Church in downtown Nashville for the noon service, walk out with ashes on my forehead, and stay away until the following year.

It sort of shocks me now to think that I never allowed Easter to come...

I look forward to Wednesday. I will fast the whole day, because it is something I feel called to do. I will attend the service where my dear friend will preach and make the mark of the cross on my forehead. I will enter into this beloved season once again, hoping to deepen my relationship with God---and knowing that all my hopes for it will be disappointed, as they are every year.

But I believe there is something holy about even my failures. I want to know God---want to find that soul-deep connection with the Creator of this vast, incredibly beautiful universe. Want to be better and do better, despite everything in my life that would tell me the desire is a vain one.

I keep trying. I hope that counts for something.

I haven't settled on my Lenten discipline this year. I've learned that giving up things is easier than taking them on---which tells me that I should do the latter, if I really want to get something out of Lent. But we shall see...

I wish for you a holy Lent---one where you find God in all your brokenness and weakness. One where you learn that God loves you, even at your worst---and that God calls you to be your best.

And at the end of it, there will be Easter for all of us---including me. There was a time when I did not allow Easter to come---then a time when I saw no hope for resurrection in my life. Those days are past, thanks be to God.

I know now that there is life after Lent---and that there was, is, and always will be love during it.