A friend explained to me yesterday why she, a born-and-bred Catholic, is faithfully attending adult education classes at her UCC church, asking hard questions, giving the pastor blunt answers, and otherwise being a rabble-rouser. “I want to know what I believe before I die,” she said. “I don’t want simply to fall back on what I was taught.”
My in-laws call the list of things they want to do before they die their “bucket list.” I admire anyone who thinks through what might bring their life fulfillment and then sets out to achieve those things before they “kick the bucket.” I like the intention of a bucket list, how death helps us put life in perspective and encourages us to manifest dreams, live our values, and seek out significance. The majority of people who hire me as a writing coach give some version of this explanation: “I’m not a writer, I don’t know why I’m writing this, but I have to create something of this story before I die.” Our mortality goads us into hard but meaningful labor. I like working with people who have death at their backs. The stakes are high.
My friend’s bucket item strikes me as particularly rich. Christianity gives the impression of being a set of doctrines that believers must claim and adhere to, but in fact the opposite is true. Reciting a creed or falling back on what we were taught or accepting without question any of the church’s teachings is simply not a life of faith. But engaging whole-heartedly in meaningful questions, and staking your actions on your beliefs, is. “Who do you say that I am?” Christ asked the disciples, and continues to ask each of us.
We answer with our lives. Some people find Christianity a gruesome religion, but I like how Jesus’ story puts death at our backs, and so makes our seeking significant. What’s in your bucket?
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Ages ago, when I was in the messy middle of coming out bisexual (I felt raw and unformed because I was not the person others had thought me to be; I railed against God for making this world such a difficult place to be honest in) I read a passage my spiritual director Cil Braun had written in a newsletter: “God is not static. God is in constant creation, constantly being created. We are not static, either. We are in constant creation.” Yes, I thought; I am being created. At the time it felt wretched. Looking back I know coming out was gloriously, divinely formative.
“Discomfort is the nerve ending of growth,” Jonathan Rowe writes. Kids know this viscerally when growing pains wrench their legs; they know it emotionally when cascading new experiences—getting dressed themselves, suddenly drawing figures—send them scurrying back to babyhood. Sometimes Gwyn crawls into my lap and pretends to nurse as though her perpetually changing life is just too much to bear. The writers I work with learn to tolerate terrible discomfort as they take their pieces through revision; they, too, throw occasional tantrums. Change hurts.
So when the facilitator of the Healthy Small Church Initiative challenged our congregation to change significantly, I thought, Ut-oh! Individuals may kick and scream their way through growth, but organizations are worse; they dig in their heels. Prospect Park UMC has been given some provocative statistics, though. We’re on the decline. Other churches with worship experiences and communities and ministries much like ours don’t make it. The facilitator’s message: Change now or die.
Dire? Grim? Perhaps, but I keep coming back to Cil’s words—God is in constant creation. Staying the same slowly shuts out God’s work. Changing—consciously, willingly, actively—is one sure way to participate in God’s realm. Many of the facilitator’s suggestions were exciting: Talk to the neighborhood, find out what is needed. Create a vision for ministry. Shift the church culture to be more inviting and inclusive. Worship in a way that meets the spiritual needs of those who have yet to come as well as those who are here. Good stuff.
But getting there is going to hurt. Can we learn to tolerate this terrible discomfort together? “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Five hours into our week-long family vacation, Gwyn said, “I want to go home!” This wasn’t a new refrain. When she’s excessively tired or hungry, she sometimes says it when we’re at home, bustling around the kitchen or getting ready for bed. Emily and I have speculated that “home” is a pre-birth memory for Gwyn, and today received confirmation. “Let’s play I’m home in Nanny’s womb,” Gwyn said to Emily this morning as she crawled under the covers.
In short order she was born once more.
Nanny is Gwyn’s biological mother. That Gwyn remembers her womb so viscerally, so fondly, feels miraculous. At firs Annie didn’t want a baby inside her although she came to care for it responsibly and with love beyond her years. Perhaps, though, it wasn’t Annie so much as God who made a home for Gwyn before this one, wrapping her in warm water and sending her a steady stream of nutrients. Perhaps the home Gwyn remembers is pre-womb, even, a place of origins and ends, what Christians call heaven. I like to think Gwyn remembers being immersed in God.
Regardless, at the core of her being Gwyn knows home. She knows complete comfort, complete unity, somewhere, somehow. I like to think we all do, although most of us have lost our conscious awareness.
This, I believe is the foundation of Gwyn’s spiritual life, and everyone’s: A memory of home. Her journey as a human being is both away from this home and towards it. The more she draws from this source, pulling divinity forward into her being, containing in her body the love of her origin, the more she will grow in spirit. Over and over she will be born. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew