Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Walhydra goes to church

Walhydra has been so busy for the past few months that she hasn’t been able to tell about the happy developments with her mother, Senior Witch.

As the faithful reader will remember, Walhydra and her brother and sister decided early last year that it was no longer safe for Senior Witch to live alone.

Sister and her hubby and six kids were absolute angels for fifteen months, taking Senior Witch into their home and lives, keeping her physically and socially active and healthy—and bearing with her escalating Alzheimer's foibles, which alternated between amusing and painfully disruptive.

[Youngest grand-daughter once complained in tears, "Why can't Grandma learn how to do this for herself?" Her Mom's answer—which must have sounded both confusing and a bit spooky—was, "Grandma is un-learning things now."]

The sad irony was that, not being able to perceive her own declining capacity, Senior Witch believed she could still live independently. That meant she became increasingly more resistant to "living under her daughter's roof." Loving care seemed to morph into the perennial trial of crones across the globe.

By April of this year, Walhydra agreed with her sister that it was time to find an assisted living facility (ALF) for Mom near her own home in Jacksonville.

Of course, though she was more or less “in recovery” from chronic depression, by this time Walhydra was up to her eyebrows in anxiety about managing Mom’s business.

For reasons she has not yet been able to discern—perhaps she read too much Charles Dickens as a child—Walhydra has always had a near phobia about dealing with the legal and financial world. As if, somehow, any misstep with an application or transaction might bring on pauperdom, the workhouse or worse.

That being case, imagine Walhydra, already struggling to sell Mom’s house from 300 miles away and fighting automated phone menus to get to a human being who might sort out health policies, bank accounts, retirement annuities….

Imagine her doing all of this and then also having to find a reliable, affordable ALF, one that might actually suit Senior Witch, who has always said she “never wants to end up in a ‘home’.”

And yet, though it took time to get up the gumption to act, once Walhydra started calling her local contacts, the network (both divine and human) worked as it always does for those who leap—or stumble—out on faith.

She called a Quaker friend, who referred her to an enthusiastic Alzheimer’s day care social worker, who referred her to a care cost planning paralegal, who said, “Why don’t you call so-and-so at this wonderful, non-profit ALF I know about?”

The place was perfect! And a spacious private room opened up a month later!

This meant that, rather than waiting till after her sister’s vacation in early July, Walhydra was able to get Senior Witch happily settled in her new home by the beginning of June.

Walhydra stayed with Senior Witch all of the first full day. What she kept hearing from her Mom was, “Oh, I’m not too good at socializing. Oh, I’m a very private person. Oh, I’m not sure about eating all my meals in a cafeteria.”

“This,” Walhydra thought to herself, “from a woman who was a preacher’s wife for thirty-some years. Hmm…. I’ll just wait and see.”

The next night, with Walhydra and Hubby Jim visiting, Senior Witch chattered away happily about all the people she’d met and how much she likes the staff.

“Um-hmm,” Walhydra chuckled to herself. "I thought as much."

Almost two months later, Senior Witch is cheery and at home in her new-found "independence." She's also charming all the staff and other residents.

Now that Senior Witch is all settled, part of Walhydra’s "Mom duty” is to get her to the nearest Lutheran church every few Sundays.

Senior Witch is not dogmatically invested in Lutheran theology. Even so, she feels more comfortable with the richness of the Lutheran liturgy and hymns and the Lutheran style of preaching. She is, after all, a preacher's kid as well as a former preacher’s wife.

A key difference between Senior Witch and Walhydra is that Mom evolved through orthodox Christianity and “came out the other side,” while Walhydra needed to walk away from it in order to meet her Mom on that side decades later.

To understand this odd contrast, the gentle reader needs to know that Lutheran worship is wholly liturgical.

This means that every moment of the service involves either the pastor or the congregation or both in reading or singing some prescribed text. Prayers, blessings, passages from the Old Testament, Gospels and Epistles, hymns, creeds, a sermon from the pastor—and the sharing of the Lord's Supper, the Communion, the Eucharist, the bread and wine.

As a child, Walhydra found such a service reassuring in its regularity. Her father preached, Mom played the organ, the old ladies sang the hymns….

…and Walhydra learned the stories about Jesus.

Those stories—including the difficult, puzzling, contradictory ones—snuck into her heart before she had any knowledge of theology or doctrine. Better still, they conjured for her a real person, one more difficult, puzzling and contradictory, yet ultimately more whole, than any theology or doctrine could contain.

However, by the time she was a teenager, Walhydra was in trouble. She’d learned what Lutherans were supposed to believe and done her best to believe it. Then she sat through service every Sunday, wondering whether she actually believed it enough to go up to Communion.

She didn't doubt the faith as she'd learned it. Yet she doubted—in what she now knows is the classic "dark Lutheran" way—whether she truly knew it or felt it within. It all seemed to make sense, so long as she accepted the basic premises, but it didn't live in her as flesh and blood.

At least, not in the way Jesus did.

One thing that never quite worked for her—though it took getting all the way to seminary to recognize this—was the notion that salvation depends upon Jesus having "paid the price" for the whole human race.

Didn't YHWH say to Hosea, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Hos. 6:6a)? Didn't Jesus himself quote those words to the Pharisees (Matt. 9:13b)?

The more she learned from the caring saints and sinners in her life, the more Walhydra came to believe that the Bible was a cycle of stories in which YHWH interrupted the priests and worshippers over and over again to say, "No. That's not what I meant. I'm not like that."

So Walhydra walked away from liturgy and hymns and creeds for a decade or so. She sampled the whole 1970s smorgasbord of Jung, I Ching, Tarot, astrology, witchcraft, meditation, Buddhism...and, um, pot and sex.

When she eventually wandered back into Christian worship services with not-yet-hubby Jim, she maintained a steadfast silence through all the words-in-unison stuff, her inner translator struggling to keep up.

Every week, as the rest of the congregation approached the altar for Communion, Walhydra would hang back, wondering. And then she'd get the giggles as she heard the Master's voice whispering, "Oh, get on up here, you silly witch!"

Eventually, Walhydra and by-then-hubby Jim found their way into the blessèd waiting silence of Quaker worship.

And, every Christmas Eve, they joined Senior Witch for candlelight service at, of all places, the Lutheran church where Walhydra got into trouble in the first place.

So, here she is now, twenty years later, taking her Mom to a little Lutheran congregation near the ALF. Alternating this with taking her to Quaker Meeting—where, of course, Senior Witch has charmed and been charmed by all the members.

This church’s pastor has the genuine preacher’s gifts: humor, humility and grace. He does what Frederick Buechner [see Note] demonstrates so well, drawing his listeners into his own story of doubt and of little glimpses of faith.

How in the world, he asks them, do we make any sense out of these millenia-old Bible lessons we’ve just read out loud? How do we stumble through them toward any real, usable connection with our 21st century lives?

Walhydra could almost be content to sit through the service for such sermons. Except for that little matter of the wholly scripted liturgy.

“Do I ever get a chance to just stop and think about this for a few minutes?” she asks. “Even when the rubrics say ‘Pause for a moment of reflection,’ it’s a very skinny moment!”

Ironically, after one recent service, Senior Witch sighed with obvious satisfaction.

“It’s so good,” she said, “to be back in a Lutheran service. Your sister’s church [a hymn-singing evangelical mega-church] was okay in its own way. But I missed the Lutheran liturgy. It directs and focuses your thoughts so well.”

“Yes, it does do that,” Walhydra agreed silently.

Despite this challenge—or perhaps because of it—Walhydra had a welcome little glimpse of faith during the most recent service she attended with her Mom.

Looking forward to the pastor’s sermon, she felt a little wary when she realized that the congregation’s brand new assistant pastor, fresh out of seminary, would be preaching his first “official” sermon.

Worse, the Gospel for the day was that troubling parable comparing the Kingdom to a landowner who’s enemy sows weeds in his wheat field (Matt. 13:24-30).

It’s the lesson in which Matthew, to suit his own post-destruction of Jerusalem agenda, has the disciples wheedle an allegorical explanation out of Jesus, in which the weeds become “the progeny of the evil one,” eventually to be cast “into the fiery furnace” where they will “weep and grind their teeth” (Matt. 13:36-43).

“Oh, bother!” Walhydra thought. “We’re in for it now!”

Sure enough, the novice preacher wasn’t experienced enough yet to step very far away from the textbook, so his words clove to doctrinal formulae and left little breathing space for amateur human beings—which all of us are.

“At least he’s giving us the Lutheran ‘saved by grace’ version, not the Southern Baptist ‘repent or else’ version.”

Walhydra sighed through the offertory and the start of the Communion liturgy. Then her eyes drifted upward…

…to notice again that this church is blessed with a remarkable, life-size statue of what she recognizes as the real Jesus.

High above the altar. Robed and at peace, one knee bent as if stepping down. Raised arms spanning an arc which embraces the whole chamber.

Walhydra could feel that embrace, reaching around and through her to the whole world.

“It doesn’t matter,” that embrace said. “Let each person trust the little piece of grace she is ready to trust. Let each follow whatever worship form buys her enough time to make some sort of peace with me.

“It doesn’t matter. You are all already in the Kingdom.

“Just get on up here, you silly witch.”

And so it is.

Blessèd Be.

Note from the amanuensis: There is a companion piece to this one, quoting from Buechner, on The Empty Path.


Anonymous said...

I'm right behind you on that path from - and around - formal Christianity, but I feel like your eyes are open while mine are still mostly closed. I'm fumbling, and stumbling, but I can hear you ahead of me, and that helps more than you can imagine. Thank you.

Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Oh, the whole of this post speaks to my heart and warms it! But when you speak the words Spirit spoke in your heart, I know exactly, exactly what you mean.

"“It doesn’t matter,” that embrace said. “Let each person trust the little piece of grace she is ready to trust...You are all already in the Kingdom.

“Just get on up here, you silly witch.”

Thank you for writing this.

*Cat basks in the warmth of your words*

Bright Crow said...

Thanks, Vicki.

The paradox of the path, I've come to believe, is that we each see far more than we are able to express—even to ourselves.

In one place or another I've written that I didn't experience leaving the church as "losing faith" but as "losing language."

I had discovered that what my heart knew of G-d's reality did not mesh well enough with the "native religious language" I had grown up using.

I had to wander speechless for several decades, learning and listening to many other "native languages," until I could begin to recognize the commonalities of spiritual wholeness about which they each speak in different metaphors.

When I cautiously reapproached Christian language, it was the wholeness, not the theological categories or doctrinal formulae, to which I knew I owed faith.

That has allowed me to begin to speak again, always trying my best to make it clear that what I am speaking about is not the language but the inexpressible wholeness to which language struggles to point.

Blessed Be,

Bright Crow said...

Thanks, Cat.

As I wrote to Vicki, the dilemma with which we all struggle is that we see and know far more of spiritual wholeness than we can ever put into words, even for ourselves.

I spent a lot of years rejecting the words of Christian dogma...all the while knowing that Jesus walked along with me in the wilderness (since what danger was there to him?).

The genuineness and depth of relationship with the Divine which Jesus represents for me is also expressed in other ways in other languages of faith.

I'm grateful for the grace, the Light, which is gradually helping me to stop arguing with the languages and just get on up there.


GrumpyGranny said...

Michael, your writing on spirituality/Senior Witch/philosophy, etc. always takes my breath away. It's been a terribly busy summer, but I lurk and read. Now, I've left you a "love note" on my blog, so go check it out...