Vive la Difference!

Today, I'm celebrating 15 years of marriage with my husband Dan Kirk-Davidoff, and the occasion has given me reason to reflect on my shifting views on the importance of unity and the importance of difference.

I met Danny in college when he was 19 and I was 20. At the time, I really thought nothing of the fact that he is Jewish and I'm a Christian. I didn't occur to me as a problem because (1) I had grown up in a very Jewish neighborhood and had dated a number of Jewish guys, (2) he had so many positive characteristics (smart, kind, good politics, very good looking) it was hard to focus on anything else.

For a long time, when people asked me how I could be married to a Jew as a Christian minister, I had to explain that I had known and loved Danny way before I became a minister, or a serious Christian for that matter. I didn't become a minister despite my relationship with Dan, but rather, I became a minister (and have continued to develop as a Christian) in the context of my relationship with Dan. I never really had a way to step outside of that relationship or my calling and consider if the two things "worked" in combination with each other.

But that being said, I do know that for a long time I understood our interfaith marriage as grounded in the fact that the things that united us, the things we shared, were greater than the things that differentiated us. It's no accident that I saw things that way. The liberal, Presbyterian church that I grew up rejected Christian triumphalism and emphasized the connections between Christianity and other religions of the world. Back in those days, the Cold War arms race was nearly constantly on my mind, and I had a strong sense that the future of the world depended on our ability of people all over the world to see each other as brothers and sisters and not aliens or enemies.

I remember telling Dan during my senior year in college that I was probably going to end up a Unitarian. But that didn't happen. In fact, I've become more and more connected to Jesus over the past 15 years, more connected to the very aspects of Christianity that make it different from other religions. As I've continued to grow as a Christian, I've wondered at times about how my life would be different if I wasn't married to a Jewish guy. Was Dan holding me back in my discipleship to Jesus? At times, the answer to that question seemed to be yes. For a while I was sure that if it weren't for him, I would be living in intentional Christian community or join the Mennonites or the Catholic Workers.

But my understanding of difference has continued to develop. Working at Interfaith Families Project for a couple of years certainly helped. I loved the families I met there--they were some of the most interesting, dynamic couples I knew, and all of them were intermarried. And while some of the couples really tried to subvert their religious differences and just focused on uniting themes, many did not. One woman said to me over coffee, "I don't really believe in unity. It always seems to involve the oppression of opposing viewpoints. Unity is imperialist. In our marriage, I want to highlight our difference and let the kids live in the midst of contradiction." Her words really shocked me--but I've thought about them for years.

Here's the truth of the matter: I am a better Christian for being married to Dan. Part of that has nothing to do with his religion--it has to do with his support of me, his wisdom, his curiosity, and the fact that he has been "game" for a lot more church than he ever has wanted. But being married to Dan has also led me to examine the connections and differences between Christianity and Judaism on a much, much deeper level than I could without having an insiders view of Judaism. Being married to Dan has kept me from becoming insular, and has pushed me to keep making connections between my Christian beliefs and the rest of the world. Being married to Dan has made me "safe" to many people who would normally stay clear of ministers or Christians. Being married to Dan has made it completely clear to me that Jesus does not consider my marriage a barrier to him or his call on my life.

So Happy Anniversary, sweetheart!

Paying Attention to Peace

Rosa was in a pensive mood as we walked along the bike path to a friend's birthday party yesterday. She'd been re-reading the journal she had written in each day of second grade at the start of the school day. "I noticed something," she told me. "Last year I wrote a lot about the world. You know, helping it out, making it a better place."

"Hmm..." I said. "Why do you think you were doing that?"

"Well, if you are actually going to make the world better, you have to imagine it better. Don't you think, Mama? Otherwise you just complain all the time. And then you end up noticing all the bad things and you end up complaining even more."

As usual, she had a good point. We talked the rest of the way about how once you start imagining a better world, you can notice parts of that better world already happening in our not-so-perfect world here and now.

Today, I'm getting ready to notice the way in which people are working now to make peace with each other, even in the midst of nations and leaders who conspire to make war. Our congregation has invited about 15 Iranian-American muslim women and men to join 15 of our for a conversation over cookies and tea this afternoon. Our conversation will be led as a "World Cafe", a process that is both simple and ingenious. It releases the collective wisdom of a group like nothing else I've experienced.

This is a conversation that has been several months in the making, and when we first considered it, there was so much talk of war with Iran coming from our President and other national figures that I was becoming convinced that another juggernaut had started to roll. War would soon be unpreventable. Things have calmed down a bit since then thanks to the bravery of some members of the "intelligence community", but the situation is far from resolved as recent events have reminded us.

Even Rosa knows that when you expect to see hostility every where, you'll be likely to notice it. So today I am getting ready to notice something different in my interactions with Iranian muslims. I am getting ready to build a relationship that might be one of thousands which will--just maybe--change the expectations of our leaders.

Advent, Aging

A member of our congregation, Florence Miller, who works in the Altzheimer's unit at Sunrise Senior Living sent these Advent thoughts:

I recently was given some materials from a training a close friend attended on the mind and spirit of the person with dementia. This inspired me to report/write about it in an article I was to create for the Sunrise newsletter. The thoughts moved me and are a part of my prayer this week as we end the liturgical year and I take time for remembrance, letting go, and silence in the presence of God.

I've attached the article and hope it speaks to you of the deep silence we come from and go back to, of the messages of the ancient prophets of all religions and their relevance to the spirit in us today. Our lives are so short. Our little piece, our little gift to the Great Life of the universe can be, for good or ill, so very long.

Recently I read a study guide entitled "When Those We Love Become Strangers", an exploration of how we care for persons with Alzheimer's and dementias. It reminded me that in biblical times 'age' was often synonymous with 'wisdom'. Elders were leaders and judges. They demanded respect. Leviticus states "You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old." But since memory is indispensable to wisdom and leadership, what happens when one cannot function as an' elder' ?

When Moses descended Mount Sinai with the ten commandments, he heard the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf and was so deeply angered that he threw them down, shattering them! Later the sages gathered the shards and placed them in the Holy Arc with the whole Tablets that Moses got when he went to Sinai the second time. Thus Rabbi Ben Levi said, "Take care to respect an old person who through unavoidable circumstances has forgotten what he knew, for scripture says that both the whole tablets and the shattered tablets were placed in the Holy Ark".

The elder who has lost his/her memory is compared to the broken shards of the tablets - no less sacred as a result of having been shattered. The body is present but the memories and personhood have been shattered; yet they are the creation of God deserving of respect and tenderness. This is often very difficult yet can be seen as our call in our effort to provide home, comfort and respect to our residents.

Psalm 88, a lament, goes in part,
Oh Lord soul is full of troubles
and my life draws near to Shoal
I am counted among those who go down to the pit
I am like those who have no help
like those forsaken
like those whom you remember no more.
You have put me in the depths of the pit
in the regions dark and deep...
You have caused my companions to shun me
you have made me a thing of horror to them
I am shut in so that I cannot escape
My eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you.
Are your wonders known in the darkness
Is your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?

Is this the cry in the heart of those struggling with Alzheimer's? Are these the thoughts of the daughter sitting helpless in the presence of a mother who has become a stranger through dementia?

I believe this is the profound task we have: to acknowledge the pain. And I believe it is a profound act of compassion to find ways to 'be with' the resident or family tenderly in this pain. I hope we strongly resist the temptation to trivialize, deny, or repress the harsh reality of those who find themselves in this difficulty. We can do nothing more or less than to break the silence of suffering with acknowledgement and understanding and share it by listening, by forgiving the reactions we often encounter, by comforting ourselves as we live in the presence of all this loss. We can be thoughtful and appreciative of our fellow workers with the relief of humor, a hug or a word of encouragement. We can do this and be made whole and full ourselves through the doing.

I Believe in Halloween

I occasionally joke that Halloween is the only holiday of the year that I really, truly enjoy. That probably says more about my problems with a lot of other holidays (high expectations that are never met, the impossibility of making the magic happen at both church and home, etc.) but I do look forward to October 31st at least as much as my kids do. In a few more years, I have a feeling I'll be loving it even more than them.

Why? Over the past few years I've become more aware of the complicated feelings many Christians have about the holiday. Some are so turned off by the connection to the Rosa_the_mermaid occult that they refuse to participate entirely. Others make careful negotiations--no witches allowed, but its okay to dress as a princess. Others let their kids dive in head first, but watch it all with a great sense of unease, waiting for it to all be over.

And in response, other Christians argue that Halloween is a ritual that has become detached from any pagan or dark-spirited roots it once had. It's "just" fun, it really means nothing, so participating shouldn't be any big deal.

But I for one want to participate in Halloween, not because it means nothing, but because I really believe in the values that lie underneath it. It don't think the core values of Halloween glorify practitioners of dark magic. I believe in Halloween because:

1. I believe in walking around your neighborhood, knocking on doors and chatting with your neighbors. I don't do this nearly enough, and I love the fact that on one night of the year, it's not only okay, it's expected. I love the idea that behind each door there is a neighbor waiting for me and my kids with a treat. Okay, so this year, some of my neighbors on Good Lion Road, Columbia (I will resist the urge to list house numbers) weren't exactly prepared for us, but at least most of them opened the door and chatted and admired the kids' costumes. Having interacted once makes it so much easier to say hi again the next time we meet, and before you know it, we're building community.

2. I believe in talking to kids. I know that kids aren't supposed to talk to strangers--just like every other parent I know, I've drilled that one into my kids' heads. But on Halloween, with me and Dan standing nearby, my kids talk to every stranger they meet. And the strangers talk to them--admiring their creativity or bravery, cracking jokes, expressing concern about their safety and their diet. Before you know it, these people aren't exactly strangers anymore. Before you know it, they are people who my kids are allowed to talk to, encouraged to talk to. And that's just on Halloween night itself. I've noticed that a lot of adults use Halloween as a conversation starter for a good month before the event. "Are you going out for Halloween this year? What are you going to dress up as?" That's good small talk. And most adults I know have at least one story from their own experience of Halloween that kids would really get a kick out of hearing.

3. I believe in facing what scares you. At the heart of the Christian gospel is the promise that life is about more than the avoidance of pain or discomfort, and that at the other side of our greatest fears is God's greatest promise. That may sound like a bit more meaning than dressing up as a zombie deserves, but I think there is a relationship between that promise and the rituals of Halloween. My kids are--even at their advanced age--still a bit scared of ghouls and ghosts and aliens. So why not take on that persona for a night and laugh at it? Why not walk around in a group and delight in seeing a vampire on your own street? I can hardly think of a better way to confront a fear. Halloween, in this regard, is really good practice for life.

What am I missing? Are there other reasons YOU love Halloween?