How Deep Can I Drink?

I’ve been doing a lot of searching, lately. This quest began about two years ago, when I suddenly felt clobbered by a sense of mortality. For so long I’d been blithely living as though I had all the time in the world. Then in a succession of losses and troubles that hit close to home, I felt pulled up short, required to look long and hard at who and what matters most and what I’m going to do with that insight.

In a recent interview in the Toronto Star, the man responsible for “Blue Monday” listed three rather simplistic keys to finding happiness:–today-is-blue-monday-its-creator-offers-three-keys-to-happiness

I’m well underway on the first and third suggestions, but the second made me pause and remember a friend telling me several years ago that I seemed to live a more strictly “compartmentalized life” than anyone she’d known. What I heard her say was that I kept my family life, professional life, social life, writing life, and spiritual life in boxes with tight lids.  I shook my head, not wanting to accept this rigid view of myself even though she assured me that she didn’t see this as a negative quality, just an interesting one.

In more recent years, I think there has been more confluence of my family, social, and writing streams.  At book launches, I’ve allowed myself the morbid observation that this is probably the one time I’m able to see the cross-section of people who might show up for my funeral.

But while friends from my church are part of that cross-section, my authenticity is compromised by the mask that hides my spiritual life. I have excused as “privacy” my unwillingness to talk about or even acknowledge in most areas of my life that I am a believer, a member of a traditional Christian church.  Indeed, I do consider my beliefs to be private. I grew up in a home where talking about politics, finances, and religion was just not done.  I got over the political prohibition early and have no difficulty sounding off on my political stance, and I might even dare to ask someone (but only someone close to me, you understand) how much they paid for that new house.  But my church affiliation, my faith?  I’m working on that. Recently, I’ve oiled the hinges of that box, lifted the lid to describe the process by which my church,  Lutheran Church of the Cross in Calgary, came to accept sexuality resolutions that were close to my heart.

My deep need for privacy in many matters notwithstanding, why the reticence to identify as a Christian?  Partly, I think, the nature of my involvement in my church in spite of a lifelong – well, almost lifelong, a brief lapse of Lutheranism, in fact a lapse in belief in my teenaged years and twenties which I think is typical, perhaps necessary—membership in the church. With the birth of my first child, the church became important to me as “tradition”, the sense of obligation to expose my children to the Christian values and teachings that I’d always acknowledged had done me no harm, and given me a basis for making later-in-life spiritual decisions.  I came back to the church, but had no wish to be involved beyond teaching Sunday school and Vacation Bible School and providing food as required for funerals or celebrations.  The importance of coffee and feeding people were high on the list of Lutheran values I absorbed.  It seemed to me that if I were to talk about my church, my religion, I might be questioned on matters of theology or expected to defend my beliefs. These were conversations in which I would surely have felt tongue-tied.

Partly, as well, my sense that the world I moved in academically, then professionally, and even socially was anti-religion of any stripe, kept me from confessing my beliefs. There were circumstances in which I felt embarrassed about my faith, and when caught unawares might suggest that I was a just-in-case-Christian. I’ve gotten over that.  That’s who I was.

At this stage of my life, I’m finding comfort in being myself.  And in giving myself that permission I’m finding it so much easier to tap into a deep well of compassion but know the point at which I am in danger of drowning. One thing I know for sure is that my faith is stronger now than at any point in my life, and that yes, I do need my church because it grounds me. Three significant pieces have fit into my puzzling over my spirituality recently.

Two weeks ago,  I attended my godson’s confirmation (an important affirmation of faith for Lutherans) at First Lutheran Church and I was touched to the core by Duncan’s eloquent pondering on machines and robots, on the question of whether the future would hold mechanical reproduction of human beings, and how it all came down to the soul.  I was affirmed in my belief that no matter which directions my children follow, the early religious training (which at times in their teenage years they insisted I was “inflicting” on them) was essential to the way I mother.

Last Sunday, I attended Lakeview United Church with a dear friend who has suffered terrible losses in the past year and who wanted me to hear a minister whose messages, she said, had been giving her comfort. The worship service was short because the church’s annual meeting was to follow, but it was powerful in its brevity.  I smiled when the minister prefaced comments on the upcoming meeting with: “We are small, we are old, and we are white. But …”  He challenged the congregation to look to how big the mission of such a congregation could be. This could have been a description of my own church, and in the years I’ve attended Lutheran Church of the Cross I’ve never doubted the ability and the desire of that congregation to reach out and do the work that needs to be done.  I’ve always believed that there are no small works of caring.

But the important part of the message was a challenge I needed.  “If being a Christian became a criminal offence in this country,” the minister asked, “would there be enough to convict you?”  I know the answer.  And I know the mask that I need to fling aside.

And finally just two days after attending that United Church, an email from my own church describing a celebration of works that on a global scale seem small, but are affirmation for me, once again, that even a small, old, white congregation (and I hope that any young, and fervently active members of my church will not take offense at this description) can make a difference by extending a full glass of water to not just one child but to a whole village.

Now my challenge to myself:  how deep can I drink?  Why would I limit myself to a sip from the cup every now and again?

No, I am not going off on a mission.  My discomfort with proselytizing has not changed in the least. In writing this post, I feel I’ve taken off one mask, and even though I may reach for it from time to time, that will be okay.

There are other masks, but those are for other contemplations.

7 thoughts on “How Deep Can I Drink?

  1. Interesting, Betty Jane, that we seem to have been on the same path. Writers and artists rarely identify with practising Christians, and yet I have come back to this place in my life. I pray, I read the Bible, I meditate on my world and my Christian place in it. I baptized my grandson. My writing and my commitment to ‘showing up’ at the place where I am called has never been stronger. I see myself in a place of maturing faith and conviction. Thanks for ‘coming out’.

    • And thank you for sharing too, Vivian. I knew you were a sister Lutheran. This does seem to be age for renewing faith.

  2. A very moving and honest post. I thank you for it. I was raised in the United Church and spent a lot of time there in my youth. What has stayed with me, although I seldom go to any church now, is the belief that God is unknowable infinite love. I have friends who are evangelical Christians and who do things that annoy me (press like on facebook if you love Jesus) and I try not to respond with sarcasm; such as, Jesus would already know that, wouldn’t he? My own aging has helped me to realize what is important to me. If I have a motto, it would be give to world what you can and whenever possible, be kind, both to yourself and to others.

    Anyway, enough blathering. I’m glad you are emerging.


    Diane Girard

    • Thanks for this, Diane. My sense of God has matured and part of that has simply to do with giving up my need for my beliefs to “make sense”. Long ago I had a conversation with a pastor about the struggles I had with believing, and he told me that we all have to struggle before we can finally listen to Proverbs 3:5 and stop leaning on our own understanding. Meanwhile, he told me, it was perfectly okay to read the Bible just for the poetry. I like your motto. A number of years ago I was the team social worker in a geriatric day program and one of our patients was a lovely woman in her 90s who never seemed discouraged or negative. We asked her how she maintained her gentle view of the world. She said, “Every night before I go to sleep, I forgive everyone for everything, and then I forgive myself.” I’ve been trying to follow her example, but I find that forgiving myself is the hardest of all.
      Now who’s blathering? Enough already. Life is such a journey.

  3. Oh, Betty Jane, how I love you! It is in your Lutheran-ness that I find great comfort, even though I left the Lutheran church and all churches and never went back. As I’ve gotten to know you, I’ve marveled at how easy it is to be just who I am with you. You’re like family. You have that same compassionate heart that my grandmothers and aunties had and have. And I’m so happy that you feel you no longer need to hide your spiritual beliefs.

    That said, I know it is not always easy — or safe, for that matter — to publicly wear one’s spirituality. It takes great courage and great strength to do so and I admire you all the more for doing so. It’s a huge risk to reveal who you really are in this world, a time when Christianity has been appropriated by a fundamentalist sect and in a lot of ways teaches what Christianity is not.

    I have a friend, Ruth, who was also raised Lutheran. She’s a bit older than me and a bit younger than you. She grew up on a farm about 15 miles from mine but we didn’t meet until I attended my first gathering with Sacred Web, my singing circle, about a dozen years ago. At that workshop, facilitated by Carolyn McDade, my spiritual life, which I’d cut off in my 20’s, was given back to me. The singing and simple ritual offered me the opportunity to bring forward my memories of my grandmother and to tap into her love. It cracked the shield I’d placed around my heart, opened up my heart and let spirit back in. I hid it from others — even Jim — for a few years, But the more I sang, the more spiritually alive I become. And the more I sing and meditate — what I used to call prayer — the more alive I become. And the more I am with those who are alive and singing and praying, the more alive I become.

    Why am I telling you all this? Well, initially, it was to tell you about another friend’s blog. I met Marian Shatto through singing, too. She’s very active in the Moravian Church in Pennsylvania and writer about her spiritual and other adventures on her blog, Singing With Crows. I think you’ll enjoy it.

    I think I also wrote this to say hello, I’m here. I get it and it’s not gonna make me love you any less. And, to be perfectly honest, I think I wanted to tell you that even though Ruth and I are not related, we call each other cousins. I think I’m really writing this to claim you as cousin.

    Blessed be.

    • Ah, Bernadette, you’ve been my cousin ever since I met you. I will go immediately to Marian Shatoo’s blog! My Dad’s family are Moravian, and I expect I will feel very much at home there.
      As for meditating, yes! And singing, oh I wish. But … in March I’m going to a weekend chanting workshop which I know I’m going to love.
      Onward with this business of age and seeking grace.
      Blessings back to you, my friend.

      • Betty Jane, I am delighted to have made your acquaintance through Bernadette, and delighted, also, to find so many overlapping strands of our Sacred Web. I went to this blog post immediately because of the title, which is much like a favorite Carolyn McDade song: “Come Drink Deep.”

        Come drink deep of living waters
        without cup bend close to the ground
        Wade with bare feet into troubled waters
        where love of life abounds

        I turn my head to sky rains falling
        wash the wounds of numbness from my soul
        Turn my heart in tides of fierce renewal
        where love and rage run whole

        Come rains of heaven on the dry seed
        rains of love on every tortured land
        Roots complacent awaken in compassion
        so hope springs in our hands

        Come drink deep

        © 1983 by Surtsey Publishing/1991 by Carolyn McDade

        As for singing, every woman is welcome in Carolyn’s programs. She often says that all you need to bring are your voice and your lived experience. She’ll be in Edmonton April 12-14 and in Canmore the following weekend. I’m not quite certain which one I’m attending yet ~ scheduling has gotten a bit complicated. But please consider it!

        I much appreciate your writing, your willingness to “go deep.” I’m looking forward to more on-line conversation.

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