Friday, May 25, 2007

Spiritual Mismatches

I’ve always had a soft spot for Hosea – that nice prophet commanded by God to marry a prostitute. He entered this marital union with eyes wide open, knowing life would not be all wine, roses and connubial bliss. He accepted his role as picture of God’s forbearance with Israel, as they willingly threw themselves on the altar of a pagan culture.

Life as metaphor is as effective today. Living in a secular world, it’s inevitable that some Christians will fall in love and marry non-believers. I know because it happened to me, and while I may not be God’s chosen metaphor for life today, I do inhabit a strange border between faith and culture.

My atheist husband and I have had many heated discussions – me dodging potshots intended to blow my beliefs out of the water, all the while lobbing a few defence-of-the-faith salvos of my own.

Add the challenge of trying to raise faithful children who will able to walk the line in a problematic culture and it makes for an interesting life, indeed.

Of course, it’s not all bad – being held accountable makes you either cave or get serious.

I chose the latter, though my choice of methods was probably not all that wise. Assuming that dealing with an intelligent academic required rigorous intellectual apologetics, I took a religious studies degree, volunteered for every social justice activity going, taught Sunday school, and boned up on every issue facing my evangelical church, from gay marriage to creationism and intelligent design, from stem cell research, to abortion.

While it accomplished exhaustion for me, it resulted in an intellectual impasse for us. Until my husband’s mid-life crisis hit, that is. As my honest, gentle man turned into a narcissist and worse, there was little I could do but sit by and watch our marriage unravel.

Pain is a mighty teacher, though, and after 40 years on intellectual autopilot, I learned to let go of the strictures around my heart. After indulging in many of my own narcissistic tears, I got real – about my marriage, myself, and God.

Can our attitudes be an obstacle? My pastor seems to think so:“If they’re aggressive about their own faith, the believer can prevent the spouse coming to faith.”

Take the example of Sarah Ruth in Flannery O’Connor’s short story Parker’s Back. A chapter-and-verse quoting evangelical, she marries OE Parker, a tattoo-covered transient who has avoided God all his life. After a tractor accident results in a burning bush/tree, Parker gets his last tattoo -- the face of the Byzantine Christ gracing the whole of his back. Furious, Sarah Ruth beats him with a broom and sends him away.

I have read that story many times, always gleaning something new. Recently it occurred to me that maybe my metaphor is more Sarah Ruth than Hosea. So angry about an unbelieving husband, and forgetting all about joy, we overlook the signs of God’s grace in our other’s lives. Like my husband and his work with the poor, homeless and marginalized.

I am now wondering what kind of Christ I have painted on my back. As Donald Miller puts it in Blue Like Jazz, “nothing’s going to change in the Congo until we figure out what’s wrong with the person in the mirror.”

My pastor advises mixed marriage couples like us to “aim for mutual respect.”

He had a good point – I’d never considered my husband’s perspective of being married to a Christian. So I asked him. Initially he tiptoed through his answer, but after warming up and seeing it wasn’t coming to verbal blows, he was blunt: “It’s weird. And irritating – that whole notion that everything is God’s plan and people have no choice or say in their lives.” There was more -- much more -- and mostly fairly common liberal views, but I'll stop there.

Except to say that his view of me surprised -- and hurt. I thought that his objections were mostly control issues: God as “puppet-master”; pushy evangelizers; the church “club” for special members who’ve passed the test.

Then something my six-year-old daughter said gave me pause. She asked why Daddy didn’t go to church, and I explained he didn’t believe in God. After an incredulous “How could he not believe in God? God is everywhere,” she added: “Daddy doesn’t believe because he can’t see God.”

If our lives are witness to God, then maybe Daddy is blind to Him because Mommy’s been so busy trying to be perfectly moral that she’s forgotten how to be the face of Christ. Like Sarah Jane, I’d been holding up a God more closely resembling an orderly control freak than a welcoming servant king. As such, maybe my faith is not all that different from Daddy’s progressivist atheism.

A line from William Edgar’s essay in Finding God at Harvard hit home: “Becoming a Christian means that one's foundation is radically changed. But it takes a lifetime -- and, I suppose, an eternity -- to become fully conformed to what we are foundationally.”

Life as workshop for working out the mess it means to be human -- and perhaps the bridge for better communication between Christians and non-believers.

Finding the common language to express it is a challenge, but I think the answer lies in parables. I’ve seen them work -- during a particularly difficult time in our marriage, a couple of movies deeply affected my husband, and like Adam recognizing himself in Eve, he identified with the tragic depiction of someone bereft of community.

Can my husband and I find a story to share? The Christian story, as simple and obvious as it sounds – an invitation to love and be loved -- might be a good place to start. As the Catholic Catechism states, “sincere married love, the humble and patient practice of the family virtues, and perseverance in prayer” can prepare the non-believer for the “grace of conversion.”

My pastor seconds that: “The top priority has to be that the unbeliever knows they’re loved by their spouse. It all comes back to love.”

Living authentically – to love others, not just our families but our communities, too, to lay the foundation of the Biblical story within our heart, to wear the dark-eyed Christ on our back, to continuously forgive those who wrong us -- is a pretty powerful witness. Going forth like so, can the world dismiss Christians as narrow-minded, pushy, privileged members of some elite club?

That simple love story certainly convicted Gomer -- humbled by lessons learned by her travails in the world, she made her way back to the forgiveness of Hosea.

Will my husband and I ever resolve our differences? Maybe not. But we are learning to discuss them respectfully. And I am learning the simple, but hard, lesson that the picture of God’s welcome, hospitality and forbearance is worth a thousand words.