Grant Us Wisdom, Grant Us Courage
My husband, Ed, and I just returned from four days away from our children, the longest we’ve ever been away. We never even took a honeymoon, because someone who hates weddings and the trappings of romance as much as I do would never agree to a ritual so clichéd. Plus we both travel so much individually that we choose to be home with the kids whenever possible.
Besides, what would we possibly agree to do together? I go on my yoga trips, he travels to ball games. Cruises? Gag me. I’ve read David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Travel abroad? I’d choose a reality tour in a developing nation and he’d choose the elegance of Vienna, Austria. Anyway, the idea of parents vacationing without kids is foreign to both Ed and me. It’s not something Koreans did when I was growing up, and neither did the children of Polish and Italian immigrants like my in-laws. Really, it’s kind of a bougey thing.
Amazingly we both decided we wanted to attend a conference in New York City, and were willing to leave the kids to go. New York is Ed’s hometown, and a coming-of-age home for me. Besides, Meiko, 20, is there and we can drop in on her. (OK, so it wasn’t a totally kid-free trip.)
And what was the event that drew us together and compelled attachment parents like us to leave 18-year-old Katja in charge of 15-year-old Malachi? The Fosdick Convocation at Riverside Church. Yes, that’s right: a church conference.
If at age 21 I could’ve looked into a marital glass ball and seen that our special getaway would be at a church, I would have fled. I barely tolerated my parents’ Korean Presbyterian church to get married. As a teenager and young adult, I experienced it as a bed of hypocrisy where people came to show off their designer outfits and new cars, brag about their kids’ grades, and pay lip service to the Christian message in exchange for a community where they could eat kimchi after the service.
But as a mother of young children, I began to seek a spiritual community of my own. I needed all the support I could get, and I wanted our children to be part of a spiritual community, whatever that might mean. I began attending a Friends Meeting, and found the hour of silent worship a balm, the only quiet time all week. In that silence I could slow down, feel my feelings and think my thoughts. I could listen to “that of God within me,” as the Quakers say, and experience unity with the others in worship.
For 10 years I worshipped, learned, and grew with Friends. But then another kind of hunger gnawed at me. I started wondering about Jesus.
Even typing these words brings up all kinds of anxiety. Who among us doesn’t have negative associations with Christians? The radical right, abortion clinic bombers, televangelists, sex scandals, yuck. But what do these travesties have to do with Jesus? I began to long for the stories of Jesus, and the rhythm of the Christian calendar. I had the sense I could learn something through Jesus.
Do I ascribe to the virgin birth, a literal resurrection, the Bible as the word of God, being “saved,” and all the rest? I found a church, Plymouth United Church of Christ, where I don’t have to answer “yes” to these questions, a church that supports my spiritual search, with a strong social justice mission, a woman pastor, and another pastor who is an openly gay man. Through this church’s peace and justice listserv I found out about the Fosdick Convocation, a gathering held every decade to carry on the legacy of Harry Emerson Fosdick, a staunch and courageous advocate of Christian ministry as social justice.
At this gathering, Ed and I went to worship each morning, took workshops in the afternoons, ate Indian and Ethiopian food at neighborhood restaurants in the evenings, and attended services in the evenings. We were surrounded by elders from many communities and bathed in grace and wisdom each day.
The morning after our return home, I woke up and wondered, “What’s next?” My personal mission list is never too short, but the larger question is, what’s next for Ed and me together? So many forces separate us. But what joins us?
For me, the main reason to be in partnership is to do something difficult together which is not possible to do alone. Hopefully this difficult project will yield good results for others, not just ourselves. Our first big project has been raising three kids. What will our next project be, when Malachi graduates from high school in two years? Returning from the Fosdick Convocation, I have inklings of what Ed and I might be able to do together, though the picture has yet to be fully revealed.
6 replies on “Grant Us Wisdom, Grant Us Courage”
Peggy, I enjoyed this. As a Christian, I really appreciated this paragraph:
“Even typing these words brings up all kinds of anxiety. Who among us doesn’t have negative associations with Christians? The radical right, abortion clinic bombers, televangelists, sex scandals, yuck. But what do these travesties have to do with Jesus? I began to long for the stories of Jesus, and the rhythm of the Christian calendar. I had the sense I could learn something through Jesus.”
I struggle with the public “image” of Christianity, and often need reminders to turn my attention back to Jesus and his teachings and calls to service.
A few years back, attending a conference at Columbia University in New York City, where I was to present an essay on two poets (Niedecker and Zukofsky) and an aspect of their personal and literary relationship, and how that relationship led to a supposed abortion, which I found represented in both of their works, but in the end did not present the essay at my appointed time on a Sunday morning, having at first been warned of an attack by the male poet’s biographer who did not know the redemptive message I found within the work, then later, also considered the sanctity of a Sunday morning and these words: “let the dead bury the dead.”
So, I left that ivory tower scene, papers in tow, left Niedecker and Zukofsky alone, left my chance to make an impression, then found refuge instead at Riverside Church. There, the service was about the living. It was about community and healing. It was about people taking action for the benefit of other people. It was about the unnuanced, golden rule of love. For me, it was about choices. I lost that day, then gained again the message of catholic love from which I grew.
I read this essay on a Sunday morning, while listening to an episode of This American Life dealing with the “heresy” of the Reverend Carlton Pearson (http://www.thisamericanlife.com/), who dared to preach that God is not punitive and there is no hell. So all in all, I think I can say I’ve been to church today.
Peggy, your spiritual journey is so interesting and inspiring to me. The thread of inquiry running through my life and my work as a writer and a communications professional–and, indeed, just as a person–is: How can people reach each other and work together to make the world better? What space provides that opportunity, in a world where it is possible to be in constant communication with thousands of people and yet know no one. From what you describe, churches can be that space.
Also, I feel for you when you say many people write off Christianity because the right has tried to coopt it (not your words, but I’m writing in shorthand here). I worked for an organization called Family Support America for 10 years. It was a radically progressive group that pushed for more public resources so that poor kids and parents wouldn’t be disadvantaged–but the very word “family” would often give people the first impression that it was conservative.
In all of your work, you seem so skillful at using the resources available for the common good–it seems like Christianity is one of those, and very powerful.
Peggy’s message continues to resonate today on another front(hence, a second posting). About doing something difficult and meaningful in tandem with your spouse (which, btw, I can testify to Peggy and Ed having done through their work with Woodland Pattern Book Center, which, btw, succeeds through the combined efforts of another husband/wife pairing)– this hope for unified labor with spouse pushes me to consider a shift in career pursuits.
My wife, Kari, took her first administrative job at a prestigious, private prep school in one of Milwaukee’s poorest and crime-infected neighborhoods. Her principal, an educational hero, is someone whom both of us have worked for before this current position. The school and other organizations are making headway in Metcalf Park but more work is to be done.
Chasing a career in higher education, only to be met with part-time work, part-time pay, or outright rejection, I am often left to feel frustrated that my abilities, passions and education are not being utilized fully for the common good. Thus, I have considered getting my teaching license. Now, with my wife working in an environment where I could potentially offer more of my abilities and carpool to work with her and thereby throw ourselves into the common project of educating young kids makes my heart active and warm. Perhaps Peggy’s words are the push I need to make a change and carve out a new direction.
Deesha, Peter, Jackie, wonderful to read your reactions. Thanks so much for walking with me. I’m very moved by your thoughts. Jackie, I heard that episode of This American Life too–what an amazing story. Peter, how cool your serendipitous visit to Riverside Church, and the tie-in to Zukofsky and Niedecker, and fascinating possibilities regarding career and teaching. I love how we prompt each other and cheer each other on! Keep up all your good work–p
I write to encourage you in your pursuit of Christ. If you have not already done so, read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as they are historical, eye-witness accounts of Jesus’ life. I have been a Christian for 28 years, and Jesus has been faithful to me through my darkest moments and in my most blessed joys. I pray you, too, will find Him so.