My husband and I come from very different backgrounds where faith is concerned, so when we watch or listen to a church service, as we did Senator Kennedy's funeral mass today, we hear things differently. I hear the similarities to my own traditions and note that which is more, well, Catholic. I listen to the scriptures and remember when they have meant something particular to me. I attend to the sermon and feel happy that it is preached by a parish priest, not a University Chancellor or a Cardinal, and that it is well-spoken and meaningful. I connect with the Prayers of the People and repeat aloud, "Lord, hear our prayers."
Pure Luck hears something different in the gospel than I do. It is from Matthew 25, the story of separating the sheep from the goats, and I hear this:
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when
was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave
you something to drink?
38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell
you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of
my family, you did it to me.’
I hear one of the passages that most informs my faith. But Pure Luck hears this:
41Then he will say to those at his left hand,
‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared
for the devil and his angels;
What comes before, what comes after, all is lost in the idea that there is an eternal fire, that there is a sorting out in the story that ends in hellfire.
"Honey," I say to the man whose only church memories from childhood involve vain attempts to build structures with popsicle sticks, "that's not the important part. The important part is how the dividing line is drawn. The important part is that what matters ultimately is caring for those who need help the most."
Whether you're welcomed by God depends not on whether at your church you swing a censer over a casket or simply lay a hand upon it at the commendation. It does not depend on the language you use in worship or the wearing of vestments or the gender or orientation of the people who proclaim from the pulpit or serve the bread and cup or whether you use wafers or challah or wine or juice or whether you immerse or sprinkle.
It does not depend — dare I say it? — on whether you do any of those things. You and I know, don't we, that plenty of people live within the forms laid down in various traditions without ever internalizing the underlying message of the sheep and the goats.
It depends on love.
I'm not preaching tomorrow, but if I were it would be hard to resist the passage from Song of Solomon in this week's lectionary. It was one of the readings when Pure Luck and I married almost seven years ago. My love, an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, indeed came "leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills." The voice of the beloved called me to something fuller and richer in my life, and I want to say the past seven years have been more loving because of him, not only in the sense that romance came into my life unexpectedly at age 39 and marriage even more unexpectedly at 41, but also because people who feel loved are better-equipped to share it with others.
That gift of love received expands when given away again, not just to the giver but to the whole world. It's not enough to focus on one's own relationship with a partner or with God, for that matter. Real love impels us to turn outward and love others, expansively, unconditionally, unendingly.
I find this kind of love in my life and in my Christian faith, but I would no more say that my way of finding it personally (with an opposite sex spouse and as the mother of biological children) is the only way than I would claim that my particular path of faith is the only way of getting there.
At my house a gravelly rumble answers a girlish call at the door. There are many mountains, many windows, many voices of love, many words for expressing it. May we always hear the voice of Love.