Not What She Seems
Story from the first church I served. The parish register: The parish register is an enormous book in which church membership, weddings, baptisms and funerals are recorded. Every church has a parish register. In my first call I sat in my office one day, flipping through it in order to familiarize myself with the names of the people. Most had German last names. Most had other family members recorded elsewhere in the parish register, families related down through the generations—names changing because of marriage, but related by blood or law, nonetheless.
In my first parish, in the parish register, I came across an entry for a woman who had transferred from a Catholic church. Her name didn’t really match anybody else's. It was Spanish. And--alone among all of the entries—all of the entries!—the previous pastor had written a note next to her name. Within parenthesis he had written of her “divorceé.”
Joking to myself I wondered--where it listed the pastors of the church--if I should write “divorceé” after my name. But--it wasn’t funny. The word “divorceé” made me feel sad, dirty and judged. I got it. In the eyes of other people, I was a failure, like this parishioner. I didn’t actually believe that. But I also didn’t not believe it, either.
Eventually I came to know this parishioner. Her name was Anna. And next to me she was among the youngest members of the congregation. Her son was older than my kids because she had had him in her early twenties; I was pushing thirty when my first daughter was born.
Even before I got to know Anna very well, I was always struck at how she helped this elderly man—her father or grandfather, I assumed--to the communion rail every Sunday. He was frail and she was tender with him and it was just a little bit of a break for his wife to have help in maneuvering him up and back for communion.
Over time, I found out a few things about how everyone was related. And I learned that this man was not her father or grandfather. In fact, he was the second husband of the woman who was the mother of a daughter who had been married to and then bitterly divorced from the man with whom Anna had been living for years.
You want all that again? Well, just re-read it. Because what they were to each other really didn’t matter at all. It was who they were for each other that mattered.
And furthermore--the pastor’s self-righteous entry after the woman’s name in the parish register? Well, he had got it all wrong. Anna was not a divorceé at all. She had never even been married. And after the Roman Catholic priest had refused to baptize her son because her son was, as he had put it, “illegitimate,” Anna had come to the Lutheran church where she worshipped with her boyfriend’s ex-wife, his former mother-in-law and step-father-in-law of the man with whom she lived.
You see, Anna would not be objectified. Not by the priest. Not by the parish pastor. She preferred to live authentically, rather than conventionally. Authenticity takes nerves, ego-strength, willfulness.
In the gospel of John, that other renegade, Jesus, comes to his hometown and the people expect him to perform the signs and wonders they have heard he had done elsewhere. When he doesn’t, they mock him first. And then they get angry: who is this hometown boy to refuse to do what we expect of him? Joseph’s son—bah!
Jesus sees this shift in their expectations of him. And he meets it: “Doubtless you will say, “Doctor, cure yourself.” And you will say “do here also in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum.” But he doesn’t.
So the townsfolk gather in a mob and chase him out to the edge of a cliff, hoping maybe to toss him over the edge, this insulting, expendable, carpenter’s son. What was he good for, anyway? He just sort of wandered around doing what some people called “miracles.” But not here he wouldn’t, here in his hometown. What an indolent, itinerant, expendable, poor carpenter’s son.
And Jesus slips away before they can hurl him off the cliffside. He slips away from the cartoon figure their aggragate expectations of him would have him be.
That’s a model for claiming our own authenticity, our identities, no matter who we are, no matter how others would like to cut us out of the list of the chosen because we are—oh, who knows? Gay? A person of color? Old? Divorced? Trans-gender? The list of rigidly defining labels goes on and on, offering ways that others can seek to deny full inclusion in the community.
But the community is stronger when it is more diverse. And from a spiritual point of view, all persons—made in the image of God, the imago dei—are worthy of living into their truest selves. And in order to share joy and share sorrow, we must be in an “I-Thou” relationship with one another rather than an “I-it” relationship.
We have a responsibility not to objectify others. But we also have a pressing calling to keep ourselves from being made into objects formed of others’ expectations.
Anna’s quiet, but bold willingness to live with the authenticity of her convictions was one of the more holy things I saw in my first parish. And I still give a wry and private chuckle when I think of that handwritten word in faint blue script, “divorceé,”—wildly inaccurate in all ways!