A Year of Morning Thanks
Poor in Spirit
Being placed into hospice care does not imply imminent death, or so I've learned-- the easy way, you might say. My mother-in-law has been in hospice care for quite some time. While it's clear that her health isn't "getting better," it's not clear that she'll be leaving us any time soon. Hospice care, no matter its length, is an wonderful blessing.
Living the way she is these days, she thinks quite a bit about the way things were; so when, yesterday, she told us a story from years ago, it wasn't the first time.
At one time her mother chatted about her own two unmarried aunts--"old maids," they would have been called years ago, I'm sure. Back then, my mother-in-law was young and impressionable enough to listen to what her mother said. And it's somehow stayed with her.
"Well, I suppose they saved themselves from a lot of sin by never marrying," her mother told her, off-handedly, and then carried on her tatting or whatever.
Just a single line, but it stuck. And now, almost eighty years later, it returns, a puzzle.
Last week, my mother-in-law and her sister talked about what their mother might have meant by that odd assessment, how being single actually might have saved those old maids from a lot of sin. They still aren't sure exactly, but here's what they speculate.
It had to do with a woman's inability to control reproduction. There was no birth control so women simply had babies--again and again and again. My father came from a family of ten, as did my father-in-law, not unusual in the rural Midwest, pre-Second World War.
How could having babies be sin? Here's what they determined, what they guessed. Without birth control, kids simply showed up, sometimes--maybe often--unrequested, even unwanted. It was the Thirties, Depression-time, and while one could make the argument that more hands make less work, more babies undoubtedly came at a price.
What I need is to imagine is a woman whose small house is already full of kids, whose pocketbook is going to be empty until she can sell chickens, whose crops look dry, whose early pregnancies keep her face in the bedpan, who can already tally age itself in her bones from the many births she's already given--that woman suddenly and unexpectedly realizing there is yet another on the way.
Add to that an unthinkably high infant mortality, the fear that this baby, like others perhaps, wouldn't live long. Lots of old church records here make dreadfully clear that the death of children was not infrequent.
There was much to fear, in other words. And in the religious culture in which they lived, having babies was seen as a woman's prime calling in life. Having babies was what women did, what God wanted of you, what his Word demanded.
That unquestioned theological conviction turned one's private questions about more babies into nothing less than sin. In the wee hours of the morning, the house quiet for once, her husband asleep, it's not hard to imagine a woman reading her signs and weeping, those sad tears made both more frequent and intense by the conviction that those tears themselves represented rebellion against the Lord.
In that way, not marrying meant being able to avoid sin--or so my mother-in-law reasoned last week, when her own mother's off-hand remark, for some reason, came back to her many decades later.
Amazing, and sad.
But we live in a new world. Today we have the pill. Today unwanted babies are few. But that doesn't mean that some 21st century believers still don't translate that which conflicts us, that which makes us cry, into a treacherous darkness that we still equate with sin.
The old looming orthodoxy of a dour Calvinist piety may well be gone from the community I live in, but that doesn't mean that hearty religious people don't still feel the pangs of sin in their sadness, no matter what the cause. Today, a half a century later, the image of true piety may not be a sour face, as it once was. Today, true Godliness might be, ironically, a smiley one; and those who don't manifest that joy--for whatever reason--may still equate their lack of it with the curse of sin.
Sometimes it's a burden, being a believer. Honestly.
And then, yesterday, Sunday, a wonderful sermon on the Beatitudes.
Later I got to thinking what a blessing those wise words could have been, years and years ago, to women sitting on hard pews in the cold of January, knowing that by Christmas there would be yet another crying mouth to feed: "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Could have been. Might have been. In some cases, I'm sure, was. Had to be.
My mother-in-law's story made the sermon--and Jesus's own words--even more profound.
And then, this morning, I heard Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison in 1944. “I’m still discovering right up to this moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God.”
That's comfort, for all of us--for which, this morning, I'm thankful.