In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, written from prison in Rome, Paul urges Timothy to remember the faith passed on to him by his mother, grandmother and family of faith, and to commit himself to passing that legacy on.
If I were in Paul’s place, certain of approaching death and yet able to write one last letter about my faith, what would I choose to write? How could I put into words the spiritual legacy I’ve received and what would I want to pass on? It’s a challenging exercise. Here is my attempt.
What I inherited: I grew up in a family that went to church nearly every Sunday. We always made an embarrassingly late entrance, and had to work hard to suppress the bickering over whose fault it was that we were late.
I grew up singing Presbyterian hymns that have woven themselves into the fabric of my being: “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord,” “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,” “Our God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast and our eternal home.”
I grew up hearing intellectual, politically liberal, spiritually challenging sermons that made me think.
Members of my family belonged to different denominations. My maternal grandmother grew up Seventh Day Adventist, converted to Catholicism and married into a staunch Presbyterian family. My paternal grandmother came from a staunch Presbyterian family, married an Episcopalian and later in life converted to Catholicism. My mother grew up Catholic, my father Episcopalian, and they raised us Presbyterian. Part of my spiritually legacy is that I grew up in a family of seekers, who wrestled both theologically and intellectually with articles of faith.
As a teenager I went through a stage in which I believed God to be authoritarian, angry, judging, disapproving and thoroughly disappointed in me because I wasn’t able to just believe what I thought I was supposed to believe. My mother gave me a book by Frederick Buechner and introduced the concept that questions and doubts might be an integral part of a healthy faith. I think I’m still a Christian today because of that conversation.
Only when I was attending seminary, on the path to becoming a Presbyterian minister, did I learn that on both sides of my family I had a great-grandfather who was a Presbyterian minister. These men, dead long before I was born, are also part of my spiritual legacy—I cannot help but believe that somehow their lives influenced mine. One of my hopes in the years ahead is to learn more about who they were.
What I would pass on to my children and family and friends if this was my last letter about my faith?
I would affirm my belief that God is love and that all who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. At the most fundamental level this is what I believe.
I would affirm that it’s not only okay but good to have questions and doubts and to wrestle with theological claims, and that it’s not only okay and good, but also fun and creative and life-giving.
And I’d affirm that sometimes it’s also good to put doubts to the side for a while and just believe that God is present, that prayers are heard, that heaven exists, and that love never ends.
And I’d affirm that it’s worth all the time and energy and frustration involved to be part of a church community that tries to worship and serve God together and be good neighbors. Churches can be the most frustrating communities in the world. They are not “portrait galleries for saints, but hospitals for sinners.” They are places where people try to be good, however imperfectly they succeed. And they are places where those in need can go when there is nowhere else they can go, not to have their lives fixed and problems solved, but to find compassion, which is one of the greatest gifts in the world.
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