Spiritually Selfish
February 18, 2013

Dear Theo,

I am life long UCC'er.  I love my church, I am very involved and I want to share the experience with my family. My children come to church with me, but my spouse, while he supports my beliefs and desire to be involved in church, does not attend himself.  I know that Church hasn't been as open for him as it has been for me, so when he has attended or when we talk about church, we both get very stressed out.

Admittedly some of my desire to have him with me at my current church is because it feels expected, because I want to set an example for our children and because I want help and support from him.  Yet, other times it is because I get so excited and enthusiastic about God and church and I want to experience that feeling with him!  I would love him to talk about our collective experience beyond me just recounting sermons or experiences.

Recently we had a conversation about prayer and God and our beliefs and I could feel our hearts opening up to understanding one another. He has also been reading sermons online and we sometimes talk about them.  However, when it comes right down to it, I would like him to be with me in the pew on Sunday morning.  How can I be both supportive of my spouse's spiritual journey as well as my own? Is this selfish?

Signed,

Spiritually Selfish

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Dear Spiritually Selfish,

There are all kinds of reasons why people don't go to church. Some are founded in reality, in the real harm that churches do (though not yours and mine, of course): exclude, gossip, reject, scapegoat, and among the worst: BORE.

Other reasons people don't go are a mishmash of superstitions, projections, psychic wounds, and the spiritual violence done against us in childhood that the Church, not to mention God, end up bearing the brunt of.

With all of these reasons, founded and unfounded, no wonder so few people are in church these days.

I don't know why your husband doesn't go to church. You know him better than anybody, probably, and might have a guess. Maybe he was really hurt by an early religious experience, and you can remind him that he didn't reject education because of one bad teacher, or medical care because of one bad doctor. At the same time, beware of psychologizing his reasons too much:  people love their projections, and have them for a reason. They are protection against too much reality. 

That said, I don't think you are selfish for wanting your husband in church next to you. Genesis speaks of married people becoming “one flesh,” and that suggests we are to share every experience fully, especially peak spiritual experiences such as answered prayer, major epiphanies, and the witnessing of miracles. That degree of unity is the great reward for the shadow side of one-fleshness: sleeping next to a snorer or living with the stink of his/her sweaty gym socks for 50 or 60 years. 

And there is also the practical reality that it is dang hard to get out the door on a Sunday morning, the only unstructured day of the week for lots of families, with two or three kids, who have to be dressed, fed, marginally groomed, kept from noodging each other, all as a solo parent. Countless times, I have found myself screaming bloody hell at my own kids as we segue into the passing of the peace.

And there is the hard fact of our kids. Our kids are watching our behavior in all things, and in religious observance particularly. It is unfair, yes, and sexist—but did you know that people whose fathers attended church when they were young are much more likely to attend church as adults? It doesn't matter what Mom does—there is no correspondence to her habits. Only Dad.

If what you are really longing for is more shared spirituality, start small, and think about attracting versus compelling. Does your husband like to experiment? Capitalize on his curiosity and sense of fun. Enlist your kids—they are pros at spiritual experimentation. Make a list of spiritual practices/religious observances you would like to try.

You might attend different kinds of houses of faith (including Jewish, Ba'hai, Zen centers, ashrams), find creative ways to pray together as a family (sing a silly song, pass a squeeze around the circle, name your Good/Bad/God moments of the day), put a Post-it altar in a well-trafficked area of your home where anyone can leave an offering. Practice observing Sabbath the way observant Jews do, by not working —it's a Christian commandment too! Do your practices one at a time, for six weeks at a stretch—it takes that long to develop a new habit, and to really see the impact it is having on you as a family and as individuals. And one of your experiments can be: attend your church together for six Sundays in a row (make them good ones!).

Keep the experiments lighthearted and novel without being flaky or a gatecrasher—be especially respectful in different worship settings. This book: How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, can help.

Talk about any feelings that come up as you go along, any shifts in the mood of your family, your children's behavior. If your husband sees how his engagement with religious observance and spirituality is infecting your children, it may inspire him to more consistent attention to his own spirit.

Finally, if any part of the reason you want your husband in church is because you feel lonely or judged by the people in the pews next to you: to hell with other people's expectations. Either find a new church, or keep going and sitting up front so the other worship widows and widowers can see that you belong in this place. Consider yourself a good example!

I recently heard the Holy Spirit described as "strength beyond ourselves." The followers of Jesus received the Holy Spirit because they had the guts to show up, no matter what was going on with them personally—because they were all together in one place. And that Spirit made us one. There is more than one way to be one flesh! We call ourselves the Body of Christ, after all.

Bless you, and may you be a blessing,

Theo

Who is Theo?


"Dear Theo" is written anonymously by three UCC ministers of different ages and backgrounds--one main writer and two respite writers. We're hoping the questions will span all kinds of topics: from sexuality and relationships to church culture and conflict to mental health, family drama, ethical and moral dilemmas, and everything in between.

Every week will feature a new letter and a new answer. Please write Dear Theo with your questions and problems by sending to deartheo@ucc.org. Letter writers identities will also ALWAYS remain anonymous.

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