My parents came to visit this last weekend, and although it was good to see them, I always experience a certain amount of trepidation when we get together, because christianity will inevitably come up. I have never come out directly and stated to them that I am not a christian and have not ascribed to that faith for over fifteen years. We seem to have an unspoken agreement that they don't ask me about my faith, and I don't tell them where I stand.
I have made mention here of my upbringing in the Mennonite church and my subsequent rejection of not only that branch of the faith but also the whole of christianity, but I haven't talked about it with regard to my family. It's a touchy subject, because most of my family are firm participants and believers in the Mennonite church and its strong community when I no longer am.
These days, I hardly give my separation from that community a second thought, both because it has been many years since I was an active member and also because I never questioned my reasons for leaving. My parents' visit, the first visit we've had since early December, brought up a lot of that old tension again, though, and then after reading Dooce's post about one of her issues with Mormonism, I decided that I couldn't squash my feelings about my own experience down into that tight little hole this time.
When my parents arrived, they gave the Fiery One and I our Christmas presents from my paternal grandmother that we had missed receiving while we were away over the holidays in Costa Rica. I have always looked up to this woman. She got her masters degree in library science in the 1940s when that level of education and career was mostly populated by men. She is in her late seventies, and she travels the world on her own to see relatives, vacation, and volunteer. I look up to her as a strong and independent woman. So, quite naturally, I was hurt by part of her Christmas present to me.
In addition to regular gifts, she included a note to each family member that was intended to tell them "...how important they are to [her] and how much [she appreciated] them". After the previous statement, she thanked me for my faithfulness in repaying a loan she once gave me, and that was it for her list of nice things about me. I was not overly surprised with this, because I have not extended myself to my family much since leaving the faith behind, but what followed annoyed me entirely too much:
Internally, a rant was already forming itself in my mind, but externally I smiled over the note, folded it back up, and said that her letters were such a sweet idea.
I am not angry with her for her note. She is a deeply religious woman who likely feels she has well-grounded concerns for my spiritual well-being. Her worry stems from her deep love for her family and a desire to know that we are all well and safe.
What I am angry with is that this is an aspect of my past that I want to lie down and gasp its last breath already, and it just never does. I could gather up my courage and tell my family outright that I don't want to be encouraged to renew a faith I never truly felt, but that would only create worry and tension of gross proportions.
I've experienced their reaction to this kind of thing before. When I was in my early twenties, I joined the Baha'i faith in a fit of desperate desire to find a community and a world view that didn't reject me. Just before I joined, I told my mother over dinner what I was intending to do, and she spent about an hour in public in a restaurant gripping her napkin and expressing her horror at the possibility that I was damning my soul for all eternity. No kidding.
I rely on our silent agreement to leave the question of my faith out of our communications. It is what allows me to feel comfortable with them. It may be active denial, it may be a kind of lying, but it works for us. It works for me.
I know that there are many different flavours of the christian faith, and I know that not all of them would have made me feel as rejected as I did by the one I was raised in, but I read my bible cover to cover, every last word, and it rejected me. It rejected me as a female who sees no reason to be subjugated to males, it rejected me as one who does not believe I should render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, it rejected my gender identity by commanding that biological females be culturally typical women and biological males be culturally typical men. I could not ignore or explain away what I didn't like in the book and continue to embrace what I liked of the faith.
It is a difficult thing to be confronted with a thorny issue, especially when it is coming from someone I respect so much. I love her, and it hurts to have her faith and my lack thereof create such a divide between us.
This week, I am going to write her a letter in the spirit she intended with her Christmas note. I will tell her how strong and beautiful I think she is and how much that means to me as a younger woman who will one day be an elder. I will tell her how amazing it is that she married into a grieving family with four children after my biological grandmother died in the 1960s and that she works so hard to keep everyone together even after my grandfather has passed on. I will tell her I love her.
I nearly forgot that words sometime bely their intention. I nearly allowed my reaction to their surface meaning to drive me even further from her than I already am.
If I didn't take the time to write to you every other day, I might have missed this. Thank you.