Sunday, February 26, 2006

Marriage and Martyrdom

Ever notice how easy it is to take your life for granted? Lately I've been feeling tired of school, impatient to get this stage of life done, to graduate and get married and begin my life with Eric. I'm tired of working all day and studying all evening, of getting up early and staying up late to write yet more papers about yet more books. And I'm tired of missing Eric at every turn, of counting down the months and days until we'll see each other again, of going to bed with a good-night phone call instead of a good-night kiss.

But something happened in the past couple of weeks that brought me and my impatience up short.

Two friends from my small church congregation are both battling life-threatening cancer. Both are young people, under 50. One of them, who was just diagnosed, is the father of four young children including a baby who is at that stage where he can just barely clamber up and down stairs as long as his older sister holds his hands. I watched them practice this last week on my way into the fellowship hall after church, catching my breath with each step as his clumsy baby feet barely made the next stair tread. But his sister clearly knew what she was doing--he didn't miss a single one. Their mother is slender and beautiful and one of those women who parents with grace and creativity and a sense of purposeful calling.

What caught me up short about this is how unexpected it is...a young couple, still in the first half of life, having babies, living life--none of us expect to be facing the possibility of death this early. Somehow, despite plenty of personal experience that should convince me that this is not the case, some part of me thinks I'll live forever--or at least until I'm 80 or 90 and surrounded by grandkids, at the end of full and satisfying life. And as I (impatiently) anticipate marriage, somehow I think that that too will last for decades and decades to come. We don't remember when we fall in love that every successful marriage ends in death--that at the end of this love lies a grief that may be the greatest we ever have to bear.

Here's the strange thing about love...when I think about facing what this couple is facing, I know without a doubt that even harder than accepting my own death would be leaving Eric behind to live his life without me.

Eric is the kind of person who has to live out his convictions--even if that means risking getting hurt or getting himself arrested. Back when we were just getting to know each other, he was reading about Christian non-violence and decided he needed to join an anti-war protest in New York City just before the beginning of the war in Iraq...he told me recently about packing a tear gas kit the night before, writing phone numbers on his arm with his heart in his throat, knowing that it was possible that the high emotions and large crowds might make the police quick to respond with force, that he might end up in jail or worse.

This is one of the things I love best about Eric--he is through and through who he says he is, and he lives what he believes, even when it's costly. We both know that sooner or later this is likely to lead to something more serious than a night in jail or a misdemeanor charge. And this is something he's been ready to accept. But I think what we are both realizing is that marriage makes the cost even higher. He's ready to risk his own life...but risking leaving me is not so easy.

For the past few months I've been studying the history of the Anabaptists, the forebearers of my adopted theological tradition. During the Reformation, they insisted on the right of adults to voluntarily choose baptism (as opposed to being baptized as infants into a state-regulated church), and of the rights of believers to form their own congregations, choose their own pastors, and together read and interpret scripture. Much of what they stood for was incorporated into the American system of religious freedom--separation of church and state, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.

But for these beliefs--and for living them out--the Anabaptists were tortured and executed in staggering numbers. Most were simple working people--craftspeople and peasants--who could have easily escaped imprisonment, torture and death simply by recanting and returning to the state church. But rather than doing so, hundreds and hundreds of them joyfully went to their deaths, sometimes enduring unspeakable torture (a common procedure was to cut out the prisoner's tongue so that he or she could not preach to the crowd assembled to witness the execution) before they before they were hanged, drowned or burned alive. In many parts of 16th century Europe, becoming an Anabaptist believer was tantamount to signing your own death warrant.

Some of the records we have from this dark period are letters exchanged between imprisoned spouses or written by condemned mothers to their infant children, encouraging them to grow up to be faithful disciples of Jesus, to learn the scriptures and live lives of courage and faith. And I wonder how they did it. How could they bear to leave behind their orphaned children, their widowed spouses? How could they choose death joyfully, knowing how high the cost would be for those they loved?

The best answer I've found so far is that they believed that their lives belonged first to Christ, that their first vows were not to their spouses or children, but to him. In fact, this understanding that commitment to Christ was a higher commitment even than that of spouses was reflected in the way the community spoke about executions--especially in the case of women, the records of their martyrdom refer to their execution as their 'marriage.' Women facing execution spoke with eagerness and longing for their union with Christ, their heavenly bridegroom.

We still have traces of this tradition in the Mennonite church. The liturgy we use for dedicating children asks parents if they are willing to give their children freely to whatever God calls them to in life. Knowing the history of our tradition, this isn't a question asked lightly.

And I wonder if we shouldn't have a similar vow in our marriage ceremony. It's hard enough to trust God with the split-second decisions of other drivers, with the silent unseen growth of cells, with all the myriad things that can go wrong with a human body. But to also hold ourselves open to the possibility that God may call us to choose obedience that leaves the one we love alone...that is even harder.

So I've been thinking these days about the fragility of life, how each breath is a gift of God's sustaining love, how each day of life is precious. And about the cost of following a God whose own life led through imprisonment, torture and execution before it led to resurrection.

I'm still tired of school. But I'm also living these days with a new awareness that each one is cause for deep gratitude. And the things that make me impatient about my life fade in importance in light of the shear grace of the gift of the days I have been given.

And I'm still counting down the months and days until July 29, when Eric and I will be married. But I'm also trying to come to terms with the knowledge that we both belong first to Christ--to hold my hopes and dreams for our future together with open hands, knowing that what God has given us is will not last forever, that one way or another, this love leads to grief and death. And that no matter how fierce our love for each other, it is only a shadow of the love the heavenly bridegroom has for us.