“I really think that we should have more fluid boundaries,” I said to my colleague at work. We had been talking about her alma mater, Sewanee: The University of the South, a beautiful Episcopal school in Tennessee. She shared how she had been raised Episcopalian but converted to Judaism. She was glad to be where she was, but sad that not all of her friends and family understood. I found her journey to be quite interesting and told her of a man I met who had left the Southern Baptists for Judaism. I had to also share how I had grown up Southern Baptist and became Episcopalian for many years before moving to the Catholic Church. And then there was the young man I spoke with during Ramadan one year who grew up Baptist and converted to Islam.
I have spent much of my life being fascinated by the faith practices of others, which perhaps allowed me to be more open to other faiths. When we see Jews gravitating to Buddhism, mainline Protestants joining charismatic fellowships, and evangelicals finding interest in historic liturgical faiths, we can either lament such things or celebrate the fact that we live in such a spiritually vibrant atmosphere. Recently, when the Dalai Lama came to my hometown, he compared the varieties religions and spiritual practices to a supermarket. Just as a supermarket can satisfy more people with its wide variety of foods, so it is with religion. More people can find spiritual fulfillment when there is a greater variety of spiritual practices. I would celebrate a world of fluid boundaries where people can allow their friends and family members the freedom to explore other paths.
These thoughts bring me to a poem I wrote last year, “Sitting Shiva.” I was actually working on this one for several years before I knew it would be a poem. The background is that I had recalled a conversation that some of my friends and I had back during college days. We were all caught up in the enthusiasm of our evangelical faith and someone said they heard that if a Jew converted to Christianity, their family would "hold a funeral" because they considered their family member to be dead. We all thought that was a terrible thing. Fast forward many years when I ended up crossing some boundaries myself. I soon realized that many in my evangelical/Southern Baptist "family" seemed not to know how to interact with me when I left the Baptists for more liberal and different paths. Though I was interested in maintaining friendships, it seemed difficult for some of my former colleagues. There seemed to be some kind of death there.
|Alice Walker PBS Photo|
Those words from Alice Walker brought everything back home to me. I stopped right then and wrote the poem while the documentary was still rolling on the TV. That is much more information than I usually give when I share a poem, but that was what was percolating when the poem came to light. Perhaps there has to be some sense of death when we move on in life, but to the one moving, death is what is being left behind, life is what lies ahead.
I had friends who sat shiva
When I found the open road.
Their grief was that I left familiar territory.
My grief – that there was territory.
William Butler Yeats foresaw my own death –
“Those I fight, I do not hate” –
When I lay down my armor.
I stepped into a broad place
And found new life
While mourners sat by the casket
Of days gone by.
Funny thing about shiva –
You’re never quite the same thereafter.
Those who mourned
Are never sure what to say
When you show up with provisions
For the open road.
Illustration above: "Clouds, Straight Road, and Prayer" (acrylic on canvas)
by artist Robert Gregory Phillips
The image of the painting featured is copyrighted and used with the artist's permission