Sunday, April 6, 2014

Tending the Faith

April 6, 2014

Dear friends, 

The idea of writing some kind of life history—summary of life learning, memory of life journey, or whatever—continues to leave me paralyzed. I respond to any suggestion that I write something about my life in much the same way I would greet a proposal that I walk a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I think that the result of either project would be roughly the same: I would immediately find myself in over my head, in deep water without the ability to swim.

Recently a friend nearly ruined a very fine lunch by insisting that for at least five minutes I consider this appalling possibility. “What might you title whatever you wrote?” she asked.

I used up as much of the five minutes as I thought I dared in “thinking” while I ate my soup. However, my friend is a fierce truth teller, so when I sensed I had avoided the issue as long as it was safe to do so, I said, “Today I would title it—whatever it  might be—Tending a Sustainable Faith.”

She considered this while she pursued a spinach leaf that had escaped her salad bowl and set out on an unauthorized journey across the table. When the run-away spinach leaf was safely back on her plate, she said thoughtfully, “That’s a beginning. But, tell me—tend? Would you really use the word tend?”

“Certainly,” I responded, grateful for the opportunity to shift from resistance to a writing project to the fun of playing with words. “I think that unless we learn to tend our faith we risk failure at keeping the faith.”

“Whatever,” she said suspiciously, well aware of my sabotaging tactic. “But when we have lunch next time, I want you to explain your working title. What is ‘tending’ anyway?  And what do you mean by a ‘sustainable faith’?”

“Well, I’ll think about that,” I said meekly, and, grateful for having escaped with such a relatively small commitment, felt privileged to pick up the tab for lunch.

I have no intention—in this world or the next—to walk across Niagara Falls or to attempt anything remotely similar. But I confess: my friend raised an interesting question. What does “tending” faith—or anything else, for that matter—look like?

“Tending” came into my vocabulary first in the context of the old wood-burning stove in our kitchen where tending the fire was a combination of art, science, and responsibility with grave potential consequences.

“Pay attention when you’re tending the fire,” my father would say in a stern no-nonsense voice. “You can get burned, and you can burn the house down.” 

In this context, it was easy to understand that to tend meant to look after, to watch over, and to care for something, the fire in this instance. Tending required me to lay aside foolishness and carelessness. Tending required care-taking with deliberate attention and conscious awareness of the potential consequences of my actions.

Tending entailed responsibility for both myself and the common good. Whether the fire in the stove warmed us and cooked our food, or injured us and destroyed our home depended in large measure upon the way in which I tended the fire.

It was self-evident that while I could act in a fashion that resulted in myself alone suffering burns, I could not burn down my house without burning down my sister’s house and my father’s house as well. If I failed to bank the fire in the morning, the fire would be out and the house cold when we arrived home from school. I would be cold, but my sister would be cold as well.  Tending (whether fire, farm animals, or ‘my own business’) was an ongoing act of care-taking that required responsible attention, and carried with it serious consequences for neglect or carelessness. 

In our family usage, tending (land, garden, farm animals or our own business) was an individual act of care-taking that carried community-wide impact, an individual act with implications for the common good.

I learned about another aspect of tending in the way that my learning often occurred in our household—I listened to a conversation between my grandfather and father, certainly without their invitation, and probably without their awareness. They were discussing a neighbor’s behavior.

Not known for charitable impulses, our neighbor had, to everyone’s surprise, volunteered to serve as the community representative on the school board committee considering a ballot initiative to increase property taxes to support our local school. My father and grandfather had mixed opinions about the ballot issue itself as well as the neighbor’s motives and skills, and could come to no clear agreement regarding how they would recommend the board to respond.

“Well,” said my grandfather as he started out the door on his walk home, “you may be right in supporting this. Still, I don’t think much of the idea of sending a coyote to tend the chickens.”

Later I asked my father about the conversation. As a farm girl I understood the absurdity and serious consequences of permitting a coyote to get close to the chickens, but I was unclear about the application of this fact of life to the “tax committee” and our neighbor’s offer to volunteer.

My father, who knew a slippery slope when he found one, was slow to answer, and careful with his words.

“Well,” he said after a long pause to think, “It’s like this. People have a tendency to look after themselves before they look after business that affects other people."

"Think about it this way: Don’t you suppose that as Old Coyote walked up to the chicken house, he would just naturally think first about giving himself a good meal? From Coyote’s point of view, taking good care of the hens meant taking good care to choose the biggest, fattest hen for his supper. It wouldn’t enter Coyote’s mind that his coyote-first approach to things wasn’t what the farmer had in mind when he sent Coyote to tend the chickens."

"Even if Coyote had a small twinge of guilt as he polished off the farmer’s best layer for his supper I doubt seriously that Coyote would lose any sleep over the whole affair. He would think that he had done what any sensible coyote would do if he had the chance."

"Granddad was thinking that when you ask someone to tend to something that affects a lot of people, it’s not a good idea to choose someone who will just automatically tend to his own wants and needs when he’s responsible for things that affect other people.”  

My father hesitated. This slippery slope also included a potentially indiscreet teenager.

But, taking the risk, he added, “You know our neighbor owns a couple of sections of land fairly close to Kirwin. He would pay more taxes if the school levy is increased. Nobody likes taxes, but sometimes they’re necessary. Granddad thinks our neighbor might think first about voting for something that would keep his taxes down rather than voting for what is best for the school.”

While I could not have explained things very clearly, I had learned something important. I understood that to tend well required what my Grandfather called “character” as well as serious attention. To tend well could sometimes mean asking difficult questions and making hard decisions.

My understanding of faith defines faith as a gift. Faith operates both as a capacity and a predisposition to respond to God. It is God's gift through which God enables His people to enter into relationship with Him.

When we have lunch in May, if—when—my friend returns to her question, I think—at least, today I think—that I will say something like, “Tending the faith is taking care of a gift, the God-given human potential to be in relationship with God.”

Thinking with you today, that tending the faith is difficult to explain and even more complicated to do.

How are you tending your faith? How are you taking care of the gift you have been given, your capacity to live in relationship with God?

See you next week.


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