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"So, who's going to convert," I asked them. Both sets of eyes grew wide. They looked at each other as if to say, "Why is she bringing this up? It's not an issue. We love each other and that's all that matters." Throats were cleared. "Well, we don't think we need to go there. Neither one of us is that religious," she replied. "We're more--spiritual," he affirmed.
Pressing on I asked, "What about children? Have you given any thought as to what you intend to do when children come along?" Nervous glances were exchanged as if to say: "Heavens, we just wanted to come and get married. We haven't gotten that far yet." So she said, brightly: "We thought that we would cross that bridge when the time comes."
It is no wonder that interfaith couples want to delay answering these questions. They prefer to think about dreams come true and to relish the excitement and joy they are experiencing--not focus on serious questions that stand to threaten the precious state of bliss. So what is the pastoral role in helping two people in love to create a life together?
I believe that, just as each person has a unique spiritual journey to discover and live out, couples, too, have a spiritual path that is theirs to discover and follow together. Therefore, my responsibility is not to persuade couples to adopt my theological understanding, but rather to help them discover and articulate more clearly their own. This may mean that they come to choose clergy from another denomination or faith to officiate their wedding service.
Some Catholics, for example, after talking with me have realized just how important their Catholic faith is and have opted to go through the patience-testing annulment process. Jewish/Protestant couples often find themselves affiliating with the local Unitarian church or attending classes at the synagogue for "interfaith" couples. For others, the exploration may lead to a delay in marriage plans or to disengagement. Whatever the decision, it is their canvass to paint.
Related to this, it is important to help couples understand that when they are blessed with children, they are called to bless their children with a "spiritual" start. Crystal ball aside, no parents can guarantee the course of their children's spiritual path, nor should they expect to do so. The essential point is that parents have a responsibility to nurture their children's body, mind and spirit, so that their children eventually take up the adventure themselves.
Most important of my tasks is this: Helping couples to realize that what now seems secondary to their love for each other, is, in fact, primary. The spiritual strength each one brings to the other will form a significant part of the "relational glue" needed when the challenges of life bring them to the end of their resources or threaten to tear them apart. Sharing together observances of faith, like Yom Kippur if the family has chosen Judiasm, or Lent for the Christian family, can open each heart to the ritual of self-examination and to the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. This opportunity for insight, growth and deepened love takes on an added dimension when set in the context of a supportive community of faith.
For a family to be united in its faith expression also means that it shares in the joy and vitality that comes with contributing to and being part of something larger. In a community of faith, treasured intergenerational relationships develop where "adoptive parents/children" become part of the larger "family." In times of joy and sorrow, families can be present to and supportive of each other. Gifts and talents are shared and appreciated. Faith communities, too, provide a unique opportunity for a family to worship together, learn and grow together, and sometimes, simply, to have fun together with others in the "family."
I believe that there are many gates to the Garden, but that it is awfully hard to walk through two at the same time. Is it realistic to think that your child will send out invitations to be confirmed in the Christian church along with her Bat Mitzvah invitations? This is not to say that there are not families who are able to live out two faith traditions with integrity. It, simply, is much more challenging. With a nearly 50 percent divorce rate, couples need to search their souls and give themselves every chance they can to "choose (a) life," of faith which will nurture and affirm their own lives and the life of their marriage.