2012 Lenten Reflections – Elizabeth

Lenten Reflections

Shared on March 7th, 2012

Proverbs 18: 7-17: 7 A fool’s mouth is his undoing, and his lips are a snare to his soul. 8 The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to a man’s inmost parts. 9 One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys. 10 The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe. 11 The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it an unscalable wall. 12Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud, but humility comes before honor. 13 He who answers before listening– that is his folly and his shame. 14 A man’s spirit sustains him in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear? 15 The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge; the ears of the wise seek it out.

The intersection between public life and religious life is an especially fraught one in our state and in our country right now. In Cranston where I live, we have had an acrimonious debate about the prayer banner at the high school. In our country, Rick Santorum is seeking to become president with a clear goal of joining church and state together explicitly, rather than assuring religious freedom through a clear and distinct separation. We have heard the Cranston teenager, Jessica Ahlquist, called an “evil little thing” by one of my colleagues in the State House and Senator Santorum has graphically repudiated President Kennedy’s statements on the importance of the separation of church and state, and has called President Obama’s religious beliefs “phony theology”.

So when I was asked to speak today, I wondered if I would be stepping onto a perilous piece of ground, or to continue my metaphor about intersections, stepping out into busy, cacophonous and, perhaps dangerous, traffic.

I attend this church in my “private” role, but many of you know me as a public figure. I have been reluctant to speak publicly about my beliefs because I have too often seen religion and politics mix in a way to divide and exclude. However, knowing that the Christian values we discuss and affirm in church are crucial underpinnings to public service, I realize we too often abandon this important dialogue to the religious right.

I also hesitate to talk about faith because I was brought up with the notion that your spiritual life is private, something to be discussed by ministers in their sermons, but avoided at dinner parties and in other polite conversation.

Today I will break the informal rule I have largely lived by in both my private and public lives. I am really honored to share my reflections on my spiritual path, how I followed that path to speak here today and where that path needs to take me tomorrow.

Many here have worshipped at Central for decades, since childhood or early in your adult lives. But there are also many like me that found Central and made it home when seeking more.

My Catholic husband, Tom, somewhat wryly comments on my wandering Protestantism. And he is right.

I began life attending Presbyterian church, was baptised Episcopalian when I was 8, frequently attended Baptist church with my father and stepmother, and witnessed my mother’s remarriage in the United Church of Christ. When I left home in Virginia for college here in Rhode Island, I largely left my churchgoing behind, occasionally attending services, but never finding a home. I lived believing more and more in my own responsibility for values, morals and right decisions, connecting them to a spirit within me, not with any theology or community of faith. It was a self-reliance, based in my upbringing and my education.

I married in a church 30 years ago and joined Tom’s Catholic faith with my own Episcopal tradition, but we never settled on a shared path. It was actually my public life, beginning fifteen years ago, that pushed, or pulled, me toward finding a faith community. I became more aware of the peril of relying just on myself, my personal beliefs and values. I feared the loss of humility that accompanies a public life where you speak and act, not only for yourself, but for others.

I needed the strength that church offered, the weekly peace and contemplation. In a hectic life, the hour of quiet. And also the frequent reminder of the larger presence, the power of God and the closeness of a congregation.

At first that meant a return to the Episcopal tradition that, despite my wandering Protestant upbringing, was the religious home of my childhood. Those are the prayers I still know by heart, those were the hymns I sang in the choir. It was a comfort to return. My younger daughter, Nora, joined me there. And it was she, and her school friend, Emma Cotter, who brought me here to Central, to this community. She connected strongly to the youth programs and I found what I was looking for, an engaging and challenging community. A place to think, often in solitude, while surrounded by so many. I joined this church, but often was absent for weeks at a time, never fully committing to the life of Central.

As I thought about and wrote the words for today, I realize how much of my path has been seeking peace, contemplation, belonging, comfort, a sense of humility and guidance for my life outside this building and this congregation. I also became aware of how much my journey so far has been about meeting my needs, not meeting the needs of others.

Lent is a time I have often found puzzling. I understand Advent, waiting and preparing for something wonderful and exciting. Lent, when I was a child, was a time I thought about, and usually failed, at giving something up, but otherwise I didn’t really get it. Should I be preparing for Christ’s death or his resurrection? Is it a time of sadness, or of hope? I am not sure I have seen it more clearly as an adult. This year, I am seeing it as a time of consideration, of reflection on my life, what it is and what it should be.

As I have examined my faith, my life in this church and my life serving in the community, I am aware of how much more I need to do to be a full member of this church. I have been a “receiver” in our church — drawing strength from the prayers, sermons and companionship of this warm and thoughtful congregation. But I have given little.

My sister, Louise, one of my many sisters, is an Episcopal minister. When I told her I was speaking today, she was excited. As she has throughout her adult life, I would be taking on a public role as a Christian, as a member of Central Congregational Church and as Lieutenant Governor. My challenge now is to move beyond the peace and contemplation of this beautiful building, to participate more fully in the mission of this church and to take on the role of being an elected official who more openly acknowledges the role that faith plays in her public life. For me that role is anchoring decisions in the values that Christianity has taught me — fairness, compassion, peace, the power of love and forgiveness. The separation of church and state allows us to bring our various traditions and beliefs to our public roles. The most important word in that sentence to me is various. I will seek to bring the Christian values we wrestle with here at Central more fully to my public and personal life.

Ephesians 4: 1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 

Posted in Lenten Reflections, Lenten Reflections Archive.