An old Swedish folktale presents a man with a choice. He could be granted a wife who is beautiful and unfaithful, or a wife who is old and faithful. After a moment’s consideration, he says, “I want her to be what she wishes to be.” Unsurprisingly, this man finds himself blessed with a partner who is beautiful and faithful.
I share this story not to cast judgment on any of the variations of “wife”, and certainly not to speak of physical beauty or any other one attribute with primacy, or reinforce the idea that only youth holds beauty, or to shame anyone for not fitting into these categories. I fully intend to have written on whatever mirror into which our one-day children look, “Warning: Reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially-constructed ideas of beauty.” Rather, I want to inspect this man’s response when he is given this choice over another, and the extent to which everyone benefits when that choosing is shared. The choosing is given back to the woman how she will go with this man.
When asked, Rebecca chooses to go with this servant ambassador, that she may marry Isaac. We can glean a sense of dignity and duty in her acquiescence, but also an abundant generosity (not just offering precious water to a traveler, but also to his camels) that makes her a primary matriarch in the great faith and history of Israel. In the Song of Songs, or the Song of Solomon, the lovers go with one another as runaways, longing for togetherness even when apart. This relationship has been lauded to be a defining mimicry of the relationship the church shares with Christ, among others. Thecla does not go with her fiance. Thecla does not even go with her mother. (This will not be surprising when we hear more of the story later.) Thecla goes with no one - she stays in place to hear the word of God.
Within the canon of scripture and without it in other early Christian writing, we can enjoy the multitude of ways these women made clearly sacred choices. Ultimately they all were going with God, if in different ways, when they chose to go, or not go, with others. Perhaps a deeper question, then, is - how can we identify making similarly sacred choices to go with God, if there are such a variety of ways to do it?
This question is complicated by the fact that we must choose in the midst of a world where we don’t have control over everything. We in our particular Reformed strand come from the tradition of Calvinism, which includes predestination. In it’s own way, it tries to gives us freedom of choice. With apologies for my oversimplification, Calvin basically says that when we are making choices, we don’t ultimately know how those unfold any better than God does in any way. So choose away, do the best you can, and just leave it in God’s all-knowing hands to judge. I believe this is meant to be freeing, and I think there is a truth to giving up to God all those things about which we can’t know everything - which is everything.
However, I believe today’s passages show us something more than this oversimplified “giving up to God.” When we are active choosers, we necessarily take responsibility. Ultimately all of these decisions are made without another human’s authorization, and they will be experiencing for better and worse, the myriad of consequences. Rebecca, having already shown agency in helping a stranger, goes on to know her own agency as she pursues a new relationship and new life. The songs lover takes responsibility for the inevitable separation that will occur by choosing to fly off in love, rather than not love at all, showing an ultimate faith in the coming back together again. Thecla refuses her role as wife, and chooses to remain in place despite the heavy pressure from her family. She chooses to remain where she is, listening to God’s word.
This responsibility entails a sense of recognizing that though we cannot know everything, we still are active agents in this world. The way we choose to participate, to go with others or not, is part of the fabric of God’s creation, and thus how we go with the love of God, with Christ, or not. Each decision in which we assert agency with an awareness of sharing our choices with God, in which we go with God, entails a shared responsibility for that and for whom God loves. A co-creation that brings about new ways, new categories that we could not have anticipated on our own. Like the man and woman in the folktale, rather than being confined to what our initial choices are, we can be surprised with how unexpectedly beneficial the reactions can be to those choices when they are shared with God in a spirit of love.
I really believe that when we do this, when we share our choices with God, when we share responsibility in love, we go with God. Naturally this may bring us back to the question of how to go with God - how to do it right or wrong. I don’t have a “right” answer for you today. Instead I have a personal parable and assurance.
I was in Philadelphia with my mentor, and before we get started on business things, he leads me in prayerful observance. We practiced Lectio Divina, and ancient monastic tradition of praying scripture. I pick the story, this story of Thecla. I’ve been chewing on her story in general and this passage in particular for almost two weeks now. Her going with God could in that moment seemed to all others to be wrong. And we don’t know what her internal monologue is. We’re not told. So in the prayerful reading in which my mentor guided me, I ended up having a waking dream of sorts.
This waking dream transported me to a time of not going, for fear of being wrong.
In the second grade my teacher had a chore chart for each of us to participate in. I was so worried I would mess it up and didn’t volunteer. So, the teacher assigned me something easy - watering the plants. When I went over, I thought they looked pretty dead. My seven year old logic was, well they must be thirsty! So I have them more water. By Friday my teacher comes over to me and in a panic asks, “Have you been watering it that much all week?!” Here I thought it was already pretty dead, I couldn’t mess it up. And I messed it up. You killed it, Larissa! Well, we come back after the weekend, and wouldn’t you know it, there was new growth on the plant. I had no real control over it obviously. You can help a plant to grow, but you can’t make it grow. God is in all those unsupervised moments, God is always going with us, even if we are not actively going with God. The God who is in each moment that we go finds a way to make all things work together.
The assurance is this: God chooses to unequivocally go with you. A beginning measuring stick, not an answer, just a road - do you choose to go with the love of God?
Photo by Sushobhan Badhai on Unsplash