Monday, December 24, 2007

We almost miss the manger

I'll give you better words than mine this Christmas Eve. Here is a fine memory that Frederick Buechner relates in "Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary":

The young clergyman and his wife do all the things you do on Christmas Eve. They string the lights and hang the ornaments. They supervise the hanging of the stockings. They tuck in the children. They lug the presents down out of hiding and pile them under the tree. Just as they're about to fall exhausted into bed, the husband remembers his neighbor's sheep. The man asked him to feed them for him while he was away, and in the press of other matters that night he forgot all about them. So down the hill he goes through knee-deep snow. He gets two bales of hay from the barn and carries them out to the shed. There's a forty-watt bulb hanging by its cord from the low roof, and he lights it. The sheep huddle in a corner watching as he snaps the baling twine, shakes the squares of hay apart and starts scattering it. Then they come bumbling and shoving to get at it with their foolish, mild faces, the puffs of their breath showing in the air. He is reaching to turn off the bulb and leave when suddenly he realizes where he is. The winter darkness. The glimmer of light. The smell of the hay and the sound of the animals eating. Where he is, of course, is the manger.

He only just saw it. He whose business it is above everything else to have an eye for such things is all but blind in that eye. He who on his best days believes that everything that is most precious anywhere comes from that manger might easily have gone home to bed never knowing that he had himself just been in the manger. The world is the manger. It is only by grace that he happens to see this other part of the miracle.

Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it in and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed -- as a matter of cold, hard fact -- all it's cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading.

The Word become flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not touching. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God ... who for us and for our salvation," as the Nicene Creed puts it, "came down from heaven."

Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Language no barrier to feeling at home

I had the great good fortune to attend a Jewish wedding last night and be reminded again of the beauty of that faith's services. Could anything touch the heart more deeply than the chanted prayers? Although I do not know Hebrew, language was no barrier to understanding. They spoke straight to my soul. I could gladly have listened to the prayers all night, even though the dessert table was beckoning.

One topic of conversation after the service was how everyone was connected to the couple. One woman described how she came to join their congregation. "My kids went to services first," she said, "and they came back and told me that it felt like home. So I went, too, and they were right."

It felt like home. Yes. That is exactly how the Jewish prayers had felt to me. It is the same feeling I have known at my own church's Easter Vigil and Christmas Eve services -- and also in a silent, dark room with only a single candle. Home.

Isn't that what so many of us seek in a church or temple or mosque? Home. A place of warmth and welcome. A place that draws out the best in us, that connects us to God and one another, that points us toward meaning. A place where we can be our true selves, where we belong. A place where we can learn to love.

In this season when Christians celebrate a baby born far from the familiar comforts of home, my wish for all people, of all faiths, is this: No matter where your journey takes you, may you find that home awaits you there.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Recapturing the wonder

Nick wrote after the last post, "I hope to recapture more wonder this Christmas." I suspect that's a common yearning.

We see wonder in the eyes of children as they experience the magic of Santa's bounty. We can imagine the quiet wonder of Mary as she gazed into the eyes of her newborn son or the awed wonder of shepherds hearing "Glory to God in the highest." If we're lucky, we remember our own times of wonder, when grace shook us from complacent comfort and the impossible became real.

So we leave the door open for wonder. We invite it with candlelit services and familiar carols, with sparkling lights and piles of presents. And still it comes where and when we least expect it. In a stable, not an inn. In a baby, not a king.

I wrote a column published Dec. 23, 1987, about wonder taking me by surprise. Here's that story again:

A day with a difference

Eyes opened slowly, reluctantly in the gray light of a winter morning. Another day. Another choice: to hop out of bed and get ready for work or to snuggle deeper into the electric blanket. I rolled over, cherishing the warmth, hiding in the pillow’s soft darkness. Just a few minutes more. . . .

Another day. I began to take a sluggish inventory of the day’s schedule: Nothing planned except work. I ought to be at the newsroom by about 2 p.m. and would be lucky to leave by midnight. Same as always. Another day.

Waking has never come easily to me, but this day seemed harder than most. Hadn’t I been out late the night before? A melody drifted through my mind, picking up words along the way. Silent night, holy night…

Oh. That’s right. Last night I had gone to a midnight Christmas Eve service - not at my church, though; that service started too early for me to get there from work. This church was not even of the same denomination, but the liturgy was lovely, the music uplifting. Afterwards I lit a candle and listened to a recording of Benjamin Britten’s "Ceremony of Carols," as I do every Christmas Eve.

Eyes opened again, more conscious this time. Christmas Eve. That meant today must be Christmas.

The awareness sank into my mind with a dull thud. So it's Christmas. Just another day, except that all the restaurants are closed.

I still had to work, which meant I couldn’t drive four hours to be with my family. News doesn’t stop for holidays; even if it does, people expect a paper full of stories anyway. I had worked every Christmas since leaving college.

No relatives lived anywhere near. No one was coming to visit. I hadn’t bothered to decorate for the holidays; it hardly seemed worth the effort.

Faint noises came from the living room. My roommate Julie was already up, of course. She had to work today, too, but she didn’t seem bothered by it. Of course, she was Jewish. Christmas to her was … well, just another day. Just like for me. Only I wanted it to be so much more.

I pulled the covers higher, still not eager to face the day, but my cats were jumping onto the bed and yowling, ready for breakfast. They didn’t care what day it was, but they cared greatly if their food was late. With a sigh, I rose, threw on a robe and stumbled out of my bedroom … into Christmas.

My largest houseplant, bedecked with brightly colored bows, was surrounded by a multitude of small, cheerfully wrapped packages. Julie sat at one side, holding out a cup of hot, spiced tea. "Merry Christmas!" she said.

And it was.

Did she realize how totally shocked and delighted I was, how full of wonder? I don’t remember being so excited since Santa’s mystique faded. But Mr. Claus, apparently, was alive and well -- and still had a few tricks up his red sleeve.

Slowly, savoring the moment, I unwrapped the presents. They were small, inexpensive items, but I felt richer than kings. Not even the cats were forgotten; there were little treats just for them, although they were content lazily attacking stray ribbons.

Driving to work a few hours later, I joyfully sang carols at full voice. The day, I noticed, was much brighter. The sun had appeared. Or had it been out all along?

Julie’s gift outlasted that Christmas of a few years ago, because what she gave was not only one happy morning but an enduring memory. And not only a memory, but a hopeful awareness that glorious surprises lie in wait around every dark corner of my life. And not only a memory, but a calling to reach out in small ways to the people around me -- to make their days special and full of love.

When I am asked now about my favorite yuletide ever, I don’t think of the holidays of my childhood, however full of family fun and special gifts. I think of a gray winter morning that started out as just another day -- but through the kindness of a friend became truly Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Holidays put flesh on mystery

You're standing in a long line of impatient shoppers, listening to "Winter Wonderland" for the 15th time that day and holding a credit card that should have been locked away a dozen charges ago. Who would blame you for wondering: What's the point? Why celebrate Christmas anyway? It's not as though Dec. 25 is really the birthday of Jesus. It's just another day.

And if you're feeling particularly grouchy, you might wonder why we celebrate religious festivals at all. Why Hanukkah? Why Easter? Why Eid al-Fitr?

Well, part of the reason, of course, is that everyone loves a party. Everyone loves a feast. Holidays break up the year, giving workers a reason to rest and families an excuse to gather.

But these festivals feed our souls, not just our bodies. They remind us of the great mysteries of faith -- and more, they invite us to relive them, to enter the story, to make it real in us.

In Hanukkah, which was celebrated earlier this month, observant Jews do not merely remember the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days. They light candles on the menorah and experience the illumination themselves.

There's something about engaging the story with our own flesh -- whether it's lighting the menorah or taking part in a Nativity pageant -- that makes spiritual truth come alive.

(By the way, Hanukkah is not the most significant Jewish holiday. It has been blown up in importance in this country by its proximity to Christmas. As the Judaism 101 site says, "It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and the suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar." Christians who decry the secularization of Christmas sympathize.)

Do religious rituals or festivals help you to enter the mystery of your faith?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

At the crossroad of joy and loss

Everyone warned me the holidays would be difficult this year. Friends who had lost loved ones said the sights and sounds of Christmas would stir painful, lovely memories of my husband and the many holidays we celebrated together before his death.

The blow didn't fall, though, until I came across an old videotape that we shot at Christmastime 15 years ago. It was easy to smile as the camera zoomed in on familiar old ornaments that were then shiny and new. It was delightful to see my son, now a senior in high school, be once again a wide-eyed toddler. And then a clear, sweet tenor voice began to sing:

O come, o come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
who mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel will come to thee, o Israel.

We used to sing that ancient chant every night as we lit the Advent candles -- a cry of yearning, of hope, of wildest dreams coming true at long last.

The intersection of joy and loss was almost unbearable.

And yet, that aching crossroad brought me closer to Christmas than any trip to the tinsel-bedecked malls could. It reminded me that the coming of the Christ child, like any baby's birth, involved both pain and hope. The pain of labor passes, but the hope endures because new life has been born, full of possibility. Here and now are transformed by the eternal.

"Emmanuel" means "God with us." With us in the craziness of December. In the emptiness of loss. In the agony of birth. In the fading videos of memory and the boxes of dusty ornaments waiting to be hung on a newly cut tree.

Rejoice! Rejoice!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Questioning candidates about faith

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gave an interesting speech today about the intersection of religion and politics, prompted by evangelical Christians' apparent unease with his Mormon faith. These sentences jumped out at me:

"Perhaps the most important question to ask a person of faith who seeks a political office, is this: Does he share these American values – the equality of humankind, the obligation to serve one another and a steadfast commitment to liberty?

"They are not unique to any one denomination. They belong to the great moral inheritance we hold in common. They’re the firm ground on which Americans of different faiths meet and stand as a nation, united."

I appreciate Romney's attempt to identify common ground in America's ideals. But is "Do you share American values?" really the most important question to ask "a person of faith who seeks a political office"? It would be more revealing to hear the answers to these:

How has your faith shaped who you are?

What effect does your faith have on your actions? What have you done out of commitment to God that you would not have done otherwise?

Does your faith change how you see other people, other nations, other religions?

What is your image of God?

How do you pray?

Yes, these questions are nosy and personal, and the chance of getting honest answers of any depth would be approximately zero. But wouldn't it be fascinating to know...

What would you ask?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Wait? Who has time for that?

Sunday marked the beginning of Advent, the Christian season of waiting.

But who has time to wait? Our motto is gotta-have-it-now, with overnight shipping, next-day delivery or immediate download.

We're more likely to demand immediate satisfaction than to wait with expectant hope. Sure, we may admit that certain things can't be rushed -- pregnancy, for instance, or a teenager's maturity -- but that doesn't stop us from frowning and pacing and fretting.

No wonder we have trouble being still. No wonder we can't be at peace. No wonder we become so caught up in the whirlwind of "Christmas" that we forget to breathe.

One of my favorite quotes is from Henri Nouwen, the French writer and priest who learned patience in part from living with disabled adults:

"To wait open-endedly is an enormously radical attitude toward life. So is to trust that something will happen to us that is far beyond our own imaginings. So, too, is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life, trusting that God molds us according to God’s love and not according to our fear. The spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, trusting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination, fantasy or prediction."

What new things are being born in you this Advent? Are finding it hard to wait for their arrival?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Giving thanks, no matter what

For the past week I have been about the important tasks of connecting with family and giving thanks.

The first task proved to be easier than the second.

Events in the past week forcefully reminded me that giving thanks is not the same as feeling satisfied that all is as it should be.

It was a bit difficult to give thanks when my deer-damaged car wasn't repaired in time for the drive to Atlanta. How can you be grateful when your plans are frustrated?

It was harder to give thanks when I discovered six inches of water in my basement. How can you be grateful while throwing out ruined possessions and wading in filth?

Hardest of all was the funeral of a teenager who died on Thanksgiving Day. How could anyone even think of giving thanks in that situation? How is it possible?

It's possible because gratitude does not depend on our feelings of contentment. It doesn't require us to approve of what is happening. Instead, it is the willingness to let go of our annoyance or anger or even grief, if only for a moment. It is the deep, healing breath that cuts through our gasps of desperation.

It is the acknowledgement that our pain or inconvenience is not the sum total of reality. There is more, and it is good. Otherwise we wouldn't feel the losses so keenly. The change in travel plans grates because I know the loving welcome that awaits me at my destination. The flooded basement annoys because it is the literal foundation of that special place called home. The death of a promising young man is agonizing to those who know him or his parents because he brought such light to the world. Because he loved and was loved.

Here's a paradox: We can be grateful because of the very things that make gratitude more difficult. Because they are precious, their loss hurts. But because they are precious, they are gifts for which we can truly and sincerely give thanks.

What do you think? Is it important to give thanks even when it seems more reasonable to complain?

Friday, November 16, 2007

A walk in the book of Creation

Yesterday I walked through the woods on our property, as I once did far more frequently. The old trails were harder to find, choked with underbrush and blocked by fallen trees. It was easier during my husband's illness to withdraw -- physically into the house and emotionally into worry and fear.

Now, taking the walk seemed a daring act, a venture into the unexpected.

But what I found was familiar: the rich, heady scent of soil, the sight of wind tickling leaves that fell laughing to the ground, the cool touch of boulders older than history. Ghosts of past joys lingered in well-remembered places: the steep hill we careened down after a snowfall, the clearing where my husband once built a sweat lodge, the rock where I sat and dreamed of new directions. The seven-trunked tree that had been mostly dead was now entirely dead, yet filled with life; a variety of creatures called it home.

One remembered sound was missing -- the creek's song was silent. The long drought has reduced its usual flow to a trickle. I stood a long time looking at what it had become.

The Celtic Christian tradition held that God revealed himself in two books: the book of Scripture and the book of Creation. That nature speaks of the sacred if we are willing to enter it with eyes and ears and hearts open.

What nature told me on this walk was that, like the creek, I was dry and thirsty. I needed to return to these paths, open this book, experience its wild truth.

What have you found in the book of Creation?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Screeching brakes and God's plan

When I felt my car slam into a solid object, saw glass fly and heard the sickening thud of metal crushing bone, my first thought wasn't, "Why didn't God intervene?"

My first thought was a word you would not hear in church.

My second thought was terror that I might have hit a child, since I knew I wasn't close enough to another car.

My third thought was relief that the object was a deer and that my son and I were unharmed -- although the same can't be said of my months-old car.

The incident left me thinking, though, about how suddenly life can change, how disasters much worse than hitting a wayward deer can strike without warning. When the unthinkable happens and proves we're not invulnerable after all (our favorite delusion), big questions bubble up.

Why did this happen? What does it mean? And the perennial favorite: Why didn't God stop it, if he exists and is all-powerful?

Some people see misfortune, injustice and evil as proof that God must not exist -- or is too weak or uncaring to act on our behalf. Others are quick to tell those who suffer that it's all part of God's inscrutable plan.

What these views share in common is the assumption that a loving, powerful God would necessarily micromanage and manipulate the lives of every human being.

Since when was that a requirement of love?

I believe that bad things happen because they happen, not because God is pulling our strings to punish or polish us. That doe chose to run into the road; God didn't send her in my path so I'd have something to write in this blog.

But here is where belief makes a difference. Because of my faith, I was willing to look past the fright and inconvenience of the wreck and let its lessons shape my spiritual life. Upon reflection, I had to acknowledge how attached I had become to that vehicle, how proud I was of its little luxuries. I pondered the need to be more aware of my surroundings -- not just while driving, but in my interactions with other people.

And I was reminded again that no matter what happens, God is with me -- not causing or preventing disasters, but redeeming them from meaninglessness.

A wreck doesn't have to be part of God's plan to be used for God's purposes. That's up to us.


Friday, November 9, 2007

Star Wars and the All-Faith SmackDown

d.j. wrote: "Jane, it seems you want a discussion where everyone shares their experiences and we all embrace those experiences as equally valid. This is not possible for someone like myself who believes in the absolute and exclusive truth of the gospel of Christ."

Share experiences? Yes. And beliefs. And ways of worship. And images of God. And thoughts about prayer. And more.

Embrace them as equally valid? Not at all.

I do not want to squelch conviction. I do not want any of you to feel inhibited in talking about your own beliefs. All I want to discourage is attacking other people's beliefs, especially when those people are saying that's not what they believe at all.

An exaggerated, imaginary example:

Person A writes "I think God is just like the Force in the Star Wars movies."

The sort of responses I'd prefer that we avoid:

"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

"No, people like you really believe that God is Darth Vader and wants to blow up Earth with his Death Star, which would kill billions of people."

"Everyone who believes that faces eternal damnation."

"Point to a verse in the Bible that proves it. If it's not there, you have no right to believe it."

A better response:

"I don't think God is like the Force at all. I think he's more like Gandalf in 'Lord of the Rings' or Aslan in the Narnia books because ..."


"That's not in line with what I read in the Bible, which I take as the final authority. I see the Bible as saying this about God ... "

Best response of all:

"Really? What makes you think that?"

The difference is "I believe" as opposed to "You're wrong."

It's not necessary to assume that everything said is true. I'm not asking you, d.j., to believe any less that you know absolute truth. All I'm asking is that you let others say what they believe to be true. You don't have to agree, but you also don't have to tell them they're wrong point by point. Not everyone reads the Bible in the same way you do or takes it as the ultimate revelation of God.

I don't mean to pick on d.j., who has presented his thoughts respectfully. I'm responding directly to him because he made an assumption about what I wanted here. So to clarify:

I want this blog to be a forum where we can learn what matters to one another, not as a wrestling ring where we determine whose view of God whups the competition. Welcome to the All-Faith SmackDown!!!!! Does the world really need that? I sure don't.

By the way, thank you for the kind words about my husband, who died in April from cancer. I wrote a few columns about his illness and death for the Viewpoint page in the Observer, which is why I didn't go into more detail in my last post.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Is angry debate all there is to organized religion?

I've been away for a while, but I see the conversation continued. I wish it had done so with less rancor -- with more of a desire to understand other views than an eagerness to prove them wrong. But that will only happen when people write about their own beliefs rather than insisting that they know what someone else believes, or that they know another person's motivations for posting.

So is it true that this sort of argument is the inevitable fruit of organized religion? Is it the best that churches can offer?

If I thought so, you certainly wouldn't find me there almost every Sunday. I know better, though.

Despite the noisy, often nasty debates that make up much of the news we hear about religion, that's not the real face of faith. Most people don't go to church or synagogue or mosque to join an argument. They go for community. They go to learn how to love. They go to find God.

This past weekend I experienced why being part of a church family matters. It had nothing to do with apologetics or condemning others or fighting over the meaning of Scripture.

It was my church's annual retreat in the mountains, a time for reflection and togetherness. The retreat was to be even more meaningful for me this year, because we were placing the ashes of my late husband in the memorial garden there.

The decision to make Kanuga his final resting place was easy. It was a place that had been special to us throughout our marriage -- in fact, we even spent part of our honeymoon in one of its cabins. We had laughed there, prayed there, made joyful music and lasting friendships. We led retreats and worship services that we wrote together. He played his fiddle to make children dance. It was, Gary once said, a place where he could be himself.

But as the time approached, I began to doubt whether that decision had been right. I began to fear that this place of such happy memories would forever be tainted by grief. That from now on the absence of Gary would be felt more intensely than the presence of God.

The decision had been made, though, so a few days before the retreat I sat down to plan the service. I pulled prayers and scriptures from several sources, then added, adapted and edited until it was the way I wanted it. And as I read the final prayer, something in me shifted.

The prayer read in part: "God of creation and renewal, we thank you for your good earth, which now cradles the body of our brother Gary. Continue to meet us here, at this holy resting place, where earth and ashes and dust mingle. Open our eyes to its beauty and our ears to the whisper of your voice on the wind. Keep Gary present in our hearts, that we may honor his memory by embracing each new day with courage and faith ..."

The prayer reminded me that the memorial garden would be a place not of remembrance only but of encounter. "Continue to meet us here," in the place where I had always found it easy to experience the divine. "Keep Gary present," not trapped in dusty memory.

It was a shift of heart that changed dread to a sense of blessing. And it happened because I chose to share this parting ritual with my church family. We could find together what I might not have found alone.

So it was with great gratitude that I welcomed about 50 people to that "holy resting place." We listened to one of Gary's students play "Amazing Grace" as he taught her to, while golden leaves spiraled to earth. We prayed and wept and read ancient words of hope and spoke of how Gary's life intersected with this place. We prayed some more, then sang enthusiastically while my son played guitar with his father's passion.

In the embrace of "organized religion," I found joy and comfort. No arguments, only love. It helped me find meaning when life's certainties fell apart.

That's the true face of faith. Too bad it's so often hidden behind a fearsome mask.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Speak for yourself, not others

I've been letting the comments after the last post go on for a few days because it has been an important and interesting debate. One aspect disturbs me, though. There has been a tendency by some posters to insist that they know what other faiths or churches teach better than their own members do. I request that you respectfully allow others to define their own beliefs.

There is great diversity of thought within each faith and within each denomination. It is hard for an outsider to understand the subtleties of any church's teachings, much less how an individual believer interprets those teachings. It's easy to mock or decry a stereotype or an outdated perception.

I feel sure that these conversations will be much more pleasing to God if each of us tells what we believe rather than attacking what we assume to be the beliefs or practices of others. OK?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Who decides who's really Christian?

It's always interesting to see where the currents of controversy carry the comments on this blog. After my last post, the debate entered the choppy waters of who can be called "Christian."

Some expressed the opinion that Catholics, or most Catholics, don't qualify.

My two cents: A Christian is someone who claims to follow Christ. Not someone who professes doctrinal purity. Not a paragon of perfection. Not a member of a particular denomination or a supporter of the right causes.

Of course Catholics are Christian! Their denomination predates the Reformation, you know, so how could only Protestants be Christian? This sort of you're-not-one-of-us hair-splitting drives me crazy -- and drives away those who might otherwise be attracted to what the Church has to offer.

Not all those who claim to follow Christ do so wholeheartedly. Very few come close to his example of compassionate inclusivity and loving concern. So yes, there are bad Christians, failed Christians, broken Christians, incomplete Christians, immature Christians, self-righteous Christians, greedy Christians, hateful Christians -- Christians who do not deserve to wear the name of Christ. There are far worse ways to smear that name than holding unorthodox beliefs.

But they are Christians nevertheless. All of them who claim to be. And the only one who has the right to say otherwise is Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Can only one religion be right?

d.j. wrote at 9:47 a.m. Oct. 24 that "If you want to claim that all religions believe in the same God, you must throw out the beliefs of each of those religions ... ."

But that is only true if you take every teaching of every religion as literal fact, not as human attempts to explain a reality beyond human understanding. I believe that we can see God's hand in the world and experience God's presence in our lives without subscribing to the "right" dogma. That is the point of convergence for different religions.

It is the heart, not the brain, that matters. Love of God and neighbor, not statements of theology. Awareness of the sacred, not literal creeds.

I know that many disagree. Many will say that you can't be Christian without believing that all non-Christians are damned. But that is not the grace I see and experience in Scripture and in the lives of people I know, Christian and non-Christian. God is too big to fit in my pocket.

Yes, there is a solid, true reality behind all our grasping for truth. And we're not the only ones reaching out -- throughout history, God has revealed his nature. As a Christian, I believe that the clearest revelation was the Incarnation of Jesus. But that does not in any way mean (to me) that every dogma that has grown around Christianity is true or that every other revelation of God is utterly false.

Our descriptions differ, our liturgies differ, our theologies differ. The object of our longing is the same.

Other opinions welcome (and probable).

Monday, October 22, 2007

One truth or many truths?

Tuesday's Viewpoint page includes a column ("Find peace within for a nonviolent world") by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists who was recently awarded the U.S. Congress' highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. The exiled religious leader makes a passionate plea for freedom, peaceful resolution of conflict and what he calls "inner disarmament" -- the hard work of examining and setting aside our suspicion, hatred and hostility toward others. He then issues an intriguing challenge to all believers:

"A scientist from Chile once told me that it is inappropriate for a scientist to be attached to his particular field of study, because that would undermine his objectivity. I am a Buddhist practitioner, but if I mix up my devotion for Buddhism with an attachment to it, my mind will be biased toward it. A biased mind never sees the complete picture, and any action that results will not be in tune with reality.

"If religious practitioners can refrain from being attached to their own faith traditions, it could prevent the growth of fundamentalism. It also could enable such followers to genuinely respect faith traditions other than their own. While one can adhere to the principle of 'one truth, one religion' at the level of one’s personal faith, we should embrace at the same time the principle of 'many truths, many religions' in the context of wider society. I see no contradiction between these two."

Neither do I. A believer can be utterly convinced that the religion he follows holds the true revelation of God and yet refrain from insisting that everyone else share that view. Better still, the believer can be a devoted follower of one path but admit the possibility that God's love and grace are expansive enough to bless other paths.

At the very least, even the truest of true believers can choose to support a multicultural, multifaith society where freedom of worship is honored. Coercion and conformity lead to the worst excesses of any religion.

And surely we must acknowledge that the fullness of God is beyond human understanding.

"Today, more than ever," the Dalai Lama writes, "we need to make this fundamental recognition of the basic oneness of humanity the foundation of our perspective on the world and its challenges."

This oneness does not mean uniformity of belief. It doesn't mean beating different faiths into a bland ecumenical mush. It means recognizing our common humanity, respecting one another's beliefs and working together in love. Inner disarmament.

What do you think: Can fervent devotion and radical tolerance coexist?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Day of Grace coming to Davidson

Once I was in a group that was asked who or what had made the biggest difference in our spiritual growth. Some said church. Some said parents or Sunday school teachers or ministers. My honest answer: books.

I have found spiritual companionship and intellectual stimulation in hundreds of books over the years. Many are old friends I've returned to again and again. Occasionally I've had the opportunity to meet the people who brought those books into being -- Henri Nouwen, Madeleine L'Engle, Philip Newell, Margaret Guenther, Morton Kelsey and Scott Peck, among others. It's always fascinating to be able to put a voice to the words on a printed page, to ask questions and to hear what's been stirring their souls lately.

So I was delighted to learn of an upcoming one-day retreat in Davidson by Sister Macrina Wiederkehr. Her book "A Tree Full of Angels" is one of those wise old friends.

Here is one of my favorite passages from that book:

"The reason we live life so dimly and with such divided hearts is that we have never really learned how to be present with quality to God, to self, to others, to experiences and events, to all created things. We have never learned to gather up the crumbs of whatever appears in our path at every moment. We meet all of these lovely gifts only half there. Presence is what we are all starving for. Real presence! We are too busy to be present, too blind to see the nourishment and salvation in the crumbs of life, the experiences of each moment. Yet the secret of daily life is this: There are no leftovers!

"There is nothing -- no thing, no person, no experience, no thought, no joy or pain -- that cannot be harvested and used for nourishment on our journey to God."

The contemplative retreat, "A Day of Grace," will be held Saturday, Nov. 10, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Congregation House of Davidson College Presbyterian Church. Joining that church in sponsoring the ecumenical event are Davidson United Methodist Church and St. Alban's Episcopal Church. The registration deadline is Nov. 1, and forms can be found here.

If you want to learn how to live reflectively -- or be reminded of its value -- this could be a day well spent.

Have books played a part in your spiritual journey?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Mysticism and the brain

Thanks, Itzok, for bringing that Oct. 3 article in Scientific American to our attention. I certainly see nothing in it that precludes religious belief, but then, I don't believe that faith can ever be undermined by science. It makes sense to me that if we are spiritual beings, our bodies would have a biological means of having spiritual experiences.

Think about it. We perceive visually with our eyes, which send information to specific parts of our brain, but that doesn't mean that what we see is nonexistent. The biological function serves reality, rather than creating illusion.

As the article concluded:

"Moreover, no matter what neural correlates scientists may find, the results cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Although atheists might argue that finding spirituality in the brain implies that religion is nothing more than divine delusion, the nuns were thrilled by their brain scans for precisely the opposite reason: they seemed to provide confirmation of God’s interactions with them. After all, finding a cerebral source for spiritual experiences could serve equally well to identify the medium through which God reaches out to humanity. Thus, the nuns’ forays into the tubular brain scanner did not undermine their faith. On the contrary, the science gave them an even greater reason to believe."

I said yesterday that I would be more specific about my own experiences, so I'll briefly relate my first conscious encounter with the sacred.

I was young, 3 or possibly 4 years old, and enjoying my swingset on a perfect summer day. As the swing rose and fell, I felt as if I were flying. Happily looking up into the treetops, I saw golden light pouring through bright green leaves.

What happened next is impossible even now to adequately describe. It was as if a curtain had been pulled away. As if I were suddenly in the presence of something -- no, Someone -- far greater than anything or anyone I had ever known. I felt a strange unity with all that is and all that was and all that will be. There was a sense that all was perfect, all was well. That I was just a tiny speck in a vast universe ... but infinitely loved.

Then my mother called me to come inside for my nap. And I clearly remember standing there, frustrated -- wanting to tell her what I saw but not having the words or the concepts to describe it. It was years later, after similar experiences, that I named it an encounter with God. Perhaps you choose to see it as a random firing of neurons.

At the time, I only knew it was awesome.

Whatever it is called, the experience shaped my life, giving me confidence to explore the mysteries of faith and a bedrock trust in the ultimate goodness of God.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The experience that unites

Pardon the interference, but I am going to respectfully request that the debate over belief vs. atheism -- and its accompanying issue of biblical authority -- be put aside for now. Not only is the argument becoming repetitive, overheated and personal, but it is not what I intend the focus of this blog to be.

As the description at the right states, I hope this will be a place where people of differing beliefs can peacefully discuss their experiences of the sacred. That won't happen if the entire conversation centers on whether any belief is ignorant or foolish.

I feel sure we'll get back to battles of intellect and dogma at some point, but for now I'd like to delve into matters of heart and spirit. Because while creeds divide us, experiences of the divine unite us. That's why the mystics in every religion describe remarkably similar experiences, even as their theologians insist there is no common ground.

The common ground is God's presence.

I have encountered this powerful, loving Other at unexpected times, in unexpected places. In prayerful solitude and in noisy crowds. In corporate worship and on the back steps of my home. On a moonlit beach and elbow-deep in dishwater. Holding an infant and standing in a pulpit. Singing with a hundred other voices and chanting softly in an empty sanctuary.

I'll be more specific in my next post. But what about you? Have you felt this presence? What were the circumstances? Has the experience changed you?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Can intelligence and faith coexist?

James Martin -- a Jesuit priest, not the former North Carolina governor -- writes in the International Herald Tribune that you don't have to choose between being intelligent and being religious.

"The heart of the atheist argument over the irrationality of religion," he writes, "is that it is foolish to believe in something that cannot be proven." His response: "Why should we believe that anything our reason cannot grasp does not exist?"


My reason fails to grasp many things, from quantum physics to how a teenager's brain works. The world is not always a rational place, and thank God for that. The irrational, the paradoxes, the surprises that require a leap of faith -- these are all things that give life its vibrancy and meaning.

Yes, intellect matters. Logic matters. I've never trusted any house of worship that required its members to leave their brains at home. But the beginning of faith is the acknowledgement that there is more to the universe than mere reason can comprehend.

That's not foolishness, it's humility.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Just as I am ... but you need work

OK, I'm still trying to figure out how a post about skipping church turned into a battle over the Ten Commandments. Don't think I'm ignoring you, Iztok and d.j. -- I will eventually comment on the concept of biblical inerrancy. All I'll say for now is that I disagree with both of you, although I very much appreciate what you add to the discussion.

Instead, I'd like to respond to another comment made after the last post. Rebecca wrote, "Church is like every other venue in Charlotte -- just another place for me to feel 'less than.' I will never be pretty, rich or connected. ... Don't say try another church -- they are all the same." I have no doubt that Rebecca has indeed experienced church as a place that values only those who are "pretty, rich or connected." And frankly, it infuriates me that some people want to turn what should be a haven for the broken into an exclusive social club.

Years ago, in another city, I was looking for a church to visit and chose one that was the same denomination as the church I grew up in. Dressed up in my Sunday best, I took a seat in the last pew beside a young woman in jeans and a T-shirt. I didn't think twice about her outfit, but the woman on her other side leaned over during the altar call and hissed at her, "If you ever come to this church again, be sure you dress appropriately!" The visitor looked stunned, and left in tears before the end of the hymn.

Irony alert: The hymn was "Just As I Am."

I slipped out to follow her, to tell her we weren't all like that, but she drove off before I caught up to her. I feel certain she never went back; I sure didn't. And she probably never set foot in a church again, no matter what had drawn her there that morning. Why subject herself to such disdain? I only kept looking for a church because I had experienced what it could be, what it should be.

Different Christians will have different visions of what makes a church feel like home. Some love formal liturgy, some love exuberant movement, some love analytical sermons, some love touching stories. There's room for great diversity in worship, in style, in music and, yes, in theology.

But some things are never right. A church that can't welcome the unlovely or the poor or the outcast or the visitor in blue jeans might as well lock its doors. It sure isn't following the example of Jesus.

Feel free to disagree. Or to discuss the Ten Commandments if you wish. No dress code here.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Confessions of a church skipper

I skipped church today.

I had no real excuse, other than weariness brought on by staying up too late and waking too early. A friend jokingly calls this worshipping in the Church of the Holy Comforter -- nestled under sheet, comforter and cats, relaxing into a new week.

When I was a child and teenager, this would have been unthinkable -- my parents saw to that. Through much of my 20s, it would have been unremarkable -- who went to church, anyway? But for many years now, my Sunday mornings have been set aside for participation in the corporate rituals of faith.

I have heard many people say that you don't have to be in a church or synagogue or mosque to commune with God, and to a certain extent that is true. God knows, organized religion has problems, from power struggles to tedium to elitism. How much easier it can be to sense the divine presence in the beauty of a day like this -- the clear blue sky, the gentle wind, the hawk's cry!

But I found in my years of sleeping in on Sundays that no amount of nature walks and solitary prayer and theological reading could take the place of being part of a community of faith.

So it is not habit but choice that makes me set the alarm on Saturday night. It's knowing that being exposed to other believers challenges my preconceptions and inspires me to put faith into action. It's knowing that I am a part of something bigger than my selfish concerns. It's knowing that together we can do more for the common good. It's knowing that even when I am too tired or too wounded or too despairing to show up, the prayer goes on ... and I am carried with it.

That is why, even though I enjoyed my lazy morning, I will return to the community that nourishes my faith.

Why do you attend or avoid religious services? What is their value to you? Does membership in a religious institution help or hinder your search for God?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Can churches be models of diversity?

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called churches "the most segregated major institution in America." In a Q&A session after a speech at Western Michigan University in 1963, he said:

"The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. ... I think that the opportunity of the future is to really go out and to transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution that should serve as the moral guardian of the community. The institution that should preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body."
Churches are still largely segregated, at least in part because people feel more comfortable worshipping with those most like them -- alike not only in skin color but in class, culture, musical taste and theological outlook. It's understandable but unfortunate, since it robs us of the riches we can find in other outlooks and other forms of worship.

The New York Times reported recently on a church that was confronted with the strangeness of "others" but, instead of locking them out or running away, welcomed them and was transformed. An influx of refugees to Clarkston, Ga., in the past decade resulted in between a third and a half of the residents being foreign-born. Many long-time residents fled, and Clarkston Baptist Church faced a crisis as its membership fell from 600 to 100.

At first the church leased space to Filipinos, Vietnamese and Africans for their own services. Then the groups were invited to merge into the church, renamed Clarkston International Bible Church. Becoming a multiethnic house of worship has required compromise from everyone, but the result is this: The church is thriving.

Those who still think of evangelical churches as hotbeds of bigotry might be surprised to learn that they are, instead, on the leading edge of ethnic mixing. A recent study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam found that "In many large evangelical congregations, the participants constituted the largest thoroughly integrated gatherings we have ever witnessed."

They do this for the simple reason that they believe it is what the Bible tells them God wants. Faith overcomes fear of change, and fear of the "other." As Clarkston's pastor, the Rev. Phil Kitchin says, “Jesus said heaven is a place for people of all nations. So if you don’t like Clarkston, you won’t like heaven.”

King called on the church to "preach brotherhood and make it a reality within its own body." Here's a church that is doing both. Is yours?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Monks vs. the generals

Tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and their supporters have taken to the streets in Myanmar to protest that country's military government. For days they have peacefully marched in defiance of government orders to stay out of politics -- orders backed by the threatening presence of troops in full battle gear.

According to the Associated Press, "At first the robed monks simply chanted and prayed. But as the public joined the march, the demonstrators demanded dialogue between the government and opposition parties, freedom for political prisoners, as well as adequate food, shelter and clothing."

Even in this country, which has a tradition of separation of church and state, religious leaders have sometimes felt compelled to lead a political movement. Martin Luther King Jr. obviously comes to mind. Using the language and worldview of Christianity, he called on this nation to live up to its own ideals of equality and liberty.

But he, like the Myanmar monks, wasn't proposing a theocracy, where religious leaders hold the power and enforce their own standard of conduct and belief on all citizens. In both cases, they used nonviolent protest to stand for the oppressed and to call for true democracy.

That, I think, is the proper role of religion in politics: to speak up for the powerless and to call the powerful to account.

What is your view?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Empty belly, grateful heart

On Saturday I fasted, as promised, joining in prayer with the world's Muslim observers of Ramadan and Jewish observers of Yom Kippur. It was not as difficult as I thought it would be, but there was a good reason why.

By lucky coincidence, my teenage son -- who requires more-or-less constant feeding -- was with friends all day. And since it was Saturday, I had no need to be any of the places where I might be tempted to eat. I could stay at home, away from the kitchen. There was no need to summon the will power to turn down treats at the office or invitations to lunch.

The few times I felt hungry, it was less like a ravenous craving than a gnawing emptiness. Mostly I forgot food altogether, which made me wonder how much I eat out of habit rather than need.

I thought often of the many people who feel this hunger every day, and not by choice. It's all too easy to forget the desperation of the poor when your own belly is full.

And when I finally broke my fast, the food seemed different to me: like a feast rather than an ordinary meal, like a symphony rather than the background noise of everyday life, like a brightly wrapped gift rather than a simple bowl of Shredded Wheat.

Indeed, what I felt throughout the day was not deprivation, but gratitude and compassion.

Has that been your experience? Have you ever fasted for religious reasons? What was it like for you?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Taking God to court

Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, trying to make a point about frivolous lawsuits, filed suit against God last week. He accuses the Almighty of making threats, inspiring fear and causing death and destruction.

Now doesn't this open a divine can of worms.

If we could successfully sue God for everything that exists or happens that we think is a mistake, the list could go way beyond war and natural disaster. Take mosquitos (please). Couldn't a less annoying and disease-carrying insect have filled that ecological niche? I demand recompense for every torturous bite!

It has become painfully clear to me that the universe fails to precisely suit my wants. It doesn't cater to my comfort, either physically or emotionally. I don't like it, for example, that my beloved cats instinctively want to slaughter lovely birds instead of, say, grazing on the overgrown bushes. I don't understand why other people are so selfish, putting their needs above mine. If I were God ...

Ah yes. That's the point, isn't it? We don't really want compensation or an apology. We want to be in charge. Regime change. Surely we would do a better job of it. Doesn't human history testify to our wisdom and restraint and ability to make the right choices?


Case closed.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Life in the fasting lane

This Saturday, if you listen closely, you might hear the rumble of more than one empty belly. Honor that rumble; it is a sign of devotion.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement that concludes the High Holy Days, begins at sundown on Friday. Observant Jews will fast from then until nightfall on Saturday. In prayers and worship, they confess their sins and are reconciled to God.

This year they will be joining the ongoing fast of Muslims, who are observing the month of Ramadan, a time for worship, reflection and good deeds. During Ramadan, which began this year on Sept. 13 (coincidentally, the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana), Islam's faithful fast during the day, breaking their fast with a meal and visits with family and friends after sundown.

Deliberate hunger -- taken on as a means to grow closer to God rather than as a way to drop a few pounds -- is a radical choice these days. Self-denial goes against everything our consumer culture advocates. Care to supersize that order?

So I wonder if, when their bellies are rumbling together, Jews and Muslims might give a thought to what they have in common that day -- a desire to please God more than satisfy themselves.

I plan to join their fast on Saturday. And as I do, I will pray that our shared emptiness will remind all of us, whatever our creed, of our utter dependence on God for what truly nourishes us.

Care to join us?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Why do the faithful rage?

When I was growing up in Georgia, a religious group ran a regular ad in the newspaper with the headline "Why Do the Heathen Rage?" The phrase begins Psalm 2 in the King James Version of the Bible (later translations usually use "nations" rather than "heathen"), and the psalmist's answer is that nonbelievers rage because they do not serve God. The ad seemed intended to provoke fear and trembling, but it usually made me laugh as I pictured angry natives jumping up and down, shaking their fists in fury.

The more important question, to me, is "Why Do the Faithful Rage?" What is it about religious belief that stirs up war and persecution? Look deeply into the history of any of the major religions and you will find atrocities against those who believe differently. Extremism didn't start on 9-11, and it certainly isn't confined to Islam.

Often, quarrels that are labled religious are really political or territorial, but not all. Far too much violence is committed in the name of God. Why?

Part of the answer, of course, is that it's easy to use "God told me to do it" as an excuse for whatever you want to do, especially if you are in a position of power. But what of the sincere zealots who would fight to the death -- yours, that is -- to prove that your beliefs are wrong?

The paradox is that connection to God is so important to human beings that they are willing to violate one of God's most basic commandments -- Thou shalt not kill -- if they fear that connection is in danger.

It's the very power and potential of religion that leads to its worst distortions. has an interesting interview with Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state and the author of "The Mighty and the Almighty," on the influence of religion on world affairs. I thought this quote speaks to the same point:

"I found the first time I went to Jerusalem, my initial reaction was, people are arguing over all this all the time, it made me think, well, there can’t be a God, why would God put up with this? And then I had the total opposite reaction. One that stays with me, which is that there are so many holy places and symbols there, and all anybody talks about is their relationship to those symbols and to God, and therefore the power of God must be so strong there. I just think that it would be much better if people could figure out ... how to agree about it."

Amen to that. Is it possible to agree that everyone's relationship to God is important, even if those relationships take very different forms? What can religions and their followers do to make that happen?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mother Teresa's doubt

So it turns out that Mother Teresa, who spent her life caring for the neglected and dying poor of Calcutta, India, had agonizing doubts about the existence of God. She confesses her lack of a sense of God’s presence in letters that have been compiled into the new book “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light.” Time magazine’s coverage is here.

Some critics have jumped on this revelation as proof that all religion is nonsense that won’t stand up to scrutiny by even its most fervent believers.
I disagree.

What these letters show is a change in Teresa's experience of God’s presence – in her feeling, not her will. She remained fully dedicated to the work she had felt called to do, work that few of us could stomach. This radical action for the poor – with the poor – is what distinguishes her from a pew-fleeing backslider. Even more telling is that she still longed for God, still prayed even when her prayers felt dry and empty.

Psychiatrist and spiritual director Gerald May wrote in “The Dark Night of the Soul” that one of the things that commonly happens in the Dark Night is that
“... people lose the concepts and images about God that have served them so well in the past. It is not at all uncommon in experiences of the night for individuals to doubt that they even believe in God anymore because all the signs and hallmarks of what they considered to be their faith are disappearing. Yet to a perceptive companion, the love for God is still there, and stronger than ever in the concern and yearning felt by the individuals. John [St. John of the Cross, 16th-century author of the classic “Dark Night of the Soul”] counsels that this loss of belief is also a good sign. Because ‘God transcends the intellect,’ the mind must be emptied ‘of everything it comprehends.’”
Feeling God's presence, however fleetingly, is such a powerful experience that belief in God's existence seems easier than belief that the sun will rise tomorrow. I know. I've felt it. I've also run into the dark wall of nothingness, where I questioned everything. Everything. And that was at a time when I needed the comfort of faith the most.

But a funny thing happens in the dark. You learn new ways of seeing. Sometimes our comfortable images of God need to be shattered, if only to remind us that God is God and we aren't. Belief isn’t a matter of deciding what you believe and never thinking again.

Steve Brown of Key Life Ministries said something once that stuck with me: Don’t forget in the dark what you learned in the light. That's good advice. But I'd add this: Don’t stop learning in the dark. If you bang your leg, it might mean you need to rearrange the furniture when the lights come back up.

I suspect there is no such thing as a believer who has never felt the absence of God, who has never felt either abandoned or deluded. Many years ago, when I first read C.S. Lewis' "A Grief Observed," written in the terrible darkness after his wife's death, I was a little embarrassed for him. The fervent Christian whose writings had meant so much to so many people seemed to have lost his faith. When I reread that book after my husband's death from cancer this April, it seemed wise and breathtakingly honest -- which was more help to me than any faith-filled assurance that all would be well.

True faith is more than “blessed assurance” and happy feelings. It’s also putting one foot in front of another, living as though there is a God – as though that God is loving and expects you to love others – even when it all seems unreal. That’s what Mother Teresa did for decades.

Mother Teresa used to say, “God does not call us to be successful. He calls us to be faithful.” By any measure, she was faithful to Christ and his call to minister to the “least of these.” That made her a role model and light to many. Even her once-secret doubts shine light. They are a useful lesson to a society that values a feel-good theology of abundance and overlooks the hard work of discipleship.

At least that's how I see it. How about you? Have you walked in darkness? Did it change your beliefs or actions?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Can atheists be moral?

Thanks for the comments on the first post in this blog, where I asked if you thought it was possible to discuss spirituality without dragging one another into a religious war. I’m encouraged by the civility you showed, despite obvious differences of outlook.

An interesting challenge came from friendlyneighborhoodatheist, who asked, "Are just theists welcome or can I join in on this debate as an atheist? If so, prepare to defend yourselves."

Of course atheists are welcome to read this blog and to interact respectfully – for instance, to ask for clarification of what a believer means by a certain statement. But this blog is intended to be a place for us to talk about our faith, not to shoot down one another’s beliefs (or all beliefs). "Prepare to defend yourselves" certainly gives the impression that you are interested in battle, not conversation.

The question that friendlyneighborhoodatheist asked later, though, raises issues that I had thought to talk about at some point. Why not now?

The comment on Sept. 9 read:

1. atheists are moral people
2. i would vote for an atheist for
3. religion has no place in the public

– if you answer "no" to any of these statements please explain why.

Here’s how I would answer:

1. Some are and some aren’t, just as some churchgoers are moral and some aren’t. Piety doesn’t equate to morality. Organized religions may be inspired by God, but they are run by flawed human beings who sometimes commit horrible, ungodly acts. An atheist who tries to act lovingly and honorably toward others is more moral, to my mind, than a regular churchgoer who runs his business deceitfully or treats his employees with contempt. Religions do such a good job of chasing people away that I consider it miraculous that so many people do believe. As a bumper sticker I once saw put it, "Jesus, save me from your followers."

2. Yes, if the atheist is the best person for the job. However, I would not vote for an atheist who refused to allow the free exercise of religion. Just as I would not vote for a Christian who refused to allow the free exercise of other religions – or no religion.

3. No! Of course religion has a place in public life. Something that has such a deep, life-giving importance to so many people shouldn’t be pushed underground. Belief is private – intensely private – but it is also communal.

Whether candidates should parade their beliefs on the campaign trail is another matter, and perhaps that is what the comment was aimed at. It’s hard to distinguish between sincerely held convictions and poll-influenced blather. It’s useful to know a candidate’s motivations and values. But it matters less to me what a candidate believes than what those beliefs have led the candidate to do, for good or for ill.

What do you think? How would you answer our atheist neighbor’s questions?

Friday, September 7, 2007

L'Engle's gift of wonder

Madeleine L'Engle, a writer who brought magic to my childhood and depth to my adult spirituality, died Thursday at 88.

Her God-infused books -- including her most famous, "A Wrinkle in Time" -- opened my heart to wonder and my mind to intelligent wrestling with theology. Her passion for science complemented rather than contradicted her faith, making her a wonderful role model for a teenager who loved both.

I had the good fortune meet her in 1993 while attending a week-long conference she led at Kanuga Conference Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and to interview her for the Viewpoint page. At one point we were talking about icons -- windows to God -- and whether stories could serve that purpose.

Q. Many people have found your stories to be icons. Do you set out to write them that way or does it just happen because of who you are and your relationship with God?

A. I listen. I have to listen to the angels. And sometimes they push me in places I don’t expect. My story line gets changed, characters come in. That’s part of the fun of it; it happens. I have a good idea where I want to go and what I want to say, because you have to start with something. And then things
happen, and that’s wonderful. I know I’m trying to serve God with the stories, and I’m trying to serve love. And I’m trying to help people be braver, to help myself be brave.

Only God knows if Madeleine L'Engle served God, but I feel certain that she served love. And I know without a doubt that she helped me be braver, especially about daring to peek into the immensity of the sacred.

Conversation, not conversion

Nothing has greater power to divide us, as centuries of war and persecution testify.

Nothing has greater power to draw us together in love and service.
And so it is not an easy thing to speak of faith, especially with people who do not see God as we do.

Call me crazy, but that’s exactly what I want us to do in this blog. I hope that, no matter how solid our own convictions, we can open a space – a sacred space – inside ourselves to listen to one another with respect.

There have been times in my life when I’ve been sure that I knew who God was and what God wanted of me. These days my one certainty about God is that whatever I know is less than God is. There is always more to discover, and not only from those who share my convictions.

So my aim is not to convert but to converse. To stir the pot. To talk together about the beliefs that inspire us, confuse us and give our lives meaning.

Can we explore the questions together without using our answers as weapons? Can we can discuss spirituality without dragging one another into a religious war? Is it even possible, given religion’s unique mix of personal and institutional power?

Let me know what you think.