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.