Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sure footing in slippery times

Stocks in a tailspin every other day. Jobs in jeopardy. Home values slipping.


You can hear it in anxious conversations at the next table in the restaurant or around the coffee pot at work. It's not a hurricane of panic, just a rising tide of worry that relentlessly erodes our sense of security.

How can we stand? Where is the rock that provides stability in uncertain days? The Federal Reserve? A fat 401(k)? Family? Friends? Fate? Our own heroic efforts?

Those of us who walk the spiritual path are likely to respond that God is our foundation, our footing in slippery times. It's a matter of trust: We trust God to bring us through life's challenges. It's not that we expect to escape storms; we just rely on the promise that we don't navigate through them alone.

We trust. Or we try to, anyway. It's usually not long before we lose faith or patience and try to take matters into our own hands again ... with predictable results.

Much of our desperate grasping for security is an attempt to gain or maintain control over our circumstances. Ironically, giving up our illusion of control is the only real way to achieve peace in the chaos. It allows us appreciate the joys and opportunities of present circumstances, rather than living in fear of what lies ahead.

How do you cope with anxious times? What part does spirituality play?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Black holes and the gift of mortality

Have you heard the latest end-of-the-world scenario?

No, not another "Left Behind" book.

Think something more along the lines of Dr. Frankenstein's monster.

The world's most powerful atom smasher went into operation Wednesday, despite the fears of a few scientists that, when fully operational, it might create tiny black holes that could suck the entire planet into nonexistence.

Other scientists, including of course the more than 8,000 physicists across the globe who collaborated on the project, tell us to ignore the Chicken Littles. They appear to have science on their side, based on this article.

Still, it's hard to ignore doomsday predictions, however farfetched. So yesterday, when I became annoyed over a little matter, the Possibility of Imminent Planetary Annihilation crossed my mind. Then the microscopic black hole of "does this really matter if everything is about to go poof?" immediately sucked up the little matter, squeezing it into no matter.

Seeing the end -- even just a potential end -- tends to change your perspective.

And that, I think, is the gift of mortality. We know, if we dare to admit it, that our lives are short. They could end a week from now. Or tomorrow. Or today. If we keep this uncomfortable fact in mind, surely we are more likely to treat others lovingly, to forgive slights, to make the most of our time, to explore the big questions of meaning instead of sweating the small stuff.

The question remains the same whether the Large Hadron Collider destroys Earth in a few weeks or the planet gets a million-year reprieve: What will each of us do with the time we have left?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"The Devil ... no, my genes made me do it"

According to Study finds fidelity is in the genes, new scientific research shows that two of every five men lack the genetic aptitude for monogamy: "In other words, if a man's culture, religion and family background each have a seat at the conference table that determines his attitudes toward marital fidelity and monogamy, his genes might well sit at the head of the table."

I'm reminded of St. Paul's admonition to live according to the Spirit rather than according to the flesh - although he had something other than gene variants in mind.

Does the study undermine the notion of moral choice? No, because inclination can't invalidate a promise. If someone vows to "forsake all others," then keeping that vow is the moral choice. The choice to remain faithful might be easier for some than others, but that doesn't make it morally optional.

Our genes -- like the culture and family we are born into -- are the building blocks of our life. What structure we build with those blocks depends on the choices we make.

So what do you think? Has "The Devil made me do it" been updated into "My genes made me do it"? Is biology destiny? How do you determine what is moral conduct?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Politics and faith entwined

At 7:43 on Aug. 20, jason k. responded: "While Church and State should be seperate, Politics and Faith should not, and cannot be seperate. ... To suggest someone check their faith at the door, when they step into the ballot box, is akin to telling them not to vote in accordance to their values."

He raises an excellent point. On an individual level, politics and faith cannot be separate in anyone who takes both seriously. Sincere faith shapes - or should shape - every perspective, every decision, every action. And choosing a president is not a minor decision.

I have no problem whatsoever with anyone voting based on his or her values. We don't leave that part of us behind when we enter the voting booth.

The problems arise when politics and faith become entwined on the institutional, not the personal, level. That's why the tax laws prohibit pastors from making political endorsements from the pulpit or using church resources to help a candidate. The government can't tell you what church to attend and the church can't tell you what party to elect.

That's as it should be.

In this nation, there are limits to political power. Those who hold it can't tell you what to believe - and they sure can't keep you from voting in accordance with those beliefs.

How will faith shape your decision?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Was church the right site for candidate forum?

I watched Saturday's forum at Saddleback Church with interest -- not just to learn more about Barack Obama and John McCain, but also to see how the church's pastor, Rick Warren, handled the questioning.

He did well, I thought. His questions were probing and thoughtful, and I would have loved to hear the answers the men would have given had they been sitting around a campfire in a remote wilderness, not campaigning on national television.

That's the only change in locale I would have wanted, and then only if I could have been privy to honest, open conversation. But I've heard a bit of grumbling here and there that holding the forum at Saddleback was an unseemly mix of church and state -- and some in the pew fear the taint of politics as much as some secularists shun the sacred.

It seems to me, though, that the civic participation of houses of worship can remind the candidates (and voters) of the importance of values, meaning and character when choosing our president.

What do you think? What role should any religious institution play in a presidential campaign? What should be the limits to its participation?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Church of the joyful failures

In a comment on the most recent post, the reader who calls himself The Heretic praises the idea of a "celebration of our imperfection." What a wonderful phrase!

It reminds me of a dream I had a good many years ago.

In the dream, I sat in an unfamiliar church where a handbell choir was about to play. Handbell choirs can make lovely music, of course, but I'm not a big fan of them in general. The playing must be precise; there's no room for improvisation, no way to bend rhythm or tone to express feeling. It seems stiff and unyielding.

The white-gloved ringers raised their bells and began to play. But before long, one player made an obvious mistake. That threw another ringer off. Then another. Then another. The errors multiplied until it was obvious that no one, not even the director, knew how to find the way back to the printed music.

And here's what astounded me: No one looked embarrassed or ashamed. No one seemed angry or upset. Instead, they smiled and laughed and threw themselves into the unplanned, unwritten, unimagined tunes that came out of their bells. The congregation nodded approvingly.

Instead of sinking into chaos, the music rose into celebration. A celebration of imperfection.

"What is this church?" I wondered. "What is this place that can take something that goes all wrong and transform it into something fresh and alive and so very right?"

I pulled out a hymn book from the back of the pew. The name of the church was engraved on its cover: Church of the Joyful Failures.

Too bad that church is so hard to find.

Gymnast falls but respect rises

I wrote last time about falling, and how our response shows our character. I couldn't help but think of that while watching the U.S. women's gymnastics team compete last night.

Alicia Sacramone (right) lost her balance and fell off the beam at the very start of her program, dimming the team's hopes for gold. She hopped up and finished her routine, but her face registered devastation.

Team members eventually smiled for the cameras and asserted that they were happy with their silver medal. But I suspect that darker thoughts were going through Alicia's head: I failed. I fell. People watching around the world will remember me only for that awkward tumble, not for the years of hard work, the success, the moments of perfection.

But that was not what I will remember. After seeing so many strong, graceful routines, I started taking perfection for granted, nitpicking tiny wobbles and forgetting that these young women are doing almost super-human things. Alicia's fall didn't lower my admiration of her; it made me even more aware of what she had accomplished, more in awe of her dedication. She makes it look easy. It isn't. It never was.

And maybe the next time I lose my balance, I'll stop to think: Don't assume you know how it will look to others. Remember Alicia. Rise again. And again. And again.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Rising every time we fall

"The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." - Nelson Mandela

Sometimes I think the secret to a good and fulfilling life is simply that: rising every time you fall.

It's as true for the entrepreneur pursuing profit as it is for the alcoholic trying to stay sober. As true for the surgeon making life-and-death decisions as it is for the child learning to ride a bike. We all fall - we all fail - sooner or later. It's what we do afterward that shows our character.

Most people who seriously attempt to follow the spiritual path take on one or more disciplines: structured prayer time, charitable giving, meditation, retreats, self-examination, study of scripture, fasting, worship. Sticking with a discipline adds depth and substance to your spirituality.

But often our good intentions go the way of New Year's resolutions, and what the hymn writer called the "sweet hour of prayer" becomes 10 seconds of "Now I lay me down to sleep."

What then?

Sometimes a particular discipline needs to be set aside for a time, either because it has become unrelentingly dull and meaningless or because you're making it into an idol, a substitute for God. But more often you simply need to rise, shake off the dust and take it up again.

When I do this, I invariably find it to be a happy homecoming, not a dreary duty.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Snipers in the sanctuary

In Tennessee, a man reportedly enraged by the liberal views of a Unitarian Universalist church pulls out a shotgun during a children's performance of "Annie" and opens fire.

I assume we can all agree that this is not the proper way to protest church policy.

But while few disgruntled critics resort to gunfire (thank God), sniping is one of the most popular sports in any house of worship. Don't believe me? Ask the clergy. Nothing is too small or too sacred to avoid derision by those who confuse their opinions with God's.

The result, too often, is a church torn by dissent whose leaders are paralyzed by constant criticism. This is not exactly a recipe for healthy growth.

Can believers disagree -- even on core issues -- but continue to worship together in loving fellowship? I think it's possible, though not easy.

It requires a willingness to honor the motivations and intent of those with whom you disagree, rather than demonizing them as the "enemy." It requires a willingness to admit the possibility, however slight, that you might be wrong. It requires a willingness to seek truth together rather than run away to the shelter of people who think exactly the way you do.

It requires a willingness both to tell the truth and to listen for the truth.

Perhaps that's not as instantly satisfying as firing off a few shots or a few ugly remarks, but it leaves a lot less blood on the floor.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Finding yourself outside the box

When people think of the spiritual journey, they often think of it as a search for God ... which, of course, it is. But it is also a search to find yourself - the true self, the person created in God's image.

You might assume that if there's one thing you know, it's yourself. After all, you're the one who thinks your thoughts, feels your emotions, moves your hands and feet. How could you not know who you are?

But we pick up many cues about who we are from the boxes that other people put us in. To your employer, you are a skill set. To your teenager, you are an ATM. To your church, you are a pledge unit. Now, we always hope that we are also seen as more than the box: That the employer understands your need for meaningful work and a humane working environment. That the teenager enjoys spending time with you. That the church sees your worth as a child of God, not just as a potential committee member with a fat wallet.

You are more likely to see yourself outside their boxes if you have experienced unconditional love - from parent or spouse or friend or the Sacred Presence. Because that's what unconditional love does: It tears down the boxes and frees you to be yourself.

That came to mind when I read Pete's responses to the previous post (thanks to all for the civil discussion!). Pete wrote that shaming children and labeling them sinners is a poor way to instill good behavior. I agree. How much better it is to point out that a specific behavior harms the child or others and to say, "You are better than that. This action betrays who you really are."

Children need guidance and instruction, certainly! But we can give them the freedom to be good not out of fear but because it is the way of love - a love they experience as life-giving.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Are we born cruel or kind?

Well, I see that the conversation has deteriorated into name-calling, as usual. You know how much I dislike that. Not that my preference has ever stopped the mud slinging for long.

Reading the latest brawl brings to mind the age-old debate over whether human beings are essentially good or essentially evil. Are we born savages who must be taught (and taught and taught) civil behavior?

Or is it our intrinsic nature to be loving? Is it the broken world we are born into that teaches us self-aggrandizement? Is it fear and a need for control that leads us to despise those who believe differently?

The basic question is this: Are we born cruel or kind? Weigh in with your opinion -- gently, I hope.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Who's hurt most by moral failure?

We've talked before in this blog about how some believers insist on concrete answers about matters of faith while others have a greater comfort with leaving some questions up in the air. Naturally, that first group tends to think of moral rules as black and white. The others are more likely to see shades of gray.

But could these differences be based less on upbringing, theological preference or personality traits and more on what these groups stand to lose?

In a mostly political column in The Dallas Morning News, Rod Dreher makes this interesting observation in passing: "The poor and working class tend to prefer non-squishy religion prescribing a stark moral code — even if they struggle to live up to its demands. It's not hard to see why. Unlike ... social elites, folks living nearer the economic margins have far more to lose from individual and communal moral failure."

Is it true that moral failure hurts the lower classes more than it does those with wealth?

The individual moral failure of a man who abandons the children he fathered hurts those children and their mother, whatever their circumstances. The loss of his guidance and love will be felt by rich and poor alike. But the loss of monetary support can be devastating to a family living on the edge.

The communal moral failure of a nation that, for example, condones a corrupt judiciary will fall more heavily on those who are unable to pay bribes or pull strings.

But does that really account for the appeal of "non-squishy" religion? What do you think?

Sunday, July 6, 2008

What beats unplugged relaxing? Recharging

I wrote last time about unplugging from daily life -- taking time away to breathe. A more difficult task is staying spiritually connected even in the midst of our busy lives.

Perhaps "unplug" was the wrong word to use, because the more I think about it, the more I think the key to surviving when life becomes hectic is to stay plugged in -- plugged in, that is, to the source of our spiritual energy.

Most of this weekend I was exhausted from a tough week of long workdays. The solution, I thought, was rest. So there I was plopped in front of the television, catching up on recorded episodes of Doctor Who. Or reading a book. Or doing a crossword puzzle. Or surfing the Internet.

But no matter how hard I tried to entertain myself, I didn't feel refreshed. Just because I wasn't working didn't mean I was resting. It was just a different way to use up my depleted energy. I was unplugged, all right, but still whirring along.

What I needed was to recharge, not just relax. And that requires more than physical stillness. It requires an inner stillness, a receptivity, a recognition that I do not need to be distracted from the goodness of life in this moment.

This is something I learn over and over again, which shows what a slow learner I really am. I forget what truly nourishes me. And as often happens when I realize -- again -- that I need to plug in more than to unplug, I looked up Edward Carpenter's poem "The Lake of Beauty":

Let your mind be quiet, realising the beauty of the world,
and the immense, the boundless treasures that it holds in store.
All that you have within you, all that your heart desires,
all that your Nature so specially fits you for -- that or the
counterpart of it of it waits embedded in the great Whole, for you.
It will surely come to you.

Yet equally surely not one moment before its appointed time
will it come. All your crying and fever and reaching out of
hands will make no difference.
Therefore do not begin that game at all.
Do not recklessly spill the waters of your mind
in this direction and in that,
lest you become like a spring lost and
dissipated in the desert.

But draw them together into a little compass, and hold them
still, so still;
And let them become clear, so clear -- so limpid, so mirror-like;
at last the mountains and sky shall glass themselves in
peaceful beauty,
and the antelope shall descend to drink and to gaze at her
reflected image, and the lion to quench his thirst,
and Love himself shall come and bend over and catch his
own likeness in you.

So as we all return to work after the holiday weekend, my wish for you and for me is still waters and true refreshment.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Taking time to breathe

Sorry about the lack of posts here lately. For a couple of weeks it was because of work demands, including wrestling with a new computer system (it's the sort of struggle that tends to make you more prayerful -- or at least more likely to invoke the name of the Almighty).

But for the last two weeks, I have been seeking some Sacred Space of my own, on the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia, Canada. My son traveled with me. The computer stayed home.

After my mouse-deprived fingers stopped twitching, I knew it was right to take this time away, to abandon productivity for the sake of wholeness. To hike trails instead of running in place. To laugh at the silly walk of a roadside moose rather than brooding about newsroom layoffs and national politics and the unholy squabbles over religion.

What a novel idea: Taking time to breathe. To be rather than to do.

But it's not novel at all, of course. We have lost the concept of Sabbath time to our own detriment.

Do you take time to unplug from your busy life? How does that affect you spiritually?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Indiana Jones and the midlife quest

I recently caught the new Indiana Jones movie. It was on the whole what I expected: mindless fun with enjoyable characters. One line of dialogue, though, broke through the escapism, perhaps because it hit uncomfortably close to home for someone of my age.

The university dean tells a graying Indy, "We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away."

That's how it seems sometimes as age begins to claim our agility, our memory, our energy and, most painfully, our family and friends. The sense of loss can be overwhelming.

I think often of how difficult it must be for my parents, both in their 80s, who have buried their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and many of their close friends. Much that has anchored their lives is slipping away.

So part of the spiritual journey of middle-age and older involves letting go -- not only letting go gracefully of the things and people we lose, but letting go of fear of further loss. It starts with gratitude for what remains in our lives, and matures into gratitude even for the empty spaces that once were filled.

Most of all, it requires trust that even if all is taken from us, life endures and God is good. Then we can live richly, whatever our circumstances.

Later in the film, Professor Oxley says, "How much of human life is lost in waiting?"
Or in fear? Or in clinging?

It's impossible to accept the gifts of one season or one age if you are desperately trying to reclaim the one that has passed.

How has aging affected your spirituality? Comments welcome.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Church in the rearview mirror

The news that Barack Obama has resigned from membership in his church, Trinity United Church of Christ, is hardly surprising. Video clips from sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and a Catholic priest who spoke there, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, offended voters and raised questions about Obama's association with the Chicago church he attended for two decades.

The candidate says he's doing it not just for his own political benefit but to spare the church endless attention from the media. Although as Frances Coleman points out in the Mobile, Ala., Press-Register, "... smart pastors and politicians will preach every sermon and make every political observation as though the whole world is watching. It pretty much is, from here on out. Thanks to camera phones, other electronic devices and the evolution of the Internet, someone is always poised to post video of embarrassing utterances on YouTube."

I've never left a church because of anything that would have gone viral on YouTube. In fact, usually it had nothing to do with the shortcomings of the church I left and everything to do with the qualities of the church I found: Outreach that is sacrificial and benefits the "other." Worship that's fresh and lively. Teaching that enlightens and challenges. Community that is loving and inclusive.

What would make you leave your current community of faith? Why do you stay?

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Does science make faith obsolete?

Yes, if by ...
No, and yes.
Absolutely not!
Not necessarily.
Of course not.
No, but it should.
No, not at all.
It depends.
Of course not.
No, but only if ...

Each of these is the title of an essay in a booklet published by the John Templeton Foundation. Thirteen contributors from the realms of science, theology, academia and journalism answered the question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?"

Perhaps you can guess what atheist Christopher Hitchens or the lead editor of the Catholic Church's catechism would say (although you might be wrong). But what about William D. Phillips, a Nobel laureate in physics? Or Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine? Or Jerome Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard? Or philosopher Mary Midgley?

You can read their thought-provoking essays and/or order a copy of the booklet at the foundation's Web site, which also offers debates between the contributors. You can leave your own comments, there as well as here.

I was particularly struck by this excerpt from the piece by Keith Ward, a Fellow of the British Academy, an Anglican priest and the author of "Pascal's Fire: Scientific Faith and Religious Understanding":

"Some modern physicists routinely speak of realities beyond space-time (e.g., quantum fluctuations in a vacuum from which this space-time originates). And some physicists, such as Henry Stapp, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neumann, speak of consciousness as an ultimate and irreducible element of reality, the basis of the physical as we know it, not its unanticipated by-product. ...

"It is not science that renders belief in God obsolete. It is a strictly materialistic interpretation of the world that renders belief in God obsolete, and which science is taken by some people to support. But science is more ambiguous than that, and modern scientific belief in the intelligibility and mathematical beauty of nature, and in the ultimately 'veiled' nature of objective reality, can reasonably be taken as suggesting of an underlying cosmic intelligence. To that extent, science may make a certain sort of belief in God highly plausible."


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The gospel according to ... lolcats?

And now for something completely different. Trust me. Completely. Different.

Many arguments over religion come down to debates over scripture. What does that passage really mean? Was it accurately translated? Does the translation remain understandable? The English of the King James Version is not the same as today's English. Just ask any child who was wary of Jesus' request to "Suffer the little children to come unto me" -- which has nothing to do with suffering, since the clear meaning a few hundred years ago was "Let the little children come to me."

Translations have proliferated over the past few decades, some more literal or more poetic or more narrowly targeted than others. But I recently came across one unlike any other: It is written in the pidgin English of the lolcats.

If you are familiar with lolcats, you are probably either laughing or appalled. Or both. "Lol," of course, is netspeak for "laughing out loud." Lolcats are photos of cute cats with captions written in total disregard of proper spelling, grammar and word use. (Personally, I feel sure that cats would be much more precise with language, but the perpetrators of lolcats didn't ask me.) You can find the motherlode of them here.

So in July 2007, some people with far too much time on their hands decided that what the world really needs is ... What? An end to poverty? Global peace? A cell phone that doesn't drop calls? Alas, no. Their mission was to translate the entire Bible into lolspeak.

Here, for example, is the 23rd Psalm:

Ceiling Cat iz mai sheprd (which is funni if u knowz teh joek about herdin catz LOL.) He givz me evrithin I need.
He letz me sleeps in teh sunni spot an haz liek nice waterz r ovar thar.
He makez mai soul happi an maeks sure I go teh riet wai for him. Liek thru teh cat flap insted of out teh opin windo LOL.
I iz in teh valli of dogz, fearin no pooch, bcz Ceiling Cat iz besied me rubbin' mah ears, an it maek me so kumfy.
He letz me sit at teh taebl evn when peepl who duzint liek me iz watchn. He givz me a flea baff an so much gooshy fud it runz out of mai bowl LOL.
Niec things an luck wil chase me evrydai an I wil liv in teh Ceiling Cats houz forevr.

I guess that there might be more than one purpose to the lolcats Bible. General silliness. Cynical mockery. Theological exploration. Desire to see professional editors and English teachers twitch.

Whatever the purpose, I welcome this odd addition to Holy Writ. Even the strangest translations can make a passage fresh, and I doubt that I will easily forget the image of God rubbing the beloved cat's ears as it walks through the valley of dogs, fearing no pooch.

Comments in standard English welcome.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Faith-based hatred, Christian-style

There are days when reading the incoming e-mail leaves me wishing for a delete button on my memory, not just the computer. It's not just the offers to enhance body parts; I'm talking about faith-based hatred. Far too much of this garbage claims God's approval for distorted views and even violence.

Muslim jihadists don't corner the market on this, by the way. The latest turd to land in my inbox comes from an alleged Christian who attempts to explain why Jews have suffered persecution throughout history. It's their fault, he says, certainly not our prejudice. I won't spread the manure by quoting it here, but you can be assured that he dredges up every stereotype, false accusation and ignorant anti-Semitic remark he could find.

Then there was the threatening letter that was sent from an organization with "Christians" in its name to a local activist for Palestinian rights (I refuse to name the organization not because I want to protect it but because I don't want to feed it with publicity). The long letter read in part: "... our Ecclesiastical Court has issued an edict inscribing you as a SLANDERER OF ZION and a TERRORIST COLLABORATOR. This means that our 55,000 world-wide disciples are hereby empowered to facilitate your removal from your residence and from the community of peace activists." "Facilitate your removal"? For criticizing Israeli policy?

Add into the mix news stories about the Rev. Rod Parsley's call for the destruction of Islam and the Rev. John Hagee's suggestion that Hitler's Holocaust did the world a favor by driving the Jews to Israel (a necessity for his favorite End Times scenario), and ... well, I'm ashamed that we share the name "Christian."

I hear a lot of complaints that moderate Muslims don't speak out against the extremists -- even though many do speak out, but are ignored. So what should you do when you see your own faith twisted into hate?

Monday, May 19, 2008

'Sin tax' misses the biggies

Gov. Easley is calling for an increase in the "sin tax" -- the common term for taxes levied on items viewed as personal vices.

When I first ran across that term, I wasn't sure what it meant but was very curious about how it would be enforced. Surely sins were committed not just in our deeds but in our thoughts, in our attitudes toward others, in our insistence on personal comfort rather than the common good.

How can you tax hatred or greed or jealousy or laziness? Wouldn't you need to tax good actions left undone as well as the evil actions we take? And who gets to decide what a sin is, anyway?

It was almost a letdown to find out that a "sin tax" was nothing more than a few pennies added to the cost of a pack of cigarettes or bottle of booze. What a cheapening of the word "sin"!

These days, the common view of sin is remarkably physical in nature: It is whatever offends our sense of propriety or damages our health. So we focus on personal vices like smoking and drinking, or on variations from the sexual norm. There's much less attention paid to the ways in which we, individually and collectively, degrade other people, destroy the earth and turn away from the suffering of others.

But it's easy to collect a tax at the grocery store check-out line. It's impossible to levy a tax every time you change the channel because you can't stand to see another report about the thousands who died in China or Myanmar. But which do you really think pains God more, your neighbor's beer or your callousness?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

This is your brain on God ...

Is research into how the brain works changing the debate over God? Will it affect the long-running tug-of-(holy)-war between materialism and a worldview that includes the sacred?

That's the subject of an intriguing piece this week from New York Times columnist David Brooks: The Neural Buddhists.

Brooks writes that the new wave of neurological research "will not seep into the public realm in the form of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural Buddhism." The research points to common moral instincts in all religions and a built-in ability for the mind "to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real."

"In unexpected ways," he writes, "science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day."

Is the debate shifting from (Round 1) belief in God vs. atheism to (Round 2) belief in transcendence vs. belief in God as revealed in a specific religion?

If the comments in this blog are any indicator, there's plenty of fighting left to do in both rounds.

Do you agree with Brooks' analysis? What do you think the changing debate will mean for the future of faith in America?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Evangelicals on politics and faith

On Wednesday, a group of leading Evangelical Christians released a 20-page paper they call The Evangelical Manifesto. It is a remarkable document -- an impassioned defense of Evangelicalism as well as a call to reform it. It's the most honest self-examination I've ever seen come from a religious group, most likely because it's not an official denominational pronouncement.

Here's a summary, and here is the complete text.

First, the manifesto describes what Evangelicals are: followers of Jesus who define their faith and life according to the Gospel. It stakes out a middle ground between liberal revisionists (who run the risk of being "Christians who betray Jesus with an interpretation") and fundamentalists (who tend to react to the modern world in ways "that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian").

Then it pulls no punches in outlining where Evangelicals have gone astray -- for example, by becoming "cheerleaders for those in power and the naïve sycophants of the powerful and the rich."

While decrying faith that is entirely private and personal ("hot tub spirituality"), the manifesto also warns against politicizing Christianity:

"That way faith loses its independence, the church becomes 'the regime at prayer,' Christians become 'useful idiots' for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form. Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests.

"Christians from both sides of the political spectrum, left as well as right, have made the mistake of politicizing faith; and it would be no improvement to respond to a weakening of the religious right with a rejuvenation of the religious left. Whichever side it comes from, a politicized faith is faithless, foolish, and disastrous for the church – and disastrous first and foremost for Christian reasons rather than constitutional reasons. Called to an allegiance higher than party, ideology, and nationality, we Evangelicals see it our duty to engage with politics, but our equal duty never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality."

There is much more to the document, but this was the part that struck me as particularly worthy of conversation in this blog. What do you think is the role of faith in politics? Is a politicized faith always "faithless, foolish, and disastrous"?


Edit to add, by request, a link to the list of those who signed the manifesto.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Does faith affect your vote?

It's been an exciting election season here in North Carolina, especially in the Democratic presidential primary. I can't recall us ever before getting this much attention from the national candidates. Now it's our turn. Choose wisely!

When you vote -- which I trust you will -- how will spirituality or religion factor into your choice?

In part, that's a question about whether and how you evaluate the candidates' stated beliefs or associations. But I'd also like to know how your own beliefs affect your choice. Do you feel guided by God in the voting booth? Do you look for a candidate who shares your values? How has that played out in this election?

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Devil, you say!

An e-mail correspondent who wishes to be identified as Seeker raises an interesting question:

"What do you or your readers make of Jesus' references to 'the ruler of the world' - Satan as mentioned in John 14:30 and other places? These references leave me with the feeling that Jesus is in fear of Satan even though he states 'he has no power over me.' I hear about avoiding sin during Sunday homilies, but I hear little about avoiding Satan, as if he doesn't exist or no one seems to have a good grasp on who/what he is."

Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world, so saying that Satan rules this world yet "has no power over me" is like me saying that Raul Castro rules Cuba yet has no power over me.

As you say, this gets into the whole issue of who or what Satan is. I've held different views on this over the years, but now I essentially believe that Satan is a psychologically useful personification of the evil within us that pulls us away from God. Why useful? Because it's easier to resist something that is seen as an outside force than to wrestle with the darkness within yourself -- or even to admit that it exists.

The problem with externalizing this evil, though, is that it makes it all too easy to see it only in other people rather than wrestling with it in your own heart.

Evil is real. It is destructive. It is the opposite of love. It separates us from God and one another. How you picture it (personally, I love C.S. Lewis' depiction of Satanic plotting in "The Screwtape Letters") is far less important than whether you resist it.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bring your best to interfaith pot-luck

I'm a big proponent of talking across our religious fences, even when the discussion is difficult. It's like a community pot-luck supper; you might not like every dish, but everyone can appreciate the abundance and variety of food -- and of course the fellowship.

But there are two temptations at these interfaith pot-lucks, and I don't mean the dessert table.

The first is the temptation to get so caught up in arguing the rightness of your beliefs that you forget to listen. It's like insisting that everyone get a big scoop of your casserole but refusing to sample any other dishes. When we single-mindedly push our own view, we miss the insights of others. And we can't begin to heal the wounds between faiths unless we're willing to hear about the pain that we've inflicted.

The other temptation is to bring nothing to the table at all. To be so afraid of offending anyone that we speak in generalities and hide what is best in our own tradition.

That's what came to mind when reading this excerpt from J. Philip Newell's newest book, "Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation":

"A number of years ago, as the little spirituality centre of Casa del Sol in New Mexico was being conceived, I spoke with a native leader about the types of conversations we might have in a community of listening and dialogue. I asked, 'What is it I am to bring to the table of humanity? What am I to bring to our relationship in this place?' He answered very simply, and very challengingly: 'Philip, bring your treasure, bring Christ.' He then said, 'Would you expect me, as a native leader, to bring something less than my greatest treasure? Would you be satisfied with something less? So I tell you, bring your treasure. Bring Christ.'

"I understand why those of us of liberal sensitivity in the Christian household have hesitated from bringing Christ to the table. In the past, he has been used to beat others over the head and to tell them they need to become 'like us.' So I understand the hesitation. I know why many of us have simply gone silent. But if we are to establish true relationships in the journey of the world today, as distinct cultures and religions and nations, we need to find ways of bringing our treasure to one another.

"... this is my desire, to bring the treasure of our Christian household to the yearnings of the world today. And I am seeing that we can do it in new ways, in ways that listen reverently to the hunger of the human heart and in ways that will bring us closer to one another, as individuals and as distinct traditions, instead of into further separation and brokenness. This is a desire that issues up from deep in the soul. It is not a Christian desire or a Jewish or a Muslim desire. It is a holy human desire, and it will cost us much. But it is for the healing of creation."

What can you or your tradition bring to the table?

Monday, April 28, 2008

Buddy Christ to the rescue

"Religion is very market driven," Anonymous wrote at 5 p.m., April 25. He or she offered the thought that even monotheistic religions adopt different gods over time, or at least modify their views of God.

"Jesus is almost portrayed as a big brother 'buddy' nowadays."

I couldn't help thinking of the movie "Dogma," which is hilarious and thoughtful if you can stand to wade through the constant profanity and juvenile sex jokes (it more than earns its R rating; even edited for TV, which is how I first saw it, it's pretty raw). In one scene, a cardinal played by George Carlin announces that the Church sees the need to update its archaic image and so has decided to replace the "wholly depressing" image of the crucifix with a "new, more inspiring" image: the "Buddy Christ." The statue unveiled shows a grinning, winking Jesus giving an approving thumb up.

What makes this scene is so funny -- apart from the ridiculous, smarmy statue itself -- is the idea that a religion desperate to attract followers would dump the central symbol of its message in order to make it more "user-friendly."

And yet ... it is good and necessary for our images of God to grow and expand. If faith is to remain relevant, it must speak to the needs of the current generation -- while also connecting this generation to the wisdom and traditions of the past. A living faith isn't afraid to find new ways of describing God. A living faith isn't afraid to see God in new light.

Christianity doesn't have to kick Christ off the cross to also embrace a laughing, accessible, warm Jesus. Buddy Christ is silly satire, but he makes a point.
Are religions today watering down their messages to attract followers? Should they change with the times? If so, in what ways? What should never change? Let me know what you think. (And thanks for the thoughtful comments on the last post. I enjoyed reading all of them.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

One-way signs on the road to God

If life is a highway and God is our destination, there are an awful lot of one-way signs along the road.

So is there only one true religion? I just came across a passage that addresses that contentious issue in "The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition" by Huston Smith. After pointing out that every religion claims superiority, he writes:

"...revelations are for the civilizations they create, and within each the truths revealed are absolute and can brook no rivals. There is no dissembling here: when a man says that his wife means the world to him, he is not claiming that she should mean the world to other men. Moreover, underlying the 'relative absolute' in his assertion, there is an absolute Absolute: he does believe that all men should feel for their wives the love that he feels for his wife. In our multicultural age Christians are coming to understand this point."

He then gives several examples throughout history of Christians maintaining the integrity of their own traditions while honoring other paths to God for other cultures, and concludes:

"These examples betoken a new mood in Christendom, a more conscious, general recognition that though for Christians God is defined by Jesus, he is not confined to Jesus."

That makes sense to me. It shows how you can be a passionate follower of one faith without assuming every other faith is nonsense.

What do you think?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Scrubbing stains and memories

The stain in the carpet came back this week, stubbornly marking the spot where a man last touched his home. He fell, bleeding and unable to rise, and died in the hospital a few hours later. One year ago today.

I hated that stain when it was fresh; it reminded me daily of what I had lost. So I scrubbed that spot over and over with every product I could find, until finally it faded. For a while.

My sharp memories of that awful night -- and the long illness that led to it -- faded as well, though more slowly. There's no cleaning solution for the brain, so instead I looked often at pictures of him as he used to be, with wavy hair and full beard, before chemo left him bare as a newborn. The mind-scrubbing worked well enough that when I recently saw a photo taken during his illness, it startled me.

Now and then I run across pictures from that time, but I don't seek them out. I don't hang them on the wall. It's not that I want to forget; I just don't want to be trapped in the raw emotions of that night, any more than I wanted to preserve that stain.

I'll bet we all know people who have become so attached to their pain that it becomes their identity. They live in the past, nursing resentments and regrets. They loudly proclaim their misery, while clinging to it as if to a lifeline.

One of the great gifts of the spiritual journey is learning that although misfortune is inescapable, misery is optional. That you are more than the circumstances of your life. That there is a Source of light and healing. That when you live fully in the present moment, there are no regrets for what was or fears for what will be.

Just a stain to be scrubbed.

I can deal with that.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It's heavenly to cherish the earth

The noisy, seemingly endless squabble between adherents of creationism and evolution can hide the fact that, on one issue at least, believers and scientists are growing closer. That issue: caring for our planet -- however it came into being.

Churches that previously emphasized mankind's dominion over the earth now speak of stewardship: The planet is not ours to ravage but ours to cherish and protect from harm. wrote in "Stewards of the Earth: The Growing Religious Mission to Protect the Environment" of the rise in faith-based environmental awareness: "When conservative evangelical Christians call for action on global warming, Hindu holy men dedicate themselves to saving sacred rivers and Buddhist monks work with Islamic mullahs to try to halt the extinction crisis, boundaries are clearly being redrawn in the ongoing struggle for the political hearts and minds of the world’s believers." The whole article is worth reading.

As I write this, on the afternoon of Earth Day, I'm distracted by the view from my window. The oak's spring greenery sways against a backdrop of heavy clouds. Geese honk as they fly in tandem toward the pond. Birds and toads join their voices in song. A hawk circles and swoops to earth.

It's art -- as fine a work of art as anything that has been displayed in a museum or performed on a stage. It's life -- the air we breathe, the food we grow, the water we drink. It's a gift from God -- one we can't afford to neglect. The wonder is that it took some theologians so long to figure that out.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Passover's celebration of freedom

The Jewish celebration of Passover began at sundown on Saturday. The eight-day festival commemorates the exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, so it is closely linked with the ideas of freedom and liberation.

Historian Claire Simmons wrote a powerful column for The Washington Post that relates Passover to the Jewish uprising in the Warsaw ghetto of the 1940s. It's a horrifying tale. Nazis had forced hundreds of thousands of Jews into a tiny, 1.3 square-mile section of the city. When German troops came to deport them to concentration camps after a few years of inhuman conditions, a few hundred fighters held them off -- for a while.

But the fighters weren't the only ones who resisted courageously. "Public prayer was forbidden and punished by execution. Yet prayer services were held in hundreds of clandestine locations. Secret factories fabricated matzoh. Thousands of children affirmed their freedom to be human by studying the Torah in underground schools."

Simmons writes, "The actions of the men, women and children of the Warsaw ghetto teach us that Passover is not a passive celebration of historical events or superficially similar current events. ... We are not celebrating the freedom to be left alone. We celebrate the freedom to repair the world, to light a candle for posterity, to continue to perform the many small prosaic acts of solidarity and sacrifice -- for friend and stranger alike -- in the shadow of totalitarianism and under circumstances calculated to make us think these acts are meaningless."

During this Passover, I hope all of us will celebrate our freedom to worship and will work to ensure that all people, of every faith and in every nation, enjoy that same freedom.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Interfaith listening for truth

Continuing his visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI met with representatives of other religions at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington. In his remarks there, he praised dialogue between faiths, but not for the primary purpose of peace and mutual understanding. Instead, he said, the purpose must be "to discover the truth."

Rather than focusing on what we believe in common, he said, we should "discuss our differences with calmness and clarity."

I think he's right about the approach we should take, but I suspect that he and I have different ideas of what the outcome of such discussions should be.

Ecumenical discussions do no one any good if their only purpose is to blend differing religions into a bland mush. The point is not to grind down any particular faith's sharp edges so what's left is blunt and safe. So Benedict is right to call for discussions where differences are clearly visible and not ignored or hidden away.

He's right, as well, that anyone participating in such talks should "listen attentively to the voice of truth" so that "our dialogue will not stop at identifying a common set of values, but go on to probe their ultimate foundation."

But here's where we differ: I suspect he hopes that attentive listening will convince other-believers that truth is found in Catholicism. He is, after all, the leader of the Catholic Church.

My hope, though, is that those of us who speak clearly and openly of our faith -- of what we have in common as well what divides us -- will strive less to persuade others of our truth than to hear the voice of truth in one another.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pain in the context of hope

Reading through some of the remarks made by Pope Benedict XVI today, I was struck by this passage from his sermon at Washington Nationals Stadium:

"Americans have always been a people of hope: your ancestors came to this country with the expectation of finding new freedom and opportunity, while the vastness of the unexplored wilderness inspired in them the hope of being able to start completely anew, building a new nation on new foundations. To be sure, this promise was not experienced by all the inhabitants of this land; one thinks of the injustices endured by the Native American peoples and by those brought here forcibly from Africa as slaves. Yet hope, hope for the future, is very much a part of the American character. And the Christian virtue of hope – the hope poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the hope which supernaturally purifies and corrects our aspirations by focusing them on the Lord and his saving plan – that hope has also marked, and continues to mark, the life of the Catholic community in this country.

"It is in the context of this hope born of God’s love and fidelity that I acknowledge the pain which the Church in America has experienced as a result of the sexual abuse of minors. No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse. It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention. Nor can I adequately describe the damage that has occurred within the community of the Church. Great efforts have already been made to deal honestly and fairly with this tragic situation, and to ensure that children ... can grow up in a safe environment. ... Today I encourage each of you to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation, and to assist those who have been hurt. Also, I ask you to love your priests, and to affirm them in the excellent work that they do. And above all, pray that the Holy Spirit will pour out his gifts upon the Church, the gifts that lead to conversion, forgiveness and growth in holiness."

Does it make a difference to acknowledge pain in the context of hope? I think it does. Pope Benedict points out this is a nation founded on and steeped in hope, even though some terrible wrongs were committed against slaves and Native Americans. The Catholic Church, too, is marked by hope, despite the scandal of abusive priests.

Both church and state are more likely to overcome their painful and pain-inducing shortcomings because of this grounding in and persistence of hope. Both can -- and must -- be reminded to live up to their own ideals.

Pope Benedict's honest acknowledgement of the abuse and his call to assist its victims were commendable. I only wish he had said something about the bishops who covered up the scandals and shipped pedophiles away to unsuspecting parishes. Their attempt to save the reputation of the Church at the expense of individual children was as unloving, ungodly and sinful as anything the oversexed priests did.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Pope Benedict's fashion statement

The big religion news today, of course, is Pope Benedict XVI's trip to the United States. Plenty of coverage is available on and elsewhere.

One fascinating aspect of this papal visit, however, is the attention that is being paid to what the pope will wear and what message that will send to the Catholic faithful.

Two of the best stories on the topic are "Do the Clothes Make the Pope -- Or the Church?" by Religion News Service columnist David Gibson and "Papal dress code" by Michael McGough in the Los Angeles Times.

It's easy to get lost in church-specific terminology like "fiddleback chausibles," and hard to understand the fuss over the height of the miter atop Benedict's head. But those who pay closer attention to liturgical garments than I do say that this pope's choices may signal disapproval of the Vatican II reforms and a return to more conservative traditions.
Are observers reading too much into the pope's choice of robes? Is Benedict's attire intended to make a statement or is it simply personal preference? If you think it does send a message, do you approve of it? (I'm particularly interested in hearing from Catholics on these questions.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Images of God: Pieces of a puzzle

Father. Shepherd. Judge. King.

All are common metaphors for God or Jesus that have been used in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Perhaps you are less familiar with these, also taken from the Bible:

Mother. Eagle. Rock. Vine. Fire. Wind. Light. Door. Chicken. (Yes, chicken ... in Luke 13:34 Jesus says he wants to gather the children of Israel “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”)

We describe the indescribable by comparing it to ordinary things.

It’s as if God is a giant jigsaw puzzle, so vast that we can’t see the edges, and each image of God, each metaphor, is just a little piece that maybe shows a bit of sky or the edge of a tree. Each image helps to fill in the picture, but no one piece is sufficient to show the whole. Expanding our array of images of God adds pieces to the puzzle.

God as father seems a perfect image for some people. But it can be a barrier for those who had abusive, critical or distant real-life fathers.

God as rock implies strength, solidity, something that can’t be shaken or blown away. If you feel the world is crumbling around you, there is great comfort in clinging to that rock. But you would not go to a rock for tenderness.

I have sometimes experienced God as ocean, moving in unceasing rhythm yet with hidden, still depths. As song, soaring in harmony. As electrical outlet, delivering power. As lover's embrace. As lightning's sudden illumination. As sunlight's warmth.

What images of God hold power for you? Have those images changed over time?

And since our atheist neighbors always wish to chime in on this blog, I ask that they consider this quote from theologian Gabriel Vahanian: "If anyone claims to be an atheist, I always ask, 'What God is it you don't believe in?' In other words, 'Are you a Roman Catholic atheist, a Baptist atheist, a Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod atheist, or what?' From there, I probe to discover what affirmation lies beneath the denial -- and almost invariably there is a profound theological truth and a deep faith at the heart of this self-described atheist. Because what was rejected was not God but an inadequate image of God – in effect, an idol."

Monday, April 14, 2008

God of The Gap?

When comments on the last post wandered into discussion of "god of the gap," I confess that I had a mental image of an old guy with white beard and robes heading to the mall for an updated look. Jeans? Shorts? T-shirt? Perhaps he'd also check out the God of Old Navy look, or maybe God of Abercrombie & Fitch.

That wasn't, of course, what was intended. But hey, it's Monday morning.

Perhaps tomorrow I'll say a little about the visual images we attach to God, and how they can help or hinder our spiritual journey.

But for now, I'd just like to point out that there's a big difference between saying (1) anything we don't understand must be God, and (2) so much remains to be understood, that the existence of God can't be ruled out.

Scientists say that the vast majority of matter in the universe can't be seen. This "dark matter," as they call it, is known only by its effects on matter that we can observe. In the same way, we observe the unknowable divine only through the lives of those who have been transformed by their encounters with God.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Healing with the Divine Therapist

A friend who has been wrestling with depression wrote to me, "Sometimes I think God doesn't want me to be happy."

Yep. He's right. God doesn't want him to be happy. That's not nearly good enough.

Happiness is fleeting, and relies too much on outer circumstances. Happiness is a pale flicker of light compared to the bonfire of joy God wants for us. God wants us to be so filled with this joy that nothing the world throws at us can keep us down. And building a closer relationship with God can make that possible.

Father Thomas Keating has written of prayer as an encounter with the Divine Therapist. In the depths of contemplative prayer, we experience the loving acceptance that heals our wounded emotions. (I should point out that Keating is not at all opposed to human psychotherapy as well, especially for those with serious emotional issues.)

On a much lighter note, beliefnet columnist Therese J. Borchard has written a delightful piece on "10 Reasons Why Catholicism is the Best Religion for the Mentally Ill." For example: "1. There is a saint for every neurosis. You have a neurosis? We've got a saint! St. Joseph takes care of those prone to panic attacks while traveling. For twitching, Bartholomew the Apostle is your dude. Those roaming the house in their sleep can call on Dymphna. The venerable Matt Talbot is patron saint to those struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. And, of course, St. Jude covers the hopeless causes."

Sure, I've heard people say you have to be crazy to believe in God. Sometimes the behavior of believers makes that all too credible.

But there are also many who have found wholeness in the presence of holiness -- and sanity in being fools for God.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Saudi king calls for interfaith dialogue

Would you be surprised to learn that the ruler of a nation that permits only one faith to be practiced has called for an interfaith dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians?

I certainly was. But that's apparently what King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia (right) has done. It's an unprecedented attempt to reach across religious boundaries.

Caryle Murphy, an American journalist living in Saudi Arabia, has written an interesting analysis of the development, "What's Behind the Saudi Monotheism Summit?" She quotes John L. Esposito, founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, as saying Abdullah’s proposal "is potentially an important and significant move forward in terms of the king sending a signal – not only to the world but also to the more rejectionist types who are theologically very narrow-minded – that we’re going to open up."

I firmly believe that opening up -- talking with the "other" -- is humanity's best hope for peace and mutual understanding ... if, that is, all sides are willing to listen as well as talk. It would be a lot easier to take Abdullah seriously if he'd loosen up religious restrictions in his own kingdom.

What do you think could be the benefits or pitfalls of King Abdullah's proposed summit?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A savior without hairspray

The death of actor Charlton Heston brings to mind all those biblical epics I've watched over the years. Films like "The Ten Commandments" reimagined Scripture's stories and gave them visual freshness.

Any time a movie adapts a beloved book, it's likely to introduce changes that don't sit well with the book's devotees. (Faramir never took Frodo and Sam to Osgiliath in "Lord of the Rings." It's wrong, I tell you! Wrong!) But the ability to see the tales come to life redeems many flaws.

There was one aspect of the older biblical epics that drove me crazy, though.

Jesus used hairspray.

They never showed him with the aerosol can in hand, but it was obviously in use. The first-century Galilean never had a hair out of place.

What's with this messiah mousse? Was it just too human for Christ to have a bad hair day? And doesn't that muddy the whole point of the incarnation -- God becoming one of us?

It's a picky complaint, I know, but I was relieved when filmmakers started portraying Jesus as someone who might need a detangler after calming the storm.

How do you feel about movies based on Scripture? What do you think is done well, and what is done badly?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Abusing freedom of religion

Any freedom has limits. Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. Your right to free speech ends when you shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

And your right to religious freedom ends when you you force young teenage girls into marriage. An accusation of that led state troopers to raid the Yearning for Zion Ranch in rural Texas, removing hundreds of women and children.

A former member, Carolyn Jessup, author of "Escape," describes life within the polygamist sect as one of strict control and manipulation. Babies were "broken" by a practice similar to the water-boarding used to torture suspected terrorists. Girls reaching puberty were pushed into marriage with middle-aged men.

The group's true believers would no doubt argue that whatever they did was within God's will and should fall under the protection of freedom of religion. But the right to believe as you wish and to gather for common worship does not include the right to break the law. It does not include the right to hold members virtually captive. And it surely does not include the right to harm children.

Some will take this aberration to be proof that religion is inherently dangerous. But the worth of any human endeavor can't be judged by the worst example of how it has been twisted. We would all agree that families are good in theory and most of the time in practice, but some individuals use their families as punching bags. Some families model cruelty, not love. But that's not what families are for, and it's not the best that they can be.

Apparently this fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon Church is not what any church should be. Neither was Jim Jones' People's Temple or David Koresh's Branch Dividians. But they are the tragic exceptions, not the norm.


Monday, April 7, 2008

It's always open season on hypocrites

Is there any more tempting target than a hypocrite? Anyone who preaches one thing but does another might as well wear a bright red bulls-eye -- and it's always open season.

The priest who professes celibacy but molests children. The televangelist who makes millions urging others to give their last dollar to "God's work." The businessman who never misses a worship service but also never misses a chance to backstab a competitor.

The gulf between what they say and what they do discredits their faith and chases seekers away in disgust. But does it invalidate the belief itself? I ask because I've so often heard people say that there's no point joining [fill in name of any particular faith community here] because "they're all hypocrites."

And most of us are, to a greater or lesser extent. Hypocrites R Us.

It's the nature of religion to insist on ideals and values that are hard to live up to. And it's the nature of human beings to slip into self-interest or laziness -- or worse, to warp the teachings of a faith to justify horrific acts. In even the most minor exercise of hypocrisy, we reflect badly on what we claim to value most. In the worst, we injure and scar the innocent, leading others to attribute evil deeds to God's influence.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." I suspect the same comment applies to other faiths as well.

But again, does the fact that so many fall short of the ideal make the ideal itself unworthy of pursuit?

Friday, April 4, 2008

5 reasons NOT to be religious

Plenty of believers will tell you why you should be as pious as they are. Here's what is rarely said (but should be).

Don't be religious ...

1. If you think it will exempt you from troubles, pain and tragedy.

2. If you think it makes you better than other people.

3. If you think it means your brain can go on permanent vacation.

4. If you think it's all comfort and no demands.

5. If you think it's a way to get God to back your agenda, prejudices or sports team.

Care to add to the list?

Thursday, April 3, 2008

M.L. King's theological journey

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated 40 years ago Friday, is remembered for many things: his soaring speeches that called America to live up its own ideals, his courageous leadership of the civil rights movement, his advocacy of nonviolence as a tactic against oppression.

What is sometimes forgotten is that he was a preacher first, and it was his views about the nature of God that led to his famous actions. It was the pulpit that propelled him to greatness.

How did those views form? I went looking for the answer and came across a fascinating article, "Martin Luther King, Jr., and the African-American Social Gospel," by Clayborn Carson. It details the evolution of King's views from an initial skepticism, even while enjoying the rituals and community of church, to an embrace of liberal theology, then a realization of that theology's limitations and a rediscovery of his own African American tradition. His religious views drew from both the intellectual approach of white academics and the emotional, personal religion of his roots.

What resulted was a powerful ability to speak truth to Americans of all races, and to speak that truth out of personal spiritual experience and conviction.

As the article relates:

Forging an eclectic synthesis from such diverse sources as personalism, theological liberalism, neo-orthodox theology, and the activist, Bible-centered religion of his heritage, King affirmed his abiding faith in a God who was both a comforting personal presence and a powerful spiritual force acting in history for righteousness. This faith would sustain him as the civil rights movement irreversibly transformed his life.

"I am many things to many people," King acknowledged in 1965, "but in the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher." Rather than being torn between mutually exclusive cultural traditions, King's public, transracial ministry marked a convergence of theological scholarship and social gospel practice.

I have now yet another reason to admire King, who sought understanding of God, was willing to let that understanding grow, and was empowered by what he found to transform a nation.

How has your theology changed and grown? How has it affected your life's work?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Spring's glory an unexpected gift

I remember April 1992 as the Spring of pure grace.

We had bought our new house in February, when trees and bushes were bare. Since my thumb is whatever is the polar opposite of green, I had taken no steps to improve the yard. It would stay as undecorated as my last yard, and the one before that.

But as the days lengthened and trees shook out new leaves, surprises popped out. First, shaggy bushes exploded in yellow glory. Forsythia! Then, one by one, other festive residents made their presence known. Buttercups. Tulips. Irises. Azaleas. Day lilies. Peonies. Roses. Every day I walked around the house in amazement, counting my colorful blessings.

Best of all was the huge lilac bush, whose fragrance attracted me as surely as it did the butterflies.

So much of how we find meaning in life relies on the efforts of those who came before us, who planted the insights that bloom into our own understanding. Their wisdom comes to us as unexpected grace. The quote that illuminates. The book that speaks directly to our situation. The Scripture passage that leaps off the page. The piece of music that expresses better than words what is in our heart.

Our job is to tend them and to plant our own bulbs for a future we may not see.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Religion misused as a political tool

In a nation of so many believers, it's no surprise that talk of religion pops up in political campaigns. This year it's taken a particularly bizarre turn, with Barack Obama accused of being a secret Muslim while simultaneously berated for not leaving his (Christian) church. Go figure.

It's always tempting for candidates, like nations at war, to claim God's endorsement. It's also tempting for ministers to use their pulpit to push a particular political party or candidate. But both should be wary of mixing religion with politics -- for the sake of church, not just state.

The Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist pastor and leader of The Interfaith Alliance, warned of the danger to religion in an interview on the PBS show Frontline: "Every time that religion has identified itself or entangled itself with a particular political movement or a particular government, religion has been harmed by that. I see religion as a powerful positive healing force for this nation and the world. But that force is blunted, weakened, compromised inestimably, if we turn religion into a tool for advancing political strategy; if we make it a matter of how to win political office; if we treat it as anything other than a sacred part of life from which we ought to draw sustenance and values and strength for living courageously as good citizens."

Of course religious values guide a believer's choices in the voting booth. But that doesn't justify slapping a bumper sticker on the Almighty.

Your comments welcome.

Monday, March 31, 2008

A child dies in the name of God

At 5:04 on March 26, Iztok brought up a news story that would make anyone cringe: Police: Girl Dies After Parents Pray for Healing Instead of Seeking Medical Help . Especially disturbing to him was the police chief's statement that the girl's parents said she died because "apparently they didn't have enough faith." Iztok asks, "Was it lack of faith or too much of it?"

I'd call it a lack of common sense and a fatal misunderstanding of how God heals.

The best response to this story I've seen is from Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom, Trusting God's Hand Should Not Idle Yours. The whole column is worth reading, but here's a sample:

"Now I know there are many of us who believe 'God has a plan.' And I hope and pray that's true.

"But I'm betting His plan doesn't include us sitting around doing nothing. We work, yet have faith. We have fun, yet have faith. We eat, yet have faith. If you can indulge in some form of 21st-Century activity, why not others?

"Faith is good. In my view, it's vital. But in this day and age, to refuse to see doctors is living in a time warp. And when a child's life is threatened, ignoring the modern world should not be an option."

Sounds right to me. What do you think?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cleanliness vs. godliness

Remember the old saw that cleanliness is next to godliness? Many a child in religious households was given that as a reason to bathe thoroughly and keep the house tidy. (The No. 1 reason, of course, was usually "Because I said so.")

The connection between cleanliness and godliness runs deep in religion itself. Purity often becomes the goal ... purity in doctrine, in rules, in behavior. The result is exclusion as the impure are cast out, kept out or silenced. Order -- liturgical tidiness -- becames more important than breathing fresh life into the old stories of faith.

But research is beginning to show that too much cleanliness in our physical lives may actually harm our health. When our immune systems don't have germs to fight, they turn on us. The result of all those well-scrubbed countertops and antibacterial soaps: an increase in allergies and auto-immune diseases.

A similar thing happens in our faith communities. Too much emphasis on purity and too much insistence on order make us turn on one another. The health of the body fails as love becomes secondary to nit-picking, blame-throwing and turf-guarding. We wield the antiseptic wipe of self-righteous judgment.

Maybe a little messiness would bring us closer to godliness after all.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter's daring, dazzling promise

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,

wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;

love lives again, that with the dead has been:

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

In the grave they laid him, Love whom hate had slain,

thinking that never he would wake again,

laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

Forth he came at Easter, like the risen grain,

he that for three days in the grave had lain,

quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,

thy touch can call us back to life again,

fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:

Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

-- John Crum, 1928


Out of darkness, light. Out of despair, hope. Out of grief, joy. Out of death, life.

This is the daring, dazzling promise of Easter: that the worst that can happen is not the final word.

May your Easter be blessed. Alleluia!

Friday, March 21, 2008

Day of the suffering God

Good Friday. What an odd name for a day that commemorates suffering and death.

It's a day that sets Christianity apart from other religions. What other faith celebrates the agony and destruction of God?

Does "celebrate" seem too strong a word? Perhaps. Especially since many Christians prefer to sidestep Good Friday, the day of Jesus' crucifixion and death, and skip directly to Easter, the day of Resurrection and brightly colored eggs.

But there's something powerful in the notion of a God who knows what it's like to thirst, to feel pain, to cry out in abandonment. Not God as invincible superhero but God as helpless victim.

This week I was ill (nothing serious). In the worst of it, while I burned with fever then shook with chills, I thought of the worst days of my husband's cancer, those days when the pain was unremitting and his body became a battlefield. Remembering gave me a sense of perspective about my own discomfort, which would soon pass. And I knew that he would have understood how awful I felt, just as I had an inkling in my little illness of how he felt in his greater struggle. Pain isolates, but the shared experience of it connects.

Good Friday is a reminder, too, that we are not alone in our suffering. That God understands from the inside out, not just in theory.

And when our souls and bodies ache, that can be a greater comfort even than the hope of Easter.

Comments welcome, as always.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Beyond 'the Bible tells me so'

The problem with careening into theological debates, such as on the nature of sin (yes, I'm aware that I brought it up), is that we always slam into the same wall: What is the ultimate authority?

For d.j. and many other Christians, it is Scripture, taken at face value. Any argument that can't be backed by clear chapter and verse is dismissed.

For other Christians, especially Catholics like danbo, Tradition is added to the authority of Scripture. Church teachings over the centuries add to and interpret what is found in the Bible.

My own denomination teaches that we are to use Scripture, Tradition and Reason. The Bible is taken seriously as the Word of God, but Reason allows us to interpret it using not only the creeds and insights of the Church but also our own experience and understanding. Revelation is seen as an ongoing, living result of our individual and corporate relationship with God.

Obviously the Bible will be read and quoted differently depending on what authority it is given, and whether that authority is shared.

What authority do you accept? How can believers debate serious issues of faith if they don't accept the same authority in the same way?

Does it make any sense to debate issues of faith at all?

Just this once, I ask that the atheists sit this one out; I'm interested in hearing from believers on this topic. Non-Christians are welcome to chime in with their own approach to the role of authority in faith.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Sin: Hereditary disease or poison?

In the latest news from the Vatican, the Catholic Church has updated its thou-shalt-not list. Church officials aren't creating new sins, of course, only drawing attention to some of the newer ways that humanity wanders from the divine will, including pollution, genetic manipulation, drug abuse and economic social injustice.

Monsignor Gianfranco Girotti said, "If yesterday sin had a rather individualistic dimension, today it has a weight, a resonance, that's especially social, rather than individual."

Social sin? Yikes! It's a lot more comfortable to think of sin on the individual level, especially if you think of it as breaking a specific set of rules. Then it's easy to point to someone like, say, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, and label him a sinner and yourself as righteous. It gets more dicey if, as Jesus taught, attitudes are just as bad as actions: being angry at someone is no better than killing him. Sin is missing the mark, straying from the right path, leaving the way of love.

But if sin is greater than an individual act or attitude -- if it extends to the acts and attitudes of the community at large -- then it is truly impossible to escape. We are born into sin.

And that is what I think is the real meaning of "original sin": We are born into a broken world that values power over love. That world cuts and scars us, enslaves and corrupts us. It is not that we carry some sort of hereditary disease called sin, but that we are poisoned by exposure to it.

This is not ultra-orthodox Christian doctrine, as I'm sure some readers will be happy to point out.

What do you make of sin, individual or social?

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

God talk only OK for liberals?

Is there a double standard in how the media react to religious talk from conservative or liberal candidates? Jacques Berlinerblau says yes, based on the silence that greeted Barack Obama's speech to Latino Evangelical and Catholic clerics in Brownsville, Texas.

Among the Obama quotes he pulls out: "And during the course of that sermon, I was introduced to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, He could set me on the path to eternal life."

Berlinerblau, author of "The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously," writes: "These pious musings have not aroused as much as a peep of protest from nonbelievers and Church-State separatists. (Compare this to the former governor of Arkansas who enraged Secular America when he suggested that we amend the Constitution to God’s standards). This absence of outrage goes a long way in demonstrating how thoroughly secularism in this country is entwined with, and supportive of, political liberalism."

He raises a good point in that former preacher Mike Huckabee did receive a lot more media grief about his outspoken Christianity. Then again, perhaps Obama was given more leeway to proclaim his faith because he had to do so to counter those scurrilous and false rumors that he is a secret Muslim.

What do you think?

Monday, March 3, 2008

God as vending machine

"That was an answer to prayer."

How many times have you heard that phrase when something wonderful happened? An illness abates or a check arrives in the mail, and ... Yes! God heard the request. God answered.

But what if the illness worsens or the bank forecloses? What if, despite fervent prayers, the plea is denied? To some, this is proof that God doesn't exist, or can't act, or doesn't care. Surely it couldn't be that the answer is "No."

Doug Mendenhall, author of "How Jesus Ended up in the Food Court: 77 Devotional Thoughts You Never Thought About Before," wrote an entertaining column in the Huntsville (Ala.) Times last week on what would happen if the only possible answer were "Yes," even just for one morning. "Let’s say God’s in a quirky mood, like when he created the platypus or nudged the Appalachian State football team past Michigan," Mendenhall begins. "Let’s say he decides, for a few hours only, to drastically relax his standards on miracles. For this one morning, the new protocol is boiled down to:
"1. Requester must believe in God.
"2. Requester must have honorable motives.
"3. Request granted.
"So at 6 a.m. on this special morning, unannounced, God lets the miracles begin..."

I'll let you read the results for yourself.

We like to think that God is a vending machine. Insert a few quarters' worth of prayer into the slot, push the right buttons and the miracle of choice will pop out. My will be done.

As gratifying as that would be, it sells prayer short. Because the true miracle of prayer is that by spending time in God's presence -- opening our hearts and mind to a relationship, not a machine -- we are transformed.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Are Americans losing their religion?

"More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether."

That's a quote from the new report on the state of religious affiliation in America from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The Observer's story on the report is here, and the full report, which is well worth exploring, is here.

The report paints a picture of spiritual restlessness, of adults being dissatisfied with the "faith of their fathers," or at least their father's denomination.

Cause for panic? Or cause to celebrate?

I say the latter. And I say this as a member of a mainstream Protestant church -- a group whose numbers are in decline. Why celebrate? I can think of two reasons:

1. It shows that people are not willing to settle for boring, irrelevant services and dry theology. They are seeking communities where they can authentically encounter God and learn to love one another.

2. It's a wake-up call to all houses of worship that they won't keep their members unless they are willing to engage and challenge them on every level -- providing spiritual depth, mental stimulation and opportunities to serve those in need. Being a Sunday-only, mindless, see-and-be-seen, believe-what-you're-told-and-shut-up-about-doubts club won't cut it.

Yes, the study shows there are many who turn away from organized religion altogether. But are they so much worse than pew-warmers who go through the motions but haven't let faith transform their lives?

Perhaps Americans are not so much losing their religion as finding it for themselves.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Which fights will seem petty in 500 years?

Isn't it interesting that posts about prayer or personal spirituality receive so few comments, while posts about theology draw so many ("Prayer lost in the clutter": 3. "Reading the Bible as non-literal truth": 156 and counting)? I'm not surprised.

Perhaps the posts that receive little response are so boring that nobody has any desire to comment (possible) or that they cover the topic so well that nobody has anything to add (I seriously doubt that!). It's more likely that people are reluctant to open up -- even anonymously -- about something as personal as prayer in something as public as a blog.

But part of it, I feel sure, is simply that theology lends itself to argument in a way that spirituality doesn't. Dogma separates, while the experience of mystery unites. This is true across religious lines as well as within a particular faith or denomination.

I remember being horrified when I read about the bloody struggles between Catholics and Protestants in 16th-century England. Believers were burned at the stake over differences that strike us now as petty. Political power struggles were given a veneer of pseudo-righteousness when opponents were decried as heretics or papists.

How we love to insist that everyone believe exactly what we believe! But creeds don't transform lives; prayer does.

It makes me wonder which of today's debates will make our descendants shake their heads in disbelief. My guess: the bitter fights over homosexuality and the leadership of women.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Prayer lost in the clutter

Yesterday I sat in the chair where I most like to pray ... only this time I couldn't. It wasn't a crisis of faith, just a crisis of clutter.

After clearing some folded clothes off the chair, I settled into prayerful silence. But the rest of the room shouted chaos and neglect, and no matter how I tried, I couldn't shut it out. The lack of order was as noisy as a jackhammer, as distracting as a buzzing mosquito.

Now, I confess to being an indifferent housekeeper with a high tolerance for disorder, so this loss of serenity surprised me. It got me to thinking about the ways we fill our lives with clutter -- not just things, but tasks and projects and obligations and habits -- and how that clutter keeps us from being with God. We try to squeeze our spiritual life into the cracks between mounting piles of acquisitions and accomplishments. And then we wonder why God is so hard to find.

I went to a somewhat more orderly room to finish praying, and part of that prayer was an acknowledgment of my need for clear priorities and sacred simplicity.

Then I spent the rest of the evening cleaning the room that was too noisy even when silent.

Do you find that the clutter of your life pushes out God? What makes prayer difficult for you?