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.