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.