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.