Tag Archives: religion

Two Christians Talk Faith on Network TeeVee… With No Sky Fairy in Sight

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Many years ago, when I was actively thinking about seminary, I remember hiking in Colorado with some college friends. One of these friends, a confirmed agnostic/atheist, was trying to get his head around this vocational choice of mine–but even more broadly, why an intelligent, educated person would have need for religious faith at all. “I guess I get it,” he said. “Your faith provides solace for you.”

I shook my head. Solace wasn’t quite right; in fact, I bristled against it. Solace was too limiting, like the spiritual equivalent of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a breakup. Solace felt like a pat on the simpleminded head in the wake of life’s mysteries and griefs. Solace made you feel better, but had no other utility. A faith that’s all about solace, I argued back, doesn’t change the way you look at the world, doesn’t move you to action, doesn’t transform a life.

Right or wrong, I heard insult in the word “solace,” like my friend was quoting the Apostle Paul, knowingly or unknowingly, ironically or unironically: When I was a child, I thought like a child; but when I was an adult, I put away childish things. 

This is the posture of anti-theists: religion is a childish thing. These are the folks who like to make jabs about all of us rubes praying to our Sky Fairy and adhering chapter and verse to a book that was written by illiterate goat-herders in the Bronze Age.

Anyway, the word solace came up again last night in a conversation between Stephen Colbert and Joe Biden, a conversation they were gracious to let millions of us eavesdrop on during night three of The Late Show. Both Colbert and Biden are men of faith, liberal Catholics, it’s safe to say; both have experienced terrible losses in their lives.

Their conversation about faith was nothing short of astounding. Colbert asked about Biden’s belief in God and how it helped him grieve the death of his beloved son Beau this summer. Biden gave a thoughtful and heartfelt answer that was full of solace but completely free of Sky Fairy.

He didn’t say, Well, God needed another angel in heaven. Or I guess my son’s work on earth was done.
He didn’t say, God has his purposes; we’ll all understand the plan someday.

He said–and I’m paraphrasing:

The rituals of the church sustain me and give me the strength to go on.

I pray the rosary, and it gives me comfort.

When I’m in mass, I am surrounded by a community people, yet I feel completely alone.

The last one was most remarkable to me. Isn’t it terrible to be alone? No–not if you need space to grieve, or just to find quiet in your own heart. There are so few places where we allow ourselves that space. Religion done well is one of those places.

Colbert and Biden, and so many others of us, aren’t in it for the Sky Fairy. It’s never been about the Cosmic Daddy for us, no matter how much the anti-theists want to make it about that. It’s certainly not about finding pat answers, from our Bible or from our God. It’s in the living. It’s in the struggle. It’s in the community.

Last night’s interview helped me articulate a more nuanced view of solace as one of the fruits of religious belief. I still think solace doesn’t fully encompass it. But nor does solace mean platitudes and cheesy explanations that somehow make the horrors of our lives less horrible because somehow God’s gonna make it all better. That’s not what Biden showed us last night. He’s still deeply broken in his grief–that’s evident. His faith is equal parts Psalm 22 and Psalm 23. And comfort and solace are nothing to scoff at.

One the gifts of doing the speaking work I do is getting to learn from other great leaders in the church. I preached at a conference with the great Eugenia Gamble some years ago and she closed with these words of blessing. I’ve used it far and wide since then, crediting her when practical to do so, though she thinks it came from the Franciscans first.

The words of this blessing came to me again while listening to the Late Show interview. To me they’re what good religion is all about. Forget the Sky Fairy and simplistic explanations and hollow solace. This is the nature of any religion or worldview worth its salt:

May God bless you with discomfort
with easy answers and half truths and superficial relationships,
so that you will live deeply
and from the heart.

And may God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people,
so that you will work
for justice, freedom and peace.

And may God bless you with tears to shed
for those that mourn,
so you will reach out your hand to them
and turn mourning into joy.

And may God bless you with just enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you will do those things that others say
cannot be done.

Stephen and Joe have been so blessed. So may we all be.

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Jesus the Buddhist?

Jesus_Meditating_-34R-L-Bob_Clyatt_SculptureSeveral months ago a pastor friend gave my book to a gal who’d been visiting his church. She really liked it, and for this self-proclaimed seeker, a major point in its favor was “It’s very Buddhist!”

She has a point. I write about living Sabbathly, which means that whether we are at work or play, we strive to be fully present: neither hurried nor sluggish, but awake and alive. This kind of Sabbath mindset is connected to mindfulness and attentiveness, both of which are traditionally associated with Eastern religion and philosophy.

But Abraham Joshua Heschel, a rabbi, wrote that Sabbath is not just a date, but an atmosphere. And as I told the group last weekend at the Oasis, you don’t have to stray far from the Christian tradition to see mindfulness and attentiveness in play. In fact, Jesus strikes me as a very mindful dude.

This is the guy who told distracted but well-intentioned Martha to focus on the “one thing needful.” I’m convinced he was not telling her to drop her work in the kitchen; after all, he relied on the hospitality of his friends for his itinerant ministry. Rather he wanted her to live with intention. Jesus demonstrates and offers an abundant life, but his abundance is not about sheer copiousness. Rather it flows out of simplicity, and a sense of depth.

This all seems to be an argument against multitasking, which research tells us isn’t really possible anyway. When we are multitasking, we are really switching quickly between tasks, with a loss of effectiveness each time we make the switch.

And yet, it is possible to be in a state of flow, which we might call multitasking at its best. Sometimes people call it being “in the zone.” Those moments don’t happen often for me, but when they do, it’s such a joy, even when the work is hard or feels like “too much.”

Here’s what flow looks like: In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is on his way to heal Jairus’s daughter when he has an encounter with the so-called hemorrhaging woman. (Lord love the Baptist church of my childhood, how did I not know what the heck was the matter with her until I got to the Presbyterian Church?)

There’s a great little line, after the woman is healed of her twelve-year period, when Jesus calls her “daughter” and bids her to go in peace and healing. While he was still speaking, Mark says, Jairus’s associates come up and tell him that the little girl has died. Jesus overhears them and is able to respond. Did you catch that? He is speaking words of grace to one person even as he feels the pain of someone else.

That’s what true attentiveness looks like. Is there any doubt that Jesus was fully present with the woman? And yet his senses are so heightened that he is equally tuned in to a completely different situation.

Amazing. And such hard work.

Whether you call it mindfulness, flow, or living Sabbathly, when have you experienced this feeling? What helps create that sense in your own life?

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The title of this post comes from Ray Wylie Hubbard’s song “Conversation with the Devil”:

I said, “Hotshot tell me this: which religion is the truest?”
He said, “There all about the same; Buddha was not a Christian, but Jesus woulda made a good Buddist.”

Image: Meditating Jesus by Bob Clyatt

 

‘Book of Mormon’ and Reverent Irreverence

973150Mamala took Robert and me to see Book of Mormon at the Kennedy Center last night. So good… so funny… so Not Safe For Church.

I have a soft spot for art that tweaks religion—even in an over-the-top way. When it comes from a place of affection, even grudging affection, it’s a pleasure to watch. As my friend Michael Kirby put it:

There will not be a more profound and profane commentary on the value of faith and the folly of doctrine on stage again in our lifetimes.

The LDS Church took out several ads in the Playbill (see above), which I think says a lot about the Church, as well as the skill of the show’s creators in executing this very sweet, incredibly offensive musical.

I call it reverent irreverence… or is it irreverent reverence?

It’s hard to define, but I know it when I see it. Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal has it in spades.

I also agree with Mike Meyers, who defended the importance of silliness on Inside the Actors Studio many years ago.

In a world as heavy and often messed-up as ours, Silly is a ministry.

Have you seen Book of Mormon? Would you like to?

Thanks again, Mom. You knew I’d write a blog post about it, eh?

Friday Link Love: Roger Ebert, Louis CK, and Radical Generosity

Happy Friday, everyone. What do you have planned this weekend? May you find a little space for things that are bubbly and fun, nourishing and vital. We will be celebrating the 90th birthday of Robert’s grandmother. Joy!

Here are a few items that grabbed me this week:

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RIP Roger Ebert: The Beloved Critic on Writing, Life, and Mortality — Brain Pickings

I loved his writing and will miss his wisdom:

My colleague late at night, a year or two older, was Bill Lyon, who covered Champaign High School sports and became a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. … Bill and I would labor deep into the night on Fridays, composing our portraits of the [football] games. I was a subscriber to the Great Lead Theory, which teaches that a story must have an opening paragraph so powerful as to leave few readers still standing. … Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.

More at the link, including excerpts from his memoir and his TED talk.

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Human-Tower Competition in Tarragona, Spain — Colossal

The things we human beings come up with! Amazing pictures of a swarm of humanity working together:

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Kevin Ware on Louisville Teammate That ‘Touched My Heart’ — USA Today

H/t to my friend LeAnn Hodges. I didn’t see the Louisville/Duke game, but yikes. Yet horrific events can bring out the best in people:

[Ware’s teammate] Hancock thought back to last summer, when he suffered a gruesome shoulder injury in a pickup game. He remembered how others were aghast. He remembered how former Louisville guard Andre McGee was the only one to rush to his side, to rush him to the hospital. He remembered how much that had meant.

So as Ware lay there in the first half of the Cardinals’ NCAA tournament victory over Duke on Sunday, scared and alone and stunned, Hancock ran to him. He held Ware’s hand and told him they would get through this together. He told Ware he would say a prayer for him.

Ware didn’t respond at first, because he was in shock. Hancock took a deep breath, closed his eyes, clenched Ware’s hand and started the prayer.

…You can’t fault the other players for their initial reaction to such a macabre moment. But you can praise Hancock, and you should.

We are wounded healers, all.

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After God: What Can Atheists Learn from Believers? — New Statesman

I especially like the responses from Karen Armstrong and Alain de Botton (not too surprisingly—he’s a Blue Room mainstay). Here’s de Botton:

For centuries in the west, there was a figure in society who fulfilled a function that is likely to sound very odd to secular ears. The priest didn’t fulfil any material need; he was there to take care of that part of you called, rather unusually, “the soul”, by which we would understand the seat of our emotions and of our deep self.

Where have our soul-related needs gone? What are we doing with the material we used to go to a priest for? The deep self has naturally not given up its complexities and vulnerabilities simply because some scientific inaccuracies have been found in the tales of the five loaves and two fishes.

The loaves and fishes story is a tale that resonates beyond matters of science, but I take his point.

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Louis CK on David Letterman — YouTube

Two of my favorite funny men:

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The Touch-Screen Generation — The Atlantic

Young children—even toddlers—are spending more and more time with digital technology. What will it mean for their development?

Long but excellent rumination on parents’ ambivalence about their kids’ use of technology:

By their pinched reactions [to questions about how much screen time their kids have], these parents illuminated for me the neurosis of our age: as technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives, American parents are becoming more, not less, wary of what it might be doing to their children. Technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease. They have merely created yet another sphere that parents feel they have to navigate in exactly the right way. On the one hand, parents want their children to swim expertly in the digital stream that they will have to navigate all their lives; on the other hand, they fear that too much digital media, too early, will sink them. Parents end up treating tablets like precision surgical instruments, gadgets that might perform miracles for their child’s IQ and help him win some nifty robotics competition—but only if they are used just so. Otherwise, their child could end up one of those sad, pale creatures who can’t make eye contact and has an avatar for a girlfriend.

And on the other end of the spectrum of childhood… college students:

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Addiction to Electronics Growing — Times-Delphic

“I occasionally see students using their phones during yoga or pilates, which makes me a bit sad,” Determann said. “If you can’t be unplugged for 45 or 60 minutes, that’s a bit concerning, in my opinion. I know that this has just become the way we, as a society operate, but the world will go on without you checking your notifications.”

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A Religious Wake-Up Call in the Matter of Drones — Alternet

A critique against drones from a Christian perspective:

Our use of drones is only defensible on “Just War Theory” grounds, if we are able to demonstrate an immediate threat to this country that is specific and specifically premeditated with a specific objective. Unfortunately, the current administration, with its complex entanglements of secrecy and formal denials, has not been able to explain or demonstrate an immediate threat.

Our use of drones are out of “proportion” because it uses the most advanced technology in the world to assassinate people who can basically only throw the equivalent of sticks and stones back at you. Moreover, it gives these people no chance to surrender. It is like capital punishment without an arrest, a charge, a trial, or a right of appeal.

Our use of drones is not humane, because it totally objectifies the enemy by making them into a picture on a screen. There is not the faintest possibility, in the conduct of drone warfare by means of remote control, that you can regard the enemy as a fellow human citizen of the planet.

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Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead? — NYT

Longish article about a new book, Give and Take, and its author, professor Adam Grant who, and I say this in a nice way, sounds like a freak. You might describe him as… radically generous with his time—he answers every email request for help, he spends hours mentoring students, etc. But all of this giving comes back to him in very interesting, even powerful, ways. “The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

“Give and Take” incorporates scores of studies and personal case histories that suggest the benefits of an attitude of extreme giving at work. Many of the examples — the selfless C.E.O.’s, the consultants who mentor ceaselessly — are inspiring and humbling, even if they are a bit intimidating in their natural expansiveness. These generous professionals look at the world the way Grant does: an in-box filled with requests is not a task to be dispensed with perfunctorily (or worse, avoided); it’s an opportunity to help people, and therefore it’s an opportunity to feel good about yourself and your work. “I never get much done when I frame the 300 e-mails as ‘answering e-mails,’ ” Grant told me. “I have to look at it as, How is this task going to benefit the recipient?” Where other people see hassle, he sees bargains, a little work for a lot of gain, including his own.

There’s something wonderful about seeing the world in this way rather than the calculating tit-for-tat manner we are often trained to employ with one another. But I spent most of the article assuming he must be single, because what family could put up with someone who lives this way? Turns out he has a wife who stays home to take care of the kids. Which hey, more power to them. But it does color things somewhat, eh?

At any rate, I’m interested in the research on this topic. It seems like Grant’s outlook requires you to see time as an abundant resource, which I don’t. As I write in the book, I’m much more comfortable with the idea of holy scarcity. There isn’t enough time for everything we want or need to do. So how do we move as creatively through our days as possible?

Speaking of which… may you shimmy and tango through your weekend and all of its work, play, errands, and maybe, a few surprises. Peace.

Friday Link Love: Darwin’s Religion, and Saving the Planet through Slacking

 

Away we go…

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HD Photos of the Sun — Obligatory Colossal Link

Alan Friedman photographs the sun from his own backyard. Amazing what the world offers us if we look:

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Work Less, Save the Planet — Kate Sheppard, Mother Jones

 

I already shared this on FB/twitter but it bears repeating:

 

new study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research concludes that if we all worked fewer hours, we could cut future global warming by as much as 22 percent by 2100.

 

Sabbath has environmental benefits! Yee-haw!

 

I was on God Complex Radio recently, and the discussion between Derrick and Carol following my interview touched on this exact thing. Good on them for being all cutting edge!

 

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Celebrate the Gifts of Women Sunday — Presbyterian Church (USA), Shannon Kershner

It’s humbling to be mentioned in the same article as the totally awesome Theresa Cho. Thank you Shannon.

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The Evolution of Religion, According to Darwin — Elizabeth Drescher, Religion Dispatches

Was the great scientist a “proto-None”?

Pleins argues that reading Darwin and the theories he developed through the lens of an uncompromising rejection of religion has prevented us from seeing the full scope of Darwin’s genius, which reckoned with religion in evolutionary terms every bit as much as it did with natural selection or adaptation.

…”I’d say that Darwin teaches us that it is quite natural for humans to be religious and that it is appropriate for Darwinians to be curious about why humans seek a religious purpose to their lives. That doesn’t require that we think that religion is entirely artificial. That it’s merely a coping mechanism. One can be a Darwinian without having to condemn religion or the sense—a sense that Darwin often explored—that there is something more.”

The book is called Evolving God and it’s going on my Goodreads.

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Spirituality in the (Snow) Storm — Brad Hirschfield, Washington Post 

The spirituality of snow is a spirituality of repose. It offers the opportunity to celebrate simply being, not the doing which fills most of our lives most of the time. It literally creates a blanket which absorbs the noise that fills our ears during less snowy times.

I write in the book about Sabbath as a spiritual snow day. That said, an actual snow day would be nice, O DC area weather gods.

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Labor of Love: The Enforced Happiness of Pret a Manger — Timothy Noah, The New Republic

I’ve written about emotional labor before; here’s another article about emotional labor in the restaurant business:

For a good long while, I let myself think that the slender platinum blonde behind the counter at Pret A Manger was in love with me. How else to explain her visible glow whenever I strolled into the shop for a sandwich or a latte? Then I realized she lit up for the next person in line, and the next. Radiance was her job.

In the three decades since Hochschild published The Managed Heart, the emotional economy has spread like a noxious weed to dry cleaners, nail salons, even computer-repair shops. (Think of Apple’s Genius Bars—parodied by The Onion as “Friend Bars”—where employees are taught to be empathetic and use words like “feel” as much as possible.) Back when she wrote her book, Hochschild estimated that about one-third of all jobs entailed “substantial demands for emotional labor.” Today, she figures it’s more like half. This is, among other things, terrible news for men, who (unlike women) are not taught from birth how to make other people happy. Perhaps that explains why men are losing ground in the service economy.

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How Parenting Became a DIY Project — Emily Matchar, Atlantic

From home birth to homemade baby food to homeschooling, raising kids is a way for parents to express their individuality.

We see [the] principle of individualism writ large when it comes to parenthood. Parents often value individuality—both their own and their children’s—above other concerns.

These main factors have led to the growth of what historian Stephanie Coontz calls “the myth of parental omnipotence”—the idea that parents can and should personally ensure their children’s success through their own hard work and hyper-attentiveness.

I’ve been casting about for a Lent discipline. I finally settled on it: to do nothing extra. I will be content with good enough. That sounds a bit lame on the surface—I’m going to half-a** my way through Lent—but I think I’m on to something. That omnipotence stuff is very powerful in our culture, and not just with parenting. The myth of omnipotence seduces us into thinking we’re in charge of our lives. We are not—and what could be more Lenten than that?

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50 Sure Signs that Texas is Actually Utopia — BuzzFeed

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Texas politics are seven kinds of crazy, but I love this list. And the counter-list.

I’d remove the Bush twins though, and add this lady, of blessed memory:

We miss you, Molly.

We miss you, Molly.

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Have a great weekend, everyone. Even if you’re not from Texas.