When did religion become a “dirty word”?

I remember as a child growing up that it was a given (in my circle of family and friends, at least) that you were “religious.” You went to church on Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night…and the church was what your life revolved around–and the reason you lived the way you did (at least mostly!). Sometimes you wanted to leave it all behind and be the proverbial “bad girl”–but not enough to really follow through on those thoughts.

It was just part of who we were.

So when did religion become a “dirty word”?

Was it when we realized that too often people (especially televangelists, it seems) lived life as “Do what I say, not what I do” experience?

Was it when we began to find out that the ministers and other religious leaders we put up on pedestals had feet of clay? that they were just “normal” people like the rest of us?

Was it when archaeology and scholarship pointed out that some of our beliefs could not really be supported? and our teachers demanded that they must be–creating a gulf between science and religion that persists to this day…and causing us to fear education?

Possibly all of the above…

But I think there’s a more basic reason–at least for Christianity.

Jesus lived at a time when religion was important to his people. There were lots of laws that needed to be kept, if one was going to be truly religious, according to the spiritual leaders. Yet when someone asked him which of the law (or laws) was most important, he focused on only 2 out of the 613. The most important, he said, was to love God with everything we had. The second was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Then he made the comment that I think is the foundation…that all the law and the prophets hung on these two laws.

I think religion began to become a “dirty word” when we reversed what Jesus said–when we began to focus on all the laws and say that they’re the most important…and that if we live them we’ll somehow learn to love ourselves, each other, and God. “Right beliefs”…”correct doctrine” began to take priority–rather than right relationships with each other.

So can we reverse the process? By focusing on living what Jesus said… Then everything else will (I believe) fall into place.

What kind of people…?

When I got home from work last night, I was shocked to see some of the news reports about bricks being thrown through windows and threats being received by folks who voted for the health care reform bill.

What kind of people are we becoming?

Once upon a time it was possible for folks who disagreed politically to do vehemently–and civilly–and still be friends. While people had strongly-held beliefs, they were also aware that even those they vehemently disagreed with were people of integrity–and held their positions out of a deep desire to do what they felt was best for everyone.

When did that change? I’m not sure. But it has–and we are all the poorer for it.

Now, instead of seeing each other as people of integrity who have differing opinions / beliefs as to the best course of action–and working to find places of agreement and ways in which they can work together, we have come to see those who disagree with us as “the enemy”…as someone whose views (and sometimes who personally) need to be destroyed for the “right” perspective to win.

Instead of personal friendships that transcend political or religious differences–and in so doing, make it possible to work together–we turn our backs on those who differ from us…and in so doing, we lose the ability to see another part of the picture.

When this happens, we are all losers. We dig in our feet…draw lines in the sand…and close our ears to learning another part of the truth.

In the United States, we’ve seen this occur over and over politically. Whichever party is in power demonizes the other…accusing them of abusing power and using underhanded tactics to get their own way. It really doesn’t matter which party is in power—the attacks and accusations are the same. I’ve sometimes thought that we have lost something important when we lost the concept of “loyal opposition”—of seeing people who raise questions and issues that we disagree with as people of good will whose perspectives we can learn from…and who may be raising questions we hadn’t thought about…

We don’t have to follow the same pattern! We come from enough different backgrounds that we are going to see things differently. Our experiences make us who we are. That is not a negative unless we choose to make it so. We can either share our beliefs (whether they deal with religion or politics) in ways that help us learn more from and about each other—or we can slam doors of discussion and dialogue shut.

There is a story that my father (a minister) often used. It goes something like this:

There was once a wise old man sitting at the gate of an ancient city. A young traveler stopped before entering the city and asked the old man, “What kind of people live in this town?” The wise man answered with a question, “What kind of people were in the town you just came from?”

“Oh, they were liars and cheats and thugs and drunks, terrible people,” the young traveler replied. The old man shook his head, “The people in this town are the same way.”

Later another stranger paused to ask the same question, and again the wise man questioned his questioner, “What kind of people did you just leave?”

The second traveler answered, “Oh, I left a fine town. The people were good and kind and honest and hardworking.” The wise man smiled and said, “The people in this town are the same way.”

What kind of people do we want to be? to find?

The choice is ours.

Prayer for Peace

My faith tradition has a daily service called the Prayer for Peace that takes place at 1:00 CDT at our Temple. It’s not a long service–only about 15-20 minutes,but every day of the year, there is a prayer for peace for our world–with a focus on a different country each day.

The music is not complicated–a hymn and a closing ministry of music. Today I played for it, along with a friend visiting from Korea who is a professional violinist. I always look forward to playing with Moses, because he has a passion for quality music and a sensitivity to the service as well.

We’ve played classical pieces, organ pieces that have a solo line that’s easily pulled out for the violin, folksongs… Today we played “Gabriel’s Oboe” on violin and organ. It’s an exquisite piece…and caught up for me (and others) the yearning that has no words for a world at peace…a world where there is equitable distribution of resources so that all have enough…a world that sees value in each person…that delights in the beauty and diversity of the natural world that surrounds us and sees value in protecting it…

Sometimes–especially now–I get so caught up in all the “stuff” that’s sitting on my desk, waiting to get done, that I forget the things that are more important.

May I continue to be reminded–as the music reminded me today–that there are yearnings that can be put into words…and yearnings that cannot. But that they can all be prayed.

What a difference a year makes!

I’m preaching on March 14–and we’re using the story of the prodigal son and the theme “Be honest with God.”

As I was working on my preparation, I got to thinking about the last year or two in my life. I can remember a time when I wasn’t really honest–with God or anyone else. I was angry about decisions that were made that affected me, but without considering me. And because I didn’t feel safe in sharing my feelings, I kept them bottled up. Or at least I thought I did. What that actually meant was that they exploded at times and at persons who were not at fault.

Finally I realized I couldn’t go on that way. I spent several sessions with a counselor–and that helped. But it wasn’t until I decided that I needed to be honest with God that things began to change…to heal. God was big enough to absorb my anger–to let me vent without going away. When I was finally honest–open with my fears, my resentment, my anger–that opened the door. There were times when God challenged me–challenged me to take responsibility. Not for the decisions I couldn’t control, but for my reactions to them. Times when I was challenged to pray for those individuals who had hurt me…and believe me, that was hard! But as I did that, I began to see them in different ways. They’re still not my favorite people–but I can work with them when I need to. And because I changed in my reactions toward them, they changed in their reactions with me. I don’t know if they even recognized it…but I did.

It’s an ongoing process–much like I think must have occurred with the prodigal son and his family. Just returning didn’t make everything fine. In fact, there’s a significant part of the story that we really don’t know much about…the older brother, whose left out in the field, sulking. But the process is underway…and I’m so much happier than I was a year ago. Yes, there are still issues…concerns…challenges… But I can smile through them (mostly!)–because I know that I am a beloved child of God…and so are the folks who irritate me. And we’re all doing the best we can…

Worship preparation

My denomination is gearing up for the final push of preparations for our World Conference, which takes place April 10-17 this year. It’s a major event, comprising both legislative and worship activities.

Between this Conference and our last one three years ago, we have undergone some major downsizing due to the economy, and so we are more short-handed in the planning and implementation than we have been in the past. We also have a number of folks for whom this is their first Conference and so they’re learning just what goes into making an event of this nature function smoothly. And…this year, the Conference format is significantly different from past events.

I do understand all of that, and I can work with that. But there’s one issue that’s really come to the forefront for me this year–and it’s something that unfortunately I see far too often in our regular Sunday morning services as well…

I guess in a lot of ways it can be summed up in this question: What is meant when we talk about preparing for worship?

We have a lot of ministers who are bivocational…self-supporting. We also have a ministerial setup that involves many people in our congregations. They’re not lay ministers, because they are ordained individuals. But any congregation will have a number of people who bring various aspects of ministry both on Sunday morning and during the week.

So…back to the idea of preparation.

Some understand that preparation needs to begin far in advance of the Sunday on which they are asked to participate…that, in fact, everything you do is part of that preparation. However, if you preach, you don’t wait until Saturday night to begin preparing the sermon! The most effective (who may or may not necessarily be the best public speakers) read the scripture, let it mull around in their minds, study other resources and, in general, do everything they can to be as prepared as possible–and then are willing to also let God’s Spirit breathe life into what they have prepared.

My frustration comes when we don’t seem to be willing to recognize that same need for the musicians who are asked to provide ministry! Far too often, the musician doesn’t get an order of service until a day or two before they’re playing.

Yes, some of us are able to play any of the hymns in our hymnal–as well as much other music. But in order for us to be as prepared as we would like–and to allow God’s Spirit to breathe through our music ministry–we also need time to prepare…the same kind of time required for effective sermon preparation.

There are sometimes situations that require us to step in at the last minute…but those should be the exception, not the routine.

God will meet us…but God also expects us to make preparation, and to not come rushing and panting into worship, frantically opening music (or scriptures) to come up with “something appropriate”. When will we understand the opportunities and blessings that are available if we prepare? and be willing to commit ourselves truly to that preparation?