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Radiant with faith, they arrived on my doorstep. Something, they said, had brought them here. We talked for a while about faith practices, about the search for God, and they left me with their literature, which I perused. And I considered. Most of it was a history, and as most histories are, fraught with conflict. But not all of it. There, scattered, were the jewels of most religions: ideas like forgiveness, mercy, justice, love.

If we could visualize a giant Venn diagram of all religious practices, the overlapping places — the places we converge — give us our best and most direct look at what and who God really is. The rest — the places we differ — are just housekeeping. Potato, po-tah-to. If only we could concentrate on what we have in common, rather than what keeps us apart, we would be the better (and dare I say, holier) for it.

Eradicate the pageantry.
Strip the faith down to its bones.
Lay it open as an autopsy,
as brutal and as frank: look.
There among the many threads
we’ve woven into coats (the coats
that mark us one from another)
is a single strand. It is red
with heart’s blood; it is white
with hope, pink with raw forgiveness.
Grasp it in your hand. It will lead
you out of the labyrinth of rancor.
Silence will visit you there, and
you will see what you are meant to see:
It was all set up ahead of time.
There was no mystery,
only abundant clues.

One of my favorite movies, Jerry Maguire, was on TV the other day. There’s a particular scene that always gets me right here💘. Marcee is on the phone with sports agent Maguire, who tells her that her husband, Rod, has been injured in a football game.

“This family doesn’t work without him, Jerry,” she says. “Just get him home to me.”

That line has some kind of magical quality. It talks directly to my tear duct. Even if I rewind the scene and play it again, knowing it’s coming…I can’t help it. Got me!

To me, that scene is the distillation of the emotion we all feel for a loved one we cherish. We want them to be okay. We expend energy trying to find ways to cover them with love, even from afar.

We care so much about our little tribe that we come at them with “help” that really sounds like anger. “You need to make sure you get that homework done, or you’ll never get that job you want once you graduate!”

Way to pile guilt on top of anxiety! Mother of the year!

How often do religions do this as well? That is, foster fear, guilt and shame that can cause a person’s spirit to break and actually keeps potential converts away. The only true path to grace is leading with love. Any religion — or company, or politician, or human being — who treats people with kindness and means what they say? I’m right there with them.

This weekend, we got to meet a new group of our son’s friends. Two we had met and two were entirely new to us. We hadn’t planned to feed everyone dinner but I’m glad we did. Five college students descended on the house Saturday evening with food to grill.  My husband got the grill started while I worked the kitchen with one of the “newbies.”

I immediately saw why my son thought I would like him as he cracked jokes and made pop culture references.  “That’s from Big Bang Theory.”  “I didn’t think you’d get that one.  My dad won’t watch it because he’s Christian.”

I surprised him when I told him about two of my latest project.  My publisher is doing a series on evolution and asked for the books on reptiles and mammals.

Then we talked about the fact that the Bible isn’t really a how-to on world building.  It leaves quite a bit of wiggle room.

That’s the great thing about being Presbyterian.  You can have religion and science.  And that’s one of the things that I hope to show other people by the books I choose to write.  You don’t have to discard faith if you opt for science or vice versa.  At one point science and religion co-existed nicely.  My goal?  To change the world by taking it back.





I watched last night (by way of television) an Ethiopian couple scale a sheer cliff side in order to reach an ancient church hewn into the mountain. There they would baptize their son. The churches in the village were not good enough. In order for God to really bless their child, they had to seek tiny handholds in the worn rock, teeter across the thinnest of ridges — without the aid of ropes or harnesses. With a tiny baby strapped to their backs.

Then I watched an indigenous rain forest people dance for eight hours straight in order to appease one of their many gods. The vigor of their dance would determine how blessed they would be in the upcoming year. The dancers included small children. Imagine: Eight long hours, no rest.

My God does not require much of me — certainly no long, prolonged dance sessions or life-endangering climbs. But what if s/he did? I fear I would fail. Even life as a Puritan, as one of the settlers of this country in its first 100 years, would have been beyond me. Imagine sitting in church for hours on end, being shrieked at (mostly) for being a sinning worm of a human being, breaking for lunch, then going right back for more. Every Sabbath. Puritan life was joyless and gray, and that’s the way they liked it.

Where along the line did we humans lose the simple thread of God’s love and concern for us? At what point did we take the good news of the New Testament and turn it into an episode of “Survivor”? When did we turn God into one of us — demanding, hard-hearted, aloof? Maybe from the very start.

I like to think that God is easier than that. God simply wants us to love — to love God and to love each other. The rest of it is window dressing.

Or maybe not. What if God calls on me to do something terribly risky — what would my answer be? That Ethiopian couple and those jungle warriors must have faith the size of a whale to do what they do for God. My faith seems like a shrunken, withered bean in comparison.

Do we climb the mountain? Or do we convince ourselves that God wouldn’t ask us to and proceed to huddle under the nearest bed? When faith and fear collide, who wins?

I pray I never have to answer that question.

I remember my sister giving me the news (she always was dramatic): Cat Stevens had changed his name, converted to Islam, and given up music — his reasoning being that his new faith did not approve of it. I’d grown up loving Cat Stevens’ music — “Moonshadow,” “Oh Very Young,” “Wild World,” “Peace Train” — how could any child of the seventies resist him? I totally dug (to use the parlance of the times) the gentle, fairy tale quality of his lyrics, his reassuring voice, his seeming gentleness. And here he was, taking all of that back and calling it somehow wrong.

Yusuf Islam (as Cat Stevens is now known) has since seriously softened his stance, and has been performing and releasing new albums for a while now. He also contends that his rejection of music had much to do with feeling burned out, a state I can relate to. But at the time, that’s not how I heard it. At the time, someone’s religion broke a kid’s heart. That’s something religion should never do.

I didn’t grow up feeling disheartened about women not being able to join the priesthood, as it was something I never aspired to myself. But I know now that some little girls were disheartened. They grew up, and certainly some of them took their (religious) business elsewhere. Which makes the Pope’s announcement that he is putting together a committee to look into the reinstatement of women into the deaconate so important. I say “reinstatement” because women were, for many years, deacons in the Church, until the day they were suddenly and (let’s face it) inevitably deemed “not godly enough.” If the Pope makes good on this beacon of hope, it will be a sign of true inclusion for women in the Catholic Church. Not an end point, by any means, but a good start.

If I can be a part of something that undoes or prevents the breaking of a child’s heart by religion, count me in. God loves children — Jesus made this abundantly clear. Nothing that purports to be “of God” should damage, dismay or disconcert a child. Not ever. Just as someone who claims to be a person of God should do his or her level best to never cause anyone — least of all a child — hurt or sadness.

The Church has not always been good in this regard. I now know that an abusive priest called my childhood parish home, and when our pastor found out about it and went to the bishop, the bishop merely sent the offending priest elsewhere. I am certain this brought terrible sorrow to our pastor, a good and moral man. It also must have brought a lifetime of hurt to many children, who, as altar servers, trusted priests implicitly. Although I admire Pope Francis for being vigilant about this abuse, there remain hundreds of scarred hearts out there, the hearts of children who once trusted the wrong persons. Nothing can make up for that.

It makes the defection of a pop star seem silly in comparison, I know. But kids are fragile, their hearts easily bruised. It remains up to us grown-ups to remain on guard against this misuse of faith. Here’s to a future full of hope, a day when religion offers only (as a hymn Cat Stevens once covered notes so beautifully), “Praise with elation, praise ev’ry morning.”

When I first moved into my humble house in the suburbs some twenty years ago, I was glad that the neighbors were nice. They would wave hello, and occasionally, we’d chat over the fence of our houses. One neighbor, however, was an older gentleman who always seemed to have a sour expression.

One day, I had to drop off something at a friend’s house. I pulled my car out of the driveway but didn’t close my garage door, as I was coming right back. When I returned a few minutes later, I was surprised to see my cranky neighbor, sitting in the middle of my garage in my lawn chair, looking stern.

“Shouldn’t leave your garage door open, miss. Anyone can just walk in.”

“Apparently,” I said.

He got up slowly, as he had some physical ailments. He explained that he had seen that my garage door was open and wanted to make sure that no one wandered in to take anything.

“You don’t need to do that,” I told him.

“That’s what neighbors are for,” he said.

“No, really. I’d prefer that you not do that. Thanks.”

“It really isn’t a problem,” he said.

I shook my head at him. “It is for me,” I said.

He walked back home, right next door, looking pleased with himself, as if he had helped out a neighbor.

It was as if he didn’t hear me when, in essence, I had said, you might think you’re helping by protecting me from intruders. Newsflash, dude: you’re the intruder. I didn’t ask you to go into my garage, and since you’re cranky and kind of creepy, you’re the one making me uncomfortable. Go away now.

If I’m being honest, this is how I feel when people come to my door to share their religion with me.

SueBE hit it on the head with her excellent post this week. Reaching out to help people with their basic needs – clean water, housing, food – that’s faith that heals. And if someone asks about the church that does such good works? Awesome. To me, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

But I’ve had vanloads of Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door almost monthly for as long as I’ve lived on my block. Once, I told them that a blood transfusion had saved my life when my appendix ruptured in my youth. Would they rather I had died, since their religion bans transfusions? Well, perhaps it was God’s will that you should die, and you circumvented it, they said. Okay. Way to reach out with love, pals!

And my beloved cousin (God rest) sent Mormon missionaries to my door routinely when we were teen-agers. I told her to cut it out, but she kept doing it, so we stopped being pen pals. We re-connected twenty years later, and darned if she didn’t do the same thing to me again!

To me, faith is a deeply personal journey. You’d have to have walked in my shoes and experienced exactly what I’ve been through in my life. And still, you might reach a different conclusion. It would never occur to me to show up at your house and try to convert you.

It would be as if somebody has the door to their soul open, and they were waiting for God to walk in and commune with them. And then I show up and sit down in a lawn chair. I say, listen, this is what you should believe. Trust me; I know what’s best for you.

Instead, when God shows up, he doesn’t say, here’s what you should do. He says, here is who you are. You are my child. I am always with you. Come, let us walk the path together.

I’ve learned a few things in my life: never assume you have all the answers, always pray without ceasing, and remember to close that darn garage door. Words of wisdom, learned and earned the hard way!

photo-1414446483597-8d8f792bfe39Reality is nothing but a collective hunch.

Jane Wagner, writer of The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, as performed by Lily Tomlin.

SueBE and I are really in sync this week – her post was about science, and mine is as well.

I found an interesting documentary called “Particle Fever” on Netflix the other day, and as I was watching physicists brainstorm about the origin of matter, I came up with a theory of my own.

Physics is the flip side of faith.

After all, faith and physics both search for an intangible “something” that has to exist for life to make sense for us. We both focus our energies on finding that missing part that animates all of our theories.

We call this missing part, “God.” They call it “Higgs” – the so-called God particle.

So while I sit here, quite confident that God does exist, and so grateful and glad that God is out there, the scientific community has a vastly different perspective. They think God is “out there.”

To physicists, the very idea of God is wild, ridiculous, far-fetched. How could any thinking human being truly believe there is some deity holding everything together? How would that even work?

But their worldview hinges on similar leaps of faith. The Higgs particle is the theoretical center of each atom, and it must exist, they say. There’s no other explanation!

As the documentary illustrates, even the factions within physics are similar to religious denominations – they have the Theorists vs. the Experimentalists. There are also tensions between those who espouse the theory of Supersymmetry vs. the Multiverse.

Maybe people of faith and scientific die-hards are not so different, when all is said and done. We fight for what we believe and hope to sway the ones we feel are “unenlightened.” We want to find our place in the universe, and while we’re here on planet Earth, we hope to make our lives matter. Even though we seem to live in different worlds, it may well be that we’re on the same side, after all.

I still have a little jewelry box I received at age nine, during a brief stay in the hospital. In it are the small, precious keepsakes of my childhood: a pink rubber cat I got at the dentist’s office, various toys from cereal boxes, incense (it was the ‘70s), a soap shaped like a rose, the Snow White and Seven Dwarves figures from my tenth birthday cake, and a pile of paint sample cards I must have picked up when my parents were painting our new house in Placentia. (It is fortunate that they did not allow me to choose the paint colors, as my tastes seemed to run toward shades with names like “Sun Glo” and “Ultra Purple.”)

What we choose to keep from our growing-up years — and what we discard — interests me greatly. In many ways, our spirituality is built in the same way. Spirituality takes root in the earth of our childhoods, in what we are taught about God and about ourselves. Do we feel loved? Then we can imagine a God who loves us, too. Do we feel safe? This, too, colors our perceptions.

Some of us grow up to reject the precepts of our childhoods. This, it seems to me, has less to do with the reality of God than it has to do with how we were treated by those around us. The most vehement atheists often have childhood traumas attached to faith and religion. (Or they grew up in England, which, with its centuries-old history of religious turmoil, could turn off the hardiest of souls.)

Which moral values and religious teachings you keep, and which you throw away, ultimately comprise your spirituality. Some things I’ve thrown out over the years: The idea of an angry, vengeful God; a God who thinks of women as “lesser” or “unworthy”; a God who only loves and saves a special, select group of believers, to the detriment of everyone not privileged enough to grow up Christian. My God has gotten bigger over the years.

I want you to remember the God of your childhood. Who was God? How has your understanding of God changed? Because I hope it has changed, except in one regard: The joy God gave you, the dizzying sense of greatness and love. I feel terrible for anyone who never had those feelings. But you know, it’s not too late. With God, we can always become children again. There is very little to do but let go. Open your heart and let God in. Of all the things you hold on to or discard, God is the ultimate keeper.

Each month, a van full of Jehovah’s Witnesses fans out on my block, knocking on doors and spreading their gospel. I must be on their “non-compliant” list, because every one of them that shows up on my doorstep looks terrified.

“How are you ma’am…I, uh, just came by, uh, to ask a question…do you believe the Bible is the word of God?”

I had to stop him from going full-bore into his spiel; it was the humane thing to do. In the past, I’m sure I must have been prickly to them.  This time, I was purposely pleasant.

“It is the word of God, but I have my own religion.  Thank you. Good-bye.”

As I closed the door, I thought, if you really wanted to portray your religion in a good light, you’d put aside what you consider the Soul Service and come to people with Social Service.

On my block, half of the people are behind on the mortgage, many are unemployed, and some are retired and on a fixed income. 

Come to my door and say, I see you’ve got a wobbly railing here on your front steps.  I’d like to fix it for you.  No charge.  It’s part of the outreach of my church.

If you fix the railing, you can bet that when you’re done, I’m going to ASK YOU about your faith.  I want to know more about any religion that offers this kind of human-need help.

I had what Oprah calls an “Aha Moment” as well – I’ve long said that I’m one of those SBNR people – you know, Spiritual but not Religious. But thanks to these door-to-door soul-salesmen, I realized that I do have a religion. 

And it can be summed up very simply.

  • Love God.
  • Love yourself.
  • Love your neighbor.
  • Be happy.
  • Be healthy.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Keep your word.
  • No toxins.

The condensed version of this would be:  Always Do the Right Thing.

So I suppose I would have to admit that these religious people who showed up uninvited did give me a spiritual epiphany of sorts.  Even if they didn’t convert me or save my mortal soul, they gave me food for thought and some insight into my own philosophy.  And for that, I really am grateful.

Watching Religion & Ethics Weekly the other day, I saw a news story about President Obama addressing the United Nations General Assembly.

Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional – in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”

Now, I’m grateful to have been born in this country. But at a gathering of all the (reasonable) countries in the world, is it really necessary to say, “We’re still bigger and better than the rest of you!”

It’s the same with world religions. Every one of them seems to think their God is bigger and better than anyone else’s.

When I was a teenager, I was baby-sitting my next-door neighbor’s kids. As she was leaving for the restaurant, one of them asked a very deep question that left her discombobulated.

Mama?” he asked, all wide-eyed innocence. “Who’s more powerful. Jesus or Shiva?”

She had a look on her face that spoke volumes. As in, I don’t want to talk about this to my seven and nine year old kids, but our family is Hindu, so…

Well, I guess… Shiva.”

Why Mama?”

God is a belief, honey. Nothing to do with your real life. Shiva is just the one that we believe in, that’s all. Right, Ruthie?”

I flashed back in my mind – a recent emergency appendectomy had left me “minutes from death” according to my surgeon, so I’d gotten right with God, right quick. I took the altar call at a local church, figuring I had to commit fully to God’s path and never look back.

So when my neighbor asked me to agree with her, I didn’t know how to respond.

God is a belief! Goodness gracious. At the time, I thought that if I said or thought the wrong thing, God would smite me down. I didn’t have a foundation of faith so much as a fixation on fear. If I’d been minutes from death in the hospital and had been given a second chance, clearly I should spend the rest of my life trying to toe the line so that I wouldn’t be denied entry into Heaven.

Luckily, the conversation petered out as the kids turned their attention to Scooby-Doo.

It would take me years before I realized that having faith wasn’t about staving off doom. It’s about living fully and embracing the positive. Light and laughter. Joy, not judgment. A sense of purpose and a sense of community.

We may pray in unique ways and call Him by different names, but, in truth, we all worship the same God. Holding on to hope in a world that dares us to believe is an act of faith in itself. As it turns out, there’s nothing bigger or better than walking the divine path with peace in your heart and hope for the future.


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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