Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The How

I've been turning some stuff over in my head recently, so rather than trying to process it internally like a normal, rational person I'm going to try and make sense of it all here. Feel free to stop reading here.

I will go ahead and put the disclaimer that I'm going to be talking religion in somewhat specific terms, so please recognize that these are entirely my personal beliefs and not representative of anyone or anything except me and my slightly crazy mind!

There are millions of people in the world. And I would venture that, at some point or another, my path will cross with lots of those folks. However the number of meaningful interactions will probably be substantially smaller. And I already know that a good deal of these interactions will involve diversity of just about every kind imaginable, but right now I'm thinking specifically about religious diversity. Some of it is simply a byproduct of my career, but some of it is also simply who I am and the people with whom I choose to associate.

For the most part, I know what I believe. If required, I can break it down for you. I can quote a variety of affirmations of faith (or at the very least reference them accurately!) but I can do it with passion and conviction because they are things that I believe. And there are some things that I might have a hard time even reciting in a worship service because I simply don't agree with them. And I think having a good sense of what you as an individual believes is important. One of my slightly sarcastic statements has always been that it's called a "PERSONAL" faith for a reason, and while tradition and family and culture and community all play a role in the development of your beliefs, they ultimately have to be YOUR beliefs to have any meaning.

I still stand by that statement, but there is oh so much more to it than simply knowing what you believe. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, that part is kind of the basement of your house. It's the foundation. For some it is bigger and deeper than others. A lot of folks won't ever see it, and they may take for granted its existence at all. What you do with that space is ultimately up to you. But like I said, it's just the start. Unfortunately, this is where too many people stop. They have their list of doctrinal statements and famous quotations and official policies and choose to leave it at that. And that is really a shame, because there is so much potentially rich and beautiful dialogue that can take place when you don't just look at the water, but you dive into it (even if only in the shallow end to start with!) The foundation may shift and settle a bit, it may even undergo some pretty extensive renovation, but that renovation has to be undertaken carefully because it WILL have an impact on everything else. Ultimately, if there are too many problems here and not enough of the pieces line up, everything else will come crashing down and you'll have to start over.

The second part is the part that I emphasize when I teach, especially when I teach young people who have a pretty good sense of the first part (or at least enough healthy curiosity to keep them motivated along that journey). The second part is understanding "Why?" Now, from a counseling perspective, "why" can be a dangerous question. It's human nature to get a little defensive when this question is posed, especially depending on the tone with which it is asked and the context in which it is asked. But a little agitation and confrontation are necessary and very helpful, and I feel like this questions is essential. And as you do the work of the first part, you sort of naturally work out this second part. And if you have done a little too much coasting in the first part, you'll know it when you get to this part.

I tell kids and adults alike that I don't mind if you disagree with me, so long as you can defend your position. I am happy to engage in respectful dialogue with you, but I expect it to be an intelligent and informed discussion, and "because my pastor said so" or "because a book says so" is not an acceptable answer to any question of why YOU believe what you do. I don't want to argue for the sake of arguing and I don't have to be right, but don't expect me to change my mind about my position right away. It's not an attack on your beliefs or an attempt to prove that your thoughts are inferior in some way. I genuinely want to understand. This is the framing for your house. This is the basic form around which all the other stuff will be shaped and held. This is where your floor plan is outlined and your opening are initially created. And once this part is constructed, it can be changed without having to tear down the whole thing, so long as you take into consideration the way all the other parts support the part you want to change, and consider the parts being supported by the piece you want to take out or move.

Now, I said all that to say this: Recently I have been playing around with a new piece - the HOW of belief. Now, asking someone "How do you believe?" can be tricky. Because really the question is "How do you share/show what you believe?" I have generally stayed away from this question because when I was growing up, in the battle of the big denominations (Methodists vs. Baptists in my hometown) that was not something "we" did. ("We" was the Methodists) We don't "do" witnessing. We don't beat people over the head with salvation. We don't try to convert people We just don't do that. In fact, it was the doing of those things that is what made "them" our opposition.

I understand now that this knee-jerk reaction of mine is rather limited. But unfortunately it's the same one that many people experience. However, let me state very clearly - THERE IS MUCH MORE TO SHARING WHAT YOU BELIEVE THAN SIMPLY SAYING IT! In fact, if you really want to get the message across, verbal communication is probably the least effective way to do it! So if you can't TELL people, how do you let them know what you believe? How do you preach the gospel and use words only when necessary? Well, the "Sunday School" answer to this one is to show them by the way you live! Sure it's great to be able to recite a creed with passion, but isn't it more important to live the faith? Isn't it more important to show the love of God than to simply tell someone "God loves you."?

I'm still trying to figure out what this means for me. On the one hand, this is exactly what I do every day at the hospital. When I am reading stories to a small child who is lonely and scared or listening to a staff member tell me how upsetting it is to be yelled at for something he/she couldn't do, or simply sit by the bed of an elderly patient so he/she won't wake up alone, I am showing what I believe about love and care for everyone. But what about when I leave my "official" role as minister? What about when I'm driving home? Or in the grocery store? Or out at dinner with my husband? I'd love to say I do it there too, and I'm sure sometimes I do. But I'm also sure there are more times that I don't. And I need to work on that.

So what does the how look like in your life, regardless of what you believe? Do you think people would guess what you believe based on the way you act? And how does that make you feel?

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