Pick a faith and be good at it

Apr 18, 2006 at 8:07 pm

by T.N. McGill

It must have been 1961 or 1962. I was rather innocent when I went on a great adventure: I attended a church youth convention in Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

We heard Mahalia Jackson sing. Dr. Hans Lilje spoke to us. I’ll always remember Mahalia’s voice and her song, “I know that prayer changes things.” She nailed down that belief in me. Dr. Lilje, who was Lutheran bishop of Hannover, Germany, told us, “Do go on in the faith.”

When it comes to religion, theology, faith and spirituality these days, most observers say people are looking for something. Anything.

In June, I watched a television show about Kabbalah. Television is not my favorite magnifying glass when it comes to discovering the finer points of religion, but I thought the program was well done. It was also disturbing. It seemed to me that the focus of the populizers of this tradition within Judaism were making easy something that isn’t.

I say this because throughout the past year, I’ve read about Kabbalah. I understand the basics and like what little I grasp. I know enough to say I cannot go on from here alone through my books and thoughts. If I had a teacher or a study buddy, I’m not sure my small brain could ever fully grasp books like the “Zohar” and “Sefer Yetzirah.”

Perhaps the popular teachers of Kabbalah changed some lives. Some Hollywood stars may become kinder, gentler. When Eldad and Medad stayed behind in camp to prophesy, Moses wised that all the Lord’s people were prophets, when others may have been suspicious or jealous.

Yet I know from experience that a fever pitch around almost anything soon dies out among the many. It is difficult to remain on the high plateau of original ecstasy.

Likewise, I’m suspicious of paying or buying something to support a cause. What I seek will be found in more than a red bracelet or a medal. What protects me is ever free.

The “vision quest” experience, a process of discernment, is sold by a man on the West Coast for more than a thousand dollars. How far that is from taking an offering of some tobacco, a bag of flour and a bag of sugar to a traditional Lakota medicine man? A person makes a request for healing, which can be considered for four days and even then denied.

Although it is not now happening in my faith, whenever I see spiritual leaders in expensive clothes and driving cars that are repulsive for their affluent image, I hear ducks in the background. Quack! Quack!

Spiritual things are free, because the Ruach Adonai, the spirit of God, blows where it will, freely. A principle that has emerged in my life: The freer the teaching, the more reliable it is.

No wonder some of my students tell me they don’t believe in “organized religion.” True, they accept their school, at least one day off a week, notions of care for the sick, orphans and the homeless, a vision of world peace, the life of Mother Teresa, and they want to celebrate Christmas — all products of the organization in religion.

Few are able to tell me what they mean by “organized religion.” They do want to make choices, even if some choices are wrong, yet the things that rule their lives are more confining than many religions in America. They are looking and wanting to go on in a faith that does not break one’s heart. This cannot be all bad.

Someone has said, “All religions are true.” I think it is the charlatans who break one’s heart, not the truth. Scary thought. That puts a great burden on those of us who profess a religion, and likewise on those of us who claim not to be a part of an organized religion. What will matter in the end is that we be the kinds of living examples who, by our actions and words, back up what our systems of belief or unbelief have accumulated.

If you are a Lutheran, be a good one. If you are a Baptist, be a good one. If you are a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim or an agnostic or atheist, be a good one.

We dare not do less than help one another to go on into the Light.

T.N. McGill is a theology teacher at Providence High School in Clarksville. Contact him at [email protected]