Public Prayer and Religious Freedom

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Every so often a meme goes around Facebook that riles up Christians about public prayer and religious freedom. It’s not always the same one, but the idea is the same: we Christians are persecuted, we should rise up and demand that America act like the Christian nation it is.

The problem is, America is not a Christian nation. Many of America’s first immigrants came here to escape religious persecution. That persecution was very much on the minds of those who set up the system of government. They structured America specifically so that nobody’s faith would get to knock down anyone else’s. Everyone gets the chance to worship as they see fit. Whether we as Godly people like it or not, that also means freedom FROM religion. Not having publicly-sanctioned prayer is not persecution. It’s simply a recognition that we are a nation built on religious liberty. No one’s prayer can be imposed on all.

We as Christians may not like that idea, but this is what makes America great. Because in fact, it’s a system that mirrors God’s own heart.

As the saying goes, God is a gentleman. He doesn’t force himself on us. When has it ever gone well for us to try to force him on others? The Crusades. The Inquisition. The suppression of native cultures. Every time we try to force God on others, we end up gravely sinning in His name.

Our job is to do as God does: invite.

Instead, I would argue that much of what we as Christians display publicly is not inviting at all. Inviting could mean different things in different situations, but surely the fundamental quality of one who invites is a joyful heart. A heart so welcoming and kind and compassionate and peaceful in spirit that others say, “Hey, I want some of that. How do I get it?”

Instead, so often we Christians display anger, resentment, bitterness, judgment, and attitudes of exclusion when faced with those in crisis situations. We focus on our own preferences and emotional comfort while turning a blind eye to inconvenient facts—like the fact that if my free expression of religion requires the suppression of someone else’s free expression of religion, then it really isn’t religious freedom at all.

Like the fact that if we were truly a Christian nation, we wouldn’t be looking for ways to avoid helping our neighbors in desperate need. (“Who is my neighbor?”) Like the fact that a truly Christian nation would prioritize making sure all its citizens have health care and equal opportunity in education. Would prioritize support for the poor, recognizing that poverty, lack of opportunity and inequality are factors that undercut our ability to build a holistic culture of life.

When we turn a blind eye to these realities (which admittedly are hard, complicated to navigate, and resist neat and tidy solutions) and instead let ourselves be manipulated into outrage over something that’s really not a threat at all, we damage our ability to evangelize. We alienate those we are meant to invite.

Simple Living

One of the things I love about Laudato Si’–and all the documents I am mining, in fact–is how lessons about the primary topic apply in so many other, seemingly unrelated, areas of life. Take this one. It’s about living more sustainably, but his point is that the chasing after the wind that is the consumption culture (new phone! Better streaming service! New clothes!) leads to being unsatisfied with life–skipping along the surface without ever really sinking into the moment. This resonates with me so deeply. It applies to the pursuit of physical goods as well as one’s reach and influence. You can imagine how much that topic preoccupies someone with an online ministry. Stats! Followers! Shares! Engagements! SEO!

But it also applies to being too busy, trying to gorge on everything on the buffet table of life instead of choosing and savoring. We all recognize this as a perennial problem we face in modern life.

Evil Spreads

It’s important to recognize that this applies not just to the issues we immediately recognize as evil, but to realities we resist recognizing as such.

We have a distressing tendency in America to decide that one issue or set of issues matters so much more than another issue or set of issues, we have the right to dismiss those others. It happens on both sides of the political divide. I would argue this is how we become people whose political affiliations (of whatever color), rather than our faith, end up becoming our primary identity.

I don’t think any of us intend to put politics before faith, but it’s really easy to fall into the trap. I’ve pointed that finger outward a lot in recent years, but you know what they say about pointing fingers: for every one you point at someone else, four are pointed back at you. In other words, I’ve been wrestling with this reality in myself, too.

Surely we can all acknowledge that America has been greatly weakened by the competing rigid extremisms that have been growing for the last twenty years. Extremisms that refuse to seek common ground and build from there. Extremisms so committed to the righteousness of that refusal that gradually, they cease to see there is any common ground.

But I would argue that the “either-or” mentality weakens the Church as well. Because when we dismiss an entire swath of issues as somehow less important, we look like hypocrites to a world we’re supposed to be evangelizing.

And they’re not wrong to think so.

When we decide to pick and choose what injustices matter, we thumb our nose at God. We imply that God isn’t big enough to deal with all the issues, so we have to decide for him which ones are worth fighting. We thus dismiss the suffering of everyone touched by every issue we didn’t choose. Is it any wonder that our efforts at evangelization aren’t successful?

Finally–to most people who are just along for the ride on these posts, it may not have really registered, but the breadth of topics covered in Evangelii Gaudium really underscores the spaghetti-bowl effect. This document, which is titled “the JOY” of the Gospel,” has wandered very far from the topic of joy itself. It underscores that to really spread Gospel joy, we have to embrace the whole Gospel, in all its difficult, messy glory.

Imperfect, but Okay? Really?

†

Background image by vargazs from Pixabay

This quote first struck me because it doesn’t make sense. I have a garden. And a lawn I’ve recently reseeded. If I see a weed, I grumble a LOT. In fact, I’ve been going outside lately and pulling crabgrass out of my lawn, in a nod to complete futility. I do not see the swath of green, I see the weed. I see the imperfection.

In this one area, at least, we’re consistent in how we handle the physical and the spiritual world. We are not willing to tolerate imperfections in expressions of faith, either. It’s got to be all or nothing, and the problem is that the more we cling to that, the more people choose “nothing.”

A few years ago, someone asked me for advice on convincing a reluctant spouse to embrace Natural Family Planning. I, in turn, asked advice from a friend, who said, “Tell them to practice NFP. It’s about practicing. You do the best you can. You’re going to screw up. Just keep practicing.

This was a real brain-stretching thought for me. To me, NFP was an all or nothing prospect. You do it or you don’t. It had never before occurred to me that maybe something so challenging and outside the cultural norm is, by definition, going to be done badly (and here I don’t mean mistakes in applying the method, I mean spiritual choices) and with lots of spiritual mistakes on the way to doing it well. Like practicing the piano, or the violin. You’re bad before you’re good, but that doesn’t make the effort any less laudable or worth undertaking.

Why have we never thought about the spiritual life this way?

My brain is exploding with thoughts on this, but I’ll leave it there for today and take up the question again after the weekend.

The fruit of the Spirit

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In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about false prophets and urges us not to trust too easily. “By their fruits you will know them,” he says. Bishop Barron’s accompanying reflection referred that back to the fruit of the spirit. (Item: an editor once pointed out that it’s not “fruits,” plural, but “fruit,” as in: a single fruit with all these facets. I had never noticed that before.)

What struck me this morning was that it sounds great to say “by their fruits you will know them,” but discernment is harder than it looks. We all produce fruit both good and bad. We can be incredibly generous in certain situations (natural disasters) and appallingly stingy in others (homeless people at intersections). We can be generous in thought, giving the benefit of the doubt to some (many within our close sphere of influence), and yet we leap instantly and irrevocably to the worst conclusions about whole groups of people (the assumption that asylum seekers are freeloaders and/or criminals; the assumption that immigration opponents are racists).

The fruit of the spirit is distinctly lacking in our public discourse today, and I don’t just mean the leadership. It’s on us, too. Is there a single one of those facets that we do not see violated daily on both sides of every debate? There are real problems in the world, real things to be angry about, but when we indulge the worst that is within us, we dump fuel on the fire instead of working toward the Kingdom. (This is one of the topics I discuss in my new Beatitudes book.)

Today’s reading is a reminder that a prophet who does not seek to manifest the fruit of the Spirit can and will be dismissed, no matter how true the message. It’s a personal challenge to each of us to shape up, and an equally difficult one: not to give our leaders a pass, either.

The “unruly freedom of the word”

I find this quote really striking, because human nature, especially in this day and age when we face too much information at all times, is to try to boil everything down, put it in categories and boxes so we can process it and feel safe with it. And whenever something defies those artificial limitations, we feel really threatened. Threatened to the point where we reject it, even if it’s the movement of God, because it doesn’t fit where we think he’s supposed to be.

On the other hand, yesterday’s first reading, from 2 Corinthians, scolded us for how quickly we substitute artificial Jesuses for the real one. It made me squirm. Well, first it made me feel pretty righteous, because I was aiming it outward at others. (You know you all do it, too.) Then realized it could easily point at me as well. And I had a bit of disorientation, thinking about the specific instances I was considering in light of that Scripture. I wondered, “How do I tell which one is the real Jesus and which one is the artificial human one?”

I don’t have an answer for that one yet. What I am 100% convinced of is that the struggle–not the answer–is the point of the question. Life is complicated, and we want answers for everything, but when we oversimplify all the questions of the real world, we close out God when he’s inviting us to grow. This is the lesson I take from this quote.

Joy = Freedom?

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Until I started reading Evangelii Gaudium last fall, I had never thought much about the relationship between joy and faith. The very beginning of this apostolic exhortation consists of a list of very familiar Scripture quotes that I never before thought of in terms of joy.

Simple, childlike joy: if we want to evangelize, Pope Francis said, we do it by showing that our faith in Jesus Christ gives us joy.

I have to admit, “joy” is not the vibe I get off most of the people who make a big Thing out their Christian faith. Some…yes. But a precious few.

More to the point, it’s definitely not been the vibe I sensed from myself. I want to see the world as God sees it—yes, there’s beauty, but there is also so much that is not as it should be. How can I help being grieved by what grieves the heart of God?

For years, faith has reminded me of Jacob wrestling with God/the angel. What is the point of faith, after all? Isn’t it to challenge us to become better than we would be without it? If the point of faith is to pat us on the head and tell us how we’re saved and forgiven and we’re blessed in temporal terms because we’re saved—well, I would submit that what we’re actually worshiping isn’t God at all, but our own comfort.

But where does that leave “joy”?

Yesterday morning, singing James Moore’s “Taste & See,” a line leaped off the page:
“From all my troubles I was set free.”

The psalms encompass the breadth of human emotional experience. I know this. But this is Psalm 34. There are more than a hundred more psalms after this one. There is no way that David never had more troubles after writing this song.

Which means…what?

Maybe being set free from troubles just means those troubles don’t rule you. You still have to walk through the dark valleys, but you don’t have to let them define you. They don’t have to define your identity.

So maybe it’s okay to be angry with the things I see happening in the world. But I don’t have to internalize it, dwell on it, and lie awake fretting about it. (Or what people think of me for calling it out, for that matter.)

And maybe it means that I can advocate for the will of God in the world, as best I can discern it, but I don’t have to be crushed when the inevitable setbacks come. I can default to joy, even though things aren’t as they should be.

That would be freedom, indeed.

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It’s not about what we say

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It seems like everyone these days is focused on “what do we say to the ‘none’s?” and “How do we talk about Jesus?”

I can’t help feeling that those are the wrong questions. Pope Francis’ contention in Evangelii Gaudium is that when we’re filled with the Gospel, it’ll overflow from us automatically.

These days, I’m becoming more and more convinced that simply living the Gospel authentically, holistically, and with joy is the simple, yet difficult part of evangelization that we have to master first. For better or for worse, the world sees an image of God in us–in our words, in our actions, and in the way we approach everyday situations and hot button issues. If the image we present is beautiful and inviting, we don’t have to say anything at all. If it’s off-putting, nothing we say will make any difference anyway.