McGlade: Learning to trust the wonderWritten by Eric McGlade | | email@example.com
Most religions begin with a story. That story infects the imagination of the practitioner with a sense of wonder and hope. Encounters with the holy, albeit fleeting, break through into the soul and the celebrant senses a belonging to something greater than the self.
That something has different names. For some it is God. For others it might be Allah or Yahweh or Jesus Christ or Vishnu or Buddha or the Great Spirit or Mother Mary or Sophia, or the Ground of Being or whatever. Regardless, the story becomes important because it is the Rosetta stone of a particular religious community’s faith.
Without the story, there is no wonder. Without the wonder, there is no encounter. Without the encounter, there is no sense of belonging to something greater than the self … and so it goes.
For the most part, these stories from varied faith communities are healing, life-enriching and liberating. At their core is a simple affirmation: There is something transcendent out there beyond the self (or deep within the self) that is generous, gracious and desires for us a holistic, peaceable and just life. So candles are lit, songs are sung, rites and rituals are rehearsed annually at the appointed time. These things are done so that we practitioners of our various faith disciplines might remember and allow the holy to rekindle that sense of wonder that is often worn away by the brutalities and vulgarities of life.
Two things never cease to amaze me. The first is that these ancient rites and celebrations still have a lot of punch to them. This is one of the grand mysteries of the practice of the religious life. Every year my parishion -ers and I work to get that pregnant mother to Bethlehem so that this child of hers (and ours) can get born and then gently laid in a manger. And every year, no matter how crazy the marketplace is behaving and how overscheduled our calendars are, the silence of that night breaks through and the tired and beleaguered spirit rediscovers the bread of heaven.
I like that very much.
The second is more troubling. How quickly those of us who wear the mantle of “religious” allow the healing and reconciling power of these stories to drift away. We replace that power with the harder edge of doctrine, law and belief. We are quick to make judgments, draw our lines, define who is in and who is out, who is saved and who isn’t, who is going to heaven and who will roast forever. This temptation to moral certainty has led to diverse acts of character assassination, prejudice, violence and wars throughout human history. It is no wonder that so many today will confess to being “spiritual” but not “religious.”
Religion is not rational. The problem is, many of us in the religious community want religion to be rational. This leads us to define, objectify and literalize the stories of faith. Once this has happened, the story loses its natural power to inspire wonder, instill hope and bring healing. It becomes a hammer or, as the late Leonard Bernstein suggested in the sermon portion of his “MASS”: “God gave us the cross. We turned it into a sword.” All that is left is the brute force of decree. It is no wonder that one afternoon I found myself pinned to a storefront window by an overbearing street preacher shouting at me that I was headed to a rather hot and uncomfortable destiny if I did not accept his particular blend of the faith tradition I practice.
Religion at its healthiest is mythical. It is driven by a story and if we are willing to trust the story and get lost in it, a sense of wonder emerges. The interesting thing about wonder is that it never requires of us the need to be “right” about something. It never requires of us the need to control or define or even divide. It only requires of us our imagination and a willingness to simply “be” in the moment, a moment when we encounter the holiest of all mysteries: that we are loved — all of us — and because of that, we all belong to each other.
The Reverend Eric McGlade is pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Bowling Green.