Ritual vs Reponsibility

Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997)...
Mother Teresa of Calcutta (26.8.1919-5.9.1997); at a pro-life meeting in 1986 in Bonn, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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There is something beautiful and mesmerizing about ritual, such as that we are seeing as the Roman Catholic cardinals who have processed into the Sistine Chapel, ready to begin the concave that will result in the election of a new pope.

The garb of the cardinals, their slow procession, the haunting Gregorian chants being sung, the swell of organ music…could make one settle into a spirit of piety – which I imagine people do – and actually feel closer to God for a few moments.

But ritual has its drawbacks. While many have argued that we need it, it seems not beyond the pale to believe that too many of us get seduced by ritual, leaving the work of “the church” in the dust.

We too often want to “feel holy,” but are unable and/or unwilling to “do holy,” meaning, “do” the acts and the work which bring those who are suffering into a relationship with God and a new relationship with their world.

Holy rituals, it seems, ought to inspire holy action.  The music, the prayers, the smell of candles and incense, and, finally, the taking of the Holy Eucharist, are not in place just to make humans feel good, or at least that should not be the case. All of the aforementioned ought to make humans “do” good, and “good,” for the purposes of this essay, is helping those who cannot help themselves.

My guess is that everyone reads the Bible with different eyes. Reading is as much a cultural experience as it is a scholarly venture, but when I read the first chapter of Isaiah, where Yahweh says through his prophet Isaiah: “Hear the word of the Lord…The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me? I have more than enough of burnt offering…Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me!…learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow,”  what seems perfectly clear to me is most probably interpreted differently by one who is from a different culture.

The old rituals are as beautiful as they are old…but they were never meant to be ends in and of themselves. What rituals, in fact, what organized religion have largely done, is boxed people into structures, bound by rules and bylaws and budget issues, leaving the “oppressed,” the “fatherless,”  and the “widow” to pretty much fend for themselves.

Someone asked me the other day, “Why, when churches,especially Catholic churches, have so much money are there so many homeless, hungry people?  Does God care about people for real?” Well, it was too loaded a question for me to answer on the spot, but that person is not the first who has asked such a question. What we forget, though, even those of us who ask those questions, is that “the church” is not a building, filled with beautiful, music-bolstered ritual, but is, rather, “we the people.” The world gets better, gets more just and right in the eyes of God by people who understand that very basic distinction and who combine faith and works.

It is easy to be cynical when we see so much suffering in the world, leading us to doubt God, or God’s presence, but the problem isn’t God. According to all I have read, God did not create nor does God require, all the ritual with which we involve ourselves. All we are required to do is “do” the work of God while we are yet alive.

Participating in ritual, though, is more fun, less time-consuming …and, well, spiritually seductive.

Discussion on this always leads to a cultural “fight” over what and who God is, and what God requires. Many will say that Jesus, sent by God, was a socialist, or at least believed in social justice as it is taught today. Others identify that same Jesus as a hard-core capitalist, come pointing to the Parable of the Talents, found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There are the cultural “eyes” mentioned before. It is quite frustrating to both sides that the other side does not or will not “get it.”

There are so many people caught up in wretched lives, there because of a variety of reasons, but many of them for reasons over which they had little control. Like the poor in Calcutta, where Mother Teresa began her great work, there are “Calcutta” situations everywhere, and remarkably few willing to go and “live amongst” them by offering the deepest and most complete service they can. Too time-consuming. Too distasteful

So, it’s just easier to settle into a Sunday worship experience, and a little heavy ritual from time to time doesn’t hurt. It reminds us of the mysterious tremendum of God. We would rather think about that than “do holy” and minister to people who , far away from ritual, are hurting and lost. The doors of the amazing Sistine Chapel have just been closed; the work of finding a new pope has officially begun. The high ritual has ended…and the world is not changed.

A candid observation …


A Personal Story of Crazy Faith

English: en:Mary McLeod Bethune
English: en:Mary McLeod Bethune (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am in the midst of my own “crazy faith” experience, and it is so intense that I thought I’d better write about it!

For those of you who do not know, I wrote a book called Crazy Faith: Ordinary People; Extraordinary Lives. In the book, I talk about people, including Moses, Mother Teresa, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Washington and Emily Roebling, who built the Brooklyn Bridge. I talked about their amazing, crazy faith, believing that something most people deemed crazy and impossible to be absolutely possible.

It was their crazy faith, I wrote, that drove them.

The image that sticks with me this day is that of Moses, standing at the Red Sea, having only his faith that is telling him that somehow, he and the Israelites will get to the other side before they are trounced upon by the Egyptians. And I am thinking of the crazy faith that Mother Teresa had as she worked and lived amongst the poor, believing that all she needed would be provided and that she and her nuns would be not only all right, but taken care of by this God who had given the vision.

Well, it seems God has jokes. I am living my own “crazy faith” experience, as I just wrote. We are doing a CDF Freedom Schools® program and we don’t have near the money we need to do it! All we have is God …and crazy faith.

Being in this situation is making me understand, not from an intellectual point of view, but from a visceral place, what “crazy faith” is.  I see the stares people give me, the ones who know how little money we have. I see the doubt in their eyes; I can imagine the conversations they have when I am not around. I can only imagine what kinds of stares Moses got, or Mother Teresa, or Emily Roebling as she took over the brass tacks of getting that Brooklyn Bridge built as her husband lay ill. I can imagine how Mary McLeod’s stomach must have turned as she baked sweet potato pies to get money to give to a man for a piece of land she knew was to be hers, in order to build a school for kids that nobody wanted or believed in.

I think the skin must have peeled from their knuckles, figuratively speaking, as they looked “impossible” in the face, and yet they kept going.

My knuckles are skinless, but I have not heard God say anything like, “Oops! I told you the wrong thing.” No, what stirs in my soul is the plight and condition of too many black, brown and poor children, in public schools that are not really serving them well. I see little kids, pre-third grade, with eyes wide open, expectant and eager to learn, only to be disappointed by their educational experience and the fact that they feel, that early, this thing that circulates in our society that tells them that they are inferior, second-class citizens. I see their faces, and I hear God saying, “keep moving.”

CDF Freedom Schools have a track record of producing children who, no matter how poor, learn to read and learn to love to learn. In its literature, the program says that the program has been called “a curriculum of hope.” The Freedom School environment is one where children who have lived with neglect from home and society feel a safe, warm, nurturing place, interacting with people who believe in them and who remind them that they really can do anything they want. The integrated reading curriculum, the culturally relevant books …the entire program is a testament to what real investment in black, brown and poor children can do.

It has been shown that if children do not learn how to read, they begin to “act out” by third grade, and many face lives of, as Thoreau said, “quiet desperation,” trying to find their way, their voice, in the world. Many simply end up on a path of destruction; CDF has identified the “cradle to prison” pipeline, which too many children wind up in …largely because they cannot read.

Freedom Schools challenge the notion that these children cannot learn, and they have statistics to show that they are on the right track. About 65 percent of all children who participate in these schools show dramatically improved reading scores. Hooray for the proof…

If nothing else, I have a passion for our children, for any child who is left to the side and neglected. I hate it when reports come out saying how poorly African-American children do in school, because I know that our children are just as capable as other children. They are just working from a different paradigm… I so desperately want to have a foot in the door of making a difference for these children. Last year, over 12,800 attended Freedom Schools, nationally. This year, our 50 students will be among the number. That is the goal…

And so God whispers to me, “keep going.” Tears roll down my face, I get so nervous. I wonder if Moses cried, or if Mary McLeod Bethune cried? If they didn’t, I cry for them…because if they felt this pull, this pressure, that comes before God acts, I’m sure they wanted to cry, even if they didn’t. At the end of the day, it was their faith in God that made them stay the course.

They are my role models, and the God who has jokes …is forever my guide.

A candid observation