Difficult Religious People and the Questions They Raise for Us

Today’s question comes from Yvette. She has recently reconnected with an old friend who had a difficult childhood. Her friend was not spiritual/religious when she was a child: in fact, she wasn’t spiritual/religious at all until a tragedy happened to her.

Since she has turned to God, her friend sometimes expresses beliefs that are troublesome and acts out in hurtful ways (i.e. condemning toward others at times and self-loathing at other times).

This raises a couple questions for Yvette: (1) isn’t [finding religion in the midst of a crisis] kind of hypocritical? (2) is there such a thing as TOO religious? (3) do you think God appreciates this? I mean, the way she is feeling? Or the way she has turned to him?

Let me take those questions on briefly, and then invite you into the conversation.

Question number one: isn’t [finding religion in the midst of a crisis] kind of hypocritical”. My most direct answer is no. There are lots of things that bring people to a place where they suddenly feel the need for God. Some people who were never interested in church, for instance, suddenly want to find God when they have a child and feel the need to have beliefs to pass on to their child. Others who were never interested in church suddenly feel the need for God when something incredibly good happens – and they feel the need to express gratitude to One far greater than themselves. Others – such as your friend – find religion in the midst of turmoil.

There is no “right way” to realize one’s need for God and/or a sense of spirituality. How we get there isn’t an issue for me: the only thing that matters is that we get there.

Question number two: is there such a thing as TOO religious?

My answer to that question will certainly be different than some. That’s because some people separate spirituality from religion. They see spirituality as that genuine yearning to be close to the Divine while religion is simply a set of practices that is all about following rules and routines.

I don’t make that separation. I believe that religion – when practiced best – is simply one’s attempt to express one’s spirituality in a communal setting: a communal setting that involves not only those currently around you/beside you, but those who have gone before you as well.

For those who see religion simply as an attempt to follow (or enforce) rules and routines, then I would say, “Yes, you can absolutely be too religious”. What I mean by that is that you can be too rigid in one’s approach to life and too self-righteous: feeling as if you are better than others because you follow the rules and routines better than others.

For those who see spirituality and religion as things that go hand in hand, then I’m less inclined to answer with a resounding yes. Let me give you an example of why I say that. During the season of Advent (the four Sundays leading up to Christmas), Christian religion teaches that the Christ child came to embody at least four defining qualities – qualities to which he calls his followers: (1) hope; (2) peace; (3) joy; and (4) love. With this in mind, I find it hard to believe one can have too much hope, too much peace, too much joy, and too much love.

Of course, I realize that there are some who grapple with mental health issues who express their spirituality in troubling ways. I’m away of a woman, for instance, who believes herself to be the bride of Christ who is carrying Jesus baby. In this case, I would say her belief is more an expression of her mental illness (influenced by her limited religious background) than it is of healthy spirituality.

Question number three: Does God appreciate [the extreme ways] the woman is feeling and acting in response to her faith in – beliefs about – God.
One thing about God that I’ve learned in my practice of ministry (as opposed to those things I learned from books in seminary) is that God is far more generous with us than we are with ourselves and others. God has an ability to grasp what’s truly in our hearts and receive that (rather than the well-intentioned but perhaps misguided words and deeds we sometimes inflict on the world and on those around us).

So while an individuals actions might absolutely frustrate me to my core, I try to keep my frustration in check and realize that God’s perception of the person is far bigger and more complete than mine. This helps me realize that God can appreciate (or at least put up with) things that I cannot. That helps me cut the difficult person more slack.

How about you? What do Yvette’s questions raise for you?

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To Observe Christmas Traditions, or Not? That Is the Question …

Hi Craig, your timing is perfect as I’ve been mulling over an issue that’s coming at me fast. I have Christmas traditions that are important to me and that my husband and two grown children agree with and participate in. I however have grandchildren who do not share my beliefs and who have posted on Facebook etc various Memes etc. that give me reason to believe that following these traditions may cause a ruckus Christmas Day. These are minors except 1 who while not a believer is accepting of what They call the your house your rules way of dealing with differences. Do I give up my traditions to keep children happy? I am talking about Christmas Music – mostly Religious, reading the Christmas Story, Lighting the Jesus Advent Candle and things of that nature. Help!”

Progressive people of faith walk a fine line. On one hand, we want to be respectful of other people’s beliefs and practices. On the other hand, we don’t want to be so respectful that, in the process, we become completely invisible to others.

So how do we walk the fine line?

There are many ways to approach the situation. Here is what I would do. I would let all my family members know what traditions I am observing and at approximately what time. Those who want to participate in my traditions – or support me in the observance of those traditions – are welcome to come. Those who do not want to participate in the observance of the traditions – or can’t extend the dignity and respect toward myself and my traditions – are welcome to come either before or after those times.

I’ve used that approach many times – in a variety of situations – and had great success. It’s a way of both acknowledging and honoring the beliefs of others while still acknowledging and honoring YOUR beliefs. You should NOT make yourself invisible – and completely miss out on those things that you hold nearest and dearest to your heart – simply due to worries about others. To do so would be incredibly codependent.

How about you? What issue(s) or insights does Cheri’s question raise for you?

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What’s On Your Mind

I’ve been locked out of the site for a couple of months now.  I think things are back and running.  I’m wondering, “What’s on your mind these days …

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Codependence or Enabling?

Today’s question comes from Sharon, who writes: “I have been involved with a self-help group, have worked the steps several times, and read many books on the subject(s). I am still running together two words, co-dependency and enabling. Will you please give me your take on the difference between the two.”

Sharon, I’m happy to share with you my thoughts on this topic.

For me, the difference between “codependency” and “enabling” is the focus. I consider a thought or action codependent when my focus is primarily on MY need to derive my self-worth or self-identity from the act of assisting the other person.

I consider myself enabling someone when my primary focus is on THE OTHER person and my perception of their need.

Let me give you an example of how this looks for me.

Let’s say I have a friend who has a problem with alcohol or drugs, and my friend comes to me asking for money so she or he can pay her or his rent.

If I respond from a place of codependence, I get hooked into the situation by telling myself, “I’m a good and stabilizing presence in my friend’s life. My job, then, is to help my friend – because that’s who I am, and that’s what people expect from me.  And if I don’t help my friend, then what kind of person would I be?!”

If I respond from an enabling place, I get hooked into the situation by telling myself, “I really love my friend. I am terrified that my friend might end up on the street. If I help my friend out, then she or he will be safe and secure (for a while, anyway).”

Obviously the concepts can bleed into one another. A thought or action might have elements of both (i.e. I’m getting something out of it in terms of my self-worth/self-identity AND I feel as if I’m helping the other person). An action, however, can be primarily one OR the other (i.e. it’s driven by MY needs, or it’s driven by my concern for THE OTHER).

Those are my initial thoughts. What about you? What does Sharon’s question raise for you?

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What’s on your mind?

I’m wondering what’s on your mind these beautiful summer days. Remember, the questions your raise don’t have to be explicitly theological in nature. I’m one of those guys that finds God in nearly everything – so you are welcome to think broader in the questions and/or comments you send. I look forward to hearing what you are thinking about!

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When it comes to spirituality, which is best: the communal or the individual?

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  She writes: “You spoke in your sermon [this week] about dwindling [identification with religious traditions] in the past few years. Influenced by my strong belief in separation of church and state, I truly believe that the introduction of Religion into the government during the 80s caused a big divide in this country.  So I was thinking.  Did this do damage to society, or was it good that people started exploring their own spirituality and discovered that there were more paths than those they had been taught?  What do you think about this, Pastor Craig?”

For those who didn’t hear my sermon last Sunday, in it I referenced an article in the June 7 edition of the Los Angeles Times called “Faith?  There’s an App for That” written by Stephen Asma.  In the article, the author discussed Millennials move away from communal forms of religion toward largely individualist expressions of spirituality.  The author – a professor of Philosophy, not Theology – bemoaned that shift.

This gets to the crux of Stevie’s question: is the shift from communal religious expression to individual explorations of spirituality good or bad?

My answer to that question is, “It’s more complicated than an either/or approach – communal OR individual.”

As a person who has a STRONG commitment to nurturing my personal relationship with (or connection to) God, I think it is critically important for people to first develop and then engage in their own spiritual practices.

But is that enough?

For myself, the answer is, “No.”

While individual spiritual practices are important, it can be dangerous to think the totality of God can be captured solely in one individual’s spiritual awareness or practice.

That’s where one’s participation in religious tradition can be helpful.  Participating in a religious tradition brings the individual into contact/conversation with the recorded spiritual experiences and practices of those who have lived for thousands of years.  Those contacts/conversations can inspire and challenge us to think about things we would otherwise NEVER consider on our own.  A religious tradition – when engaged in a healthy way – can expand and inform our concept of the Divine, and ourselves.

So my answer to Stevie’s questions would be, “A BALANCE between the communal and individuals is healthiest for me.”

So what does Stevie’s question raise for you?  I’d love to invite you into the conversation!

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Prayer and/or Predestination

Today’s question comes from Yvette.  She writes: “As a man of God, you may have a skewed view – but here goes— do you believe the power of prayer? Or do you believe that our fate is predetermined?”

There are a couple great questions here.  Let me address each separately.

The first question has to do with the power of prayer (and – by extension – its purpose).  The short answer to Yvette’s questions is, “Yes, I believe in the power of prayer.”  What I mean by that, however, might be different than you expect.

When some say they believe in the power of prayer, what they really mean is “the power of prayer to change GOD.”  When I say I believe in the power of prayer, I mean I believe in “the power of prayer to change ME.”

What do I mean by that?

Well, I believe that each of our lives is strongly shaped and influenced by those with whom we spend time.  The longer we spend with our loved ones, for instance, the better we understand them – and the more we incorporate their ideas, their values, and their way of being into our lives.

I believe a similar thing happens when we spend time with God in prayer and/or meditation.  The more time we spend opening our hearts, minds, and spirits to God; the more we can become like God in our ideas, our values, and our way of being.

So when I spend time in prayer – thinking about a loved one, for instance, who is battling cancer – the more compassion and strength I draw from God and the more I feel equipped to be a loving companion to my loved one on their journey: whatever the outcome of their illness may be.

So why am I not comfortable with the notion of prayer being about changing God (and – by extension – God’s mind)?

Let me give you an example.

Let’s say my Aunt Betty has breast cancer, and my friend Ryan – who is an agnostic – has an uncle with lung cancer.  Then let’s say I pray fervently for my Aunt Betty while Ryan never prays for his uncle.

I don’t believe that God would cure my Aunt Betty of her breast cancer just because I prayed for her cure, and God would cause my friend Brian’s uncle to die from lung cancer just because Ryan didn’t pray.

Why not?

In that scenario, God would take on too many qualities of us human beings (i.e. liking/saving those who like/accept God and rejecting/killing those who don’t like/accept God).  I believe very strongly that God’s capacity to love and care for ALL people is FFFFFAAAAARRRRR greater than our capacity!

This leads to the second question you raised about the matter of what some Christian theologians call “predestination”.  The belief in predestination is linked to the belief that God has an eternal and unchanging plan for our lives.  Nothing we can do can cause us to veer from that plan.

I do not believe in predestination.  My belief in free will tells me that God had such a profound love and respect for us – that God extends to us the freedom to make our own choices.

That’s why, for instance, I do not believe that God’s plan was for Adolf Hitler to rise to power and exterminate millions of non-Aryans.  I believe instead that God entrusted humanity with the ability to choose their leaders.  The fact that human beings then (and human beings NOW!) are susceptible to those who use fear and intimidation to lead and give overly simplistic answers to complex issues is not God’s fault; it’s our responsibility!  Unfortunately, all too many blame God for humanity’s choices.

Yvette has raised excellent questions for conversation.  I would like to invite you into the conversation as well.  What are your thoughts on these matters?

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