Monday, November 17, 2008

Memorial Services, Ceremonies and Faith

I went to church yesterday and had a lot to think about. They were having a memorial service for several former parishioners and for departed veterans in honor of Veterans' Day.

First of all the bulletin had a short essay about how the gospels are "written icons." I thought, "Are you kidding me?" In my opinion, icons are strange looking, not beautiful or lovely. I'm also of the opinion that icons, statues and stained glass are there to help educate and guide the illiterate. To say that the gospels are an imitation of what amounts to picture books is to belittle the written and even spoken word. I find it suspect.

In John's gospel, chapter one he says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God." Hmm, did he say, God was the picture? When you put icons ahead of the actual words of the bible then you are basically dumbing-down the thing and that irks me.

Okay, enough of that. That is PURELY religion and will lead to trouble if I go down that road.

An eFriend of mine (Sadie who commented on my Obama post) said that she would pray for me. In my crisis in faith that may sound hollow, but I do find value in prayer and in attending church. I appreciated her offer.

When I was in Afghanistan I went to mass every Sunday. My faith was stronger then, but whenever I have been away on military missions I always make time for prayer and church services. Why? It gives me time to meditate and reflect. It gives me the time I need to get my head right. It give me a small space of time when I don't have to, in fact I'm not supposed to think about mundane things, but the bigger picture. I think that is important.

Another thing I've noticed since I've been looking at religion and faith with a more skeptical eye is that there is a sort of need for ceremonies. I think human beings need ceremonies; we have them all the time. Some are religious of course and the thinking is that God has to be treated in a special, not an ordinary way. But, we also have purely secular ceremonies and they can have just as poignant and traditional meaning and place in our lives.

A good example is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Even if you do not believe in any sort of god and you don't believe that we have any life beyond the one we now know; you would still show reverence to the memory of the men and women who served our country and gave the ultimate sacrifice.

I think that prayer and church attendance falls within that greater umbrella of ceremony, but that Ceremony is a much bigger thing. It is also a thing that I think we must have. I think that Ceremony helps cement the morals of our culture. Whether there is a god or not, we as humans need Ceremony.

One of the things about ceremonies is that sometimes your mind follows what your body is doing. I mean, if you get dressed and go to church you will naturally be thinking churchy thoughts. If you get dressed and go to the gym you will find yourself motivated to exercise. If you get dressed and go to work, you are likely to actually do your job. Maybe we have a kind of mental inertia that sometimes must be overcome.

On the other hand, sometimes we do something (go through the motions, if you will) but hold a different thing in our mind. That's something I could never understand about atheists who file lawsuits. You often hear about an atheist who filed a lawsuit because they had to say, blah blah blah with god in it, or blah blah blah to god. Why don't they just say it, but (to them) know it isn't true? Is it hurting them? If they really want the thing that is surrounding that god reference then why can't they put up with that word?

I'm jumping topics a bit here. When I was in Afghanistan, as I said I went to mass every Sunday. Some Sundays we had no priest, so I led the service. When it was available I administered communion, when it wasn't, I led the liturgy service. Even then I felt a pang of guilt at this because I felt like, I'm not worthy. Who was I to lead a church service? I wasn't holier than anyone else there.

What I found within myself was that I was not leading the service because I was better than anyone; I was leading the service as a service to others. I was doing what I could to facilitate their faith and religion. They were the ones who were holier than me, and I was helping them to be so. I want Sadie and anyone who wants to partake in a discussion about these topics to feel that way too. Even if you don't restore my faith, I hope I can, through our discussions, help to facilitate your faith.

The Roman Catholic gospel reading for this Sunday was very interesting to me. In the story Jesus says that there were three employees who were each given an amount of money. The first two invested the money and gave back more than they had gotten to their employer. The third buried the money and gave exactly back what he had given. The employer was mad that he hadn't even thought to put it in a bank to at least earn interest. The employer praised the other two and even gave the third man's money to the first man so that he could make more.

Given the market lately it would be easy to see this parable as a story about money. Alternately, you could also think of money as representing grace or faith and the employer as God. Immediately, for me, the money stood for the word. I saw it as another version of the parable about the sower and the seeds. That's interesting that I feel that in a way I hope I'm helping strengthen people's faith, just like investing money.

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