Today, in a departure from my usual workdays at my computer, I found myself sitting cross-legged on a church basement floor in Mattapan, in an after-school program, listening to Mother Goose poems read by an amazing woman from West Africa. When I met her a few months ago at a workshop, she told me about this after-school program and invited me to visit. About a year or so ago she realized that she had a vision for an after-school program, and she talked to the pastor of the church about starting a program, found volunteers, organized the space, got licensing, invited families and opened the program. Along with a colleague, I was invited to visit with the hope that we might be able to help in some way as they move from a volunteer-run start-up to a longer-term sustainable program. Today we visited, enjoyed, listened, asked questions, and, on the way home, talked about how we might be able to help.
But even while thinking about how to help, more than anything I just enjoyed the delight of being there, joining in storytime, sitting in the peaceful church sanctuary and listening to the children recite the 23rd Psalm, watching a West African dance, having a late afternoon snack.
There are many days like today when I enjoy a feeling of "mindfulness" when I enjoy the fact that I am doing something, however small, that connects me with a much larger world. I grew up with a desire to connect with the social justice, civil rights and environmental justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s. I had a long-time admiration for the progressive and reform movements of the late 19th century and of other past generations, of the ground-breaking work they did, and as I was growing up I wondered what social justice work the people of my generation would find.
As I started working in the world of nonprofit work and city government I learned that there weren't always clear lines between "good guys" and "bad guys" or between justice and injustice. I learned that not everything that people did hoping to "make a difference" turned out to be effective. But I remained committed to finding ways of making a positive difference, and over time have shaped a career that I think lets me do some good things.
I have also learned the value of being unpretentious and not-overly-self-conscious about trying to do good things. I've also learned how rewarding it can be for me to simply be supportive of other people who are doing positive things in the world. My favorite moments to be "mindful" are moments when I am with other people who are doing wonderful things and not necessarily when I am the one at the center of "doing good things."
I think that religious faith helps with being mindful and also helps with being less-self-conscious about things.
In the parables and in the psalms, the Bible talks about being open like the ground that receives rain. In the apostles' letters and teachings the Bible talks about letting Christ work through us; focusing not-so-much on religious laws and instead on how the spirit of Christ can lead people to live their lives.
From another faith tradition, the Tao Te Ching talks about letting goodness flow through you:
"The highest good is not to seek to do good,
I like this passage because it acknowledges that this ideal of letting goodness flow isn't always realized (the righteous person acts out of pity.... the moral person acts out of duty ....) but describes an ideal in which goodness flows naturally and freely through people.
In biblical texts, the idea of goodness appears in dramatic calls for justice:
Rain down from above, you heavens, and pour down righteousness, you skies.
And you can also see similar imagery about a quieter presence of God, as in the famous 23rd Psalm:
He leads me beside quiet waters,
Recently I've been reading about the "social gospel" movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century. The social gospel movement was a re-awakening of awareness of the social justice message of Christianity. The movement had roots with the progressive era and settlement houses in the late 19th century and a tradition that continued to the civil rights movement and to progressive churches today. I like the emphasis on Christianity as a living religion, actively engaged in the world.
I have come to believe in an evolutionary view of religion, believing that the history of religion is the story of how people have worked to learn to understand God, creation, justice and faith. Through reading biblical stories and prophets, I have noticed that themes of mercy and peacemaking arrived later in religious history, following after themes of law and judgment, reflecting an evolution from early understandings of God to more mature understandings of God. I am interested in the fact that many early civilizations had stories similar to the early biblical stories, such as a flood story similar to the story of Noah and the ark. Virtually all societies have stories about how the world was created. I also learned that the book of Job, the famous book about "why bad things happen to good people" was one of the oldest known manuscripts of the Bible. All this suggests to me that people have a natural desire to search for meaning, to wonder how the world began, and to try to understand issues of justice, judgment, suffering and mercy. Some attempts at understanding may seem primitive, but a closer look at these primitive attempts will usually find an honest search for meaning, with many universal themes that are common among faiths and among periods in history.
Religious faith can lead to dramatic strides toward justice or small, quieter improvements in people's lives. For some people, religion is about conversion and salvation; a personal journey away from trouble. For others, faith supports a call to work for social justice; or for others it offers a way to connect with others in a community.
I realize that the direction of religious history is not always forward, that it is not always a clear evolution from early, primitive faith to advanced, mature faith. Instead, religious history also cycles or spirals among themes, belief in God as a mystery or God as a law-giver; God as a powerful creator or God as a personal friend; God who calls you to personal fulfillment or God who calls you to work for justice. Ideas are forgotten and re-discovered; sometimes corrupted and then reformed.
We are currently in the midst of a period of tension in public thought about religion. There is an increasing trend toward a new atheism, with many adherents proclaiming that religion is not only unnecessary but also a harmful and negative force in society. Many of the people I know hold these views, and particularly hold up current examples of religion as a conservative force; a force of resistance against tolerance and modern thought. There also seems to be a divide between conservative and progressive churches, with a perception that there is a harsh right-or-wrong fundamentalism on one side and an increasingly secular approach to religion on another side.
But in my experience, the world of religion is not necessarily as polarized along liberal/conservative lines as it seems in the media. I see people of faith coming together in all kinds of churches and denominations to create meaningful experiences of social gospel and personal faith.