Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Custom made or cookie cutter religion

My wife Janice likes to bake, which is good since I like to eat what she bakes! It’s one place where our universe aligns and everything works out peachy.

Cookies are her specialty. Her cookies may be tried and true, such as chocolate chip or my favorite monster cookie, or they may be new and experimental. Her cookies may be round and chewy, or they may be flat and crisp. They may be loaded with chocolate, or sans chocolate but chock full of nuts and berries.

When our daughters were younger, Janice would sometimes bake with them using cookie cutters. Sometimes the molds were metal, sometimes they were plastic; their job was always the same: mold the cookie dough into identical shapes so that the cookies would look the same.

If you promise to keep a secret, I’ll tell you that I liked the Christmas tree shapes the best, though the Halloween pumpkins were swell too. Yes, I said “swell.”

There are definite good reasons for using cookie cutters. First of all, they are convenient. Baking cookies with a preformed shape is much more convenient, much easier than baking cookies that are shaped by hand.

Cookie cutters are also good because – at least in theory – the end result of using cookie cutters is a batch of cookies that looks the same.

And finally, cookie cutters help with quantity. You can produce a lot more cookies in a shorter amount of time when you are just stamping them out than when you take the time with each and every cookie.

But there are downsides too. Cookies made with cookie cutters are not nearly as creative as ones that are handmade. They don’t tell you as much about the personality of their baker. The shape imposed may not fit the cookie dough very well either: after all, whoever heard of a Christmas tree with a big raisin sticking out of it!

Religious communities are similar. Some are like cookie cutters, trying hard to stamp believers all into the same mold. Their approach to worship and education and service is more of “one size fits all” approach, rather than a customized, open approach.

Sometimes faith communities of this sort demand conformity of thought and action. At their worst, they shout, “My way is the only way!” and demean those who disagree.

Other religious communities – churches, synagogues and mosques – realize that faith is handmade. Sure there are absolutes, and they should be known. But there is much more that God shares with us in ways appropriate to each of us. There’s much more individual shaping that God does in our lives so that we complement, not conform to, each other.

It takes time and care to shape a faith of this type. You have to get your hands messy to make this kind of cookie.

How can you tell one type from the other? Listen to the language used. Does it encourage deeper thought, more genuine reflection and authentic engagement? If so, it is more of the handmade faith variety.

Or is the language closed? Does it duck the hard questions? Is there a pretend attitude that the world is of two shades with simple choices, rather than multicolored and complex? If so, then you have yourself a cookie cutter approach.

So now you are wondering which type is better? In my opinion, it is the handmade, open ended, willing to ask difficult questions and trust more in God’s mysterious grace than our definite understanding type. But I’ll say again that both types of religious communities have their positives.

The main thing is for you to consider which one you prefer – custom made or cookie cut.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

True Freedom

My latest newspaper column:


What means much to you?

Father never accepted any gift from his students, but when his daughter became a teacher, she never refused any gifts from her students.

The father was upset by this practice, so one day he reproached his daughter: "I do not accept any gift because gifts mean nothing to me. It pains me to know that you grab all that your disciples bring to you."

The daughter replied: "Father, if gifts mean nothing to you, why are you bothered whether I accept them or reject them?"

In my life, what means much to me, even when I think it doesn't?