Thursday, April 17, 2014

Faith and Intellectual Honesty

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“There are no atheists in foxholes,” says a maxim ascribed to the famous war correspondent, Ernie Pyle.

As you may recall, much of World War I and some of World War II was fought in “foxholes” – holes dug by soldiers from which to fire their weapons and protect themselves from incoming fire. That was before supersonic fighter jets and drones, a time when war was still up-close and personal.

The maxim exaggerates, of course. There undoubtedly are some atheists in foxholes, but the idea is that when in a situation so horrifying like that of a soldier in a foxhole, people overcome with fear suspend doubt in a desperate hope that God will save them.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a long-time hero of mine, commented on this phenomenon in his “Letters and Papers from Prison,” a book I highly recommend. A Lutheran minister and theologian executed by the Nazis in 1945, he lamented the quality of conversions among fellow prisoners who feared torture and execution. He worried that such “conversions” lacked the conviction and sincerity necessary to sustain faith.

Bonhoeffer also wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship, which argued that many people seek the “cheap grace” of religion. “Grace” is one of those old-fashioned, churchy words that you hardly hear anymore, even in many churches. But most Christian religions see it in general as God’s gift of his/her spirit, enabling them to be faithful followers of Christ.

Cheap grace, according to Bonhoeffer, "is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." In other words, it’s a “no-obligation” deal in which you hope to get something for nothing.

I thought of all this when recently reminded that many of us are uncomfortable with faith because it involves a dilemma. We feel the need to be intellectually honest, to face up to the fact that what humans want to believe is not necessarily how things are, and that humans have a huge capacity for self-deception. Belief seems like a surrender to irrationality, a betrayal of our rational selves.

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It’s possible, however, that God exists, that the strictly rational approach doesn’t show us how things really are, that it’s a matter of failing to detect the layer of reality that religions like Christianity proclaim. And if God is the ultimate cause of the universe, somehow foreseeing and shaping human development, doesn’t he/she want us to use the brains he/she gave us to figure it out?

Personally, I believe there’s enough evidence pointing to the existence of God, but according to Christian theology, it’s not just a matter of “figuring things out.” Belief is a matter of head and heart, and often we lack one or the other in our search for God.

That’s where the churchy word “grace” comes in. According to this theology, God sends his spirit, allowing people who seek faith, and are open to it, to believe despite doubt. Does he/she provide this grace to everybody? That’s one of the many questions about God we can’t answer. But Christian theology teaches that no one is outside his/her love, so in some form or another, the answer is yes. 

Cheap grace, in Bonhoeffer’s view, is sought by people who are inconvenienced by doubt, who decline to take the risk involved in faith, who want to live with one foot in belief and the other in unbelief, having it both ways.

Not much in life works that way.

As for the “no atheists in foxholes” idea, there’s evidently something to it. Wikipedia says “Cornell University behavioral economist, Brian Wansink examined 949 post-combat surveys of World War II American infantrymen and observed that these soldiers' reliance on prayer rose from 32 percent to 74 percent as the battle intensified.”

I recall reading that after WWII, seminaries, monasteries and convents filled to near capacity. Former military people, it is said, were deeply affected by the horrors of war. 

Everyone has different reasons for believing or not, and we can’t judge the quality of anyone’s conversion. Who knows? God may use life-or-death situations to get our attention. To me, however, being scared into believing is not the best motivation. A genuine search for God involves openness of heart and mind, and patience to examine the issues.         

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Free to be You

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For those of you who haven’t seen it, Portlandia is an IFC Production Co. TV comedy that pokes not-so-gentle fun at the stereotypical trendiness and political correctness of the residents of that Oregon city. A scene in one segment shows the star couple trying to buy a phone in a cell-phone store.

The clerk asks the couple’s preference among dozens of plans, dozens of types and styles of phones, then several styles of sunglasses that the store is offering “free” to new buyers. He presents a dizzying number of choices and insists the couple consider each carefully. Don’t even think about popping in and out for a phone.

The scene dramatizes the annoying number of choices with which we’re presented in buying stuff today.

Coincidentally, I recently heard a TED Conference presentation on the subject of freedom of choice by psychologist and author, Barry Schwartz. Having to pick among so many choices, he says, sometimes results in paralysis – the inability to choose. And when we do choose, our expectations are raised to such an extent that we are less satisfied with our choice than we would be with fewer choices. With so many choices, we are left with the feeling that “we could have done better.” 

Personal freedom, including freedom of choice, is among western society’s most cherished values. (It’s important for non-western cultures, too, but for many in those cultures, it’s secondary to survival.) That’s one reason why merchandisers provide it. And I think the perceived lack of freedom is among the reasons many people decline to be involved with religion.

I’m not free to be me if I’m religious, it is reasoned. It’s one more thing that ties me to my parents and their generation. To be really free, I have to break with religion along with reading newspapers or watching the news, being hairy, joining clubs or drinking Martinis. 

So, here are some observations about freedom and religion, specifically the Christian religion.

First, regarding God, we sort of want it both ways. A characteristic of the Christian God that most disturbs us is his/her absence. "Hellooo. Where are you, God?" we ask. If he/she exists, why doesn’t he/she make himself/herself visible? But we also want our freedom, and if God were visible, we wouldn’t have it. A visible God would be so intrusive, so dominant, we couldn’t resist him/her.

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Second, God doesn’t oblige us to join any religion, including the Christian one. According to Christian theology, God invites; we can respond or not. We are invited to develop a relationship with God - and in the case of Christianity, his son, Jesus – and join with other believers in a community of faith. If we respond affirmatively, we still must think critically about what makes sense, and what is relevant for us, but we don’t have to do an exhaustive review of every other possible choice. God may have something to do with the obvious choice before us and we may simply be ignoring it.

In my case, some might say that I really didn’t choose to be a Catholic because it was the religion of my parents. I was born into it and am conditioned to it. Catholicism is simply my comfort zone.

I acknowledge that religions, especially ones like Judaism and Catholicism, are cultural, maybe even tribal. And going to Mass and doing the other things Catholics do may not be a matter of choice for the early years of life, but eventually you have to decide for yourself. And to make that decision rationally, you have to look at the options – including the option of not believing – and make a choice.

Oddly enough, making that choice brings freedom. You’re free from the pressures of society’s beliefs and values and free to bask in the goodness and kindness of God. You choose to be “religious” and the norms and creeds that come with it, which help to deepen the relationship with God.

It’s like a good marriage. You choose a partner for life and you don’t look back. Does that choice limit your freedom of choice, including the choice of romantic relationships with others? Of course, because all choices imply the rejection of alternatives. That’s what’s meant by choice. But it doesn't mean you're not free.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, being “religious” is not about joining an organization or being tribal. It’s about accepting an invitation and all that implies. It’s like saying in the Portland cell-phone store, “I want that phone. Thanks.”     


Thursday, April 3, 2014

Forgiveness in a Field

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It was Ash Wednesday – the day that begins Lent for many Christians – about 1972. I was a priest in Bolivia and went to a nearby village to hear confessions. The community was on the shores of Lake Titicaca. On the border between Bolivia and Peru, Titicaca is billed as the “highest navigable lake in the world.” During about half the year there are practically no clouds and the lake is extremely blue, contrasting with the snow-capped mountains in the background.

When I arrived, I found that the community had already gathered in a field fronting the village, the men in their cloth pants, heavy wool sweaters or old suit coats and felt hats, the women in their colorful layers of long skirts, blousy shirts and bowler hats. About the time I arrived, I noticed the 50 or 60 people gathered there were forming a wide circle in the field. Then I witnessed something extraordinary.

One by one, each person went to his/her knees in front of the person next to him/her and asked for forgiveness for any way they may have offended that person during the year. I was so moved I thought that there was no further need of a formal “confession.” But I knew that given the infrequency of the opportunity to receive the sacrament of Penance, the villagers would be disappointed if I didn’t provide the opportunity.

Most of them came to confession, also held in the field, with me in a folding chair and them kneeling or standing next to it. Afterwards, I asked several of them how long they had been asking forgiveness of each other in the manner I had observed. “As long as we can remember,” one person said. No one seemed to know how the practice had begun.  

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One thing is clear: the people of that village had a keen sense of the value of forgiveness – of seeking it and giving it.

Once when I was on retreat, a priest asked participants to identify the most important line in the Lord’s Prayer, or “Our Father.” No one, including me, mentioned the line, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The priest insisted that that was the definitive line in the famous prayer, recited for Jesus’ disciples after they asked him to teach them to pray. Notice that the line in the prayer about forgiveness is not only about forgiving, but about seeking forgiveness, and that’s the model not only for our relationship to God but our relationships with each other.
Interesting that when we believe we are offended, we tend to maximize the offense in our minds. When we believe we may have offended, however, we tend to minimize the offense. The truth is most often somewhere in between perhaps, but the “truth” in the case of forgiveness may not be so important. “Being right” is not a factor in the psychological benefits of forgiveness, nor in its spiritual benefits.

Both forgiving and seeking forgiveness require humility, and as I’ve written before, humility is not a wimpy ideal. It refers to a kind of truthfulness that understands that “winning” doesn’t always matter in the long run. What does is our own and others’ peace: the calm and sense of renewal that comes from forgiving and being forgiven.

Therapists say that forgiveness starts with forgiving ourselves. If we are burdened by unreasonable guilt (acknowledging that sometimes we feel guilt because we’re guilty), we can’t see clearly enough to forgive others nor are we sufficiently tuned in to our faith to seek forgiveness from God. And, if we believe we have to be perfect we expect others to be so, too, and they will never deserve our forgiveness.

Whenever I have the temptation to harbor resentment, I try to remember to ask myself, who is being hurt by my resentment and lack of forgiveness? Is it me or the object of my resentment? Inevitably, it’s me, because it makes peace and joy impossible. So there’s definitely a selfish reason for forgiving.

We may refer to the Bolivian village where people sought each other’s forgiveness as the “third world,” but we have a lot to learn from them.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Avatar and the Search for God

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When I was 14, my parents acceded to my whining and bought me some “white bucks.” For those of you who have come of age in the 21st century, see the picture below. I considered them about the coolest things you could possibly put on your feet - especially combined with a v-neck sweater whose color, according to the label, was “California shrimp.”

Not-cool, you might say about these “fashions.” But anybody over the age of 20 has already experienced the arbitrariness of fashion and knows that trends come and go regularly. And each generation feels smug about current styles. Until recently, the bills of baseball-type hats had to be curved. Now, mimicking inner-city trends, they must be straight. Not long ago cargo pants and wide-legged jeans were in. I still wear them, of course, but must abide the ridicule of my family. Meanwhile, I smirk at the generation of men before me who wear shorts with white socks up to their knees.

Fact is, we’re all so tuned in to our own and the wider culture we tend to give culture a kind of permanence and importance it doesn’t deserve. If you look at today’s attitudes about God and religion, it appears that they have less to do with conversion, conviction or theological, biblical or historical study than with adaptation to contemporary culture.

No one wants to be perceived as out-of-step or out-of-touch. We want to be like our contemporaries. We want to be “with it,” and for many, nothing is less “with it” than God and religion.

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Ok, there are exceptions. Some people today, including some between ages 20 and 40, wear their religion on their sleeves. But many other people, even those who are interested in God and religion, don’t want to be associated with the “Christian” style of talking, “Christian” music, “Christian” dating sites, or “family values.” And that can provide one more reason not to pursue a search for God.

Contemporary culture itself is neither bad nor good, but giving it such an important role in helping us decide about God and religion may be a bit much. “What everybody else” believes or doesn’t believe, or how they act or don’t act, is beside the point when you’re considering questions of faith.

Religion is viewed by many as irrelevant. But I believe that when it comes to the search for meaning, "contemporary culture" wins the irrelevant prize. In that category, we in the 21st century have no advantage over people in the 20th, 15th or first centuries who were engaged in the same search. Questions such as “What’s real?” “Is there a purpose to life?” “Is there a God, can I know him/her, and does he/she have anything to do with me?” are what has real relevance.   
One of my aims in writing this blog is to be positive. It’s a real downer to read stuff that is always critical, negative or depressing. I want the blog to be the opposite, but it’s not easy. The intent to remain positive often clashes with another aim, that of helping people understand, in my limited capacity, faith and religion in today’s world.

We humans immerse ourselves in our surroundings to such an extent that it’s really hard to see beyond the present – where we live, who we know, how we dress, what we like and don’t like – our past and the imagined future. The search for God requires a certain distance from them and in that sense, is counter-intuitive.  

People in Jesus’ time had the same problem. They lived, on the one hand, in a world dominated by the Jewish establishment that seemed to have all the answers, and on the other, the indifferent, worldly and often hostile Roman establishment. It wasn’t easy for Jesus to break through all that, and the fact that he was brutally executed confirms that he wasn’t always successful. He tried to get people to see beyond their current lives, to see things as they really are and to break free to search for God.

Of course we must engage with the contemporary world and be useful contributors, adding all we can to its progress and human happiness - but with a certain detachment to be able to see beyond. That may be what is meant by the admonition to Christians to be “in the world but not of it.”    

Science fiction is among the art forms that help us get beyond our puny imaginations. The 2009 blockbuster Avatar is a good example. Set in mid 22nd century, it manages with incredible technological manipulation to get us to suspend our disbelief and enter a world that is so unlike ours. For a couple of hours, we are able to leave behind our lifestyles, our politics, our contemporary views, our fashions – like I left behind my white bucks. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Should We Be Pacifists in the Culture Wars?

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Martin Luther King, whose holiday we celebrated recently, is said to have been a pacifist. So was Mahatma Ghandi, the famous leader of Indian nationalism, and in his later years, Nelson Mandela. Some say Jesus was, too, and many Christian churches have promoted pacifism or resisted the use of violence and opposed war.

So, should one who is searching for God be a pacifist in the culture wars?

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “culture wars” are generally taken to mean the “wars” between those who are conservative/traditionalist/rightists and those who are liberal/progressive/leftists. The “battlefields” include abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, and to some extent, the “welfare nation,” “big government,” and gun politics.

The term “Christian” has, unfortunately, become synonymous with the right. I write “unfortunately” not because I would prefer that it be identified with the left, but because it shouldn’t be identified with either.

In my view, people of faith shouldn’t base their ethical/social views on whether they conform to liberalism or conservatism. In some areas they may happen to conform to one or the other - may happen to lean toward Republicans, Democrats or Independents - but what defines Christians, and many of our Jewish and other cousins, is the extent to which their opinions and actions conform to their faith.

We may use the terms liberal and conservative easily when talking about the relationship of faith to issues of the day, but are they really applicable? Religion is not an ideology, let alone a political faction or movement. As has been mentioned in this blog before, it’s a relationship – to God and others.

“Too political?”
People who look to their political parties or cultural-war affiliations for guidance on moral issues have a hard time being believers. They can be heard to complain that religion is being “too political” when it weighs in on social justice issues or issues surrounding human sexuality or reproduction, as if Christianity should be excluded from some aspects of human life. Christians should have views on these issues based on what they believe Jesus taught or their religious tradition teaches, not on whether they meet the approval of President Obama, John Boehner, Ted Cruz or Harry Reid.

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What’s more, believers can’t harbor the hostility for opposing views that is currently on display. For Christians and like-minded people, love trumps everything, no matter how feckless that may seem.   

Rather than being a military headquarters for hostilities, in fact, Pope Francis believes the church should be a field hospital in the culture wars.

“I see clearly,” he said in “A Big Heart Open to God,” an interview published in America magazine, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful….

“I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars!” he said in a reference to such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage. “You have to heal his wounds.”

Christian obligations of citizenship
This approach to the cultural wars doesn’t mean believers should decline to have opinions on the issues of the day or stay out of the political fray. On the contrary, the tenets of our faith apply to virtually every aspect of our lives, including politics. It’s impossible not to have opinions based on faith. And based on our faith, we must vote, try to influence our representatives and do whatever we can to move the public in the direction indicated by the tenets of our faith. (See “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” at

It’s true that the efforts of religious people to influence public debate are often seen as “cramming their beliefs down the throat” of the public. It’s as if your views are motivated by faith, you shouldn’t have a voice. If our efforts are strident and bullying, of course, we can expect no less a reaction.

So yes, we should be pacifists in the culture wars if that means we refuse to be combative, instead making our faith-based views known only with respect and love and avoiding self-righteousness. We shouldn’t be pacifists if it means being silent.    

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Practical Tips for Controlling Stress

Last week I wrote about anxiety and the frontal lobe, relating how that part of the brain is responsible for humans’ ability to project into the future. Missing that function would relegate us to a perpetual present, preventing us from predicting and planning.

That function is also a source of anxiety, however, causing us to worry about what may or may not happen. Typically, we worry – often excessively – about jobs, money, relationships, illness and death. Anxiety disorders affect over 40 million Americans and stress is almost pervasive.

I believe all that anxiety and stress is an obstacle in our search for God.

So here are some practical tips for minimizing feelings of anxiety. (I understand that it’s easy for me, a retired guy, to give advice to people who still have to make a living, compete, start or raise families and pay bills, but look at it this way: I have the leisure to think about such things and the hindsight for insight. I also understand that some of these tips may appear to be mere clichés, but there is wisdom even in clichés.)

·        Force yourself to be rational. Calculate the real risk that the bad things you worry about will actually happen.
·        Put your worries in perspective. This is particularly applicable when worrying about money in light of the fact that nearly 2.4 billion people in the world live on less than $2 a day. Do you live in a house or apartment? Do you drive a car? Do you eat when you want to? Then you’re privileged, and comparatively, your life is a walk in the park.
·        Count your blessings. When feeling sorry for ourselves, we often entertain the notion that “everyone else” is doing better than us, and that we are bound to have more bad luck. We ignore the many good things in our past and present, which are predictors of good things to come.
·        Adopt the attitude of the old song, “Que Será, Será, whatever will be, will be.” Worrying can’t change anything.
·        Connect your worry to your search for God, remembering the gospel passage I quoted last week, in which Jesus says,  “Therefore I tell you, don’t worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?”
·        Take your anxiety to God in prayer. You may not be sure that God is there to hear you and may have the feeling that you’re “praying to yourself,” but the Nike logo is relevant here: “Just do it!” Pray, especially, for faith and for the gift of seeing things as they are.

·        No matter what, no matter how distant you may feel from him/her, know that God won’t forget you. The author of Isaiah, Chapter 49, makes that clear when speaking on God’s behalf: Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!”

I’m reminded that much of what we know about Alzheimer’s disease comes from The Nuns Study, a research project of the National Institutes of Health of 678 American nuns. I read a fascinating book a few years ago on the subject called, “Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives,” by Alzheimer’s researcher David Snowdon. I was moved by his story of an aging nun who had recently been diagnosed with the disease talking to another nun who was a long-time friend. “I’m afraid I’ll forget Jesus,” the first nun told her friend. “Don’t worry,” the friend answered. “Jesus won’t forget you.”

Anxiety is controllable. If it weren’t, people wouldn’t spend billions on drugs and therapists to help them do it. Of course, it’s not completely controllable. The evolution of human frontal lobe made sure of that. It’s natural and beneficial for us to be able to predict what will happen in the next hour, day or week, and that often causes anxiety. Exaggerated anxiety, based on distorted and unrealistic predictions about our future, is the problem.

This blog is not about psychology, of course, and I’m no therapist. I’m interested in how anxiety affects faith, and I believe it robs us of our ability to focus on our search for God. It doesn’t allow the time or calm necessary to discern our own mind and feelings and relate them to the bigger questions.    

So, relax, be happy and remember that the search for God is two-sided. From all we know about God, he/she is also searching for us. And thank him/her for the frontal lobe. We would be severely disabled without it. But we’re its masters, not the other way around.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Frontal Lobe a Two-Edged Sword?

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A dozen years ago, I went to El Salvador after two massive earthquakes turned innumerable towns and villages into rubble and devastated innumerable lives. As organizer and translator, I accompanied three doctors who provided medicines and care.

In one large town where the doctors were treating long lines of people, one of them asked me to change roles. Someone, he said, had to “treat” the emotional problems that resulted from losing husbands, children, siblings, parents, homes and schools. So like a sort of Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon with her 5-cent psychiatrist stand, I sat in a folding chair in a litter-strewn street and announced I would listen to anyone who wanted to talk. A long line soon formed behind the chair and I spent much of the next day or two listening to the horrors of earthquake destruction.

Among the most disturbing stories was one from a distraught teen who told of watching a huge sink hole suddenly develop in the middle of her classroom. Many students and their desks fell in, and two were killed as she and other classmates watched helplessly.

I was practicing psychology without a license, I suppose, but I actually did little more than listen and make what I thought were occasional appropriate comments. After telling me about their personal disasters, most people went into their worries about the future: How can I get along without my husband and his income? How can I cope with the death of my daughter? My house is gone, where will I live? My leg is broken, how can I work?

These people were already among the poorest on the planet, with few personal resources and virtually no public assistance. My heart ached for them, but what could I say that would be meaningful?

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I noticed the large number of stray, mangy dogs roaming the streets and decided to offer them as examples. The dogs lived in the present, looking for anything that would sustain their lives, eating anything they could find to put flesh on their skeletal frames. They didn’t worry about the future. I don’t know whether the message “worked,” but people seemed to go away calmer than when they came. What I was asking people to do, I now realize, is to ignore the function of their frontal lobes.

I’m reading a book called, Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard. He describes the evolution of the frontal lobe in the brains of humans and how important it is for human progress. Basically, he writes, the frontal lobe is responsible for our ability to mentally project into the future. If not for that part of the brain, we – like the people whose frontal lobes have been damaged – would be stuck in a permanent present.

The ability to anticipate the future has its downside, however. Anxiety disorders affect over 40 million Americans, but that’s just counting people who have an anxiety classified as a mental illness. Unlike the people in El Salvador who had every reason to be anxious, many of us are needlessly stressed about the future. The American Psychological Association says seventy-five percent of adults reported experiencing moderate to high levels of stress in a recent one-month period, and nearly half reported that their stress had increased in the past year. We worry about every manner of possibility, but principally about money, relationships, jobs, family, death.

Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, says hardly any of the bad things we dread actually happen. Many of us simply refuse to stop worrying and be happy. We settle for the idea that we’ll be happy some time in the future after we make a certain amount of money or after we’re in the right relationship. In my view, all this worry gets in the way of focusing on the important things in life, including the search for God.

I believe that’s what prompted Jesus to provide this insight, one of my favorites in Luke’s gospel: “Therefore I tell you, don’t worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! Can any of you by worrying add a moment to your lifespan? If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?”

(Next week: Practical tips on minimizing anxiety for people searching for God.)