Dear People of God at St. Lukes,
A common refrain I hear from people facing hard things is "I don't know how I would have gotten through this without my faith, my relationship with God." That relationship takes on all sorts of forms, from personal prayer, to Sunday worship, to the care that others in the church (St. Luke's and friends and family who attend other churches) provide. This same reality is true for me as well.
The Northeast of the US now leads the nation-used to be the Northwest (Washington/Oregon primarily)-where people answer polls about religion and belief "none of the above," as in 'I don't belong to a religious faith.' Often these polls cover more broadly questions about belief in God without belonging to any creed. Basically: the whole arena of spirituality is irrelevant, "I just get on with my life." None of the above. The 'nones.' The same trend is in Europe, where in most countries churches are interesting cultural museums with great art for the vast majority of citizens. Maybe we can intuit something less extreme but unfolding in Scituate: 20,000 residents, but no traffic jams on Saturday evening or Sunday morning (Christianity is by far the dominant religion of North America).
The nones still love others, and many I'm sure do good deeds for others. Maybe some do more for others than professing people of faith do. They might not see the work of God in their actions and attitudes, but I claim it. If God is love, then people of any one faith, or none at all, have a lock on God.
So why believe? In part because having a relationship with God and a worshiping community enriches, informs, gives context and meaning to life. As relationships go, you don't know what you're missing if it's not there: John Doe down the street might be a fantastic friend for me if we connected, but since we haven't, I really have no idea of what that lack looks or feels like. If I lost my faith on the other hand it would leave a permanent hole.
One early Christian writer said we have a 'God shaped hole' in our heart that can only be filled by God, and that we'll be restless until we find that match.
A relationship with God through a religious faith connects us not just to others, but a larger story as well. God created the heavens and the earth, and it is a good gift. This God loves us and wants us to love God back. When we fall short, God calls us back. He brings people out of all sorts of enslavements into freedom. The Hebrews leaving Egypt through the Red Sea is our smaller journey of leaving behind whatever diminishes our lives to enter greater freedom in God. Yes, there are rules, laws. But darn it, we seem incapable of doing the right thing all the time. So God came more directly, as Jesus. He even conquers death. When we are baptized we intentionally join Jesus, and all the gifts that brings as well as the call to love God, love neighbor, and keep trying.
By coming to church on Sunday we keep the story of our lives connected to the larger reality of God and the community of followers throughout all ages.
To come full circle to where I started, Jesus, God, make the most sense to me about the reality of suffering and the larger life that is beyond it. God doesn't cause the bad stuff. God is present when it is happening to walk with us through it. We might wish that God would step in and just remove the illnesses and troubles of our lives. Jesus reveals God's action in our lives-at the start of his ministry he comes to Peter's house and Peter's mother-in-law is sick so Jesus heals her, and then does the same for others in the village that night. But then he leaves, and those villagers go to haul him back; they want this physical healer to be on call 24/7. Jesus responds that he has a larger mission and vision than that.
Even the resurrected Jesus still bears the wounds of the cross. The suffering we deal with now is contained, enveloped by the larger life-giving reality of God.