By Mark Azzara
My Dear Friend,
This promises to be an extraordinary TV week. The NBC morning program “Today” will devote the entire week to the positive benefits of faith.
I’m guessing that this interest was sparked in large measure by Lisa Miller’s recent book “The Spiritual Child,” which basically asserts that when there is generational sharing of faith, there are markedly lower levels of stress and fear and much healthier lives for participants.
It’s not just a Christian thing. The same is true for Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus or whatever other religion you can find. Sharing one’s faith means sharing one’s ideas about the higher purposes of life and acting in ways that reflect those beliefs.
I have no quarrel with the conclusions of Miller’s research but I have just one small problem with the conclusion that many, apparently including those at NBC, are drawing: That faith is the new prescription for a happy life. It isn’t.
Faith is … well, it’s a matter of faith. You don’t believe in doctrines or dogmas or rituals or practices because you want to be angst-free. You believe because you have the sense there is more to life than … well, than life. It’s the belief in a divine being who transcends the limits of the physical world — a divine being who has the right to govern who you are and how you live.
I don’t watch much TV but I’ve occasionally channel-surfed in the morning, and if the drivel I’ve already seen on “Today” is any indication, this new week-long series will be pitched as a way for stressed-out families to find some respite.
I have no quarrel with those who, in the midst of trials, re-examine the possibility that God really exists. I think that’s one reason why God allows trials in our lives: So we can begin to question whether he’s there or not. But Matt Lauer, et al, have this habit of turning everything around so that the focus always is on making the viewer feel good, as if that’s the highest goal in life. It isn’t.
Rather than focusing on faith as the means to live beyond ourselves, I’m guessing that this week of faith-based vignettes will turn out to be observations on how “I” can get something out of faith – how faith can serve me. I fear that faith will be turned into another me-based approach to life.
Yes, there are wonderful personal benefits to a life of faith. But as people grow in their faith they realize that others are equally valuable and that those others deserve the same blessings. When modern-day egocentric Americans hear that, I fear they will abandon the pursuit of faith and discard the long-term value because the shorter-term sacrifice is distasteful.
The self-centeredness of our modern age is the enemy of the other-centeredness of faith. The two cannot coexist. “You cannot serve two masters,” Jesus warns. We have to choose. And, he adds, we will.
Every day when I awake I choose to believe. I choose to pray. I choose to surrender. I choose to be shown where I’m wrong and in conflict with God’s thinking and ways. I choose to be corrected. I choose God not because I am seeking good things for myself but because God has demonstrated his goodness to me so often in so many ways that my desire is to return the favor. That’s also part of what faith is.
It would be mean-spirited, selfish and cynical to present faith in a way that focuses on the individual because, as the Rev. Rick Warren put it in one of those great one-liners, “Life is not about you.” This is, in the broadest terms, what Miller concluded on the basis of crunching her numbers.
If the goal of my faith was to get something for myself I wouldn’t be writing this weekly letter to you because I could, I am sure, find a more profitable way to spend my time. But my faith is important to me. Extremely important. And because of that I am taking advantage of this opportunity in the hope that, through my observations, something about my faith will resonate with you and cause you to look into faith more deeply.
That’s the thing about faith that folks at “Today” may have a hard time grasping. They will, I suspect, look at faith while trying to minimize or excise God from the equation. To “get it” means that you conclude God is real and will allow God to affect your life, too. If that’s what the hosts of “Today” conclude, then faith won’t be a one-week deal. It will become a daily part of the show. To see God humbling and transforming the hosts of a show that panders to people’s self-centeredness is … well, let’s just say I’d pay to see that.
All God’s blessings – Mark
Mark Azzara spent 45 years in print journalism, most of them with the Waterbury Republican in Connecticut, where he was a features writer with a special focus on religion at the time of his retirement. He also worked for newspapers in New Haven and Danbury, Conn. At the latter paper, while sports editor, he won a national first-place writing award on college baseball. Azzara also has served as the only admissions recruiter for a small Catholic college in Connecticut and wrote a self-published book on spirituality, “And So Are You.” He is active in his church and facilitates two Christian study groups for men. Azzara grew up in southern California, graduating from Cal State Los Angeles. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut.