Thursday, February 18, 2016

How Do You Spell God? A Devout Reflection in Memory of Monsignor Thomas Hartman

My aunt Florence died in 2004, just a few months before I graduated from high school.  I remember visiting her in the years preceding it and seeing her frailer than before.  I remember watching my cousin sing Amazing Grace at her funeral and weeping.  And I remember the most amazing material gift she ever gave me: a book entitled "How Do You Spell God" for my baptism when I was in elementary school.

The book, foreworded by His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, is an introduction to the different major religions of the world, from the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to the Eastern faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, and more.

Co-written by Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman, it represents an eminently fair-minded treatment of the world's religions without weighting its words too heavily in favor of either of the authors' own religions of Judaism and Roman Catholic Christianity, respectively.

And this week, the latter half of that writing team, Msgr. Hartman, died after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

I have taken to heart greatly the posts and words and feedback of a number of my congregants who really embraced the challenge of my previous sermon series, "A Mount Rushmore of My Soul," to try and determine who has really impacted and influenced their faith the most for the better.  And even though I did not publicly include Hartman (or Gellman) in my own list, the notice of his death made me pick up my old copy of "How Do You Spell God" from my office shelf, worn and dog-eared, as I have carried it with me to each new place that I have lived since growing into adulthood.

The mere fact that I have done so when I have left so many other books and other material goods behind in each of my moves ought to speak for itself, but I cannot allow it to, because I feel compelled to share just how much it meant to have someone else write a spiritual book that felt like it was written entirely for me.

Does that sound selfish of me?  Possibly, and probably even more so as an adult.  But as a boy, a boy alienated from the more conservative Christianity that surrounded him in Kansas but who harbored deep existential questions about my relationship with God and with the church, it meant the world to me to be given a book that taught me what my religion says and has said compared to the other religions that have often tried to answer those exact same questions.

I needed to be taught by someone who was interested in teaching me more about faith itself, and religion itself, rather than only about my faith, or my religion.  In Hartman's words, I found some of my earliest reassurances that such teaching did in fact exist, and was both interesting and illuminating to behold.  I have no doubt that it made me a better follower of Jesus and, today, a better pastor.

I fear that as Christians, we often get too caught up in trying to protect our children from outside--and potentially unwelcome--influences by sheltering them, by binding them up in their own little spiritual bubbles.  And to be sure, some such treatment is clearly warranted when considering just how gratuitous the violence and how exploitative the sexiness that now exists in certain media, whether in the internet, video games, magazines, take your pick.

But no matter how well-intentioned, I fear that this bubble-wrap spirituality does more harm than good when it comes to exposing our children to the teachings of other religions.  In truth, even if we do not feel adventurous at all, or wonder whether there is a more complete or truer faith for us out there, we owe it to ourselves to know what our neighbors on this earth profess, so far as we are able to.

And for some of us, there does indeed come a time when we outgrow the faith of our childhoods and need, for the sake of the curiosity in our souls, to seek another religious identity.  Jessica, one of my good friends from college, was raised, like me, as a mainline Christian, but during college realized that her faith as it then existed no longer answered for her the questions she needed answered.  She converted to Judaism--twice, actually, because she converted again to Orthodox Judaism, which she currently happily practices while pursuing her graduate studies.

As a basket-to-casket Christian, I do not claim to be able to understand it.  But I honor it, and I cherish it, because I want to see my friend spiritually fulfilled and enriched.  I see the difference in how richly Jessica's faith shapes her life now compared to before.  And, indeed, how it has richly shaped mine by being able to have someone in my life with her faith story and experience.

If I am honest, my knowledge that I should harbor this belief was sown, and nurtured by, Hartman and Gellman's treatment of faiths not their own in this book they coauthored.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding of religion--and religions--in this world that often leads people to assume images of those who believe differently than they that are more like caricatures than like actual living, breathing people.  Were more of us to sit up and pay attention to the words of a teacher like Hartman, who was honest in this book not only about the qualities of other faiths but about some of the past sins of his own, I have to believe that we would all be living in a better world today.

Thank you, Msgr. Hartman, for helping make for those of us who came after you that better world.

Longview, Washington
February 18, 2016

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