Faith, not fear
I wish to thank the editorial board for bringing insights on the Protestant Reformation. To most it might appear that what occurred 500 years ago is no longer of consequence, as Lutherans and Catholics are now in closer dialogue than ever. We have been blessed by thoughtful minds of late. I believe ecumenism (the coming together of Christians in fellowship and shared belief) is needed more now than ever before.
Over the centuries, our world has gone through countless conflicts over how to live our lives, focus our faith and whose voice to follow. Protestantism was a fundamental break away from feudalism. Protestants believed that the God created them with a voice. Eventually, the outcasts of Europe embarked to the shores of the Americas for opportunity; the right to faith and self-determination was a pre-eminent concern. Our republic is based on the freedoms found in faith, including the right to choose one’s faith. We have come a long way. Unfortunately, suspicion, ignorance and self-aggrandizement have led to misunderstandings and dislike. But we must not forget that in those first boats were Christians, Jews, atheists and wanton capitalists. As Americans we learned, adapted, survived and we have thrived because of our diversity and courage.
Many come to a particular faith or view of the world through their families and their cultures. America has had many pockets of immigrants who have carried their beliefs, practices and cultures with them into the New World. We know that community and coming together take time. Few of the first needed to look beyond their own understanding of the worldview to see some of the bigger opportunities and necessities within their new culture. Each generation learned a little more, and as their offspring in a shrinking world today, we find a great need to be smart and attentive. We have righted our errors by keeping a vigilant lookout for the ever-present evils that can ruin people, communities and nations. We have wrestled with many demons over time, such as slavery, equal rights and others, and survived. The quality of a culture will not mature or, more dangerously, will erode quickly if not ethically maintained and all its members are not allowed dignity.
Some of you may know that Father Ratigan (priest of St. Bernard’s) and I both served as U.S. Army chaplains. Both of us have prayed with and for men and women of different faiths. We called them Americans. No matter where they came from, they were ours. In sacred moments, we ministered to the living, hurting and dying with a common belief in God and the God-given right to dignity. We both shared the Christ with His principles of faith, such as goodness, mercy and honor, and with a constant search for peace and justice. We have both honored our country’s dead and looked into grieving eyes with love, respect and gratitude. We have stood on the battlefield with others who will fight and die for the right of a man or woman to have their voice, cast their vote and pray the way they have been moved to do.
The arguments between our denominations within the Christian faith or with those of different world faiths are as inane as fleas arguing over who owns the dog. Don’t get me wrong; I applaud and respect our differences. Our voices are often close and our desire for fellowship and understanding even closer. As a pastor of two different congregations in the area, the United Methodist and Lutheran, I want the success of every church in and beyond Saranac Lake — be it Baptist, “non-denominational Christian,” Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Orthodox, Quaker, Roman Catholic, etc. — as long as they are willing to fight the greater evils of ignorance, arrogance, abuse (in its many forms), injustice, tyranny and those who would silence the right of every person to have or find their own voice. I refuse to look at other faith groups as competition, nor will I look down upon them and their quest for truth and knowledge. We can find common ground. Even with the immigrants and refugees arriving today, we can exemplify and foster the principles of decency, autonomy and respect. We can ask that individuals respect our culture as they share theirs. We can be generous if we initiate it in the biblical definition of love found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13. When true evil arrives, let us see it for what it is and rise to the occasion to meet it and, if lucky, keep it at bay for a while longer. We will never eradicate it.
I believe we are created with a conscience, which, like our faith, must be exercised to give it strength. I believe, at its best, our conscience brings us a glimpse of the divine. We have been blessed to live in a country where conscience has been key and, when honorable, never for sale. At our best, we have been thoughtful, looking at who we are and how we act on that. If one faith group or person says they have the corner on truth, I say be careful. I remember Jonestown, and I grieve today over the massacre in Texas. I’ve seen oppression in the name of faith and witnessed too many victims of those who had to prove they were right through violence and intolerance. I also fear living in a country where people stockpile weapons to fight off the coming hordes of zombies or, worse, to turn them on their neighbors, when the world goes mad. I grieve over people trapped by fear. The real fight is to make certain the world doesn’t go mad. Keeping it sane takes faith, engagement, dialogue, education and sacrifice. It was this recipe that made America great before and can do so again.
In closing, I am honored to call many of the clergy in our area my friends and often seek their advice and guidance in this walk of faith in a complex world. I know we are on the same road, perhaps at different paces but mindful of different aspects of the journey — and, too, that some of us stumble or get turned around. Now more than ever we need to respect each other’s voices, listen, learn, pray and fight the real battles and not each other. Faith at its best — in God, spiritual reflection and one another — has stood the test of time. It still does and will bring ecumenism as long as it still inspires, educates, evolves, enlightens and gives us direction.
The Rev. Eric Olsen lives in Saranac Lake, where he is pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity and interim pastor of the First United Methodist Church.