An Impious Inquiry
An Impious Inquiry
Why, oh why, dear friends, am I so put off by piety? I mean the outward expressions of religion.
Why do I react badly in a restaurant to someone at a nearby table closing their eyes, folding their hands, and murmuring quietly to themselves? Is it guilt I feel? Resentment at another's righteousness and my own impiety?
Why do I wait indignantly at church dinners while the designated invoker piles phrase upon phrase while my mouth salivates and my stomach grumbles? (I remember unfondly the Brooklyn pastor who prayed so long over our fried chicken that it was lukewarm when at last I got to taste it.)
Why do I shout expletives at the TV screen in the privacy of my study when one or another of the famous preachers-become-talking-heads waxes religious (with a wide, wide grin) about the power of prayer?
Why do I, as I did again this Sunday morning, shift restlessly in my pew when the ceremony in front of me unfolds with smarmy helpings of holy superlatives?
No Christian I know of applauds ostentatious alms-giving. After all, Jesus does tell us that when it comes to money we should not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. That lesson, hiding one's financial virtue, has been well-learned.
But Jesus' admonitions about prayer are, I would daresay, the most widely ignored commandments in the Gospel. Check out Matthew 6:5-8, to refresh your remembrance of red letter words on the subject. Prayers? Make them short and say them in private: that's Jesus' rule.
Sure, we can exempt our shows of piety because, the Lord knows, we do the folding of the hands and the bowing of the head with a free and open heart totally unmindful of the people around us who might be impressed or depressed by our demonstrations of our love for God. After all, that seems to be Jesus' emphasis, that we shouldn't pray or fast so as to be seen and admired by others. And didn't he say something about not hiding our light under a bushel?
Still, I am convinced the Galilean rabbi would endorse the advice from medieval times: "Don't wear your heart on your sleeve." Shakespeare's Othello refused to follow it, so why quibble, I ask myself, if modern Christians choose to wear their faith on their sleeves? Well, I tell myself, because faith is an intimate, inward thing, like love for a spouse, that shouldn't be shared promiscuously with every Tom, Dick, and Harriet one happens to meet casually along life's way. Even with congregants in days of yore I would always ask first if it's okay with them before offering a prayer... never routinely.
Maybe I should plead the second great commandment. I don't like doorstep vendors of the Gospel plying their trade with me. I've been known to close firmly a door in the face of especially persistent evangelists who simply refuse to take "No" for an answer. And I have responded to those asking, under the influence of a soul-saving piety, when I was saved, reporting sarcastically if truthfully that my precise date was 3 PM Good Friday 33AD. Therefore, I would seem to be obliged by Jesus to refrain from the same practice, even if it's on his behalf.
Perhaps I should just attribute this anti-piety attitude to my New England Yankee upbringing, the reserve they brought with them to this land from an island across the waters. Or let me invoke King George's adversaries on this continent, thinking of my soul, that flag with the inscription, "Don't Tread on Me."
Yeah, I'm the snake, an impious one. Appropriate, don't you agree?