Belief, superstition and faith

Saturday, May 30, 2009

It's a lesson that mothers teach children. It's a decidedly minor tutorial, mentioned only in passing accompanied generally with a resolutely stern face. The lesson is this: If you have a loose thread on your coat, trousers, skirt, blouse or shirt, don't pull on it! Ignore it or cut it off, but never pull it. Pull on it and you could end up with a pile of unraveled thread at your feet (or a reasonable facsimile).

What is true for clothing is false for information. It is often through the examination of loose ends, threaded persistently through your thought process, that leads to larger and larger discoveries and ultimately to a conclusion.

The other night I watched my hometown Pittsburgh Penguins gain a berth in the Stanley Cup hockey finals. As champions of the Eastern Conference, the team is presented with a bauble -- the Prince of Wales Trophy. There is a tradition that the winning team is never to touch this trophy; to do so, the thinking is, is to invite bad luck for the team in the upcoming league championship finals. This attitude is a splendid example of superstition: a word, when you pull on etymological threads back to its Latin roots, which literally means "to stand over." The sense of the word, then, is that a superstition "stands over" your reasoning ability. Superstition is faith in magic or in chance.

When our children were small, I had a parishioner who made excellent German potato salad and who had an unswerving belief that examining the position of stars in the galaxy had something to do with our personal lives. To be clearer, she was a person who attended church faithfully each week and who also composed astrological charts for people on a regular basis. When her daughters brought home boyfriends, she would ask them their birth dates and a few other questions. She would then run a chart on them. Armed with this information, she would then declare to her daughters whether they had a future with these young men. (In the back of my mind, it seemed an excellent way to mask her disapproval.) She once offered to chart the futures of our little girls, an offer we politely declined.

Superstition is alive and well. Millions of people regularly check their horoscopes in the newspaper. When I've asked people who do check the paper for their daily "star forecast" about their practice, they tell me it's just for fun -- which is either the truth or something less than that. It may be deference to my clergy status.

When you pull on the loose end of superstition, you find that the thread is disappointingly long. In my ministry, I'll guess that markedly more church people have said the words "I'm crossing my fingers" to me than "I'm praying about it."

Christians shouldn't cross their fingers. Christians shouldn't depend on luck. We should depend on God's promises, which are enumerated by the dozens in Scripture, and we should pray. Let's pull on that thread. Here endeth the lesson.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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