faith and doubt

Guest Post: Ina Albert on Changing Faces of Spirit

"Ber'eshit", the first word in the book of Genesis.
“Ber’eshit”, the first word in the book of Genesis.

            “Religion is an agreement between a group of people about what G-d is.
Spirituality is a one-on-one relationship.”
~ Conscious Way Magazine

It was the 1960’s and I went to the right rather than to the left.

Someone gave me a copy of Atlas Shrugged and I swallowed it whole. Especially the part about altruism and religion being irrational and atheism being the only intellectual alternative.

As a follower of Ayn Rand and Objectivism and a Republican-for-Goldwater, I rejected my Jewish heritage and announced that I had become an atheist at a family dinner.

Of course.

My mother cringed and asked, “What about the children?” (I had sons ages four and six at the time.)

My father looked at my mother and said, “She’ll get over it.”

He was right.

But the reason I returned to Judaism was not a deep-seated belief in G-d. It was Judaism’s conviction that being Jewish could not be denied. No matter what, I could not be excommunicated. I could question whatever I wanted and still be “kosher.” Denying G-d in front of the altar in the synagogue, blaspheming the Torah, refusing to have my boys circumcised, would not release me.

I was Jewish, and once a Jew, always a Jew.

Why? Because now and forever Jews have had to adapt to change. As we moved from society to society, the community integrated some customs in their new home and rejected others. Certainly the Spanish Inquisition is the prefect example. Jews had to choose between being burned at the stake or converting to Catholicism, so they became secret Jews, lighting the Sabbath candles in wine cellars and basements and praying secretly on the holidays. Called Maranos or Crypto Jews, they developed their own hidden culture. Like their ancestors, they re-adapted to Spanish society where acceptance was conditional at best.

Yet Judaism grew in each new circumstance. The most sacred music was created during the Inquisition. Once a year on Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre – All Vows – sings the musical withdrawal of the covenant that forced them to become Christian. Their individual survival demanded that the vow be made, but the survival of Judaism accommodated this necessity with a heroic statement that is now sung in every synagogue in the world to reaffirm commitment to Judaism—no matter what.

Once a Jew, always a Jew.

So what became of my vow to become an atheist?  I found that, where Judaism obligated me to ask questions and discover my own brand of spirituality, Objectivism did not.  It was rigid, dictatorial, defined on only one level of human experience. It failed to support curious minds, human kindness, and intellectual growth.

In Judaism I found ways to explore everything from orthodoxy to Humanistic Judaism in which G-d plays no part.

Where did I land? I’m still in process. But my connection with G-d is clear. I feel it every time I meditate, every time I pray, in every walk in the woods and in the eyes of each person I meet. G-d’s energy is with me and with all creation. I feel it, experience it and have no doubt that it exists.

The new book Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, to which I contributed a chapter, offered us authors the opportunity to explore our beliefs out loud. And to listen louder to each other.  It explores the essence of religious freedom that allows us to express our spirituality as a one-on-one relationship without boundaries or restrictions.

Disquiet Time has created a sacred space between all of its contributors and you, our readers.

Thanks for listening,

Ina Albert

Ina Albert  is co-author of Write Your Self Well…Journal Your Self to Health, finds that listening is her most valuable quality as she grows older. Her new children’s book, Granny Greeny Says…Listen Louder, tells us how it’s done.

A life transitions coach, certified Age-ing to Sage-ing® seminar leader, and adjunct instructor at Flathead Valley Community College, Ina has logged 40 years as a healthcare communications professional. She shares 78 years of life experience with clients and readers of her monthly column in Montana Woman Magazine. She is published in Second Journey,, Jewish Magazine, Elder Woman Newsletter and various other publications, including a chapter in The Art of Grief edited by J. Earl Rogers for Routledge Press. Ina’s “A Letter On Behalf of Myself,” was selected by University of Portsmouth (United Kingdom) for their anthology, Borderlines.

Ina and her husband, Rabbi Allen Secher, are God Girl’s adopted spiritual parents. They live in western Montana with their Kugel the Wonder Schnauzer.

Powerful words on writing from
St. Freddie of Rupert

Speak What We Feel, Not What We Ought to Say
By Frederick Buechner

“It is Red Smith who is reported to have said that it is really very easy to be a writer — all you have to do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein. Typewriters are few and far between these days, and vein-openers have never grown on trees. Good writers, serious writers — by which I mean the writers we remember, the ones who have opened our eyes, maybe even our hearts, to things we might never have known without them — all put much of themselves into their books the way Charles Dickens put his horror at the Poor Law of 1834 into Oliver Twist, for instance, or Virginia Woolf her complex feelings about her parents into To the Lighthouse, or, less overtly, Flannery O’Connor her religious faith into virtually everything she ever wrote. But opening a vein, I think, points to something beyond that.

“Vein-opening writers are putting not just themselves into their books, but themselves at their nakedest and most vulnerable. They are putting their pain and their passion into their books the way Jonathan Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels and Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, the way Arthur Miller did in Death of a Salesman, and William Maxwell in They Come Like Swallows. Not all writers do it all the time — even the blood bank recognizes we have only so much blood to give — and many good writers never do it at all either because for one reason or another they don’t choose to or they don’t quite know how to; it takes a certain kind of unguardedness, for one thing, a willingness to run risks, including the risk of making a fool of yourself.”


Why do we believe?
Is it a learned skill?
Or is it a gift, like faith or joy or grace?
Can we lose the ability to believe, or never have it to begin with, depending on the hand life deals us?
I’ve been ruminating on the nature of believing since watching and re-watching the new documentary film, “Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story.” The 90-minute film, released on DVD last month, deconstructs the career of comedian Eddie Izzard, a man who is, perhaps, the funniest person alive.
Izzard has been a favorite of mine for years. His seemingly-stream-of-consciousness ramblings on everything from jam to Jesus are infectiously funny and eminently smart. I’ve seen Izzard perform live and watched, I believe, everything he’s ever committed to film — from comedy stand-up and  feature-film roles such as the voice of Reepicheep in “Prince Caspian” to his virtuoso turn in the (sadly) short-lived TV series “The Riches.”
He is, in a word, brilliant.
 Izzard, who is a transvestite and often performs in women’s clothing and full makeup, first won my heart when I watched his 1999 stand-up film, “Dress to Kill.” It was his mercilessly funny (and frighteningly astute) take on religion and faith that grabbed my attention and my funny bone.
JESUS: “Look Dad, I went down there, I taught ’em to hang out, be groovy, drink a bit of wine, they split into different groups! You’ve got the Catholics, the Protestants, the Jesuits, the Methodists, the Evangelicals, the free Presbyterians, the locked up Presbyterians… the Quakers, the Bakers, the Candlestick Makers… The Mormons are from Mars, Dad, we’ve had that checked out.”
GOD (in the voice of James Mason): “And what does the Holy Ghost think of all this?”
JESUS: “Oh, he’s useless, Dad. Got a sheet over his head these days.”

God, in Izzard’s acts, is always Mason. (And Moses  [and sometimes King Henry VIII] sounds like Sean Connery.)
Here’s his take on the history (and present) of Anglicanism:


While he maintains that he is an atheist, Izzard regularly draws on religious history and theology for comic effect. The spiritual, it seems to this fan, fascinates him. Even if he doesn’t believe.
Izzard’s “Believe” is different from all his other performances. Maybe that’s because it isn’t. It’s real — a behind-the-scenes look at the comic’s struggle over several decades to achieve success. “Believe” paints a compelling — at turns hilarious and intensely moving — psycho-spiritual portrait of Eddie the artist.
In it, we learn how driven Eddie the man is. And, to an extent, why.
You’ve got to believe you can be a standup before you can be a standup,” Izzard says. “You have to believe you can act before you can act. You have to believe you can be an astronaut before you can be an astronaut. You’ve got to believe.”
Izzard learned this lesson, we are told, while he was a street entertainer in London’s Covent Garden in the late 1980s, when he borrowed the ropes and chains from another performer’s act and had an audience member tie him up. Once, Izzard explains, he was bound too tightly, so tightly, in fact, that he couldn’t escape. He had to dismiss the crowd and ask friends to free him.
The performer to whom the ropes and chains belonged told him: “If you think you can’t get out, you will not be able to get out. You have to believe you can get out. It’s psychological.”
(In an odd aside, while watching footage of Izzard in Covent Garden in 1987 in “Believe,” I realized that I recognized him from the summer I spent on the same London streets performing as a “mime for the Lord” during missions trip when I was 16. Small world.)
Izzard, 48, was born in Yemen, and raised in Northern Ireland and Southern Wales. His mother died of cancer when he was just 6 years old. He caught the bug to perform as a schoolboy, shortly after his mother’s death.
Driven, unbelievably so, is the way Izzard comes across in the documentary. He just wouldn’t give up until he made it. Big. He worked hard, made sacrifices and nonsensical leaps of faith to get where he is today.
In a particularly poignant scene toward the end of the film, Izzard talks about his mother.
“I think that performing was about trying to get everyone to love. You’re trying to get the love of the audience, and that was the big swap from mom’s love not being there,” he says, choking back tears. “The big problem is that everything I do in life is trying to … uh … get her back.  I think if I do enough things that maybe she … that maybe she’ll come back.
“Yeah,” he croaks, “I think that’s what I’m doing.”
Izzard’s confession reminds me of something Bono of U2 told me a few years back. Bono’s mother, Iris, died suddenly — of an aneurysm at the funeral of her own father — when the rock-star-diplomat was 14.
“People think performers — that it’s all about love me, love me, love me. And they’re right!” Bono said as we rode a tour bus through Nebraska. “It’s not that they want everyone in the crowd to love them. It’s usually just one person and the crowd has one face. It could be a lover, it could be somebody who bullied them at school; it could be their teacher, it could be their father. That’s my theory. Most great performers are performing for one person.”
Who’s yours, I asked Bono, who had, moments before, plopped down next to a startled male reporter and rested his head in the guy’s lap. He was kidding around. Or was he?
“That’s why I was just getting comfortable there,” Bono joked. “I was trying to figure that out.”

Back in 2006, Bono interviewed Izzard for a special edition of the UK newspaper The Independent. The two men talked about losing their mothers at a young age.
“The conclusion I have come to is that the audience is a surrogate affection organism for the loss of my mother’s affection,” Izzard told Bono. “A mother gives unconditional love (some mothers don’t, but my mother did), but an audience’s love is totally conditional. You have to deliver. Consequently, I believe my desperation to deliver is to get this love out of an audience. That is what kept, and keeps pushing me.”
“Ditto to a similar beginning,” Bono replied. “The loss of my mother definitely started me singing and writing, but the audience was probably some sort of attempt at my father. It goes without saying, if we were of completely sound mind and proportion in our thinking, we wouldn’t be performers.”
Madonna’s mother died when she was just a girl. John Lennon lost his mother when he was young, and so did Orson Welles.
Perhaps great art arises from the lost thing. Whatever it might be.
My own mum lost her mother when she was 3 years old. While Helen hasn’t aspired to super-stardom (at least not in a worldly sense), I see that same kind of drive in her demonstrated most vividly in her faith. She pushes herself to trust this loving God, to ingest as much of the Word of God and sound teaching as she can. That search, for her, is all-consuming in much the same way that Izzard’s creative impulse is for him.
Maybe the loss of that original, organic unconditional love —Bono once told me that his first experience of God’s grace came from a mother’s love — is what leads some to believe deeply (as it did Bono and my mother) and others to lose their ability to believe altogether.
Izzard had to believe in himself. The power of his believing earned him great success.
Still, the lost thing remains. And Izzard keeps striving for more. To do more. Create more and better. To be more and better.
He is a generous man. Last year, with only a few weeks’ training, Izzard ran 1,100 miles around the British Isles — the equivalent of 43 marathons in 51 days — to raise more than $300,000 nearly $2 million for charity. It seemed as though sheer will and a stubborn belief that he could do it because he said he would, kept him going.
I wonder, though, as a fan and admirer, whether some day all that hard-practiced believing and will-driven running might bring him to the place where he can believe in the unconditional love of a God who knows him and loves him just as he is.
Until Izzard can move into the space where he can believe, I’ll believe for him.
Eddie the man, you are loved. By millions of fans and by your biggest fan: the Creator with a capital C. The same One who made the heavens and the earth, bees and coffee, Rwanda and France, radioactive socks and cupboards.
Only the One loves you the most.

Chikondwelero Pasaka!

St. Freddie of Rupert on EASTER:

The Gospels are far from clear as to what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have gotten there before anybody else. There was a man whe thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that ther were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn’t believe the women’s story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of ‘fear and great joy.’ Confusion was everywhere. This is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did they say? What did he do?

It is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it – the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs – have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. Its’ not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. It doesn’t have the ring of great dram. It has the ring of truth. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.
The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.
He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching till they find his face.
— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABCs of Faith



As you know, I spent the earlier part of this week in Bolivar, MO speaking at Southwest Baptist University. When I received the invitation last year to speak there, I was wary. I wondered how in the world they’d heard of me and if, in fact, they really were familiar with my work.

Preconceived notions on my part nearly prevailed. I’m so glad they didn’t.

As it turns, a lone student named Mallory – 20 years old, from a town south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River; Roman Catholic, tiny nose ring, earth keeper, a heart for justice like a young Dorothy Day – had heard my lecture via podcast from last year’s Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. It was titled, “Jesus is my Mix Tape: a Spiritual Biography. Mallory is a die-hard music lover. We talked and talked about the music that speaks to our heart and why.

Mallory is with a group of students on campus who are responsible for choosing the programming for chapel two weeks a month. She is the one who invited me and convinced the school that it was a good idea.

Mallory was a breath of fresh air to my hurdling-toward-forty spirit. She reminded me of many of my dearest friends when we were 20 and students at Wheaton. Wide-eyed and idealistic. Endlessly curious about the world – this one and the hereafter. She is smart – whip smart – and deeply, deeply kind. A gracious soul. She took great care of me during my sojourn in Bolivar, consummately professionally and wonderfully sure of herself.

An absolute delight. An unexpected blessing. Startling grace.

When Mallory drove me to the airport in Sprigfield,  MO, she gave me a gift: a CD mix of her favorite music. She introduced me to some artists I’d never heard of before. Alexi Murdoch, Josh Ritter, Deb Talen, Mumford & Sons, Oriole Post, The  Avett Brothers and Mike Crawford. One of Crawford’s songs, “Words to Build a Life On” really touched  my heart this Good Friday.

I wanted to share it with you. And give a deep bow of gratitude to my sweet new friend, Mallory.

Blessings and Easter graces to you, dear sister.

“Words to  Build a Life On”

By Mike Crawford

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Blessed are the poor
Blessed are the weak
Blessed are the ones
Who can barely speak
Blessed in your hurt
Blessed in your pain
Blessed when your teardrops
Are falling down like rain
Blessed when you’re broken
Blessed when you’re blind
Blessed when you’re fragile
When you have lost your mind
Blessed when you’re desperate
Blessed when you’re scared
Blessed when you’re lonely
Blessed when you’ve failed
Blessed when you’re beat up
Blessed when you’re bruised
Blessed when you’re tore down
Blessed when you’re used

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Blessed when you’re heartbroke
Blessed when you’re fired
Blessed when you’re choked up
Blessed when you’re tired
Blessed when the plans
That you so carefully laid
End up in the junkyard
With all the trash you made
Blessed when you feel like
Giving up the ghost
Blessed when your loved ones
Are the ones who hurt you most
Blessed when you lose your
Own identity
Then blessed when you find it
And it has been redeemed
Blessed when you see what
Your friends can never be
Blessed with your eyes closed
Then blessed you see Me

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Blessed when you’re hungry
Blessed when you thirst
Cause that’s when you will eat of
The bread that matters most
Blessed when you’re put down
Because of me you’re dissed
Because of me you’re kicked out
They take you off their list
You know you’re on the mark
You know you’ve got it right
You are to be my salt
You are to be my light
So bring out all the flavor
In the feast of this My world
And light up all the colors
Let the banner be unfurled
Shout it from the rooftops
Let the trumpets ring
Sing your freaking lungs out
Jesus Christ is King!
Jesus is my Savior
Jesus is divine
Jesus is my answer
Jesus is my life

These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine

Give us ears that we may hear them
voice that we may sing them
life that we may live them
hope that we may give them
hearts that we can feel them
eyes that we can see them
thoughts that we may think them
tongues that we may speak Your words

GODSTUFF: The Coen Bros. get “Serious”


Earlier this week, I had a bad day. Epically bad.

I ran out of cash.

I lost my credit card.

I missed my flight.

And then, standing outside the United Airlines terminal at O’Hare, I dropped my cell phone, and as if in slow motion, watched in horror as it bounced and dropped over the barrier and onto the roof of the baggage claim area 10 feet below into an inch-deep layer of pigeon guano and dead cigarettes.

First I cried, and then I laughed as several chivalrous gentlemen from TSA, the Chicago Police Department and the city’s Department of Engineering came to my rescue, eventually retrieving my (mercifully) still-working phone.

In those tense moments at the airport, beset by one minor calamity after another, I began to feel a bit like that poor fellow Job from Hebrew scripture. Job lost all his money, his wife, his children and his health, but he refused to curse God. He was a good man, a serious man.

My having-a-bad-day woes reminded me of Larry Gopnik, the protagonist of the spiritually powerful (and powerfully funny) new film “A Serious Man,” that I saw last weekend at the Toronto Film Festival.

“A Serious Man” is the 14th film from the brotherly writing/directing/producing team of Joel and Ethan Coen. Set in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, Minn., in 1967, the dark comedy follows the trials and tribulations of Gopnik (played by newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg), a physics professor and all-around decent fellow whose life falls apart in the course of a few weeks before and after his son’s bar mitzvah.

The Coens, the Oscar-winning duo who brought you “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo,” “Raising Arizona” and “The Big Lebowski,” among others, are natives of St. Louis Park and were reared in an academic Jewish community much like that of “A Serious Man.” In fact, the Coens’ parents were both university professors, and 1967 would have been the year Joel made his bar mitzvah.

Gopnik’s suburban serenity begins to unravel when his wife announces she’s leaving him for Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed), a bloviating, faux-pious fellow professor. A litany of seemingly minor, but life-altering calumny leads Gopnik (who sees himself as a modern-day Job) to question the existence of God and the meaning of life — and of suffering.

He turns to three rabbis for answers to his questions, all of which are, the filmmakers seem to be saying, essentially, unanswerable.

Since their directorial debut in 1984 with the neo-noir thriller “Blood Simple,” the Coens have created some of the most enigmatic and enduring films of my generation. The average moviegoer may not realize the duo who gave us whimsical comedies such as “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “The Ladykillers” and “Burn After Reading,” are the same guys who made the bleakly post-modern “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and the gangland period piece “Miller’s Crossing.”

The cinematic styles, periods and themes of their films are so varied, some critics have wondered whether there is an overarching vision to the Coens’ work. I would argue that it is the spirituality — the theological notions, the existential questions, and the religious ideas — of their films that, to paraphrase one of the oft-quoted lines from “Lebowski,” really ties the room together.

Beginning with “Blood Simple,” the story of a man who has serious doubts about his wife’s fidelity and what happens when he attempts to uncover the “truth,” the Coens have boldly engaged serious existential questions with darkly intelligent humor.

Each Coen brothers’ films is marked by theological, philosophical and mythological touchstones that enrich even the slapstickiest moments. Each film probes confounding ethical and spiritual quandaries, giving us a tour of nuanced moral universes that may be individual (in the case of “Barton Fink“), geographic (as in “Fargo”), or historic (such as the Depression Era of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?“)

Biblical truths run rampant throughout the Coens’ 25-year cinematic oeuvre. The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. The love of money is the root of all evil. Love conquers all — even death.

And that’s just in “Fargo” alone.

The Coens have created moral universes in which some of life’s essential questions are asked — if not always answered. These queries run the gamut from the meaning of life and enlightenment, to the fundamental nature of grace, truth and love. There is seemingly no question the brothers are afraid to tackle, either with a wink and a smile or brutal honesty (and sometimes both).

There is a moral order to the worlds the Coens create. Whether it’s a farcical crime caper or an American Gothic tale of betrayal, there always are consequences to the characters’ actions, for better or for worse.

Bad guys are punished and the decent are rewarded for their innate goodness, though beware the viewer who assumes it will be easy to discern which is which.

Sins come to light; lies and deception are revealed. Occasionally, the hand of God intervenes to restore order from chaos.

“A Serious Man,” which hits theaters nationwide Oct. 2, encapsulates all of the spiritual themes the Coens have examined in their past films and introduces audiences to one of the more intriguing (if little-known) theological notions from Judaism — that of the Lamed Vavnik, the 36 righteous souls in every generation upon whom the fate of the rest of the world rests.

The film continues the Coens’ work as secular theologians whose body of work one astute critic described as “the most sneakily moralistic in recent American cinema.”

Cathleen Falsani is the religion columnist for the Chicago