Finding faith, life intertwined

by Mary Bergin, The Capital Ties, Aug 23, 2007

New York, USA -- Bob Abernethy long ago figured out how to have a conversation about religion without preaching, and now he demonstrates that no church or individual has a lock on grace, faith, hope or healing.

"Most of us care more about how people live than what they believe," asserts the television newsman, employed by NBC for 40-plus years before joining PBS to develop "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly," which begins its 11th year of broadcasts in early September.

It is the best kind of work, the 79-year-old says, because it is work that he loves.

Abernethy and religion writer William Bole have produced the book "The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt and Repairing the World," which is a compilation of 66 essays from an unusual and diverse array of people, based on interviews conducted for the PBS show.

Modern-day prophets, great teachers and heroes are how Abernethy categorizes the group, which includes a cousin with Parkinson 's disease, Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu and religion historian Martin Marty.

Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh mentions Buddhist retreats in Madison, where police officers "are called peace officers, and they should be -- they should have enough peace in themselves" to do their work with full awareness and compassion.

"The things in the book that mean the most to me are said by people who look life squarely in the eye and see it as both a source of delight and suffering," says Abernethy, in a phone interview.

"They see it for what it is, and then they get on with it," acknowledging pain and unanswered questions, but not allowing either to paralyze them.

Among the book's observations:

From Dr. Rachel Remen, holistic health pioneer: "Over time an illness can become a spiritual path."

From author Studs Terkel, on the value of activism and community: "When you become part of something, in some way you count. ... To count is very important."

From the Dalai Lama: "All religious traditions have the same potential to make better human beings, good human beings, sensible human beings, compassionate human beings."

From author Anne Lamott: "I don't find spiritual insight sitting around thinking 'thinky' thoughts about what it all means and who God is. I find God in the utter dailyness and mess of it all."

Abernethy agrees. This business of religion, he says, is not just about institutions and churches, "but inviting people to talk about their deepest beliefs."

He is the grandson of two Southern Baptist ministers who dearly wanted him to follow their path. A one-year sabbatical from NBC, to study theology and ethics at Yale Divinity School in 1984, was the closest Abernethy got.

"I loved what I studied, but what did I learn? It's hard to say, but I'll never forget the kindness of the people who were teaching. They cared about their material, which is not so unusual, but they also cared about the people they taught."

These types of teachers also fill "The Life of Meaning," simply by explaining how they rationalize and proceed with their lives.

From Madeleine L'Engle, children's book author: "It's when everything is awful that we really need faith."

From the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., liberal peace activist: "When you're grateful for the undeserved beauty of a cloudless sky, you 're praying."

From Hindu leader Uma Mysorekar: "Our belief is that everything we do in life is an offering to God. That's the reason we pray first, before anything we do."

From political scientist Alan Wolfe: "There really was a time when saying 'I 'm religious' meant 'My way is the only way.' And that's not how people speak anymore. They recognize that there are many paths and many ways."

For Abernethy, these perspectives aren't all that rare. It's simply the semantics that change.

"All around us are people who live their lives strongly grounded in their faith," however faith is defined, he says. "It may not look that way, but it's going on all around."