Appreciating religious diversity

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By Vince Luecke

It's Lent and I've been doing my very best to keep up ages-old Christian tradition of giving up something to mark the spiritual significance of the 40 days before Easter.

My sacrifice isn't huge: I've ditched the television for the most part, allowing myself only 30 minutes of news in the morning and evening. Instead of watching movies or the National Geographic Channel, I've been trying to read more, blowing off dust from books I only glanced over during my seminary days. I've come to enjoy the quiet time.

I didn't get to Ash Wednesday services but tried to keep the spirit of the day by abstaining from meat and eating only one meal.

Religious occasions still play an important part of many people's daily lives and I respect the religious traditions of others, even those I don't fully understand or agree with.

I attended the speech in Santa Claus by Gov. Mitch Daniels the evening of Ash Wednesday and watched with a bit of amusement one man who had apparently just been to a church service. On his forehead was a large and very noticeable smudge of ashes in the shape of a cross. He was sharing a story with Daniels and I wondered whether the governor knew why the fellow had a dirty forehead. He may have caught on later when everyone was served fish.

Religious traditions surround us but we often don't see them.

Whenever I'm staying in a hotel, I always search the drawers for the Bibles placed in rooms around the world by the Gideons. There's often a Book of Mormon in the same drawer. I've pored over the small scriptural print in German, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Our county is home to many people whose religious convictions impact their way of life, even their appearance, and while most of us respect those traditions about dress and hair styles, I occasionally hear insensitive comments. That's unfortunate.

I remember being teased in high school about the fish I ate on Lenten Fridays and the looks of suspicion people give to those whose religion causes them to look or act differently is a sign that we're not yet totally at ease with religious differences. The harsh spotlight on Mitt Romney's Mormon faith over the past year was an example.

It's easy to cast judgments on others and ask "Why can't they be just like us?" But doing so is an injustice to the ideals we claim to adhere to. None of us should be forced to worship in a particular way but none of us should be hindered from exercising the same freedom.

Our nation is becoming more religiously diverse, just as it is culturally. Change is hard but respect and tolerance still trump fear and ignorance.

Though not many of us venture from our own church homes, other than for funerals or weddings, events such as Lenten breakfasts offer opportunities for sharing faith.

I recently read that more high schools are offering courses in the history of religion as electives. That's a good thing, providing they teach the history of faith and spirituality and not any one creed.

Not all religious traditions observe Lent, but we can all benefit from a little more quiet time and being respectful of others' rich faith.