City Lights: 'Blessing' is faith at its finest

Everyone has questions they hate to be asked. High on my list is, "Are you religious?" I dread it especially if I sense that a "no" answer will prompt a barrage of other questions, some of them rhetorical.

Usually, in those circumstances, I say something on the level of "I'm spiritual, but not religious" or "I believe in a higher power, but not any organized religion." I suppose it's the same as posting a "Support Our Troops" bumper sticker on your car while declining comment on the Afghanistan war — a middle ground between taking sides and sounding like a churl.

The above reflections were inspired by my attendance Sunday at the fifth annual Blessing of the Waves in Huntington Beach. Each year, the Diocese of Orange brings together representatives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and other faiths for a program of speeches and songs. The subject matter is roughly split between God and the ocean — two concepts that frequently intertwine throughout, especially when the entire group walks from Pier Plaza to the shore to sing a concluding hymn.

This event, for me, represents faith at its finest: a ceremony dedicated to a cause (serving a greater power and, more immediately, serving the ocean), inviting everyone to attend (no "right" or "wrong" religion specified), that ends in a gesture of camaraderie (paddling out together into the ocean) instead of a mission to convert the heathen.

If events like the Blessing were all that being religious entailed, I would give a relaxed "yes" whenever the question came up. Under the wrong circumstances, the word atheist sounds so harsh. Suppose I'm the kind of person who refuses the possibility of any higher power. Do I also not support the troops? Do I kick dogs and favor cutting funds for the children's hospital?

The late pundit Christopher Hitchens roused some furor when he wrote a book titled "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." I would never make a statement like that. I've attended Catholic masses and other services that were as warm and welcoming as the Blessing. I've covered more religious charity drives than I can count. I felt proud and humbled listening to my Mormon college roommate's stories about being a missionary in Peru.

In short, my favorite aspects of religion are what I might call the secular ones: the ones centered around life in the here and now instead of punitive speculation about the life to come. I imagine that if the universe is ruled by a loving and merciful God, then He — or She, who knows? — takes heart when I help a person on crutches over the curb. He/She probably nods approvingly when I forsake some material indulgence, contribute to the office canned-food drive or pick up my wife's dry cleaning.

What I somehow doubt is that God's mind is as petty as many of our own — that a force powerful enough to create every speck of the universe would chafe at the notion of two men in love, or a woman showing her hair in public, or people attending one house of worship and reading one scripture instead of another. When I hear particularly zealous people try to impose agendas in the name of religion, I sometimes wonder if they're using their respective Gods as a shield for personal biases.

For example, years ago, I wrote a story about a local church and covered a service there. When the worship began, the pastor made some general remarks about solidarity, about how the congregation had come together as brothers and sisters. I smiled just as I did during the Blessing of the Waves — it's good to belong, even among strangers.

Then the sermon began, and it turned out to be an extended diatribe against homosexuals, nonbelievers and followers of all other faiths, who, the pastor insisted, wouldn't make it to heaven "even if they were 16 inches away from accepting Jesus." I nearly walked out, and only my assignment kept me there past the first 10 minutes.

I've encountered that side of religion more often than I can count — with classmates who doggedly plied me with pamphlets and explained that God would punish them if they didn't convert me, with a fitness instructor who brazenly insisted that 9/11 was God's revenge on America for letting its Christian values slip. In situations like that, I'm always too polite. I want to ask the logical question: How do they know, out of all the many faiths from many cultures around the world, that the one they're imposing on me is the right one?

But back to the Blessing of the Waves. For those two hours Sunday morning at Pier Plaza, more than 100 of us stood together in a show of unity — teachings of Christ meshing with teachings of Zoroaster, head scarves sharing the stage with surfboards. When we made that trek to the water's edge and sang "God Bless America" together, the massive roll of the ocean said it all. Somewhere, on the other side of that horizon, all the answers may await us. Here on the sand, for now, we do our best.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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