On this Easter Sunday, multitudes of the faithful, along with those who casually attend church, will gather for outdoor sunrise services or worship inside grand sanctuaries and modest harbors of faith. They will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ the Savior.
Most come expectant and eager for transcendent messages from pastors — some maybe even an epiphany — something that will get them over the hurdles of their doubts or beyond the pain.
Christianity has been slugging it out in the culture and courtroom, hospital and legislative chamber, literature and science, school and radio talk show. Ten Commandment monuments. Same-sex marriage. Abortion. Stem-cell research. The Iraq War. "The Da Vinci Code." Priestly sexual misconduct. All these have left deep divisions and polarization and complaints of intolerance and Christianity getting off message.
What does it mean to be a Christian today? In answering this question, five East Valley residents all quickly fell back on their own faith journeys and struggles.
As a Catholic, Pat Wentworth has watched the events that have been rocking the Roman Catholic Church, from the scandals of sexual misconduct by priests to the social and political controversies sparked by words and actions in Rome.
"It seems like there are too many people trying to undermine religion," said Wentworth, 63, who had been a member of the Lutheran Church’s Missouri Synod before converting to Catholicism in 1987. "I just practice my faith as usual and pray harder that that part of society will not overcome and influence people to change sides and follow their thinking — rather than to have faith in God."
The Mesa woman is parish manager for St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Parish in Higley, with plans to build a new campus in southeast Gilbert. She goes to Mass daily.
"I do as much as we can, and we just have faith that whatever happens is God’s will," she said. "Peace is coming to us, even through all of these terrible last few years with all that has happened in the Catholic Church. It is becoming more peaceful, and people are settling down in the church. They say, ‘Because of our faith, we have to come back.’ "
The Easter message for her is simple: "To love everyone and have faith that God will prevail. Everything is done for a reason. A lot of time, you know in your own heart and in your day-to-day activities that you know you are faithful, but it’s not something that you actually go out and talk about and demonstrate."
For the first 35 years of Robert Scovill’s life, he was no churchgoer, and he was cynical about what he knew and saw regarding Christianity. What he got from television about the faith was not flattering. TV evangelists seemed to feed his jaundiced eye.
"I can remember thinking that the God I believe in isn’t short of cash," said Scovill, 44. "It wasn’t presented in a good light, but at some point, I felt like it was worth investigating," said the music industry professional from Scottsdale. "It kept gnawing on me" to explore Christianity.
Scovill believes it was "divine intervention" about a decade ago that he found Mountain Valley Church in Scottsdale, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Conference. It‘s a congregation that touts itself as "a church for people who have given up on church."
"It was a perfect fit for me because it was geared for people like me — questioning, pessimistic, unbelieving, skeptical," he said. Scovill said Christian faith development is challenging work and takes time.
"I didn’t happen overnight," he said. "I felt like every Sunday that I would show up, I would chip away just a little bit more of the stone and get just a little more knowledge, just a little more insight into exactly what the Bible was saying about how to live your life."
He looked back on his transformation and said, "I am definitely living a different life under a different set of rules." He found it reassuring to get into the Bible text and "understand how Jesus walked his life" and how the same principles are so applicable to his own life.
Scovill calls Christianity "advanced citizenship," and "you’ve got to believe in it, and it is definitely not for the shallow."
Her formative years in the Islamic society of Libya and in Catholic Colombia, while her father was a geophysicist in the oil business, gave Leslie Evans an appreciation for the character and beauty in all faiths.
A "cradle Anglican," Evans, 52, of Tempe became the American counterpart, an Episcopalian, when she settled in the United States. She is now the senior warden, or chairman of the vestry (church council), of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Tempe.
"My parents raised me to be very inclusive and to understand that their religion was just as important to them as my religion was to me," she said.
An important component of being a Christian, she said, is being a witness for Christ’s teachings, including accepting and loving all people and working for peace. "God asks us to see the face of Jesus in every person, and if you can really remember that and look at someone and say their are one of God’s children, too, it really breaks down the barriers between persons," she said.
Evans is troubled by deep divisions in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican movement after a gay priest was ordained as a bishop.
"This is polarizing us," she said. "One of the wonderful things that make us all who we are are our differences — and in embracing those differences and learning about others faiths, you find that they are very similar in so many ways."
Evans is frightened by the infusion of religion in public policy debate.
"Somehow religion has become political, and politics becoming sort of religion, and that is very frightening in our culture," she said. "I think people are not sitting up and taking notice of that," and it will lead to irreparable harm.
"I am not a cancer patient who is a Christian — I am a Christian who happens to have cancer," said Stan Balken, 52, of Chandler, whose facility at talking about his faith is disarming and profound.
"Everything in my life centers and focuses round the fact that one day I will stand before God, and he is going to judge my life," said Balken, who has been battling Stage 4 lymphatic cancer for 7 1 /2 years and teaches the "Way of the Master" Bible program at Bethany Community Church in Tempe.
"I don’t get a free pass to heaven because I have heart disease or cancer," he said. "I don’t get a free pass to heaven because I have three children. I don’t get a free pass to heaven for anything I have done other than having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
"My Christianity is pretty much everything to me," he said. "I don’t get embarrassed by it. I believe the Bible is very literal when it says Christ will come back. Is Christ coming back? He will come when the world is prepared and every nation is heard.
"I realize that before I stand before God, I want to be prepared. I don’t want to be left empty-handed," he said.
THE REV. STEVE HOLM
Saying, "Jesus is at the core of what I believe and what I preach and what I do," the Rev. Steve Holm doesn’t wince when he says Christianity, as we know it, is dying, giving way to a new understanding of Jesus and his message for humankind.
With 35 years of ministry under his belt, the last 15 at Desert Cross Lutheran Church in Tempe, Holm, 60, freely quotes from the newest books critiquing the faith — how Brian McLaren, in "A Generous Orthodoxy," asserts that if Jesus were around today he would not be well-received by Christians. And how Jim Wallis, in "God’s Politics," contends forces in America are misusing Jesus for their own means.
Nevertheless, the Wisconsin-reared pastor said he is "excited about the future for the church. It is just going to take a while to sort all of these things out. It may be a period of tension, a real period of reformation because it is not an abandonment of what is old, rather an embracing of what is essential."
Part of it, he said, is "the death of modernism," the realization that technical, scientific advancements were "really, really going to be significant and important to us," but have left people wanting.
Holm foresees the "death of denominationalism and an openness to the practices of other denominations and other Christians." The pastor said Jesus should be recognized as standing in the "prophetic tradition of the Old Testament" that was "deeply involved with society and the cares of society and even involved in politics."
So it comes as no surprise that Christians today have a strong interest to engage in the culture and politics to bring change and reform. "It’s recognizing that a lot of the problems that the world faces are not just personal sins, but rather systemic in nature," he said. "And there needs to be a radical overhaul before all people can experience the Kingdom of God."