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Here's a 'simple faith' that doesn't need every single question answered

When I was reading the remarkable story of 11 abused and abandoned sisters who found a way to reunite after more than four decades -- Broken Water: An Extraordinary True Story, by Barbara Lane -- I reaffirmed something I've known but haven't thought about recently at least in these terms:

Broken-water-2There is a difference between simple and simplistic religious faith.

Those who hold simple faith recognize that there are eternal things they can't explain in this life but they remain faithful to their vision of God nonetheless.

Simplistic faith needs to have all the questions answered and won't be satisfied as long as there still are mysteries.

Simple faith is open to love and possibilities.

Simplistic faith is open only to what the holder of that faith can grasp and explain in regimented language.

Barbara Lane and, indeed, many of her rediscovered sisters (yes, 11, though their mother also produced two other children, a girl and a boy, whose whereabouts Lane still doesn't know) show what a simple faith looks like.

At the end of the appalling stories she tells about growing up in a relentlessly dysfunctional family (there was abuse, abandonment, foster homes, orphanages, poverty), she writes this:

"I thought about my brother, Jesus, who held my hand during one of the darkest nights of my soul. I thought about the resilience each sister was granted through the grace of God. I thought about the strength each one of us displayed through the telling of our deeply held secrets and I thought about the healing that would occur for those who seek to find hope through the reading of our words."

Those words -- and others -- demonstrate simple, not simplistic, faith. And when you finally get to them at the end of the book they seem remarkable for their purity, their clarity, their insight.

Much of this story takes place here in the Midwest -- St. Louis, southern Missouri, small-town Kansas and elsewhere. Indeed, once the author eventually locates her long-lost sisters who are scattered across several states, she several times passes through Kansas City International Airport on her way to visit them and learn their individual stories of survival in the face of a radically broken family.

It's helpful that in the book's preface, Lane provides some context to the painful stories the reader is about read. For instance, she quotes federal agencies that track statistics about children as saying that almost every year in U.S. about 250,000 children enter foster care and that an average of more than 700,000 confirmed cases of child abuse are reported each year.

Once Lane was reunited with her sisters -- a fascinating story on its own -- she spent 15 years meeting with them as a group and individually to learn their individual stories. At times she almost abandoned hope that the project could be completed, but inevitably she was driven back to the task, and completed it before some of her sisters began to die.

The most important break in her effort to locate her sisters turned out to be a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about a family that won a contest for birthing the most consecutive number of female babies. At the time, there were nine sisters in the picture, with another baby on the way. And, yes, there was a photo of the family that included Barbara Lane at roughly age 2.

I'm not going to go into detail about what each sister went through to survive the hell that was their childhood. You can read all that for yourself. But I hope my distinction between simple and simplistic faith is helpful and perhaps moves you to read the book. The writing itself is not amazing and often fairly pedestrian. But it has the benefit of clarity.

The one question I failed to answer to my satisfaction is the meaning of the title, Broken Water. At first I wondered whether Lane was using the term as a reference to how many times her mother's water broke as she delivered another child. Later, when it became clear that the Black River in southern Missouri had special meaning to Lane and that at times she would sit by it and watch the breeze corrugate its surface, I thought perhaps that's where she got the title.

In the end, I quit trying to figure out the title's meaning. Obsessing about it would have been evidence of something like simplistic faith's demand for dotting every "i" and crossing every "t." Simple faith doesn't need an answer to the question of the title.

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Religious leaders must understand that they are always in the spotlight. That's unfair at times, but remembering it can prevent the sort of financial scandals that have given Christianity in particular and religion in general a bad name. For instance, this RNS story reports that "The longtime leader of a North Carolina Baptist charity stepped down this week after an internal investigation found he had used almost $90,000 in charitable funds for personal expenses over the past three years. The investigation also found that 81-year-old Michael Blackwell, who had led the Baptist Children’s Homes of North Carolina since 1983, had diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to a special account set up for his benefit." Even if Blackwell's claim that it was all a misunderstanding has some validity, the report simply gives people one more excuse not to trust religious leaders or religion itself.


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