A Muslim woman at the pool

As I walked from the locker room onto the deck of the Forest Park Pool, I saw a woman dressed in what I thought was a peculiar manner. 

It was on Monday, a real scorcher of a day.  She had on a baseball cap with a piece of cloth hanging down in the back covering her neck.  She had on a black summer dress which covered her arms and went down to her knees.  Under the dress she had on Under Armor like black leggings.  She provided quite a contrast to the bikini clad women walking past her.

“Strange,” I thought, until I figured it out.  “She must be a Muslim who is bringing her kids to the pool to cool off in the heat.”

My very next thought was, “You go, girl.”

Here was a woman—if I’m right about her being a Muslim—who was trying to be faithful to her religion’s views on modesty, while at the same time trying to adapt to a different culture and let her young children have fun and cool off.

And then I identified with her, because all of us who are serious about our religion are very aware that what God has in mind for how people should live together is very different from how our society, or any society for that matter, works.  We all have to answer the question of how much adapting and compromising we can do and still be faithful to our religion.

The trend these days, as far as I can see, is to dismiss religious rules as controlling and judgmental.  “What matters,” people say, “is that I have a good heart.  Externals like dress are just superficial.  I’m trying to get free of all the rituals and rules and get to the substance.”

In a way I agree.  Rules and regulations are like the bottles that hold the water we drink to survive on these sweltering days.  What matters is the water, not the bottle.  True enough, but if you’ve ever hiked in the dessert, you know that you can’t carry water without a bottle. 

Containers matter.  They matter a great deal.  You are all familiar with the statement, “That argument doesn’t hold water.”  Trying to carry water in a paper bag doesn’t work.  Empty pill bottles work fine, but they are too small.  The village’s water tower holds water well but it’s too big to carry around. 

To look at that mom dressed head to toe in black might illicit the response from liberated Westerners that she is focused too much on the container and not enough on the inner spiritual condition, that you can wear a bikini and still be modest in spirit. 

This discussion, of course, was being played out in my head, but that woman—covered from head to ankles in black cloth—kept telling me that how we dress and the language we use and the customs we follow do matter.  Of course we can be hypocrites and act one way when the cameras are rolling and another way when we think no one is looking.  But the fact that many of our parents’ or grandparents’ generations put too much emphasis on conformity shouldn’t give us license to be unconcerned about how we present ourselves in public. 

Have you notice that the term mental health has been replaced in many places by the term behavioral health.  The container matters.

As part of my job as a writer on religion, I’ve been in some churches where the focus seems to be more on the container than on the life saving water we need.  Those congregations are into ritual for the sake of ritual on the one hand or political correctness on the other.  At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been in congregations in which they are so focused on the water that they have  no way of containing it and it runs all over the place and no one’s thirst gets quenched.

Containers aren’t what we’re ultimately after, but without good ones, what we’re longing for evaporates before it quenches our thirst.

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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