Testing the Waters
I started going to church when I was about twelve years old, and I left church right before I turned eighteen. It was a strange experience, and one that has provided its share of mixed blessings.
I received a great education on the Bible and a deeply ingrained belief that all life has a purpose. On the other hand, I walked away with a great deal of skepticism and so much self-doubt that it has pretty much influenced every day of my life since then.
I don't attend church as a result of those years, and I have to say that I met some of the shadiest people who I have ever known in church. People who harshly judged others while turning a blind eye to their own flaws, who preached against stealing but stole, railed against lying yet lied, and taught forgiveness but never forgave.
I've had teachers who were terrible gossips and others who thought nothing about telling a twelve year old boy that if he didn't get with the program that he would burn in a lake of fire for an eternity. When I ask why God had it so in for me, he couldn't give me a straight answer but mumbled something about having a free will and stuff.
Being a naturally curious fellow, I just had to ask the follow up question, " How is it free will if I get put into a lake of fire for making the wrong choice."
"Because God wants you to do what's right."
"Then why the hell did he give me a choice?"
Round and round we would go until I got branded as a little Sunday School smart ass, and a hard nut to crack. Some teachers would cringe when I entered the room and others would take a perverse pride in believing that they would be the one who finally delivered me, shorn of my hubris, up to the altar where they would lay me prostrate before the assembled congregation and smirk with satisfaction as if they had conquered Lucifer himself.
I can remember being the only person in the room most Sundays who hadn't openly taken Jesus as my savior. I can tell you that this made for many a fun Sunday as the altar call went out and every eye in the place turned to see if my resolve had finally weakened. It never did.
One Sunday, they came and almost dragged my brother to front, but when they came back for me, I simply turned and walked out the door. I sat in the very back row ready to make my escape every Sunday after that. When I asked my brother why he had caved, he said, "The pressure got to be too much." He was baptized in the blood. I took that on faith since it looked more like tap water to me.
I have never understood why I was so reluctant to do things their way. I have tried hard to grasp it too as I think the answer to that question would reveal the utmost truth about who I am, a deep mystery that has puzzled me my whole life.
I can remember sitting in a pew asking myself, if this is such good stuff, why are they appealing so adamantly to the weak, the broken, and the dispossessed. Why in their choice of music and the altar call itself are they trying to break me down into nothing?
That was one of the things I hated the most. It seemed to me like they were saying that God cannot accept the challenge of someone with any kind of intellect and emotional well being.
The other thing that bothered me was their concept of sinful behavior. They said that God himself had dictated the contract and had laid out ten behaviors that needed to be addressed. By the time I got of age in the 1960s, those ten behaviors had multiplied exponentially and they (church people) were churning up more by the day.
One day in the sixties, I listened to a preacher say that young men wearing long hair were sinners. He spoke beneath a picture of a Jesus who could have walked around incognito at Woodstock.
I was in my early teens, and the real fun stuff was in my future, and these guys were telling me that if I didn't want to burn in a lake of fire, and not just any lake of fire-but the one that burned eternally, that I would have to eschew it all in favor of the joy I would get from hanging around with a bunch of people with big cheesy grins and absolutely no sense of humor, you know like the people who think that knock knock jokes are the cat's meow.
I was twenty-eight years old, sitting in the parking lot at Fresno State before the weight of the guilt from my Baptist upbringing finally fell off my shoulders. I had such a negative image of myself all through my youth, an image I think that was heavily influenced by fact that I had been told my whole life that I was a sinner and that I couldn't be what my beloved parents wanted me to be, a member of their church.
Self disgust drove my early years, but even in the worst of moments, I was always searching for a way out. While hallucinating on drugs, I was searching for answers. While vomiting in a field because I had over imbibed, I would look up at the night sky dizzy, dirty, and confused and try to reorient myself with the question of what, if anything, that night sky had to do with where I was and what I was doing.
I don't blame people for the mistakes that I made. I realize now that all through life we are all given many choices to make, and how we make them determines who we become. I made a lot of bad choices, and still do. Oftentimes though, I wasn't given all the background information that I needed to make the right choice.
There were many good people too, honest ones who were truly committed to their belief in God, those who didn't just talk the talk but also walked the walk.
However, it was watching my dad and mom that kept me linked to the church. I still accept the idea of the power of a face to face with Jesus because of the change that I saw in Pop after he went down to his knees. And by accepting the idea, I mean to say, that I don't believe that it is superstitious nonsense to believe that God has the power to reveal to us not only the errors of our ways but also a better way to live.
I have never seen either of my parents purposely set out to cause harm to another person. I've searched my mind for an example and the nearest thing I could find was when my mom jerked me up by my wrist and whacked my bottom for acting stupid, but even that served a higher good.
I once borrowed my dad's suit coat, reached in the pocket, and pulled out a stack of funeral notices two inches thick, most of which listed him as a pall bearer. I know that during those years he went out to visit the sick and the dying on a regular basis.
And I was always searching for something more meaningful. I just wasn't getting it there in church. Mythology was my favorite reading when I was a boy. I have books that I purchased in my early twenties with titles like Cosmic Conscious, Tertium Organum, The Fourth Way, and The New Model of the Universe, and I could no more read or understand what was written in those texts than a nun could grasp the workings of the Kama Sutra.
I just knew that there was something contained in those books that I wanted to learn. People always say you can't judge by its cover. I did a remarkably good job of doing just that. I had a hidden sense that always seem to lead me from one clue to another deeper and deeper into the dark forest.
Other than my love for my wife, I have had three great passions in my life, the study of history, the study of literature, and the study of basketball, and I have used all three to further my understanding of the great mystery of life. I have finally figured out that my efforts to read the classics at this stage in my life, is being fueled by this life long search for truth.
I read somewhere that Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were the two authors who had suffered the most to find the kind of answers I sought. I didn't think it was right to use Cliff Notes or to google what others thought about the matter, so I decided to read The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace in their entirety. One to see what is said to be the ultimate refutation of existentialism and the other to read Tolstoy's ideas on why life, despite its often hideous permutations, is worth living.
Dostoevsky was condemned to hang and actually had the rope around his neck before being pardoned, and Tolstoy was often suicidal. These guys wrote from the perspective of head sticking out of an open grave. I felt that what they had to say would carry a lot of weight.
Being perfectly honest, I would have to admit that after all these years I am somewhat up in the air on the subject of God. I know that many would see this as an admission of failure and defeat but not me. I still possess a lot of hope.
At the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy expresses his ultimate belief on the subject through the thoughts of the character Pierre Bezuhov, a character who suffered mightily because of his search for meaning.
"Pierre's madness showed itself in his not waiting, as in old days,
for those personal grounds, which he had called good qualities
in people, in order to love them; but as love was brimming over
in his heart he loved men without cause, and so never failed
to discover incontestable reasons that made them worth loving."
That's about where I stand too. I've seen God push grass up through cracks in a sidewalk. I've heard of many, many people who have laid down their own lives for the well being of others. I've been stunned into silence by the diamond covered sky while camping in the mountains, and I've been brought out of the doldrums by sound of baby laughter.
I've seen lightning, and I've heard thunder. I've reached down to take my father's pulse to make sure he was dead.
And I've finally learned why God gave me a choice.