Thursday, December 10, 2009

You Gotta Have Faith.

At work and in some areas of my personal life, there are two subjects that are absolutely taboo. The first is politics. I am not a politically enlightened person. I don’t like politics. I don’t believe that I can ignore them anymore though so I am making an effort to gain a fast political education. To highlight my ignorance I had Newt Gingrich confused with Ralph Nader. The good news is this isn’t a political post.  
No I am about to write something intensely personal about the other forbidden subject : Religion. I used to believe I was rather mixed up and ignorant when it came to religion too. Like most areas of my life I felt weird and different. Truth be told, I doubt I am very different from most people though I am about to say somethings that aren’t going to make me popular.  
Politics and Religion both cause intense controversy. The good news is if you have an open heart and an open mind you can listen to other people’s opinion and experience without losing the reality of your own. Here is a piece of my mind, heart, and soul. Read it with caution. You may not like what you see.  
My maternal Grandparents were every Sunday church goers to North Knoxville Baptist Church. To my recollection the only other church I saw them in was when, in my preteen years, they visited me and my parents at Black Oak Heights Baptist Church. My parents and I have gone to a few churches over the years. Most recently they joined Clear Springs Baptist Church (that would be my Parents. My Grand Parents area all dead). Are we sensing a theme to denomination here? 
I guess this is a good time to broach that subject. I don’t see the difference between any of the denominations. Granted I have never taken the time to educate myself on the differences besides some talk of dunking versus sprinkling. Maybe there is a moral there. If you don’t take time to dwell on differences and instead focus on the good things that are the same the differences don’t amount to much. My first wedding took place in a Methodist church. The church was pretty. The marriage was not. My second was in a Baptist Church. I was just glad to find a church willing to marry a man who had been divorced. That isn’t as easy as it sounds in the Bible Belt. Anyway, amongst the Christian faith I see no sense in making demarcation between one denomination and another. Faith and religion is a very individualized thing. As a whole Christianity should concern itself with saving souls and the underlying requirement of faith, not on how the baptismal water is applied or whatever other minute differences there are from one church to another.  
I also grew up with the view that forcing religion on people is wrong. I was expected to go to church on Sunday mornings when my parents went. It was ritual. It was a family outing. It was meant to instill faith and duty in me. It worked until I was a teenager and more preoccupied with earthly concerns than getting a religious education. The good news is when I was twelve I was baptized and saved.  
My salvation is a very hard thing for me to put into words. I am sure it is for everybody. I liken it to a spiritual coming of age or the beginning of the pursuit of enlightenment. Being 12 at the time and that being 20 years ago this coming April I do not have perfect recall of the lead up to my feeling the need to repent. Our preacher at Black Oak was particularly good. I won’t name names because of the nature of my blogging and many of the skeletons in my closet, but I remember he could keep my attention and set my mind to thinking. That is no small feat to a preteen boy in the early 90s. 
My girlfriend at the time went to church with us. I loved the time with her and she did a lot to challenge me to read my Bible. I wish I could say the reading and the time spent in prayer led me to be a better behaved young man. It did not. Perhaps those sins left me with the guilt that led me to worry about making a trip to Hell. I doubt it. I have always had a very light hearted sense of guilt. She did push me to think more and act a lot less. 
During a particularly good sermon a conviction struck me that I wanted to go to Heaven. I wanted more than anything to not go to Hell. It also fell on my shoulders, not for nearly the first time, that I was going to die and I couldn’t avoid it. Per the Pastor, the path to salvation was to believe that Jesus died on the cross in a symbolic sacrifice and in extreme suffering to redeem me from my sins. The imagery of anyone enduring that is powerful. When you take into account that this man was God in human form and he had committed no sin of his own… well that can move you to tears, guilt, and asking for forgiveness. So I did.  
I made a trip down the aisle of the church, tears in my eyes, and the Preacher and I prayed together. It was a powerful moment of surrender for me. I admitted to my mortality. I admitted to wanting eternal salvation. I wanted Jesus to be my Shepherd. To my great surprise I felt a great warmth fill me up inside. I would say that started in my heart but that doesn’t define it properly. I feel my soul keenly within my body. That feeling of hope, love, and serenity started in my soul. Typing this now I can feel it again though it isn’t always there. The tears dried up and I felt a sense of purpose.  
In my mind a voice very not my own said,” I have work for you. It won’t be easy. Will you do it?” Without a moment’s hesitation I said yes. I would love to claim that was bravery or the overwhelming sense of right of the moment. It wasn’t. When you hear voices in your head like I always have you learn to pay attention to them and answer when you are asked a question. Admittedly this wasn’t the first voice in my head, but that is another story entirely.  
The Preacher announced to the church that I wanted to be Baptized and saved and asked my parents to join me at the altar. I assume it was a proud moment for them. I was terrified the Church would say no. Turns out churches like salvation. They scheduled a Baptism and I was dunked. Honestly, this was much less of a spiritual moment for me. I just felt weird in a robe being three times pulled under water, and totally miserable at how wet and snotty I felt afterwards. At least the Baptismal pool was a heated tub. I was never very good at ceremony, a weakness I have had occasion to work on.  
Over most of the next few years I turned into a heathen much worse than I had been before my salvation. There were about six months there where I pursued my faith attending church when I could and reading the Bible when I couldn’t. I spent a lot of time in prayer giving thanks quite frequently with little real thought or consequence to the prayer other than just general conversation with God. To this day I cannot pray before a meal without it feeling awkward. I raised a rather blasphemous thought about this time as a result of an evening meal shared with a friend’s family from our church. 
My family didn’t pray as a group. Again, my family gave me the freedom to choose my level of devotion. The family I went to visit prayed by the numbers. Food in front of you? Give thanks time to pray. Time for bed? Pray the lord your soul to keep. I closed my eyes and listened to the prayer trying to be respectful. I wasn’t sure if I needed to give an audible amen or not so I opted for silence (always a good choice).  
For me group prayer except within church or at a memorial service was seldom real prayer. At most funeral visitations, I made a point to say a silent prayer of my own at the casket preferable in contact with the body. That prayer normally ran along the lines of “ May you find peace in Heaven until I see you again. Amen” Years later I would buy myself a Book of Common Prayer and switch to the ever appropriate “ May the Lord bless you and keep you….” Sadly, my life has seen a lot of funerals. 
My Grand Mother died when I was 15. Her unexpected death threw me head long into a great deal of anger with God. It wasn’t a crisis of faith where I couldn’t believe God and Jesus were real, but instead an inconsolable anger that was much more about wanting to demand answers. Anyone who has lost a loved one is familiar with the feeling, or at least may be familiar with it. I took her death extremely personally. In my teenaged mind I associated my lack of religious devotion or piety with her dying. I guess because I was exploring my sexuality and not following my parents lead I had  taken responsibility. That logic runs along the lines of,” I have been out here straying from the grace  of God and so, obviously, to punish me God killed my Grandma.” It isn’t a terribly realistic view, but boy does it give the devil a lot to work with. 
The trick was on the part of the Devil and I spent years “not speaking” to God before I figured it out. This is a place where I break from a lot of modern Protestants. I don’t believe in salvation as a one-time get out of jail free card. I believe strongly in justice. I believe in the totality of my actions determining the balance of good and evil that I have done. I do believe that there are unforgivable sins. Those aren’t to be confused with the unforgivable curses. Many Christians I have talked to believe that once you have been saved (and/or baptized) you are destined for Heaven no matter what you do for the rest of your life. 
I have lived the proof of that not being true. When I turned my back on God during those dark years I stepped from my salvation. That isn’t the same thing as God turning his back on me. I could feel the presence of God in my life. Like a rebellious child (or maybe a Prodigal Son) I turned back on that guidance and walked my own path. No matter which way I turned though it seemed as if my choices always led me to explore faith of one kind or another. 
I did a lot of religious study. On a business trip to Hawaii my Dad picked me up the Teachings of Buddha. I, for years, had liked the idea of meditation. Imagine that, a teenager with raging hormones and uncontrollable emotions liking a moment of calm breathing and reflection meant to bring a centered balance. I meditated a lot as a teenager. It didn’t replace prayer, but looking back I realize that in those quiet times I was actually listening for God. I did manage to dispel a lot of anger that way. I also learned a lot about being selfless. I am too Narcissistic to ever make a good Buddhist. Yet, the idea of Karma in this life and the next still resonates strongly with me. The idea of Enlightenment, a state of complete understanding and peace, is still something to be sought.  
The Bible was, and is still, the base of my religious research. I spend (and spent)a lot of time on Apocryphal tomes. I also read the Koran. I recommend everyone take time to read anything related to the Bible. It certainly brought me to a greater understanding of my own faith. Frankly, this is just too controversial to say too much more about here.  
The Bible though does have a great deal to say about witches, demons, and magic. Necromancy is noted several times. As a result, I find those things factual and worthy of study. I might not have been a teenager in the 90s without learning a bit about Wicca and the other “magical religions”. Yes kids, this is where David admits to reading up on Witchcraft and the Occult. Let me put that into perspective. The word occult when used in context of blood in waste bodily fluids literally means an amount hidden from sight. It is there, but it is unseen. By definition, the occult is interesting… even when talking about trace amounts of blood.  
I studied lots of myth and folklore from around the world. Tribalism and Shamanism have 
common themes in different groups throughout history. I wanted to find proof of the unseen and when I realized that is what I was looking for I realized the ultimate truth.  
God would not be God or by extension Jesus mean the same thing if I could sit down for a face to face conversation every day. I wanted to prove that our world, our existence was based in fact. By that very proof faith is removed. So around age 20 I started feeling very Zen. I started asking things like,” Who had more faith us or the apostles?” I was fishing for the answer of the Apostles so I could spring out and say,” No because they knew Jesus in person and we only know him by faith.” I felt smug and superior, and I thought I had it all figured out. I was a prat. College and Zoroastrianism didn’t help.  
I could hold these intellectual arguments about religion and faith without being emotionally or spiritually connected.  I would sneer down my nose and tell people why they were wrong based on my interpretation of my earmarked favorite pieces of scripture. It was very jerky. In my heart I was pretending to be righteous while I knew I was further away from God than ever before. It was a dark time parading as an enlightenment. 
God had become a cold unloving, abstract idea. Something about him was only attainable through dusty books and all these hypocritical church folks were ignorant. They might claim to be Christians, but I knew the truth.  
Ever met anyone as arrogant as me? If you are reading this you probably know me and can say yes. I am the eternal Narcissist. My favorite point of self-pride…. or maybe my second point is my big sexy brain. It took me a while to realize I had it wrong.  
It hit me when I was reading an article about medicine and prayer. The basis of the article ,which I wish I had saved, was that “terminal” cancer patients who were prayed for had a 75% higher recovery rate than those that did not have prayer. It was submitted in a very scientific dry language that said almost nothing about God. So I thought to myself why would that happen? Is there power in the act of praying, not God mind you, but praying itself? 
Then it hit me. Sunday school from when I was about 4 smacked me right between the eyes. God is everywhere. He is in every rain cloud, every seat in every pew, he is in me, he is in prayer. The people with faith had it right all along. The people who were prayed for and who prayed themselves took part in God in an active way. They put aside their own assumptions and allowed God to do what God does. That is the supreme act of faith and the way that religion really works.  
When I started looking around me I could see the Hand of God in the world around me. People are charitable and they will put out a million reasons for it, but the world’s biggest atheist could be following the will of God and never know it. Turns out it was easy to follow God and all I had to do to hear him speak to my heart again was to stop ignoring him and listen. Not that I follow all the time, nor have I gotten myself back into church. I do see God working again and I feel that salvation again. I would say I am on the path. It is a lot easier to tell when I have stepped from it. Most importantly though I don’t try to judge where other people are on their own journey. Faith is really too personal for all that. 
That isn’t to say I don’t sometimes see God’s hand where other people don’t. I have a friend who has had all sorts of personal tragedy lately. In the past few days she has had some really great happenings. A good piece of that has been some unexpected and unsolicited kindness than began with me just giving her a hug.  
The people who know me well know I will give out a hug when I see someone needs one. I am not really the touchy feely type though. It is rare for me to touch someone I don’t know almost intimately. Something, that part  of me linked to God’s will, told me to hug her and it meant a lot to her. Sometimes you just need a hug. God knows that better than anybody. I can’t be certain of too much but I know for sure God is found in kindness, charity, a friendly smile, and probably more than anywhere else in a hug.  
You won’t find me witnessing. I am never going to stand on the corner in town and hold up my Bible. I will probably not even write anything else “nonfiction” about Religion for a while, but I am going to spread God through simple human kindness every chance I get, and even with the supposed horrible state of the world around us and all the non-sense I see every day I can see God working in the lives around me. Maybe this will get to somebody else going through that dark time that I think we all struggle with and help them put aside their own doubts and concerns and just have faith.  

Because you gotta have faith. Just ask George Michael. Great song that! 

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