I used to see this old man in my neighborhood. He always wore high wads, a hat with a fuzzy brim and ear flaps with patches of hunter’s orange, Fargo Chic if you will. Every morning like clockwork when I would leave for work I would see this man walking near my house. At first we just noticed each other, and then as time past we started to say good morning, and even to small talk about the weather and such.
Then one day out of the blue as I was stopped at the corner on my bike, right on cue I see my new neighborhood pal and the man says to me “Say, I have been meaning to ask, what church do you go to?” I told him I did not attend a church as I was not Christian. A curious look came over his face, he shrugged his shoulders and walked on and from that day on when I would see him he would just keep his head down or cross the street altogether.
I was quite taken aback by this. This is Seattle after all and not exactly the bible belt. What of Tolerance and Freedom? They are enshrined in the First Amendment after all are they not? Why is religion such a touchy subject? I know several couples, parents and kids, siblings and friends as well that live in denial of each others religious faith or lack thereof. Why is it so hard for so many to have an open honest civil conversation about religion, maybe disagree but still have respect for one another. Is it the fear of death or the unknown? I just do not know.
Shortly after my wife and I moved to Seattle in the late nineties, we were invited for Thanksgiving dinner at her aunts house here. Her aunt a Devout Catholic had apparently pieced together from folks back home in Missoula that I had somehow strayed from the faith, and so, she sat me down for a talk. I tried to explain to her that although I did not attend Mass, I was in fact still a very spiritual person. I am a musician and songwriter after all, and if you have ever read any of my lyrics, you would know I don’t exactly write a lot of fluff.
Her response was one of obvious disappointment as she concluded our conversation by sternly declaring “Jeff, when you are older and wiser, you will return to the faith.” I was 28 at the time.
"Return to the Faith" she had said. It was a curious choice of words. Yes it is true that by and large I was raised in a Christian household and attended Church for a time, I was never baptized let alone confirmed into any church. It just never took with me, and I will gladly explain why.
When I was very young my parents could not agree as to which version of Christianity we should follow as a family, so we attended the University Congregational Church, a common compromise among couples of varying Christian ilk. I remember sitting in the Sunday School classroom with a group of other kids, none of whom I remember now. The teacher had a picture book with the common, white man with brown flowing hair version of Jesus on the cover. I remember being told to pay close attention and the promise of cookies later and I distinctly remember being told “Jesus loves you, and did you know that he died for all of our sins?” I remember thinking about those words and remembering them, but I literally had no idea what she was talking about. I was 5 at the time.
A few years later my older brother made a new friend who had recently moved into town and joined the same swim team. I remember his family were rather wealthy, they owned a small chain of pizza parlors. They were also Catholic. They were very nice people. I had a bit of a crush on one of their daughters who was about my age. Sometimes when my brother would sleep over at his friend’s house he would attend Mass with them the next morning before being brought home.
What soon followed was that my brother transferred to the Catholic grade school in town to hang with his new Catholic friend, my family started attending the same Catholic Church, and then in quick succession, my brother, my mom and my gram(my mom’s mom) all were confirmed into the Catholic Church.
I think my family just like a lot of others, saw it as a way to heal wounds, come together as a family and be a part of something bigger than themselves. I can totally understand that, and I think that is fine. The reality though for my family as well I think like a lot of other families was that, just believing everything is OK because you go to church together as a family one day a week does not necessarily help with the real problems at home.
It is an odd feeling to hear people say the Lord’s Prayer and finish the exercise with hugs and “Peace be with you” and then not act anything at all like that outside of church. Forgiveness has its place surely, but some folks seemed to be leaning a little bit too hard on it to me.
As a consequence I began to resent the whole affair and when I was in 5th or 6th grade I had an epiphany. It finally dawned on me, as I was laying awake in my bed early Sunday morning, having been awakened by the alarm set on my black plastic Casio wrist watch. I am always the first person up in the morning. If I was just not around, they couldn’t take me to Mass. So I quietly dressed, grabbed my soccer ball or basketball, whatever was in season, and sneaked out into the neighborhood.
And I did it again and again and again, every Sunday Morning, rain or shine. My parents and my gram were beside themselves. As best I could, I told them that I just did not believe what they believed in. All the biblical readings from this apostle or that just did not resonate with me. I told them I would not go with them anymore to Mass. I told them it all just seemed very superficial to me. I told them you cannot force someone to believe in something. The pressure to go along with them was intense, and they were very persistent, but eventually I did win out, and they left me alone to my own devices on Sundays. I think they also thought that I would eventually come around, when I was older and wiser.
Around about that same time, my mom had hired a lady from church to come over and help her clean once a week. My mom was in school studying to become a teacher and needed some help around the house. I remember I was sitting on the couch and the church going cleaning lady came into the room, after obviously talking about my situation with my mom, she declared somewhat distraught “Jesus loves you Jeff. Don’t you know that? Don’t you know Jesus died for your sins?”
I’d heard that before eh. I smiled and said I knew, but In fact I did NOT know, I did not know anything about THAT at all.
The idea, a pillar of the Christian faith no less, that the Son of God or God himself in human form, or whatever, thousands of years ago, died for my sins, your sins, everyone’s sins? I have always found to be a bit presumptuous.
There are those of the faithful, a minority I think, I hope, that will say God’s law rules supreme over the laws of mere mortals, they presume to know what that law is, and believe they have the right to enforce it. Under this guise oppression and discrimination particularly against women still operates freely today all over the world. It is a great impediment to peace and the progress of human rights on Earth.
Most people who identify with western religious faiths, have more in common than most of them think they do. For all practical purposes the big 3 all get back to the same stories from the Old Testament. Is Jesus God, the Son of God, a Rabi, a prophet not unlike Muhammad? It depends on who you ask.
The common theme I think is just simply believing in a “higher power” and along with that is also believing that this God has a plan, that your destiny has somehow been predetermined and chosen for you.
Well… Whether or not I were to walk out the door and go to work every morning and come home every night, or whether I just said to hell with it, got on a plane and disappeared, either way, that’s my choice. I and I alone am responsible for my own actions and I do not believe anyone’s idea of God has anything to do with it.
In the late 90’s the last conversation I had about this with my mom I remember her asking me ‘So, you think this all just happened, everything, life on earth, the universe, all of it?’
Yes I said. Because if there is one single thing I have learned in my life, hard as it is to accept, is that stuff just happens sometimes. No rhyme, no reason, no guiding force, stuff just happens.
There was recently a debate across the country over the idea of “Intelligent Design” which is nothing more than a thinly veiled and poorly conceived re-branding of Creationism by the Discovery Institute here in Seattle, and in the commentary regarding their losing legal effort against Evolution in which their faith based creationist arguments were exposed and refuted in a court of law was this:
People who believe in God will say: Life in all its infinite mystery could not possibly have come to be through mere chance. Therefor there must have been a Designer, a higher power that set this all in motion and guides us even now.
And the simple rebuttal, that sums it all up so nicely is:
If that is true, then who designed the Designer? Infinity.
Now I know what some of you are thinking, ‘But Jeff, you just have to have faith.’ Right?
I do have faith, but just not in your God. I pass no judgment upon the faithful, I really don’t. I know people find great comfort in their religious beliefs, and I respect all ye faithful for that. I just don’t happen to share in those beliefs and I don’t think that puts me in a category of people who need saving or who are thought of as naive. We are all created equal.
Cue John Lennon: Imagine all the people…
Peace Be With You,