July 05, 2005

Journeys

This is a post about . . . well, it touches on religion. It's not about conversion - either mine or anyone else's. It's just a post about experiences and personal conclusions. (Sorry for the disclaimer, but I believe in truth in advertising.) Every year at my church, instead of a sermon one day, a couple of people stand up and talk about their faith journey and how they got to Southside (our church). After listening to the stories this year, I thought I would write a part of my own.

- - - -
I was born in Amarillo, Texas. As an infant, we moved to Houston, then another place in Houston. Albuquerque, New Mexico; Oklahoma City. Then we left the South and for what seemed like an interminably long year, we lived in Carmel, Indiana. We left Carmel in the middle of a small blizzard and moved to Austin, Texas. Then I started kindergarten. In third grade, we moved to Arlington -- between Dallas and Fort Worth.

I go through this litany of places because when people ask me where I'm from, I've never really known how to answer. I generally ask, "Do you want the long version or the short version?"
Likewise, even now, when people ask my faith or what I believe, I find it hard to answer without going through a litany of paths I've taken on my faith journey. For a long time I simply muttered, "I'm really not much of anything at all. And it was true. I had a kind of ghost-faith that I kept very very private.

First in the litany of faith paths, I was raised Catholic. My first concrete memories of "going to church" start somewhere around the age of six when I announced -- well bellowed amidst much crying, actually -- that I did NOT want to go to church, I was tired of going to church and I just wanted to stay home with Dad and why couldn't I just stay home with Dad? In retrospect, this may have had less to do with church itself and more to do with the escalating gender battle between mom and I. Frankly, I was tired of having my long, baby-fine, perfectly straight and totally static-y, flyaway hair combed with a fine-tooth plastic comb and bundled into braids or dog ears or a pony tail and then the utter indignity of having to wear one of those awful little girl dress/jumpers so popular in the 70s. Doing this five days a week for school was enough. The weekend was for jeans or shorts and only half-attempts at taming my fly-away hair. Mom was a bit taken aback by my vehemence, but she quickly agreed that I did not have to go to church until I was seven -- then I had to go. Since turning seven in November seemed like eons away yet - even though it was probably only a few short months - I happily agreed.

But after I turned seven. Every Sunday morning. Get up. Wear horrible clothes. Tame the terrible head. And then sit in silence with nothing to do other than the ritual of the mass itself. To those who know me, not surprisingly, I was bored stiff. I'd pick up the Missal and read the readings and the Gospel for the day. Then I'd read weeks ahead and weeks prior.

As Catholics, we didn't have Sunday School and we didn't study the Bible. We had CCD, which was generally just memorizing - and at least in my case, promptly forgetting - the Catholic catechism. When we were really young, we memorized prayers. I had an easy time with the Lord's Prayer, probably because we said it in church every week. I was so proud of myself for memorizing it so fast and with the cockiness of a little kid, I thought the second prayer, being shorter, would be a piece of cake. But the second prayer we had to memorize wasn't one we said every week in church and it didn't make much sense to me, either. "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and . . . and . . . and . . . . What the heck did 'blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus' mean anyway?"

I don't know how other Catholic families handled a kid like me, but in the mid-70s at our house, you just memorized it. You didn't ask questions. And the fact that I not only wanted to know what "blessed is the fruit of they womb, Jesus" meant, but I also wanted to know why everyone seemed to assume that we were all sinners did not go over well, especially with my protestations that I was a good kid. That usually got a list of my shortcomings recited at me.

- - - -

More is on the way (for really - this is all written out in a notebook, and I am still working on the continuation of A Smile).

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Journeying Further

I should explain a little more. To Catholics, or at least as it was explained to me way back when, you had God - all perfect, all knowing, all good. Then you had Jesus, who it seemed to me had to be slightly tainted because he was human and therefore by definition not perfect and all knowing. These were the two highest ideals that no one could ever hope to fully be like. You might have your moments of goodness, but you couldn't really be like God or Jesus -- the positions were already filled, so to speak. So my insistence that I was a good kid only meant that for a human kid I might be kinda good.

But saints . . . well, anyone could be a saint. They were normal people who either lived exceedingly good lives or had some dramatic conversion.
I wanted to be a good person, like I was supposed to. Therefore, I would try to be a saint.

So, I had a bit of a problem with the rote prayers of Catholicism just assuming that I was a bad person, a sinner. No, I was working very hard to be a saint. I read a kids' book about St. Therese - the little flower - and spent a summer trying very hard to be kind and loving and beatific. When Dad tore down our swingset to use it for a little romantic swing-chair on our back deck and forbid us to use it anymore, I practiced giving compliments instead of getting mad. With all the tact of a seven year old, I said, "Wow Dad, that looks really great. Like a professional did it, not like you did it at all."

For some reason, this compliment did not go over as I had anticipated. This being a saint thing was beginning to look more difficult than I thought it would be.

I was still trying to attain sainthood when it came time to move yet again. I don't think I have ever - before or since - cried as hard or as often as when we moved away from Austin. We'd lived there for four or five years - the longest I'd lived anywhere up to that point and it was the community that I'd found there - people who loved me and cared about me - that I would miss most of all. From the Tapia "tribe" a few doors down, to my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Gillespie, to my allergist Dr. Exline, to the community at St. Therese's on the Hill, to my whole Balcones Woods neighborhood.

The problem was, I had more adult friends than kids. And those communities were starting to notice our family. My allergist told my mom to quit being so hard on me, to let me cut loose and sit in a chair backwards from time to time if I wanted to. And my third grade teacher, Miss Burciaga, called mom in for a conference that mom now insists she asked for - ostensibly about a mixup in my PE grade. But I can remember waiting in the hallway and listening to Miss Burciaga tell my mom how concerned she was that I hadn't made any friends. And then Miss Burciaga knowing me well enough to open the classroom door I'd been listening at. And chasing me outside to go play on the playground while the grown-ups talked about me.

Over the years, I've become convinced that my being noticed by the community is why we had to move. I think there was some concern that things were not perfectly fine at home.

We had no community in Arlington. My new school was "open concept" which meant 184 third graders (the number of students per grade hung from the ceiling above our area) were in one room which was only partially subdivided into classrooms and even other grade levels by five foot rolling bookcases and wardrobes. I was one among many. Despite being a full book ahead of the "high" language arts class and at the same spot as the "high" math group, I was placed in lower groups. Depressed, I did little schoolwork at all for a few weeks. I manged to get lost in the crowd.

Church was no better. St. Maria Goretti's was, in retrospect, a very conservative and traditional Catholic church, particularly in comparison to the progressive and liberal St. Therese's in Austin. Stained glass, balcony, elaborate murals, oppulence abounding. High mass on Sunday mornings meant incense -- which promptly triggered my asthma and a sneezing attack and sent me outside for a while, muttering something about "you're not supposed to be allergic to God!"

The church was huge and we regularly sat in the upper balcony away from the yuppy fashion show on the main floor below. Had my sister stage-whispered in that very not-quiet way she had, "Is that God?" as the priest made the procession down the center aisle, no one would have laughed, least of all the priest. At St. Therese's in Austin, the priest practically couldn't stop giggling through the whole Mass and was looking for us when we left that day -- he had to meet the three year old who thought he was God.

We were noticed there.

We were lost in the crowd here at church in Arlington. In fact, the church shortly grew so large that a new parish was formed. There was no community at all. No church carnivals, no conversations with other parishioners before and after Mass. The kids in our CCD class (kinda like Sunday school)rarely banded together in school - we were rather lost in the sea of Southern Baptists and it was easier on us that way. Make it clear that you went to CCD on Wednesday night instead of Church and you were immediately targeting for "saving" and "real baptism."

- - - -

More on community and the like in the next post.
I just want to take a quick moment to say again that these were my experiences -- I'm in no way condemning all Catholics or even Catholicism in general. I've been to wonderful, faithful Catholic churches and I've been to piss-poor ones where you'd be hard-pressed to find any hint of God at all. I'm not generalizing about any one religion or faith. Just talking about my journeys.
Peace.

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July 06, 2005

Journeying further still

During this time, somewhere between the ages of 11 and 14, I tried to do a lot of thinking about God and what I really believed. By the time I was eleven and had been to my first family funeral (my sweet great-grandmother), I had developed my own theology that was only loosely based on Catholicism. And, I was starting to realize that I heard a call to the priesthood.

This was obviously problematic. If I couldn't be a Cub Scout (they had the best uniforms -- Brownies' uniforms sucked), there was no way I was going to be able to bull my way into seminary and the priesthood. I tried to reconcile that call to being a nun. I re-read the life of St. Therese.
I wanted to be a priest. I felt called to it. And I wasn't able to shake that feeling of call.

By the time I was thirteen, things were pretty much falling apart for me.

I was quickly coming to grips with the fact that my father was an alcoholic and yet I was running desperately from the fact that he'd been raping me from the time I was four until we moved to Arlington. I was coming to grips with the fact that he would, in all liklihood, never go into recovery. At the same time, I was realizing that mom lived in her own little isolated reality and the church I had wanted to serve was human, fallible and didn't really want me to serve it in the way that I felt called. It felt like rejection all the way around.

How could I reconcile an all powerful, all knowing and all loving God with my life?

I couldn't. I was stuck.

If I wouldn't leave a person in my situation and God was so much better than me, then something was wrong with what I'd been taught. More than just the church was corrupt -- what I believed was corrupt, too. Faced with my life, I didn't see how God could be all powerful AND all loving.

Somehow, all we got as kids was "believe in God, love God and be good and you will be rewarded." Nevermind all those stories I'd read about saints whose only "reward" for their goodness was martyrdom by stoning or even crucifixion. God is all good, all knowing and all powerful. God will save us from bad things because we've been good enough to deserve to be saved from them, good enough to be rewarded.

I spent every night for about three months praying to God -- no, begging -- to a God who seemed to have condemned me no matter how hard I aspired to be the saint I thought he wanted me to be.

At the end of those three months I realized that I didn't, I couldn't believe in a God-being. I'd read most of the Old Testament, a lot of the New Testament, I'd read Edith Hamilton on the Greco-Romano gods, I'd even begun reading about Mayan, Aztec and Incan cultures as well. And in all of them, it seemed to me that most of these gods were just petulant children, personifications of those priests and holy people who wrote or told the stories.

I didn't know what I believed any more. I just knew that there was no hero-God who would rain hellfire down on yuppy, suburban Arlington and rescue me. I wasn't sure that I rejected the idea of God, but I did reject the idea of a being named God (or Yahweh or Jehovah or Adnoi or whatever).

By the time I was supposed to be confirmed at sixteen, I knew I wasn't a Catholic anymore. I looked for away out of getting confirmed, but my mom had already asked my grandma to be my sponsor. I couldn't figure out a way to get out of it.

By the end of my senior year in high school, I'd quit teaching the three year olds Sunday School class. I finagled ways to go to a different Mass than the one my mom went to -- but we lived so close to the church, that I couldn't avoid going to the church completely. I would go, park my car and either sit in the car and read a book, or, if I was feeling particularly paranoid about her checking up on me (and she did check up on me), I would go inside and sit in the bathroom and read.

By this time I'd also read the books of Chaim Potok, a wonderful Jewish writer, and I wondered if the answers I sought were there. But, I couldn't really get over the whole not believing in Jesus as the Messiah thing.

When I went on college visits my senior year, I went to Texas Christian in Fort Worth - oddly enough a Christian Church Disciples of Christ school, just like the church I go to now. They were the only school who had the major that I really wanted - deaf education. We observed the pre-school the program ran and the director spoke to me - I was completely fascinated and determined this was what I wanted to do. Mom and I went to the college's open house and discovered that TCU required all students to take a theology or religion class - but that in true Disciples fashion, they had a wide variety of classes to choose from including one that talked about Christianity, Islam, Buddism and others. As Mom and I walked out of that session she looked at me and said, "You're going to take that comparative religions class, aren't you?" Not reading her very obvious cues correctly, I nodded, excited at the prospect. Her reply: "You're not going here."

I was the oldest and the first in my immediate family to go to college. I didn't know I could take out student loans. I didn't know that I could "emancipate" myself from my parents and get some government help for school. I didn't know that my parents had put literally nothing aside for my college education. I didn't think I could manage to work, support myself and pay for college. If I wanted a future, I was still at their mercy. I wasn't going to TCU -- and I missed out on probably becoming a Disciple way back then.

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July 07, 2005

Journeys Continue

For my entire senior year of high school, I'd been working up to tell Mom my biggest secret, something I'd been hiding from her for years. I had worked myself up to tell her that I wasn't Catholic any more.

By my freshman year of college, I still hadn't done it. And I was still stuck living at home. Before I could finally, finally tell her, someone called the house and told my mom that I was gay. Well, in some ways that made things easier for me -- she assumed I wasn't Catholic when I confirmed that I was gay.

I won't go into the whole saga here, but she did drag me off to a Catholic counselor that morning, making me skip my Tuesday classes. My mom had told the counselor that maybe Dad had "done something" to me (and presumably made me be gay) or that I was simply going through a phase. It was the second time in about as many years that Mom had asked that about Dad. But I still wasn't ready to deal with it in any way - even though about the time that I stopped believing in a God-being was about the time Dad had begun re-visiting my room at night.

I moved out of the house, Mom divorced Dad and later got the marriage anulled. And I stopped going to church.

I also stopped worrying about God one way or another. I admitted that the whole God-thing, the whole why-we-exist and what-happens-afterward thing was a great mystery that was totally beyond human understanding, so why try to understand it? All we needed to know was to try to be good and compassionate, to help others and to treat each other as we would want to be treated. Anything else was us humans putting our limiting constructions on something beyond comprehension. And most of those times we not only created an artificial construction, we created limits that weren't really there; rules that weren't true; and for some, a crutch which might ease our lives or it might snap under the pressure and leave us far more devastated than if we'd had no crutch at all.

From the time i was about 15 or 16 until I was about 30, I had a ghost-faith. I wasn't Catholic any more. I looked into several pagan religions, Wicca, Witta; I looked at Native American beliefs - particularly Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo beliefs. All of it, Christian, pagan, native, seemed so artificial and ultimately empty to me. I believed in being good, in doing good. If whatever or whoever ran things didn't think that was good enough, then I didn't really care what "he" did to me in whatever afterlife. It just wasn't worth it to me to try to live by impossible rules and regulations and then get caught out on some stupid technicality.

I had a ghost-faith. I believed in some nebulous something, but I didn't know how to define it and I didn't really want to.

- - - -

More on how all of this affected my faith journey in the next section.
I just want to take a quick moment to say again that these were my experiences -- I'm in no way condemning any religion or faith or generalizing about any of them. Just talking about my journeys.
Peace.

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July 08, 2005

Journeying continues further

For about 15 years, I had a ghost-faith. I believed in something completely undefined and I was content with that.

I met Amber in the spring of 1998. I had just ended the ten-year relationship (the one, in fact, that had begun just before Doug called my house and told my mother that I was gay). A mutual friend introduced Amber and I , positive that we were perfect for each other.

I'm a little slow in such matters, though, and it wasn't until the spring of 1999 that we started hanging out and by that fall, things were getting serious.

Actually, more than our relationship had gotten serious. I didn't know it yet, but I had developed cancer over the last two years. All I knew that fall was that I kept getting these stupid little fevers and couldn't seem to get enough sleep. My idiot doctor never even took a blood sample, just kept prescribing antibiotics. I had no health insurance despite teaching at the University of Notre Dame, I had my grandfather's decrepit Buick with well over 100,000 miles on it and it was rapidly falling apart. At the time I made well under $20,000 a year as an adjunct instructor at Notre Dame.

After feeling my temperature spike while teaching class - for the zillionth time it hit 104 - I gave up on my doctor and went to Medpoint.

Now, when the mostly retired Medpoint doctor insists on taking your blood and then calls your doctor and attempts to quietly yet forcefully chew him a new one (I was listening at the door), you know something's wrong. Two days later I was in the hospital getting five units of blood and two days after that, the first of twelve rounds of chemo for Hodgkin's disease (for those of you who remember the 70s movie, Brian's Song, about Brian Piccolo, that's what I had).

Despite what most folks seem to expect, I had no sudden conversion or revelation, not even during those first few days before we had any diagnosis or any real idea what was wrong, when I sat in the hospital bed after everyone had left and started trying to write my will, sure I would be dead in a matter of weeks.

There were no revelations then. I got better and left the hospital after that first round of chemo. And I went to church with Amber because it was obviously something important to her - and let me tell you that was the first time I ever stepped into a Protestant chruch for service and I was half afraid of a lightning strike from the blasphemy of just walking through the doors.

The church seemed nice enough. The minister, Martha, was interesting. But I was still leery of these Christians. They believed in some kind of super-person named God. They talked to God and thought they felt a comforting hand of God in their times of crisis.

And that was fine just as long as they left me out of it. I didn't feel God during my times of crisis - I felt my father. As far as I was concerned, if there was a God-being, that God had never bothered to check in with me and I had gotten tired of trying to check in with God a long, long time before.

The chemo went on, it never made me sick, I was feeling better and then the cancer was gone. I was still attending Southside with Amber because it was such an important part of her life . . . and Martha was intriguing. She wasn't at all like the annoying Monsignor Neu I'd listen to drone on and on about money and how shallow and ungrateful his whole congregation was.

Then the cancer came back and I was scheduled for a bone marrow transplant. Again, the threat that I might not live through this. Still no great revelation or conversion. Instead, I did things like go to chemo from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., go teach my two classes and then go back to the clinic to finish my chemo.
You might say that I'm a little stubborn.

After a fast and easy -- according to the doctors -- bone marrow transplant, I even drove home from Indianapolis upon release from the hospital. (A good three hour drive home.)

Still no miraculous conversion. Still a ghost-faith.

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July 09, 2005

Journey: Today's destination

Instead of any kind of revelation, several things happened over the course of a few years. One, was joining a book discussion group at church (Kelly convinced me to join) and a comic book by J. M. DeMatteis called Seekers Into the Mystery started publication. Also, Amber was pestering me to define what I believed. And, The Matrix came out. It seemed everywhere I turned, something or someone was asking me to examine my ghost-faith, leave the land of the shades and my isolation and join the conversation and community.

All I knew at that time was that I was not a traditional Christian.

There were two comments made in particular that kept echoing in my head. During one of our book discussions, I began writing some of my questions and concerns about Christianity to Carrie (our book leader and also an ordained minister). At the time I was stymied, confused and even hurt by the folks who claimed to have a personal relationship, a give and take relationship, with God. And it just made me mad.

It wasn't until during one of our letter-writing sessions, Carrie simply said to me, "given your background, you'll probably never feel that way, that type of of connection. You're a seeker."

I should have been mad. I tend not to react well when people tell me I won't something, even if it's true and I know it.

Instead, Carrie's comments was very freeing.

A few weeks or months later, again in book discussion, Martha made some comment about God making mistakes and revising plans. (We were talking about the major shift between the Old and New Testaments.) As much as I tried to hide it at the time, I was pole-axed. I started reading some more on my own and started talking with Martha more and discovered that while my concepts of God are not really the norm, evidently they're not so far out of line with some theologians, either.

What I came to realize very, very slowly, was that despite our common language and use of shared symbols, our ultimate picture/conception of the Godhead is intensely personal for each one of us. Few of us probably have the same exact concept - and that's okay. And I found out that my concept, while not common, is not completely unorthodox, either.

My great, sudden epiphany was actually a slow and dawning realization that I was not ever going to have that epiphany of light where it all becomes so clear. Instead, I was going to be far more like Joan of Arcadia, constantly questioning and seeking "the" right path and constantly having to remind myself that "the" right path doesn't exist - it's about the journey we take and what we try and fail to accomplish and what we try and succeed.

- - - -

I just want to take a quick moment to say again that these were my experiences -- I'm in no way condemning any religion or faith or generalizing about any of them. Just talking about my journeys.
Peace.

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