I had to knock Clo and The Captain of my side bar, their blogs have gone the way of Crystal Pepsi.
It's not all bad news today, I'm adding Some Guy to the list. His is a unique blog, Guy simply commandeered the comments section of an abandoned blog. Guy and I shared a house during my Senior year of college. He called me recently as I was winding my way through the one-way streets of downtown Corpus Christi. He then paid me what is perhaps the nicest compliment I've received in years on his blog, calling me a true protege of The Professor. Though I should clarify, Guy meant that with regard to our similar Southern drawl and facial hair, not intellect.
It's a little known fact, but The Professor and my dad, Old Methodist Theologian, were classmates at Yale Divinity School back in the late 70's. They didn't realize it at the time because they were both overwhelmed trying to balance their studies and maintain young families. While at university, I'd frequently ride my bike to The Professor's farm. He'd leave his barn door open and let me have at his fishing equipment and fish pond. To this day, The Professor holds the record of "The Person with Whom I have Killed the Most Living Creatures." I'd hold catfish down with pliers as he'd club them over the head. I once hooked a snapper turtle; I pulled the line taut as he lobbed off its head. There was also the time we went out with his shotgun and hunted down groundhogs that were burrowing through the horse pasture. While The Professor came by this honestly (being both a Texan and a Lutheran,) neither of us took pleasure in the killing. We would brood over the writings of Albert Schweitzer....on the one hand recognizing the sacredness of life, and on the other keeping the horses from tripping in holes. Or keeping the turtles from depleting the fish population. Or having catfish for dinner (or fresh venison for that matter, which The Professor kept stocked in his freezer.)
In those days I was still quite a brooder, knowing that my day was coming and unsure whether before my ultimate demise I would live my life to the fullest. Or whether the quest for fulfillment continues beyond death. I suffered bouts of existential angst...but I don't much more. I haven't really sat down to discern why. But thanks to JtH for posting It's probably the cough syrup speaking, I now have a backdrop from which I can contrast the new me.
Prior to launching into a discussion such as this, I think it's important to lay down some background. Call me a relativist, but I think it's necessary. To fully understand where somebody is, you need to know where they've been. JtH does so here. I'll do so here....
My folks met at a conservative Christian college. By the time I entered the picture, Dad was already an ordained Methodist preacher and an active duty chaplain in the U.S. Army. My earliest memories are filled with confused Christian imagery. When I was four years old, I was disciplined by my nursery school teacher for not coloring with the other children as I sat there staring blankly into space. What she didn't know was that I was concentrating on a vivid daydream, in cartoon form, of the expecting Virgin Mary sitting side saddle on a donkey led by Joseph, entering the gate of a walled city on a path lined with people shouting "Hosanna!" and throwing palm fronds before them. My Mom has a recording of me singing, from about that time, a song to the tune of Farmer in the Dell. Only I changed the words to "Samson when he died, Samson when he died, Hi-ho the derry-o, Samson when he died!"
As I grew older, so did my Dad. He went to Yale for an advanced degree in Divinity, the folks there weren't afraid of examining their faith through a critical lens. Dad drank the Kool-Aid and left less doctrinaire in his belief system. After I suffered a bout of demon-infested nightmares, Dad had a talk with the Sunday school teacher to "tone it down."
My only exposure to Methodism growing up were our sporadic ventures to Dad's annual conferences, and post-sermon discussions with my Dad. That's because on Sundays I attended General Protestant services at the army post. The congregation consisted of all types, Episcopalians and Dutch Reform folk right along with Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God. Dad had to balance one crowd's desire for singing and praise with the other's need for silent contemplation and prayer. Throughout my fourth grade year, Dad preached at the Gospel hour. We were the only white family. When Dad's sermons weren't fiery enough, shouts of "He'p him Lord!" would resonate across the sanctuary. My brother and I joined the kids gospel choir, where we'd sway and clap as we sang. And when I say clap, I don't mean like white folks, I mean clap, clap, clap, clap-clap.
The Jews had a synagogue down the street, the Jewish chaplain would invite our family to celebrate the Seder Feast with them. The Protestants held services in the chapel at 8:00 and 11:00 Sunday morning, and a Praise Service Sunday and Wednesday evenings. The Catholics did their thing at 9:30 Sunday morning. But the Catholics and Protestants often held joint pot-lucks (complete with watermelon seed spitting contests.) On weekdays, my brother and I might break into the refrigerator and steal a sleeve of communion wafers to munch on.
In high school I was active in the church youth group. We were stationed in Germany and the youth group was run by the evangelical Malachi Ministries. Over a period of two years I was reborn thrice. I'd see the light...then lose it again. At this stage of the game, God to me was the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent...omnibenevolent?.....yeah, didn't make much sense to me then either. Having watched the movie Inherit the Wind, I thought the evolution "controversy" was settled at trial in 1925. The cool guys at Malachi tried to tell me different and I was flabbergasted...and threw the baby out with the bath water.
It wasn't only my developing faculties of reason that made me lose my faith, it was also emotional. Because I was active in church, I was teased for my innocence....my friends called my mom and dad Ozzie and Harriet, and me The Beaver. I had a pretty white bread life and suddenly realized how insulated I'd become from suffering. I developed a sense that I lacked something. Guys at school seemed more mature and knowledgeable about life. I was devoid of the intense experiences of my peers. My mother baked custard pies for pot-lucks. One of my friends had a psychotic mother who slammed an entire litter of new born kittens in a doorway one by one. When one of my friends got drunk and came home green in the face and puking, his folks laughed and said "That'll teach you dumb ass!" When I came home New Years Day and told my parents that I had imbibed one bottle of beer the night before, I was grounded for six weeks! So, not unlike many teenagers...I turned into a rebellious little punk, determined to fill that void with as many "intense life experiences" I could muster. I stopped going to school, stole copious amounts of beer from the balconies of soldier housing, stole a car with a friend and wrecked it on the autobahn...and of course, dyed my hair jet black. I swapped the Bible for Nietzsche and Camus. That's when Dad lent me a volume of Kierkegaard and told me, much to my chagrin, that I hadn't necessarily lost my faith.
After returning to the States my Junior year, I felt that I had gotten all that craziness out of my system. My parents, who I damn near pushed over the brink, realized that being too strict led to a complete loss of control. They began to treat me like a young adult, and I had freedom. I still enjoyed skipping school, but I quit everything criminal. When I did attend, I took school seriously and excelled. But I kept trying to make sense of my place in the world. I still brooded, trying to conceptualize God. When it came to massive natural disasters, I never accepted that it was God's will....part of a magnificent tapestry that we're just too close to to appreciate. Dad explained to me that God wasn't a taker, rather he was a receiver. I kicked that thought around for a while, still not satisfied....if God was just a receiver, then why in the hell does he deserve praise when things go right?....answer, he doesn't. No, no, no, that couldn't be right. What's the point of acknowledging God if he's not accountable for something? I was driven to do good works...help the poor, care for the environment, vote Democrat. What else could the source of this drive be if not a benevolent God?
Dad retired from the Army. His last purchase order: prayer rugs for the Muslim congregation. And that's when I got the calling to become a Methodist preacher. I moved to Athens, Ohio to study Theology and Classical Greek at university. I started attending a Methodist church for the first time. I teamed up with the associate pastor and we sent for the packet to begin the process. Little did I know at the time the effect my ecumenical background had on my theology. I enjoyed visiting the Mosque with my buddy from Saudi Arabia, I visited frequently. I found the discussions at the Methodist Young Adult Bible Study stifling. Too many prayers asking God to intervene, too much passing the buck. These guys didn't talk like my Dad......they weren't Methodists! But they were. It wasn't until after my first sermon, delivered on Ecumenical Sunday, that I realized I was not. In my sermon, I spoke highly of the Ecumenical movement in the Christian Church and implored folks to appreciate the validity of the other Abrahamic religions...we are all, as my Brothers at the Mosque taught me, "People of the Book!" Normally at the end of a service, the preacher stands at the back and shakes hands with folks on their way out. I shook a few hands, but watched most folks file past me avoiding eye contact altogether. Then my Dad shared with me a bit of knowledge he picked up at Yale, "There's things we know, and there's things that'll preach." So then it dawned on me, I wasn't a Methodist at all, I was a Universalist (like 68% of Methodist clergy who just won't admit it for fear of losing their congregations!!)
I was still convinced that I was destined for the clergy. The Professor took a mess of us backpacking across Greece for several months. At Meteora, I saw a fresco or Arius being condemned at the Council of Nicea. Our monk tour guide chided the image of Arius, "The heretic!" I remember staring into the suffering eyes on the wall, saying to myself "That's my man!"
At the end of the trip, some folks went home. Others continued to backpack around Europe for the summer. I managed to stick around a couple of weeks to visit Italy, but I extended my stay in Athens by one night so that I could see The Cure in concert.
It was general admission and I got there early....I was there, front and center, anchoring myself by wrapping my leg through and around the security fence as the crowd fought for position. The Jesus and Mary Chain opened, then Robert Smith came out. He played through the night. And it was good.
I returned to the States to begin my Senior year, where I shared a house with Guy and fished at The Professor's. That Christmas, a friend of mine returned from China and shared his home videos with me. Between his video and my stint in Europe, I knew I had to shake the travel bug out of my system prior to Divinity School.
So I picked up a copy of Brad Olson's World Stompers (2nd edition...before he mellowed out in later editions.) I worked my ass off at two jobs to save money for a year, at Holiday Inn and Sears, applied to the JET Programme, and by the next summer I was living it large in Japan. I taught kids English, I sang karaoke, I partied with Brazilians, I got married....I met grizzled old teachers that had been doing this for 20+ years and were miserable. After three years, and Mrs. T to whom I now had to be somewhat accountable, I knew it was time to move on.
Those years in Japan weren't wasted in pure debauchery. I studied Japanese Buddhism in earnest, Confucianism and Taoism as well. I traveled to ancient religious sites, and learned what I could for once about Eastern thought free from the hippie, California, Feng-Shui, patchouli-scented filter such concepts must pass through before being studied State-side. I was sure I was ready for Divinity School now.
After the move, we attended the local Unitarian Universalist church. And I'd be damned if the preacher was a former Methodist! I began scouting out Divinity Schools, then the congregation at the church began to irritate me. Few people there had anything good to say about Christianity. Neo-pagans fine, Hinduism fine, Zen....oh God yes, but Christianity and its patriarchal authoritarian archetypes, phooey. But what about Saigyo, who kicked his little daughter off the front porch ledge to demonstrate his detachment from family. He was Buddhist prick! The western white male devil wasn't the only devil out there. I was beginning to see that I was a religious man without a congregation.
That autumn, Mrs. T and I traveled to New England to check out Harvard Divinity. On our way home, we stopped in New York to attend the Ralph Nader Super Rally in Madison Square Garden, the highlight of his campaign. That's where I saw Greg Kafoury speak for the first time. He was an attorney, with money....who provided Nader with seed money to get his campaign going. His son, Jason, was able to get Nader tickets to the Presidential debates to which he wasn't invited to participate. Even with tickets, Nader was turned away at the door. What a neat father/son combo I thought.
I was active in the Green campaign at home. Made the local news several times, invited to debate Democrats at a forum hosted by Antioch College...and met a local attorney who would change my life with the simple words, "Ever think about Law School?" No, I hadn't.
The next fall I found myself a 1L (first year law student.) Unlike undergrad, where I philosophized the time away on the Arts & Sciences campus, law school was much more like the Business college campus....."Rowdy, come on, join the winning team!" "Rowdy, the Golden Rule! He with the gold makes the rules!" "Rowdy, they're playing our song! If You've Got the Money Honey, I've Got the Time!" I knew they were right. What impact had I made standing in blue jeans and a T-shirt shouting "Let Ralph Debate!" as George W. campaigned at Wright State, they had us corralled like cattle a 1/4 mile from his bus. Then it clicked, I needed a suit. I needed to talk the talk....and I did. The "liberals" on campus annoyed me anyway. If you want to be successful, hang with those that are. And I did. But I didn't sell my soul.
Fast forward to the next Presidential election. Progressives who supported Nader four years prior pleaded for him to drop out so as not to split the vote and give W. the win again. Most of the celebrities I saw supporting Ralph in Madison Square Garden had now turned against him. Even Michael Moore, who ran a petition on his website pledging he'd never support a candidate who backed the Invasion of Iraq, turned and supported Kerry (who supported the Invasion.) Had Nader lost all support? No. When Nader came to San Antonio none-other than Jason Kafoury stood there in the back signing up volunteers. Screw Bill Maher, Screw Susan Sarandon, Screw Michael Moore, Screw Winona LaDuke....Jason Kafoury had conviction.
During Law School, I returned to Japan one summer for classes and an internship at a petro-chemical company. I stayed in a Gaijin House with a good international mix....and a good bit of American bashing. The latter, as a seasoned Texan, required refuting....even if I was just playing Devil's advocate, "I understand you disagree with the invasion of Iraq," I'd say, "but it wasn't illegal. Saddam breached U.N. Resolution 1441, and he can't account for his biological and chemical weapons!" "That's because he doesn't have them!" "Crap! We sold them to him, we have the receipts, whether he has them now or not is irrelevant, he needs to account for them or face the consequences. And if the U.N. is too much a pussy, we'll have to go in and protect our interests! Damn, I never thought Germans were so French!" A little of that dumbfounded the Gaijin House. Needless to say, that's light weight compared to what I contend with here in Texas.
What I learned in law school is this. What both Republicans and Democrats say is absolutely true. And both dreadfully wrong. That carries over to religion.....Methodists, Buddhists and Universalists have it all figured out.......but they haven't a clue.
Mrs. T was visiting her family in Japan a couple of Christmases ago, I drove to Ohio alone to be with my folks. On my way home I had a near-death experience. I was driving south on Interstate Highway 35, just south of Waco, Texas. I was cruising at near 75 miles an hour in a sedan in the third, most outside lane in a construction zone. There was no shoulder whatsoever, a cement construction barrier lined the highway. A large SUV was tailgating me, so I decided to merge into the center lane. Just then, a semi-truck in the inside lane began merging into the center lane as well.....pretty damn quickly too. The SUV had already began to pass me, so there I was, getting wedged between two large vehicles at a high rate of speed. All I could do was shut my eyes and lay on the horn hoping one of the two would pull back. I was sure this was it. The last thought in my head a millisecond before my ultimate demise........"Well, at least I saw The Cure...front and center."
Just then the cement barricade ended and the SUV swung to the shoulder allowing me back to the outside lane, heart pounding. I pulled over at the next exit for a much needed smoke to settle my nerves, a decision with which Mr. Nader would greatly disapprove. But I didn't care.
Now.....that's where I'm coming from. So let me take a moment to compare notes with JtH.
Of all his ponderings, I best relate to this:
From Calvin and Hobbes comes the idea of lowering my expectations in life to the point where they are already met. Simple, yet ineffective. I liked it for a while, but then I realised that I would only suffer further angst in relation to the fact that I have now achieved my goal and therefore have a bleak and boring future.
I think I solved this conundrum. What if ones sole expectation in life was to grow? Somewhere, somehow we got it in our minds that we're empty vessels seeking fulfillment. Who's not to say we're an ever-expanding solid? Back in high school when I felt devoid of experience, I simply hadn't registered how rich and unique my childhood experiences had been. Some folks die young, but so what, the life they lived was solid. The lives we lead are as full as they are long. Belief systems shouldn't be viewed as gap filler for a hole in the soul, their purpose is to steer our growth. I believe we're complete from the get go, but it's nice to have company and learn from one another's journeys as we grow. There's no creed that's got a corner on Truth, so we might as well stay curious and swap notes with as many folks as we can. And when the question comes to what happens after our final day, not a person on this planet knows for sure, despite all the theories. I guess at some point along the way I decided to sit back and enjoy my journey and stop brooding over the destination. There just damn sure better be beer there when we arrive!