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Saturday, July 7, 2018

Faith / Belief: Spiritual Thoughts on an Essay I Wrote


Recently, I was up in Harrisburg, and I saw this, so I had to take a picture.

Imagine that! All people are welcome to pray.

While I get and support how all people who are taking part in the sacraments .should have to understand them as something more than "this looks fun" before they engage in them, I believe that church should make us feel good and welcome. This could be wanting to learn the sacraments (or any traditions of any denomination). It could be the act of some Godly and / or spiritual force inspiring us to tell our stories to others (Parkinson's, religious faith, or anything else) so they can be better. It can simply be sharing our talents and emotions with others. In the end, all that matters is we try to adhere to it's teachings and make an effort to make the world better than what we were born into.

We've all been given a fair bit of dystopian politics lately, says he who is watching The Handmaid's Tale right now. Let's just say that it's a step up from Hunger Games' violence, and a step down from 1984's sheer brutality. In writings like these, we're led to believe sex is evil (1984) or it's converted into the Brave New World take. We're led to believe that politics is either run amok PC or conservatism gone fascist. No matter how it ends up, it wants to consume us. Equally, all religion becomes a fascist cult filled with wild fanatics. And yes, we've seen these ideologies played out, thought out, and expressed out. As a result, a person who sees modern times and history has to be able to figure out what politics / theology / human interaction should be on his or her own. Nevertheless, the point of good art / literature is to make the viewer feel and relate to the plight of the characters. It lets us feel the protagonist's struggles while residing inside the reasoning of the antagonist. It provides a call to action and a step toward living for something that means something.


As people with Parkinson's, art in all its forms allows us to see a call to struggle back against our condition. We understand a need to fight for our rights. We absorb the value of life. We are presented with an opportunity to give altruistically of ourselves in some heroic way. What's more, we are able to understand death as a process along a hero's quest.

As people with any life or experience, we are given an opportunity to use it to know the truth of what we see around us. This allows us to feel faith.

As a child, religion was a tough nut to crack. Sure, I had the “Niocene Creed” to follow along with so that I could know that “I believe in one God… Jesus… the Holy Spirit… and one holy Catholic and apostolic church,” but what did that really mean to who I was as a theological person? For the most part, I never thought of myself as a child, boy, teenager, or man of faith, though I did feel a connection to God in a different way, which I see as both religious and spiritual. However, it represents what I feel is how the church applies to how we can live our lives in God’s way to be better people. Nevertheless, to come to that revelation, I had to find my way back to the traditions and less complicated lifestyle that I grew up in to find my place in faith as a man. To do that, I would need to hear the voices of the past to make sense of my now.

This post expresses some of that.


Ever since the time my sister and I were made to go to church, it never seemed to be a fun thing, let alone a thing that was our decision. Granted, we could opt out of waking up early on a Sunday and take a “Saturday Night Special” mass if we felt like sleeping in on Sundays, but there were definitely times that we were going to march into the back row of the pews and make it happen, whether we wanted it or not. This involved “stand, kneel, and sit” in time with all of the congregation’s singing, praying, and lip-synching. Fortunately for us, we were allowed to hightail out of the church as soon as Communion was over. The important thing is that we could tell my nana what we learned at church that day.


Nana, as she became known to my sister, my cousins, and I, was a strict Irish Catholic woman who stood authoritatively over our lives. Despite this description, she was a nice, elderly woman, who loved all of us, but other than serving as the matriarch of the family and wanting to protect our family’s souls for all of eternity, I don’t remember too much else about her since hers was a truth that many young kids and teenagers just don't "get."

Nevertheless, I do remember how a huge chunk of her later life was marred by health ailments. Nana had been on a myriad of different pills, and this was a concern to my mom. When my mom emotionally tried to express this to her mother, it seemed to be passed off with a “there, there” approach by her mother. There was nothing that could be done. From that time to the end of her life, nearly a decade later, it seemed like Nana did everything she wanted to do on earth. All that was left for her was to go and be with God. 


For the few things we knew about my nana’s real life, we knew even less about our grandfather. In one of the biggest family mysteries, she, the devout Catholic, married a Jewish guy named Manny, whose roots were said to be from Germany, though with the family tree hidden in the woods, we never learned much about them or his family, faith, or heritage (at least until later on).

As for our grandfather, a large part of why we never knew Manny, the soldier in the picture I have in my bedroom, was because he died of pancreatic issues that advanced into liver cancer when my mom was eight, and Toot was a worldly 12, leaving middle brother Dave and youngest brother Steve unaware as well. On that Fourth of July in 1958, his intense and painful demise became final, and he shuffled off this mortal coil.

Never choosing to see their marriage any other way, we knew that despite their love, he slept in a separate twin bed beside my nana. Family members would joke that every time they pushed the beds together, they had another child. Other than that, he was just a memory.

At least he was until 2006 when I took it upon myself to scan old family photos before they vanished further into black and white blobs. I didn’t know many of the names of people, but I did know Manny and Nana’s face, which seemed like a great place to start. As I performed this task, grainy pictures became trips to Watkins Glen, the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, Ausable Canyon, and the Poconos. A whole different life took shape as I preserved their wedding and honeymoon pictures from Waycross, Georgia. What’s more, this woman who seemed so rundown after years of taking care of her family was receiving messages like “Do you think you could go for a bunch of ‘good lovin’ with the Great G?!” In addition to the passion he showed for her, he referred to her as beautiful and gorgeous. Here, he humanized her in a way that made her seem special and so much more than the woman with the silver hair and glasses. Yes, this was also the same woman who sent me a letter when I was considering marrying a gal I was dating in my early days in the Air Force. Where she talked about what love really meant, I thought she was being intrusive and stodgy, but instead, she wanted me to have what they had, which is what God gave her for those two decades of together in life (though apart during war).

Yes, here was a man and woman who really loved one another in mind, body, and spirit.


In later life and coming back to God and theology / spirituality, I like to see the Christianity she taught me in terms of love and togetherness. The copies of those pictures are completely priceless because of it.

++++

When it comes to not being able to connect with religion, I remember when I was stationed in Turkey. I was young, lost, and pretty much alone other than a couple people I befriended. One, I stayed friends with. The other got lost along the way. Such is life. Nevertheless, there on the Turkish / Syrian / Iraqi border, I couldn't make sense of being stuck indefinitely in a post-Gulf War zone, and I couldn't make sense of post-war.


One particular event that stands out to me was when we passed the Syrian border, a guy got on board our bus with an AK-47. Obviously, facing a man with an assault rifle is odd, much odder than hole in the floor bathrooms, which we saw along the 8-hour bus ride across the country. Anyway, while I was waiting to be shot at, he came around and shook everyone's hands before he left.


Of all the things I did there, I did go up in a helicopter to drop bread off at refugee camps. The purpose of much of the mission was assisting the Kurds who went north after the war. Many of them were starving in refugee camps. Seeing people in front of fences waiting for bread was heavy. We went up with the British. I had wanted to see Iraq, and I did. When I walked back as a 19-year old airman, I was with a major and a sergeant of some level. We stepped over a wire as a short cut to where we were going, and... you guessed it.


We were picked up by military police who made us find someone on base who knew us. My supervisor was nonplussed to deal with my dumb ass, and yeah... that was an experience.

Anyway, while in Turkey, I found some officers talking about God and being born again. It turned out that all I had to do was say, "I'm born again," and then I would be. I asked to be sure, and it was. Obviously, I never felt in simpatico with the Good Lord for a few words in a military tent, but yeah. By the time I got back to civilization, God and I became divided, slowly but surely.


For a short time, I went to a church with my roommate. One time, the preacher went off on his usual diatribe of better and more holy than thou with a lecture on how to dress appropriately. The message was that you didn't have to listen to what he recommended. You would just burn in Hell if you went any other direction that he stated people should..

That was it for me for church for a long time.

My roommate lasted a few more weeks, but the preacher gave him bad dreams, so he too stopped. The church decided to save his soul and send people to coax him back. He was too nice to say anything, so I aided his cause one night by playing My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult's "Kooler than Jesus." The guy left and never came back. Normally, my roommate would have said something about it, but it was a means to an end, so the two of us were sympatico.


Long story short, religion shouldn't be too easy, but then again, it shouldn't reenact the Salem Witch Trials with self righteous hate in the name of "God." I just can't get behind that kind of stuff or the pick and choose Leviticus game (something done for homosexuality, but ignored when it comes to mistreating foreigners).

Nobody is perfect. For those people who think we should be, they just don't get it. We all make mistakes and sin or mess up. Some of us mess up more than others (John Brown), and then we do one thing powerfully, and WHAM! That becomes our legacy. I'm not sure what the vigilante attacks to abolish slavery in the name of God should stand as... radical ideology or St. Augustine's Theory of Just War. Looking at the chances of success and eliminating unnecessary casualties... That said, it did ramp up the decision to do what's right and end slavery.

From the right or the left, as long as we're willing to be open to conversation and discussion, all is good. Historically at that time, nobody was doing that, so Brown threw away the playbook. This led to the decisions and transition of Lincoln from keep America together to Lincoln's 2nd Inaugural Address.

Sure, he's an extreme example, but how many of us / people we know have turned life around to do something better for people? To me, that's where it's at. It can't just be about accept me / worship me and life is good.

From that perspective, I can see that faith is something that should allow us to analyze our past, help with our present, and prevent problems in the future.

I'm not an expert on faith, but I've been contemplating it a lot lately, as I've said, since I was writing an essay about my own set of beliefs for part of a contest (let's just say, it turned out well, though I would have liked about 25,000 more words). I kept feeling pulled into religious chapter / verse expressions, which moved me, but they weren't feeling like me, so I had to write, revise, save for other things, or scrap..

In my search, I did comb through the Book of Job and some interesting chapter / verse. There, I found:

Proverbs 22:6 "Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." THIS made me think of how my nana raised my sister, my cousins, and me in the word of God. People can go different directions, and they may not take on everything, but we tend to take on the most important things.

1 John 4:16 "And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them." THIS made me think of how love is the best part of every spirituality. I think of this with my gram. She wasn't a brick and mortar person, but she got it the points of religion without calling it that.. That says something.

John 3:16 "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." THIS  one has obviously taken on a life of its own, and it has been parodied in wrestling. When I look at it, it makes me think of how we all should make sacrifices to the betterment of all. That said, in its original form, it is more the Easter Christian than the Christmas Christian. Christmas is the birth of potential and love mixed with giving, happiness, and tradition. To me, that's what faith is all about. Nevertheless, I get and feel connected with completing promises and purposes, which is what the empty tomb says (beyond just forgiveness of sins).

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails." THIS made me think of my marriage vows, but it also made me think of family gatherings, especially Christmas. When family gets together, all of these things should be present - but that's just me. 

Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” THIS  one has obviously taken on a life of its own, and it seems to reflect anti-abortion to others more than the hero's quest concept it is a part of. For me, a person who believes in divine intervention, fail safes, and purpose from above, I like to see it in that way. If our purpose comes from God, then it's a mission to fulfill.

Of course, there's always a good Mark 16:18: "They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." THIS  one gets used by the West Virginia snake handler people, but I like to think of it as just a really cool metaphor to say that I'm not taking any crap from anyone. I shall fear no evil because I have a code and a core belief that I follow. Let your teeth and venom show. I am not afraid of you!

Anyway, the point is I like reading quotes and contemplating them. I'm weird like that. I like thinking of new ways to see things, and for that, I am able to feel more connected through the wisdom of people who have come before me.

As I said, those things have made me realize that I'm a Christmas Catholic. I love the happiness of good coming into the world and celebrating traditions with family (I'm sure most theologies have a day like that). While I understand the Good Friday sacrifice, I'm bothered by the gore porn it turns into for some people (like the woman I encountered who explained how the nails destroyed bones to a six-year old; why not just show her a snuff film?). While I get the need for realism, there comes a point where the spectacle outshines the message (Poetics said not to do that, Mel, so stop swinging the hammer).



That said, I completely understand Easter Christians of any denomination. The tomb is empty, and we are forgiven, while the promise is fulfilled (as I said). For kids, this is portrayed with the symbolism of new life (eggs, bunnies, and flowers), which is everywhere. I also understand the existential Christ wrestling with the Devil's temptations and the Easter Saturday "What now?" people. It makes perfect sense to feel our faith is being tested or that we could have done something different that day.


I get people who feel compelled to fulfill a purpose from God. That's me, and I think that's a lot of you, too. That promise can be anything, big or small. Nevertheless, it's probably not about someone being the Son / Daughter of God (I tend to worry about that purpose and the one that demands mass suicide to ride on a comet). However, I do believe we are called to learn for a purpose.

As I wrote in that essay that (in large part) deals with divine intervention:

On September 28, 2016, I woke up and told my wife that if I did indeed have Parkinson’s, I would educate and advocate for the cause. That day was always meant to be. It was God’s plan. That’s why he had me learn how to teach, to love, to be a part of a larger family, to be a writer, to speak confidently, to be enthusiastic about learning, and to inhale the wondrous beauty of life, in England and in America. Accepting those responsibilities and accepting that opportunity cemented my beliefs.

In an explanation of the essay, I wrote:

Some beliefs are quoted to us chapter verse. Other times, our truths are personal “mysteries” only we experience. I can’t make someone believe what happened at that Churchtown cemetery, while driving out of Fallon, wishing on a star at Letchworth, or waking up to choose Parkinson’s advocacy. 

However, something happened in all of those moments, and my beliefs define it as my outlook changed forever because of what I experienced.

If my faith was accepting a book or finding a seat in a pew, it would be really simple to say that I joined a team and I accept it all as is. That’s not this story.


This story is about how these last two years of my life have tested my faith, family, meaning, future, and hope. I write this smiling. Somehow, having Parkinson’s defined and tested me. Parkinson’s begged me to curse God, but I didn’t. It tortured me with symptoms on top of symptoms. It showed me how I could lose everything. Still, I went on smiling. I can’t believe that a God who let me wish on a star and come up with a win would be the same God who would leave me to the wolves. There has to be a reason.


My belief comes back to helping others make sense of their struggles in the same way I make sense of mine. It is compelling our friends and family to aid in this journey. We can either see life as pain and suffering or we can see it as opportunity, love, strength, and a chance to succeed and be there for the "celebration." 


If we give our most precious gifts to the world, our beliefs will transfer to another soul. If we utilize the special gifts that other people give us, we will find our way through any rough patch. If we see the act of giving and receiving gifts as more than just exchanging objects, then Christmas is every day.



That's why I like Christmas. Things happen. A man arrives and does a lot of stuff. Sure, he's the son of God, but in the end, he can either accept that or have any earthly thing he wishes. In the meantime, he uses his brain and body to make things happen. I'm all for human responsibility in our own upkeep. Yes, there's humanism and there's Christian humanism, but I'd like to think we can all agree that we should be doing something more than just praying (though prayer doesn't hurt).

For that, I don't get people waiting or trying to accelerate the Rapture. I don't get theology / philosophy / theology that focuses on conformity or else. To be "down," we need to live a life that is in line with that choice if we want it to apply to us. I believe we can do that with or without any holy book. In fact, I believe many books are divinely inspired without the seal of brick and mortar religion approval.

I'm happy with what you choose to believe that doesn't lecture me or hurt others. It may not be me, but so be it.

As I said, at the end of the day, I just can't picture an omnipotent being sitting around and demanding our love and attention 24/7 under threat of eternal torture. What's more, I'm not sure I'd want to end up in a place that is a reward for that.

Think about it like this; the death row murderer who accepts God with 2 minutes to go hasn't earned near as much (if any) preferential treatment as someone who lived a kind and giving life. That's just me, and at the end of the day, I base my beliefs on what I've learned of theology, philosophy, psychology, history, human nature, and life - not what I learned from "some exclusive all correct single book." The religion I'm baptized into may be "stand, kneel, sit, pray, sing softly / lip-synch," but it takes more than that to live out what I see as a good life.

The same is true for just praying. Praying is important, and I do it, but is it more right to just pray X number of times a day as opposed to doing things?

Nevertheless, that brick and mortar religion my nana gave me is in my DNA, and I was baptized into it. It is now as much a part of me as my lungs and heart. Besides, as a nun once told me, you're either a Catholic or a wayward Catholic after baptism.

In the end, yep, organized religion can be scary, but buildings that open their doors to keep people safe and able to find spiritual / emotional / physical refuge are a good thing and a start to a better world. We need more open tables for people to celebrate our Christmases and holidays with.

For all of you people doing good things in life, keep on keepin' on!

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