In the last 2 days I have read 3 blogs on religious views. I thought I would throw my hat in the ring by reposting a blog written over a year ago that discusses some of my views and the background for those views.This is not a sermon, just my way of looking at things. I respect anybody that respects me
I once told my priest that the greatest obstacle to my spirituality was religion. Fortunately the priest knew me and didnt take offense. This may, however, require a little explanation. Let me say from the start that I dont have anything against religion, and I think religion serves some very good purposes, but there are flaws in religion that can get in the way of a person being spiritual. It should also be noted that I am writing this blog in response to my two childrens blogs on a similar subject. My daughter wrote about Faith and my son wrote about what is true. In order to explain my feelings about religion it will also be helpful to know my background and where I am coming from.
I was born in St. Louis, Missouri and I was born into a Catholic family. You cannot be born into a Catholic family without being affected by the experience. My first recollection of the Catholic Church was around my kindergarten days. I started out in a Catholic school called St. Johns in south St. Louis. I recall the standard trips to church on Sunday and going to kindergarten during the week. You always hear a lot about the nuns and corporal punishment, but I only really experienced this once. I was using crayons at my desk and I guess I was getting a little serious about my project and the crayons started to make shavings and they were accumulating on my desk. When the nun saw this she got mad and I got two wacks with the ruler, but fortunately I got the wide side of the ruler. It didnt really hurt that much and then I knew to be more careful. When I was still in kindergarten, we moved to Kirkwood, Mo. Our new church was called St. Peters. This church and the Catholic religion get credit for most of my religious education.
Every weekday we went to mass and then again on Sunday. A Catholic school included catechism in its curriculum, and so we got catechism class nearly every day. Part and parcel of any good Catholic upbringing is to get very acquainted with church. You learned that girls always covered their heads and boys never covered their heads in church. You learned to cross yourself with holy water when you entered church and you genuflected before you got into the pew. You learned when to stand and kneel and sit, and learned the songs. You learned the Latin responses and even what some of them meant. You learned to be a Catholic. You learned that God is real and Jesus Christ saved me from my sins. You never ate meat on Friday and the priest faced the crucifix when he said mass. You knew what nuns were and what priests were. And when I was young, I looked forward to the day I could be an altar boy. Part of your education included instruction to prepare you for First Communion, and then Confirmation, and of course Confession. Through all of this Catholic experience I was supposed to be developing my faith. I think it is a stretch to say that a 10 year old has deep faith. They believe in something maybe, but Im not sure a 10 year old can understand faith. They just do as they are told and act like they are told and believe what they are told. And as a reward for all of this, you could take pride in the fact that you belonged to the one true religion.
There were two things that caused me some difficulty right from the start. The first was the practice that priests and nuns had of answering really difficult questions that we kids would sit around and dream up, with "Oh you must have faith." I dont know if the priests and nuns actually thought the kids were buying this, but from my own standpoint, I had questions like "Does that mean you dont know the answer?", or "Do you think Im not old enough to tell me the answer?", or "Is it a secret?" Any way you look at it, I always felt like even though I was learning a lot of things for which there were answers, there seemed to be a lot of times there were gaps in the information. But as a good Catholic boy, you dont make too much noise about these difficulties.
The other thing that caused me problems was that early on when one of us kids would ask something like why is the mass in a language we dont understand (Latin), the answer would be that it was a tradition to honor our church heritage. Many of the things we did were traditions to honor our heritage. The problem that I experienced during my childhood was that we started using English for the mass, and the priest started to face the people, and we quit worrying about not eating meat on Friday. Nowadays I only see old people genuflect and use the holy water. They have guitars in mass now. There are almost no nuns and priests are in the news for being perverts. If all of these things we did were traditions to honor our church heritage, then why did we change or stop doing them. Dont we care about our church heritage anymore? And who dreamt up some of these things in the first place? Did God order us to do these things? Did God give us permission to change or stop doing some things?
The questions may be childish, but the answers are really kind of obvious. Some "people" in power in the church made these rules. It may have even been the Pope declaring something relating to faith or dogma, in which case he would be said to be infallible. Now that is a scary thought, another human being declaring in matters of faith and dogma and we believe that he cannot make a mistake, even if they chose a terrible pope, hes infallible, and there have been some terrible popes. And he leads the one true religion. Its too bad hes not infallible about everything or I would write to him to get a pick for the Derby.
There is another problem that I have with religion in general. There are thousands of religions. Yes, it is true that there are a few that are very large like Catholics and Muslims, Jews, and Protestants (but there are many flavors of Protestant). Nearly everyone that belongs to a religion believes that their religion is the true religion. People get very passionate over this subject. Lets be honest, wars have been fought over religion, many, many times. Surely you know someone that is passionate about their religion, and it is a good thing until this passion starts to judge and put down others.
Something I firmly believe is that God is beyond comprehension. God is too great for us to just be able to sit back and figure Him out. This raises an interesting question. If God is incomprehensible, and each religion has its own scholars that claim to have so many answers, but they mostly just disagree, then I am personally leaning toward the idea that you dont have to be a scholar to be spiritual, since the scholars dont have all the answers anyway, or at least cant agree on the answers. Not to mention the fact that I just cant believe that God would make it a requirement to have a degree in theology to talk to Him. There is so much difference of opinion about religion that surely someone should get kind of skeptical about what is true. To add to this problem, people have a way of making scripture take their side of the argument, and isnt it strange that there is still huge amounts of disagreement even when they use the same scripture.
People actually get very passionate about the Bible. Many people take it literally, word for word. Many of the people that take the Bible literally are knowledgeable about its origin. This confuses me a little. Take the Old Testament. The Old Testament is Jewish legend that eventually got put to writing, especially the Pentateuch. It is beautifully written word and can be very inspirational, but there are some radical ideas in the Old Testament that you really wouldnt want to take literally. Regardless, it was written by men, people, humans that are fallible. Of course you will get the argument that the Bible is divine revelation. I guess I have to wonder why we seem to believe that the only time divine revelation comes into play is the Bible. Could many of the inventions of the 20th century have been products of divine revelation? Why not? And how do you recognize divine revelation to be just that, as opposed to just being a nice writing? How can you tell? Is this where you say you just have to have faith? How can you tell? Could this be the sort of question that has some of those scholars arguing? And what about the New Testament? This is a collection of writings, mostly written years after Christ, and then from the available scripture, Constantine compiled the parts he wanted, and called it the New Testament. Why were the synoptic gospels chosen to be included. Why werent the Gnostic gospels included in the bible? Werent they divine revelation and who decided, Constantine? I find it hard to believe that these stories that were handed down by word of mouth, eventually written, and then weeded through and compiled by another man, Constantine, and instead of calling it a history book, we call it the Word of God. This is a similar process as to how we got our history books you know. It wouldnt be so bad if everyone agreed that this was the final answer, but the other religions have their own scriptures, like the Mormons have the Book of Mormon that tells the story of Jesus in North America. And there is the Koran, and the Torah, and where does it stop. Everyone has the Word of God and their word is THE word. This gives me heartburn.
Of course everyone has heard some of the controversy that has recently sprung up over the DaVinci Code. There are suggestions that Mary Magdalene played a more significant role than we were previously led to believe. There was the idea that maybe Jesus and Mary were married and had children. I dont find these ideas any stranger than the Book of Mormon. I kind of think "What difference does it make?" God became man in the form of Jesus. Then why wouldnt he do things like a man and would that dilute the idea of Him being the offspring of God. It doesnt really work that way for me. I dont think it takes away from Jesus at all if he had a family or a wife. He was a man and that is what men do. That doesnt erase his miracles or the example he gave us or make the ultimate sacrifice he made for us any less glorious.
So religion presented some problems early on for me. By the time I became an altar boy I had had my share of doubt and skepticism, like almost everybody else. But when I became an altar boy and you get to wear those cool clothes like the priest wears, you feel kind of pious. You get trained to be an altar boy and so you get some extra religious training. You learned to be reverent and dutiful. You also got to get up awful early to serve at 6 oclock mass. I think it was about this time that I was feeling pretty confident in my religious education, and being an altar boy made me feel a little special and I began to think that perhaps I should be a priest. It actually went so far as having a priest from the seminary come to my house to discuss my getting into the seminary. I was just about signed up when I realized that there were no girls in the seminary and that sacrifice may not be something that I could sustain. Besides the female part of this puzzle, there was the ever-present doubt that we all have, and this doubt varies depending on what is going on in your life. Being on the brink of embarking a life of celibacy, my doubt level was growing. If you havent guessed yet, I backed out of the seminary.
Some of what I have said so far probably sounds negative. I dont consider my spirituality negative. I just dont give much credit to religion. As I said from the beginning, religion is the greatest obstacle to my spirituality. Religion creates too many rules and absolutes that are man made and disputable. Religion creates a forum for TV evangelists who are getting rich because they learned how to hit the hot button of people seeking God. Religion also creates a lot of self-righteous zealots that think they know more about God than others and therefore they are something special. As I said before, religion has caused wars and continues to cause wars. Just think about it. If you believe there is a God, how many gods do you think there are? I personally tend to think there is just one. So shouldnt there be just one religion? The Catholics would most likely jump up and say, "Thats what I have been trying to tell you. There is only one true religion and its Catholic." That doesnt really help much. The conclusion that I have come to is that religion can teach me some things about theology and scripture in order to help me understand some emotions and feelings I have about God, but thats about where it stops being useful. I had to look elsewhere for a closeness to God because religion just didnt do it for me.
One thing I have learned over the past 55 years I have spent hanging around this old earth is that if you want to experience God, you wont do it with your brain. Experiencing God is more of an indescribable emotion. Let me give you an example. While I was still young and living in Kirkwood, I remember this intersection about a block and a half from my house, the corner of Leffingwell and Filmore. There were a lot of oak trees in that old neighborhood, and few places that you could look up and get a clear view of the sky, but this intersection was open and gave a clear view. You probably need to know that Im talking about 45 years ago, and in those days we walked places. If you wanted to go somewhere, you walked. Since this intersection was on the way to everything, I walked passed it frequently. Im not sure why, but I was frequently moved by the view of the sky as I approached that intersection. Being moved and being a good Catholic boy, I remember saying a prayer quite often when I passed this spot at night. Daytime didnt have the same effect, so Im talking about night with stars. The prayer was not like the ones we said at school really, but instead it was more like talking to God. "God, are you watching out for me? Its a beautiful night. I sure am grateful for all you do for me. Sorry for those times I messed up. I love you God." And then I would walk home and feel much better. It was all emotional, like watching a patriotic movie and you get emotional. The feeling that I got from this was actually kind of personal, so in this blog I am bearing my soul for the first time. I might also say that the act of praying like that actually had some far reaching effects on me that I didnt realize for many years. You see I thought at the time that I was just doing what good Catholic boys ought to do, but in my own naïve sort of way, I was talking to God and being enriched by the experience, and learning prayer on my own. The "Our Father" is a beautiful prayer, but it is reciting words and not talking to God. I have no problem with the "Our Father" and say it often, but it isnt the same experience as talking to God. Talking to God, just me and Him, is an emotion that I enjoy. Needless to say, this intersection was not the only time or place I felt spiritual. These were the beginnings of my real spirituality, not the religious kind.
One thing happened at this intersection that kind of reinforced the idea that God lived in the sky over this intersection. The neighborhood we lived in was kind of rough, or at least it was getting that way. This event actually occurred in the 60s when there was quite a bit of racial strife. I was walking home one night, quite unaware of anything but maybe my view of the sky at this particular intersection. Suddenly I heard a door open and someone yell "Hey!". Apparently there were 2 black guys sneaking up on the white boy when my neighbor friend came out of his house and caught them. When he yelled they ran off. The neighbor said it was a good thing he walked outside. I thanked him and then thanked God for taking care of business. I was convinced that God hung out at that intersection and this event only reinforced the idea.
As I said, I dont mean for this blog to take on a negative connotation. So let me just come right out and say that I believe in God and I believe in Jesus Christ. I think I would believe in God, like many others, even if I had little or no religious training. It just seems natural to believe that something is responsible for the beauty and diversity of the world. As I said, my relationship with God is an emotion, or an intuition, and I dont think training of any kind would change that. Believing in Jesus however, is no doubt a result of being exposed to Him through scripture and church. But it is easy to believe in Jesus since he is historic. Our calendar is based on His birth. There is obviously no doubt that Jesus lived. No one questions Jesus walking on earth. We have the gospels as documentation of His life. And although it is a difficult concept, I believe that Jesus is God, or at the very least some kind of manifestation of Him.
I suppose these feelings and beliefs started at a young age, but unfortunately they were not to persist.
After my alter boy days and my near miss with the seminary, and having completed the 8th grade, I was to move on to a public school. This was sort of the beginning of my loss of spirituality. My parents seemed to be losing interest in church and yet they still wanted my brother and I to go. They would drive us to church on Sunday, drop us off, and we would go in the front door and out the back and down the street to the pool room. Of course we could play enough pool and still finish in time to get picked up in front of church. It probably helped that we would grab a bulletin before we left to give some credibility to our being there. After I started driving, I would say that church was mostly forgotten. No one was trying to convince me to go anymore. Whatever I had discovered or grown to believe at this point was going to be it for now, and actually was dwindling.
Eventually after high school I joined the Navy. There were moments in the Navy that God and church seemed to be trying to make their way back into my life, but these occasions were rare and basically spirituality was at the bottom of the ladder. To be honest, playing the ponies and finding a good poker game were far more important. The closest I came to being spiritual was having a cigar on the pier with a friend. I have to say that if I was asked about my beliefs, I had no problem saying that I believed in God and Jesus, but in truth, I wasnt always living like I did. No, I generally dont try to hurt others and I am generally honest, but that doesnt make for a spiritual life in and of itself. To be honest I was sort of missing my spiritual side.
Toward the end of my Navy days, I got married to a lovely lady from South Carolina. Her family was into church, the Episcopal Church to be specific. After I met this lovely lady, church became a regular event on Sundays. I also discovered a religion that was more liberal than the Catholic religion. They told me it was OK to use my mind and they didnt try that "Just have faith" thing. The other thing that impressed me was communion. They invited anybody that believed in some benefit from communion to join in. The Catholic Church disappointed me when my brother got married. I asked the priest if there was any problem with me taking communion, now that I had betrayed the Catholic Church by going over to the Episcopalians, and he said I couldnt receive. See, religion again. Jesus said "Do this in remembrance of me." Do you think he meant only if youre Catholic? I dont see Jesus being exclusive at all. I think he would have been inviting the whole neighborhood in, if the circumstances were different. I think of Jesus as being inclusive. The Catholic Church believes that they are the only ones that can perform the sacrament of Communion, because they believe that only Catholic priests have apostolic succession. Ironically, Episcopalian priests have since been allowed to perform as Catholic priests because they can show that they also have apostolic succession (have the powers of the apostles passed on to them). Episcopalians have women priests and married priests, but Catholics have not yet come around to these more realistic positions. Thus with my marriage, I became an Episcopalian, and discovered that I could not actually be a Catholic without being very hypocritical. The Episcopal religion is still a religion, but at least it is more liberal and open than the Catholic Church. It was an Episcopal priest that I told that religion is the greatest obstacle to my spirituality, and he understood.
Although I feel that religion gets in the way of spirituality, I think church is a really good thing. I dont think that church is good because it fulfills some obligation, or because it supports a religion. I think church is good because it creates a community. A church community is a little like the friend community I described in the "Friends" blog, and many of our friends are from a church community. It is a group of people sharing common beliefs and friendships. When this works right, it really works. Shortly after my wife and I got married we ended up in Peoria, Illinois. We attended a church there called St. Pauls (an Episcopal cathedral). We found in that church something that many of us agreed we may never find again. There was a remarkable community of people that had humility, and kindness, and love, and a shared love of God. The priests were great, down to earth people, who were actually personal friends of many of the parishioners. At that time we spent hours, days, evenings, and weekends participating in church activities. We belonged to Marriage Encounter, and we were active in a movement called Cursillo, and we belonged to Christian Family Movement. Someone may have made the observation that my wife and I were kind of religious. I dont think religion had much to do with what we were doing. I would say that God and Jesus had prominent roles, but religion was a side effect. I also felt bad when someone would compliment my wife and I for all we did for the church. We were way more selfish than we were getting credit for. We did all of that stuff for ourselves. It was fun. We were enjoying it. There was no sacrifice on our part. We were having a ball.
I think at this point we had fallen into a situation where we were on a spiritual high. I have described prayer as an emotion. The Cursillo movement would be a great example of that. It was a weekend course in Christianity, and it was a very emotional weekend. You felt like you had met God after one of those weekends. I got involved in four of these weekends, and there are months of preparation involved as well. Later on, living in Cincinnati I participated in another Cursillo. Cursillo became very important to my wife and I. Each one was inspirational and educational. We had never experienced spirituality like we found in Peoria, and since we moved, we have yet to find it again.
After six years in Peoria, we moved to Cincinnati. We tried to maintain the spiritual high, but the community lacked the magic of Peoria. I remember when the priest came to welcome us to the church in Cincinnati. He said he couldnt stay long because the ballgame was going to start. That made us feel special. People seemed to have motives and agendas to go along with their religion. They lacked the humility and real love that we experienced in Peoria. We tried to impart our influence on this community, but it had little effect. I taught Sunday school and generally tried to participate, but clicks had long been established and certain people had their turf, and newcomers were not going to break in too easily. The truth of the matter was that I had no ambition to break into anything, I just missed the community we experienced in Peoria.
Several years later we found ourselves in a difficult position and were forced to move to the Chicago area. We made similar attempts to find a community like Peoria, but we did not do much better. On top of that, my wife was forced to go to work and ended up in retail, and worked most Sundays. I eventually found myself coaching soccer for games on Sunday morning. Church started to take a backseat. I guess what surprised me about this was how it affected my wife. She was most likely the one to drag us to church, but even she was having difficulties. So for many years church was a low priority and as a result, so was spirituality.
Then something happened. I got sick. This is a little difficult to explain in a way that doesnt sound too hokey, but it is true nonetheless. If you want to know what my illness caused as far as pain and misfortune, read my blog about disability. Times were getting tough and we were short on answers. Who do you turn to? Who has all the answers? God has all the answers of course. So even though spirituality had taken another low, it had not disappeared. I began asking God for guidance, for answers, for mercy. He didnt always answer in a way I would have liked, or even understood, but I could tell He answered. I was becoming more and more spiritual out of desperation. I didnt know where else to turn, but God was still there, hangin out, waiting for me, and I am so glad He did. I needed answers and He gave me answers. I needed encouragement, and he gave me encouragement. I needed hope and He gave me hope. You have to be sort of grateful to a God that can do all of that for you. Now again, Im not talking about religion, Im talking about God helping through hard times. You may have read in the blog about disability the story of the chaplain coming in to my hospital room and asking me where God was. At this point the emotion thing got the best of me and I burst into tears and told the chaplain that God had been with me every step of the way, and this was true. It is kind of easy for us to put God on the back burner, but fortunately, He doesnt treat us that way. Today I have overcome a great deal, and as I have said, I give all of the credit to my good friend God. He was there for me.
Now someone might say that all of that is in your head, John. You needed something and you imagined that you got it. You had nowhere else to turn so your mind conjured up a solution. OK, I guess you had to be there, because I will stick by my guns and give all of the credit to God. My wife and daughter say I am a walking miracle, and my doctor reminds me every time I visit that I should be glad to be alive. All good, but all I had to do was have a conversation with The Great Creator, and things worked out, and I am motivated, I have hope, and I am happy and confident that I have a friend in God.
My spirituality had improved quite a bit. I give God credit a lot more often. I have formed a prayer regiment where I pray everyday and often times with my wife. We use the Daily Office from the Episcopal Prayer Book, and we also use the daily devotionals from Forward Day By Day and Daily Guideposts. We pray for our families and friends, for those in need, and for other causes. We always thank God for another beautiful day, and everyday is beautiful. I always thank God for my health and for encouraging me to do more. We still dont go to church that often, but there are plans to try harder. We try to remember to pray before meals, but we still dont remember all of the time. I think I feel more spiritual than I have at any other point in my life. I feel closer to God than ever before. I actually feel as though I am being spiritual.
There is another concept that I want to share. To illustrate this concept I will share a joke that was told at Cursillo. The joke goes like this: There was a flood and a man was stuck on his roof waiting for rescue. The man had a great deal of faith and knew that God would save him. A boat came along and asked if he wanted to be picked up. The man said no, that God would save him. Another boat came, and this time the water was rising, and the man turned down help again saying that God would save him. The water was so deep that the man was about to be covered in water and a helicopter showed up and called to help him. He had such faith that he turned down the rescue and said that God would save him. He finally drown and went to heaven. At the pearly gates, he asked God why He didnt save him. God said "I sent you 2 boats and a helicopter, what do you want?" The point of this story was to remind us that God works through people. Kind of like my "Friends" blog, we prayed for chairs and the neighbors came to the door with chairs. I suppose somebody would have been a little shocked if God had been walking down the street with an arm load of chairs. So He used my neighbors. I believe we are all connected spiritually, and that God works through each of us to accomplish His will. If you buy in to this concept, then you can see how important it is for you to be part of a community that will strengthen your spirit.
So where do I stand spiritually at this point in time? I believe in God and Jesus. I pray everyday. I try to do Gods will, at least as well as my feeble mind can interpret His will. I try to do for others and I am grateful for what others do for me. Im not a big fan of religion, but I accept the necessity of it for certain things. My special intersection in Kirkwood has been replaced by my deck in Aurora, and believe it or not, a cigar can be a spiritual moment. Sitting on my deck in the late evening with a good cigar and watching my trees grow and my flowers bloom, I have to think that but by the grace of God I could be in much worse circumstances or dead. As I wrote this, I have avoided quoting scripture for fear of being hypocritical, but I encourage anyone to give the Bible a shot. There is some really good stuff in the Good Book. I know that the Bible is talked about far more than it is read. I recognize the value of people in my spiritual life. Perhaps most importantly, I am satisfied.
Having said all of this, I have some sage advice for my children.
Acknowledge your spiritual side. Realize that you have a mind, body, heart, and a spirit. The body needs exercise and nourishment. The mind needs stimulation. The heart needs love. And the spirit needs nurturing as well. Believe me when I say that God will help you with the spirit if you allow Him.
Never be ashamed of your doubts. You are human and you cant avoid them. Having Faith does not mean not having doubt, it means working past them and continuing on.
Attach yourself to a community in which you would feel comfortable praying. Acknowledge that God works through people, and that at any time you may be approached by God and not recognize Him. That means be kind to everyone, and be willing to offer an unconditional helping hand.
Consider any religion that makes you feel comfortable and nurtures your spirit the right one. And always remember that religion isnt important, God is.
Pray often. Talking to God is free and easy. It can be done in private and remain very personal, but it can also be shared. Praying within the community is a good thing for you. It also helps if you find that certain place where it is most easy for you to pray. Church works pretty well. Staring at the stars works as well. And remember that we contact God through our heart, the brain will overload if we try to use it to hear Our Maker.
Never judge others. Leave that to God.
Always be humble. Only God knows all and only God is great. I know Him personally.
Always have a sense of humor. God does. After all, he made me.
Remember what is important in life, and frequently remind yourself what is not.
Last but not least, honor your father and mother, especially your father, because he likes the attention.