An Inordinate Faith – Part 2

My one and only interaction with religion at WWU happened while crossing paths with a CCF keg mission. I was stumbling out of a dorm party late on a Saturday night when I noticed three guys standing on the sidewalk watching me.  As I waited for my roommate to finish hitting on a girl near the exit, one of the guys approached.

“Hey,” he said.Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 6.56.40 PM

“Hey,” I replied.

A long, uncomfortable pause followed and then he introduced himself. I don’t recall much of the conversation after that, but it must’ve been convincing because he was ringing our doorbell at 8:45 the next morning to take us to church. I say us, because I roped my roommate into coming along. The service went almost two hours, with raising of hands, altar calls and threats of damnation. It was the full evangelical enchilada. Boy, was my roommate pissed.

Being a lifelong Catholic, the revival service was definitely not his thing. It wasn’t mine either, but I was entertained with the people-watching, and especially with the Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 6.00.57 AMguy talking in tongues. I had seen a lot in my life to that point, but that was a first. Afterward, we were dropped in front of our apartment and that was the last I saw of our host until I heard him giving an impromptu sermon in the middle of Red Square between classes later that fall. As before, I was caught up in people-watching–some stopped to listen, some gazed in disbelief, but mostly people kept on walking, and so did I. While I would on occasion, attend a service during Christmas while home on break, church was a non-factor. I wasn’t without, however.

My church was the outdoors and through my immersion in it, through skiing, sailing and an occasional hike, I felt most at peace when I was in Nature. It would take awhile, but my awareness would eventually shift from me, to something bigger than me. And I would feel very small, yet connected to something really BIG. It was this experience that kept me returning to the outdoors and I felt a certain reverence for it. It was, however, disconnected from any doctrine that I understood, and existed separate from the God I had learned about in the church of my youth.

I met my wife to be in the waning years of college, and when we decided to marry we searched for a fitting place for the ceremony. Given my wife was a cradle Episcopalian, we ventured into a few of the churches in North Seattle, however after finding three parishes with not much more than aging, silver-haired rectors and fifty blue haired ladies in the pews, we returned to the Congregational church of my high school years. The same pastor was presiding, though his son had left several years before to seminary. The pastor was kind and helpful, guiding us through a Myers-Briggs exercise as part of his pastoral duties, and in an ode to the 60’s anti-establishment movement, wrote our own vows. Our voices were high and child-like and after much practice, we still got it wrong. She said I do. I said I will.

Within a year, I moved us to Los Angeles for a career opportunity. I was consumed with making the switch from engineering to sales, and my wife was working retail at the Glendale Mall. We lived in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, less than a mile from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories. I would ride my mountain bike up the Brown Mountain road to the El Prieto trail, a challenging descent full of hairpin switchbacks, thorny cacti and river rocks the size of wheelbarrows. Here again, away from the noise and humanity, I connected with something that I fail to accurately describe–from an engineering sense that is.

el prieto panoramic

Photo courtesy of Crumbdirt

Gazing over the LA basin at the top of the trailhead, I would be reminded of how small I was, and yet I never felt diminished by it. I was energized rather, increased. Perhaps it was the reminder that I was not in control, and I found that to be such an amazing relief. On Sunday’s, I would take my aging, hermit of an uncle to a local restaurant for prime rib, deviled eggs and Becks beer. On the return to his house up Lake Avenue, we would turn east on Mendocino and then north on Maiden Lane, following it as it twisted left, then right, while the panorama of the San Gabriel’s shifted in the window frame of his ’68 Beetle. Here too, in the foothills, we were reminded of our place in the world. A toothless ninety year old, and me. My wife and I visited an Anglican church in Pasadena at some point, but felt out of place in the Sunday fashion show, and my company supplied Ford Taurus was no match for the BMWs and Mercedes in the parking lot.

Eighteen months later, we moved back north, landing in Washougal. As unlikely a place as I would have picked, it was the inexpensive property and proximity to the airport that was the rationale. I would learn later of a more profound reason for landing here. The children soon started showing up, every two years by my wife’s plan. We felt compelled to provide some framework for learning about faith so we ended up at the local Episcopal church. As we had found before, it had an aging rector and fifty blue haired ladies in the pews, but they were sweet and there was one other family who had children of similar ages. We decided to make it our home.

Thus it was here, in the last place I would have guessed, that I began to learn about Jesus. Not the Jesus I had been told about, however. But the intimate Jesus I began to experience–the Jesus that appears during the weakest and most painful of moments that emerge with a coming of age.

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An Inordinate Faith – Part 1

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 6.36.51 PMMy journey of faith has been the proverbial road less traveled. It began with being baptized in the Catholic church, a decision I believe was more out of, “this is what all good Catholics do,” than anything else. My parents were not religious per se, other than showing up for services twice a year at Christmas and Easter. Not that it would have made them religious if they would have gone more frequently. Maybe just observant Catholics.

By the late 60’s we had moved north to Washington and landed in the pews of a United Methodist congregation. Not observant Catholics anymore, we traded Eucharist with wine drunk from a chalice and bread torn from a loaf, for grape juice in small thimble cups and thin wafers that tasted like cardboard. The Methodist church we attended in Bellevue was a country club and the congregation did all the right things that enlightened churches were supposed to do: Preach from the lectionary, celebrate weddings and funerals, teach sunday school, host holiday bazaars and ice cream socials and produce a Christmas pageant that would be worthy of a front page article in the Bellevue American newspaper. Or at least the front page of the local section which comes after the sports and business sections.

This was not unique to the Methodists, however. You could have put any one of a handful of denominations in front of “church”–Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc., and would have come up with the same formula.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 6.33.58 AMRegardless, the pastor looked like Dr. Marcus Welby, M.D., wore fine gray suits and drove a Cadillac. I attended sunday school like all the other good children. One Sunday morning while ducking out of class to use the bathroom, I noticed small draw string bags hanging from all the closed classroom doors. Curious, I looked inside one bag and it was full of coins. Helping myself to a few, I checked the rest of the doors and was equally rewarded. I liked that church. My bike was stolen in front of it.

Church life took a big detour when my dad signed us up for a Peace Corps family Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 7.19.46 AMprogram, and it never quite recovered. We lived in far flung foreign lands such as Venezuela, Liberia and Lexington, Kentucky. Witnessing racism, third world poverty and ancient tribal spirituality, we were permanently liberated from the orthodoxy of the suburban American Christian experience. Thus, on our homecoming to the Methodist church, it was like wearing plaid to a funeral.

Sensing the misfit and desiring an new community a bit less WASP‘y, my mom lead us to a Unitarian church, recommended by some recent friends in her artist group from Cornish College where she had been attending. The Unitarians were an entirely different bunch than we had ever experienced before. The Methodist messages on obedience, “thou shalt not’s,” and grape juice communions were traded for socially relevant sermons on US foreign policy, racial tension in America and poverty. Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 7.12.09 AMThe church was even housing an illegal Guatemalan, a refugee from the civil war crisis in Central America. The biggest departure from our prior experiences with what happened on retreat. Far from the family church retreats past, this crowd knew how to party and wine, weed and women was the rally cry.

On a side note, now that I am a parent of teenagers it strikes me that the result of all this happening concurrent to my coming of age turned out to be the best deterrent a parent could imagine for an impressionable young boy. Best illustrated by a family church retreat we participated in at a nudist camp in BC; nothing, I repeat nothing, to a thirteen year-old is more repulsive than to see their parents strolling through a campsite naked. It is an enduring image that has spawned a compensating modesty that survives even today.

While a move to Seattle ended the Unitarian phase, Mom was clearly in control by now and she began to experiment outside the lines of Christianity, joining a community in a North Seattle ashram. I’m not even sure what to call the community, other than it was some derivation of non-dualism. This culminated in a second trip to BC for a convention of sorts, attracting East Indian families from all over Canada and the US. While this was not much more than a detour, I gained an appreciation for Tandoori chicken, curry and chapatis.

Soon after, we landed in a Congregational church. Somewhere between the Methodist and Unitarian experience, the service was more traditional, returning to the thimble cups and cardboard wafers. The high school youth group, however, was entirely a different story. In spite of the best efforts of the parent-leaders, the person clearly in charge was the son of the preacher. He was into martial arts, Led Zeppelin and always had good weed. Our annual youth group fundraising ventures to Yakima for peaches, and mission trips to Mt. Vernon to help run summer schools for children of migrant workers, were all done in the backdrop of mind-expanding, blue smoke filled conversations and eastern mysticism.

Reflecting on the sum of my childhood experiences with church and faith, what strikes me most is I cannot recall not even one Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 6.59.30 AMconversation about God, the nature of God, how God relates to me, or I to Him. I’m not saying that it didn’t happen. I just don’t remember if it did. And it’s not as though He was absent. Just that He was kind of a fixture. Like Mt. Rainier in the distance. On a sunny day you can see it, but most days you don’t (this is the Northwest after all). But you always know the mountain is there and don’t question it. That was the sum total of my experience with God in my childhood.

Three years later, I left home for college and did not grace the door of a church, even for Christmas and Easter, for another 12 years.