An Inordinate Faith – Part 3

“The truth will indeed set you free…but first, you will suffer for it.” – Dr. Cornell WestScreen Shot 2013-12-27 at 6.50.33 AM

I learned about archetypes several years back from a Wayne Dyer tape a friend lent to me. He described the various phases we transition through as we age, or at least hope to transition through–child, cowboy, warrior, statesman, sage.

The 90’s was my warrior phase and my wife was dragged along for ride. We built a house, started a family, became a business owner, killed it in the stock market…all the things that every other overzealous middle-adult-child-of-an-alcoholic did. Bigger, faster, better. And I projected this energy into every aspect of my life. Including my faith life.

We were attending a small Episcopal church in our town and I was asked to join the Vestry which is the lay leadership council. Soon I was Senior Warden, the big shit, weighing in on decisions, feeling self-important and learning all the right things to do and say in the Anglican liturgy. Well, almost all the right things that is. The Suffragan Bishop paid a visit one Easter to preside over the vigil service. I volunteered for cantor duties as I was full of confidence from diving into just about everything else with the attitude that I would grow wings on the way down.

I should have practiced.

Three bars into the Vigil I realized I was over my head. I badly faked my way through the rest of it. Bishop Hampton, a tall and lanky silver haired Dr. Welby mid-westerner type was kind and didn’t protest. I think he prayed for me.

Undeterred, I reveled in the hierarchy of the church, even attending a couple of the annual Diocesan conventions as a delegate. Rubbing elbows with the movers and shakers from Seattle made me feel important and I was immersed in what I thought was important work. In all of this however, there was this undercurrent–an inkling of sorts that there had to be more to a faith life than this. As if I were play acting. I talked out loud to God about this, mainly in the car when I was driving by myself, but they were nothing more than one-sided conversations. Absent of anything else to do, I continued on, questioning.

Then September 11, 2001 came and initiated what I have since coined the grand trifecta: First the the terrorist attacks, which left me feeling numb and angry. Six months later my dad died from Alzheimer’s. Though we had expected his death would come sooner than later with his failing health, it still came as a surprise and made the surreal even more so. Six months after his death, my mom died from metastatic breast cancer. As with Dad, we knew her time was limited when her cancer returned, however this was different.

With Mom’s death came a sense of urgency and clarity about my life, about who I was and what I was put here to do. More to share later, but suffice to say her death brought on a reconciling of sorts about my faith. In particular, with Jesus. He had always been a part of my tradition, but in a history book, mythic figure sort of way that I would awkwardly pray to because that was what I was taught to do. Pray that is…when I was in church at the right moment in the service, or before I went to bed just in case I died in my sleep. Because that is what I was taught.

But I was also being pulled in different directions of spiritual contemplation, much of it influenced by Mom because she was a seeker of spiritual truth from many different faiths and that impacted me. I rather fancied the diverse approach as well, picking and choosing bits and peices of faith truth, like grazing at the salad bar. The problem was, that approach wasn’t transforming either. Mind you, I was not caught up (nor still am) in the theological cluster-F-of-an-argument around John 14:6 that many of my staunch Christian brothers and sisters aggressively defend. But still, I was yearning for a critical mass to my faith.

And I kept coming back to the history book. The mythic figure Jesus to pray to, and especially in the days and weeks following the trifecta, I was asking Him some hard WTF questions like, “who am I supposed to I follow?”

And He finally responded. Like a hoot owl calling in the quiet foggy morning.

He said,

“You have to choose, Rick.”

I paused, for a minute, or maybe it was a month, or a year, and then in a bread-in-the-toaster, morning-coffee-moment sort of way, I responded.

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“I choose you.”

And then I said,

“I don’t get the cross.”

And the Owl hooted back,

“In time, you will know.”

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.