This morning was like any morning. I woke up at quarter after six to make coffee, and prepare Ronnie’s breakfast and lunch for the day. Sunday through Tuesday, I don’t work so I use the van to go downtown and walk the canal. After I dropped her off the sky had that half and half effect where one side was a midnight blue and the other side a yellowish white as the sun shouted from the covering of the overcast blanket. There were a couple sprinkles, but that isn’t enough to stay inside. As I crawled north on West St towards New York with the rest of the morning traffic the sky had become completely dark, but there were still sprinkles–and it was still the same when I parked by MoJoe’s. After I used the restroom and ordered my tea for the walk I saw the purple flash of lightning. I turned around to see rain pouring over the asphalt and strong winds blowing the splattering drops transforming the corner of Michigan & Senate into a little ocean. The ebb and flow of the traffic has not slowed, and the cyclists zipping by were prepared with their bright rain coats on their back.
The weather this morning was a sticky 76 degrees with a high humidity. One would think the rain would bring relief, but this is Central Indiana in mid July. After the rain stops the humidity will rise with the temperature making the rest of the day oily and slick with all the sweat pouring off every body who has to be out in this mess. The weather is not permanent. Eventually the rain will stop, and before we know it the days will pass into Autumn, and the humidity will fall with the orange and brown leaves while the crisp air passes through them. Changing back and forth, but always making way for something new.
I think similarly when it comes to matters of faith. A member of my adopted family died for a couple seconds because of a heart attack, was brought back, and is now spending the next month or so recovering. He is a devout Catholic, and I so much want to here his perspective on faith now that he has faced death and lived to tell the tale. I won’t ask him anytime soon, though, but at some point I would like to sit with him and take notes while he talks.
I did something similar with my Pop two months before he died. It was a bright October day. I sat with my back to the patio door and Pop sat next to the television. It was Sunday, and The Colts were playing, but we weren’t paying attention. Pop had a consistently hard life with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. His life stayed difficult after he married my mom. Finances were a main thing, and Pop struggled to keep all his issues at bay. He never told anyone what he went through so when he became angry, people around him saw a foul tempered ass. At home my brother and I saw a raging demon frothing at the mouth as he used my head for a punching bag. Later on, and to his credit, he asked forgiveness but never brought up his abuses to excuse his behavior. He constantly struggled and failed to break the violent cycle within himself–but he kept getting up and trying anyway. Now his life was ending hard. I was going through my own difficulties as well, and they were straining my relationships. Like my Pop, I struggled and failed constantly. He was sitting at Death’s door so I asked him, “Pop, does it get any easier?” He leaned back with his arms crossed over his chest and inhales the answer, “No. It gets harder. Besides, no one learned nothing from an easy life. I heard this preacher–I can’t remember his name–and he said if you’re going through life without any difficulties or worries then you need to stop and ask what it is you’re doing wrong.” I shook my head. It was a tough answer. I knew my father well enough to know he will always speak the truth as he understands truth. You may not like what he says, but he comes from a place of honesty. I recounted this to a friend from church and she was taken aback, “Oh my god what a cynical answer!” Maybe, but she was living the cushy, corporate America life and had not faced any real tragedy at that point in time. Perhaps she regarded my father’s answer as cynical because she was doing something wrong.
Going beyond her, I think that is one of my main issues with Christianity. Difficulties are paid a cursory glance, and the stories of constant adversity are put aside for the stories of blessing. I’ve heard stories in churches where people talk about their lives before Jesus as down and out turning tricks for a fix downtown, but after Jesus they have a multimillion dollar house in the burbs with the spouse of their dreams, and they can cruise through life with hardly any bumps. Clap. Clap. Clap. Good for you, but what about many of us who don’t have those middle class connections and we have to struggle to keep our wits and faith in tact? Stories of difficulty do not sell the gospel even though Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:33, NKJV).” Jesus’ ministry ended with him beaten and crucified. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, said Jesus went through all this without the guarantee of resurrection, but had faith it would happen. I think this insight applicable. Just because you come to Jesus doesn’t mean he owes you any material blessing, but count yourself lucky should you reap material wealth.
Because of this failure within Christianity–and to be clear, I don’t mean Jesus–, I don’t see how the faith can handle the tragic moments. Sure it works when you have organic food in the fridge, and can travel wherever at a moment’s notice, but what about those times where you’ve lost everything, and the only thing you have is whatever is in your bag? In my opinion, faith lacks substance when it hasn’t been seasoned with fire. That’s why I got this book this past Sunday.
I’ve read Brad Warner’s books starting with Hardcore Zen. We’re close in age and were part of the hardcore music in the 1980s Midwest. Warner is quite conservative in his practice and how he lives as a Zen monk outside the monastery walls. He went through a series of tragedies that included his own marriage ending. What does practice and faith look like within the context of all that upheaval? Every person is different, we all have different thresholds for pain, and we also don’t express suffering in the same way. When I read or listen to people who suffer or have gone through suffering, I am not looking for the ultimate answer but a different perspective because the current perspective I have isn’t working. As my professor, Dr. Meyer said often, “I don’t want my pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, but my pound on the ground here and now.” Faith means nothing if it hasn’t fallen on the asphalt while beaten by the rain.
But that faith does not end in beathing. As I finish writing this the rain has stopped, the sky is lighter, and the trees are greener.
Faith doesn’t grant us the life of ease, but helps us to appreciate the good things because it has been stretched to the point of tearing after being cut by a lightning strike. Faith–Christian or Buddhist–is done a disservice when we try to sell it with privilege while ignoring the adversity. Faith brings joy and meaning in an otherwise absurd existence