St. Catherine

Proverbs 22: 6 reads, “Train children in the right way, and when old they will not stray (NRSV).” I often heard this proverb used to raise children in a particular brand of Christianity. While I agree there is a solid argument in raising children to be a specific kind of religious person, I think the interpretation too narrow. I think if you raise a child in a specific manner—for good or for ill—they will have difficulty parting from the teaching as adults.

This is why my brother and I have such irreverence and criticism when it comes to religion. Growing up, our father had religion forced down his throat by his boor of a sperm donor, Horace Eugene Smith. I won’t say “father,” though. The way my dad described Horace, and the way my great grandmother and mother described him, Horace procreated for the sole purpose of producing a farmhand he was not obligated to pay or treat humanely. Horace had no paternal love towards my father. When my father was fourteen, Horace broke his back with a steel toed boots, he would beat my father with planks of wood or barbed wire, and turned a willfully blind eye to his brother sexually abusing his son. Nothing was said or done by anyone in the community, and they knew what was happening. What I was told by my mother and her family is in those days people didn’t interfere with another family’s child rearing no matter how vicious. Even if the times were different, nobody would have stepped up out of fear of Horace. In the 1950’s, Horace stood at 6”4 with broad shoulders and a barrel chest, and overwhelmingly strong. While his wife would drive the tractor to pull the trailer for hay, Horace would toss—with one arm—150 lb. bales on to the trailer one after another like you and I would toss a succession of paper wads into the trash can.  Horace was also mean spirited and had no qualms whatsoever about throwing the first swing at whoever crossed him. He played the part of the amicable, good Christian elder at church, but the people saw through the farce. At home, he would choke my father with his narrow religion that created a vengeful God who was deaf to his son’s cries and did not hold him accountable for his many abuses. The only person who wasn’t afraid of Horace was my great grandmother Hansing–my mother’s grandmother. Over the phone she told Horace he was an awful man who had no right to beat my father as he did, and said my father would be better off with her. Horace threatened to come after her and put her in her place. My great grandmother told him to bring it. He knew where she lived, and she would wait. Horace never followed through with his threat. You know what’s more fierce than a giant, foul tempered, Irishman? A stubborn Scots-Irish woman with a mean streak a mile wide.

Horace died when my father was twenty-one. After the funeral, Pop made a vow to himself that he could read and think on his own, and no one was going to tell him what to believe without question. So when his ten year old son defends his argument with “Pastor said…” you can imagine the amount of rage and fury going towards the boy that was meant for the sperm donor. He was doing his damnedest to not have the home he endured. He struggled the break the cycle of anger, he read and thought on his own, and, by God, that’s what his sons would do. From where did that desire come? How did my father know there was a better way, and it was worth all the struggle and scraped knees to break that cycle. Pop didn’t speak up about his sexual abuse until the last year he was alive. He carried that pain for fifty-five years—almost fifty-eight. After I was told about the sexual abuse, I understood why my father was so full of rage when I or my brother would get out of line, and by rights, his behavior should have been worse. Statistically speaking, people who go through the years of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse my father went through they struggle with fits of rage, and are strung out from various substances. The only substances my father would abuse was nicotine and caffeine smoking five packs of Kool Filter Kings with six pots of coffee a day. He quit smoking when I was thirteen, and cut back his coffee consumption to two pots a day until he was diagnosed with cancer. In truth, he should have ended up as a transient dependent on alcohol and heroin, but he wasn’t. The anger was there when we were kids, but in an attempt to have a different home, he would make us read the book of Proverbs. After we finished the entire reading, we would tell him what we learned, and if there were reparations to be made like a face to face apology or some kind of manual labor, we would do it. Friends, later, would ask what it was like to be punished by the bible. I’d laugh. That wasn’t punishment. Punishment was a right cross on the jaw that knocked you to the floor. Over and done with in two seconds. With the reading of proverbs we were disciplined, and the quickest I have seen this discipline last was three days. Both my brother and I agree, we would rather take the hits and move on with life than spend hours or days in our own private furnace of Purgatory. How did my father receive such grace into his life that he was able to make alterations in his mind to be different than his father? Two words: his grandmother.

Catherine Williams was born in Lebanon, IN in 1885 to parents who came from County Cork, Ireland a generation after the potato famine, and died in Lebanon in 1983. She once quipped that the reason she had such a long life is because the Lord had a lot of work to do, and was gracious enough to grant her the time to do it. She married Horace’s father, Roy who was a womanizer, a drunk, a gambler, and would beat the shit out of his wife and Horace. He walked out on them when Horace was twelve for a woman of ill repute, or so says my family. Catherine never sought a divorce and neither did Roy. Horace never forgave the man, nor did he forget. The only good thing Horace did was resolve to never touch alcohol—a vow he kept till the day he died. Roy came around in the 1930s when my great grandmother Catherine was in her late forties, and that resulted in her having twins. Today, women becoming pregnant in their late forties is simultaneously risky for the mother and the child because of the high risk for birth defects. Catherine’s twins were no exception. One twin was diagnosed with schizophrenia and the other, who molested my father, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. During her tough times she read her bible constantly. When there was trouble, of which she had many, she turned to the bible. She became a mystic who had tremendous compassion for  my father, and favored him more than the other grandchildren because my father needed it. I saw a picture of her at a Smith family reunion. I was only two months old, but everyone, including my father, averaged out to be 6”3, broad shouldered and well-muscled surrounding their matriarch, Catherine. She sat in a peaceful pose with a strong jaw and a cleft chin. Her eyes smiled, and you would never know the years of sadness she carried. My brother and I owe a great deal to her. Without her influence, our father would have been a monster twice the son of Hell Horace was.

Our father struggled and stumbled constantly trying to free himself from the violence given to him by Horace and Roy. He died believing he failed, but I disagree. My brother and I still wrestle with our minute to minute existential crises. We read and think about belief and faith, and daily, we strive to be a little better than we were yesterday.

One night, I sat at the foot of my father’s bed as he rested. The chemo took away all of his energy, and he spent most days asleep—one week he was awake for a total of twelve hours, and they were not twelve continuous hours. When he was awake, his mind was sharp, and he was social. While my mom and girlfriend sat in the dining room to talk, I approached my father as a penitent coming to a priest for confession. “Pop, I mean no disrespect, but I want to succeed as a man where you failed.” I heard him inhale as he took in my words. The directness of the words is something common in our family. Delivery style is irrelevant. As my mother put it to one of my girlfriends whose passive-aggression annoyed her to no end, “We spit it out, we duke it out, we work it out, and then we move on.” Still, though, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. Pop has always been too familiar with his temper, and he constantly failed in being better only to get up and try again. He never made excuses, but went back to the work of improvement. He could either get pissed and tell me to get the fuck out of the room, or we could have a discussion. Those few seconds in between breaths were stretched out and pressed by lead weights to the point of suffocation, and the light streaming through the cracked door was the distant echo of a star that died long ago and far away. At last he exhaled, “I don’t take it as disrespect, I take it as you paying attention.” That’s our father’s success. That’s the grace of our great grandmother Catherine who is the patron saint of the Smiths and intercedes for us when we don’t know what to pray. We keep going forward with the grace that is stronger than a potato blight and solid enough to weather the deepest betrayal. We are broken, but we are not shattered, and we can still walk even with a limp.

Good Enough

Pop

I read the daily Catholic bible readings to keep myself mindful of the bible. I’ve been reading the book since I was nine years old when it was thrown into my lap, “Here, boy! Figure it out!” After the age of ten my bible reading intensified when I made the mistake responding to my father with, “Well, Pastor said…” to support what I thought of the pastor’s sermon. My father bellowed as he pounded the table and the walls shook with each howling vowel, “Goddamn it, boy! God gave you a fuckin’ brain! You take that fuckin’ bible and read it for your goddamned self because no man in a suit with a title behind the pulpit is going to tell you how to fucking think!” To avoid another ear breaking rebuke, I read the bible—I read everything—to be ready to defend myself in a debate with my father. He never cared when I disagreed with him, but he did care if I read books, chewed on the ideas, and made my own conclusions. I am unable to recall how many times I have read the bible cover to cover between the ages of ten and twenty-two, but I know between twenty-two and now (forty-three), I have read the bible fourteen times, different translations,  and different versions such as NASB, KJV, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, NLT, ESV, and CEB. I also devoured church history, read the Church Fathers and Doctors, and Protestant theologians and thinkers. This list isn’t to impress anyone but to illustrate how much effort I put in to my intellectual survival at home. My father did not suffer fools kindly. Especially in his own home.

Two of my father’s favorite verses were Acts 17:11,”These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures everyday to see whether these things were so (NRSV),” and 1 Peter 3:15, “[B]ut in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you (NRSV).” For my father faith wasn’t an emotional longing resembling a child’s longing for a blanket—though, faith can have that beginning—but faith also had an intellectual component to the practice. Faith wasn’t to be accepted blindly and without question, but to be constantly challenged and critiqued. My father was never afraid where his questions and criticisms took him, but would approach his faith from a different perspective when life took him to unfamiliar territory. He faced the theological struggles with the racism of his hometown and his family, homosexuality within the church, and the goodness of God in light of his own cancer.

My father, Delman Earl Smith, was born and raised in Cambridge City, IN about an hour east of Indianapolis off I-70, and close to the Ohio state line. It’s a quaint town with old style brick buildings on the strip, and has a coffee shop, Main Street Sweets Café. The café has real hard wood floors, homemade candy and pastries, and an eclectic coffee and tea selection. For the most part, people are friendly, but there is an undercurrent of tension. Pull away the cover, and Cambridge City is unwelcoming to people who are different in their skin color, sexuality, or religion. That difference of religion can be outside Christianity or that difference can be a Christianity outside of Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. Ronnie and I would go to Cambridge City because that was the closest location of US Bank. Before the election, Trump signs and Confederate Flags decorated the lawns and houses around town. Driving through there I would be slightly apprehensive because my Buddhist Prayer Flags were visible in the rear window. This was Autumn of 2016, and not much has changed since my father grew up there in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I don’t think he adopted the culture. After he married my mother in the 70s they moved to the Irvington neighborhood on Indy’s East side because that is where my mother’s family lived. My father adapted quickly to the culture, and if you talked to him you would never know he had a rural background.

In the first few months of living in Indy, my father experienced culture shock because he had never been around so many people of color. The only people of color he saw were the migrant workers who came from Mexico and worked near his farm. He would tell me he never got a chance to know the migrant workers because they kept to themselves. How my father described his family and the people in Cambridge City, I think the workers kept to themselves for safety. My father’s family had low, but firm, opinions about any person who wasn’t white and didn’t speak English. Such a vulgar irony because, in the 1880s, my father’s great grandparents came to Lebanon, IN from County Cork, Ireland, and they were told they could be Catholic or they could eat—Hoosier hospitality at its finest.

One Sunday afternoon, after church, my father and I sat in his truck waiting for my mother and brother. On the side of the building a door opened, and out came an interracial couple—a black man holding the hand of his very pregnant, white wife. My father knew his family’s opinions on such relationships, but he never met, let alone saw, an interracial couple. He nudged me, and nodded in their direction, “Hey, boy what do you think of that?” I looked over, and I remembered the story I read in Genesis about Abraham looking for a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham didn’t want his son to marry any of the women in the land they occupied because they did not follow YHWH so he went to the people of his home country. My ten year old mind reasoned, “They’re both Christians so it’s ok.” My father, satisfied with my answer, nodded, “That’s good enough for me.”

In the early 2000s a new church was started near Broad Ripple on 56th & Keystone called Jesus Metropolitan Church. This was not only affirming, but it was a church for the LGBT community. They welcomed everyone. Nowadays they are called Life Journey. When the church first appeared they advertised in signs and flyers, “Would Jesus Discriminate?” The church also rented billboards throughout the city citing verses depicting homosexuality in the bible. The signs briefly unpacked the cultural idioms to support their claim, and also cited scholarship countering the stringent interpretations of Leviticus, the epistles of Paul, and the epistles written in the name of Paul. Jesus Metropolitan was met with hate, and there were people who made the effort to paint slurs on the billboards. The billboards near our home on 30th & Franklin and near my father’s work at 54th & Keystone were no exception. Both the signs and the slurs bothered my father. One Saturday afternoon, I was visiting with him, and he asked me what I thought of the signs. I told him that if the church had done its job loving and accepting people as Jesus did there wouldn’t be a need for a church such as Jesus Metropolitan. “Alright, that’s good enough for me.”

With all his flaws and issues, my father wanted to be like Jesus. For him, Jesus was the end of the disputes over doctrine and interpretation. That being said, how would he have responded to me coming out as a bisexual who favored men over women? I know it wouldn’t be easy for him concerning the love he had for his son and the love he had for scripture. It’s one thing for him to accept Jesus Metropolitan Church as brothers and sisters in the faith, but the issue would be at his table eyeball to eyeball when I visited. I think the process would be similar to the debates we had when I started getting tattoos. He and I would debate the bible, we would swear and roar our scholarship because that is our thing, we would take a break, he would research my position and I would research his position, and we would finally come to an agreement. But I chose to get tattoos. In the end, it’s all about Jesus. If Jesus would never reject me, then neither would he.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer it was too late. The cancer began in the prostate and went to the bones. When the doctors caught it, the cancer was already at stage four and metastasized in his legs, lower back, ribs, and the back of his skull. His belief and faith had been knocked to the flow now that he faced a painful death. He began to question if he ever truly believed or if God was simply an accessory to make life a little tolerable. My father decided he needed to time to think. He put away his bibles and stopped going to church. He wanted to make sure what believed was real, and if he gave my brother and I something real—and he didn’t want any distractions. He didn’t set any time limit. He knew his time was extremely short, but, if necessary, he would go to the grave questioning. He knew if he saw God or if there were nothing, he would have his answer. This period lasted three months, and he walked away from that period with a faith that had substance and was his alone. I thought there was something commendable in what he did. During a crisis such as cancer people will run to religious belief because of the fear of death, the fear of annihilation. There is nothing lesser or greater in running to something out of fear. It’s human. We all do that. My father wrestled with the idea of never again existing, but the thought never discouraged him. Regardless, if he saw God or ceased to be, my father would leave this life honest.

During his final months we had some real discussions that would start with my questions. One particular question I had pulled no punches. I sat on his side of the bed while he put away his clothes in the closet. “Hey, Pop. Are you afraid to die?” I heard the click of the hanger as it rested on the bar. My father exhaled, “Well, I don’t want to leave you kids behind.” I chuckled. We’re in our thirties, and he still called us kids. “I get that, but I want to know if you’re afraid to die.”
“Ah, well, no, I’m not.” He went back to hanging up his clothes, and I wondered when my time comes if I would have the same level of courage.

I have been on and off the road since I was nineteen, and I met many different people all over the United States, but I have not met anyone who comes close to the same level of integrity, faith, and resolution as my father—and I’ve met some good people. We had a rocky relationship most of my life, but reparation began in my late twenties when I began to see my father as a person full of complexities and nuances, and the last three years of his life our relationship was good. Talking to so many people all over the country, I realized how lucky I was to have Delman Earl Smith as a father, and on December 9, 2009 the world felt the loss I still carry.

 

For God so liked the world…

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While volunteering at Global Gifts last Thursday, I found myself in a quick conversation concerning the Catholic Church—maybe  two responses a piece before a customer walked through the door. The weather was pleasant. No humidity, the temperature was near seventy degrees, and a gentle breeze caused the plants and leaves to sway near the sidewalk. One block away on New Jersey, I heard the hourly bells from St. Mary’s Catholic Church ringing, and the sound reminds me of Dropkick Murphys’ song, “Famous For Nothing.” At the end of the chorus, they sing “And the bells of St. Mary’s were ringin’.” I mentioned the song to my co-volunteer, and she suggested I visit St. Mary’s because it’s a good church. I became sheepish and said I probably wouldn’t be welcomed there, and that I felt displaced since the election. The big push out the door came from St. Jude’s when the priest told the packed sanctuary how persecuted we Catholics were, and how we should respond with a militant faith—going so far as to say we should impose the Church’s interpretation of morality on our neighbors. I couldn’t get out of the church fast enough. The priest’s attitude was so far removed from Jesus. When I went to mass at St. John’s after the election, Fr. Nagel said we all needed to get along with Trump and his supporters. I felt betrayed by the church where I had been confirmed. I heard nothing of a rebuke towards those Catholics who voted for Trump or how they supported the anti-humane policies of the Republican Party. So I stopped going to mass. I felt Jesus had already left the building, and I went out to find him.

I ruminated on my co-volunteer’s suggestion. After my shift, I sat on a brick median under a few trees outside of Starbucks and Bru Burgers a few doors down from Global Gifts, and read Henri Nouwen’s Can You Drink This Cup? The title came from Jesus’ question to James and John who asked to be seated on his right and left hand. Nouwen equates Jesus’ cup to the cup of human suffering we all drink. Jesus also drank from this cup. I thought about my own suffering and the abuse I received from my family and church, and my clinging to the past. I decided, I would visit St. Mary’s, but I needed to go to confession before I attended mass. I didn’t think God cared one way or another, but I wanted to be honest with myself. The next day, I went to St. John’s.

The experience was painful, but that had nothing to do with the sacrament. Confession, or the rite of reconciliation, is about getting right with God by owning your behavior, thoughts, and words that causes separation between you and God. Confession is also about getting right with the Church because unskillful behavior, thoughts, and words can damage The Church’s reputation. The Church is Jesus’ body on earth, and to hurt that image, in my opinion, is nothing short of blasphemy. Something all Christians need to consider regardless of their denomination. My experience was painful because the priest was an asshole.

I didn’t catch his name because he isn’t a regular, but he was older with a pointed nose and sharp chin that lacked mercy. When I went into the room, the air was stuffy. There was no ventilation, and the red carpet and yellowish off-white walls pressed against my windpipe causing this penitent to gasp his confession in quick breaths. I told the priest I had not been to mass since the election, and I still struggled with anger and hatred with Trump and his supporters.  The priest snapped that I should “just get over it,” and that I should go to mass regularly to avoid these moral pitfalls. It took all I had within me to not dull his sharp chin with a right cross through the mesh screen while responding, “Fuck you! What if The Church is the problem?!” I didn’t. I reminded myself that my being there had nothing to do with this prick, or my feelings towards this situation. I was still in the presence of God receiving grace. If Fr. Nagel had taken my confession he and I would have had a chat while offering me the necessary tools to overcome my hostility. Fr. Nagel is like that with everyone, though, because he is compassionate, and genuinely cares for whoever comes across his path. He is a good priest.

After I made my penance, I drove to St. Mary’s for their daily mass, and yesterday, I attended the mass celebrating The Holy Trinity. The first thing I noticed was the sign outside the church stating in Spanish, English, and Arabic, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.”

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When I walked in, I saw a wide range of age, skin color, and nationality. I also witnessed the genuine care people had for one another as well as visitors. For the homily, Fr. Carlton said that we need to reexamine how we view God. God is not angry or wrathful, but loves his/her people regardless as stated in Exodus 34. The role of Jesus was to demonstrate that God is in the flesh calling us all into the divine dance between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I smiled for the entire mass, and almost giggled and clapped when Fr. Carlton held up the host and chalice saying, “Receive what you are, become what you receive.” After the Eucharist the announcements called for donations to support radical hospitality and acceptance, and standing against policies marginalizing people for any reason. After I genuflected, I saw my co-volunteer in the aisle, “What did you think?”
“This is the first time I’ve been to mass, and left really understanding that God likes me.” We’ve all heard that God loves us, but it’s a wholly different thing to know that God likes us. We all know how that works when we’re around family during the holidays. God liking us is such a powerful movement of the soul opening the heart to give and receive love. That is the point of The Church. Instead of striving to be Republican why not be like Jesus and proclaim the good to everyone that God loves them, and then treat people with such compassion so they know God likes them.

Slouching Towards…

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This week my sense of equilibrium gave way as I read the news of violence from downtown Portland with Left and Right Wing groups clashing together with weapons and angry words. Last week, two men were killed defending a woman in a Hijab from a white supremacist who spoke of his free speech and right to violence–going so far as to say he hoped his victims died. A couple days later, a similar incident occurred on the MAX with another Right Wing individual screaming for his freedom of speech while beating the conductor. People on the train subdued the man and released him to the cops when they arrived. I understand why the Left responded with violence. I understand that the Right believes they are being marginalized while marginalizing people on the Left. People on the Left have legitimate fear because people on the Right do carry out their hatred. I live in that fear on the Southside of Indianapolis where people such as myself can be accosted in Jesus’ name without any consequence. I grew to hate them. I grew to hate Trump. I grew to hate anyone under the name of Christian and/or Republican because that’s who beat me and ostracize me. I roared. I flashed my education. I humiliated them with my scholarship. I felt powerful as I browbeat my oppressors. For the moment, I felt that warm feeling of catharsis sliding down my bones. The feeling was like the bliss of heroin after the asprin drip in the back of the throat had dissipated, but then there was the rush of pain after the come down. Trump was still in control. Straight, white Christians were still in power, and nothing changed. In my mind, I always had Portland. My return to the northwest is in the works. Nothing soon. A few years, maybe. I want to return because I remember the feelings of peace and acceptance. When I read the news all my illusions were exposed as childish fantasies, and I realized I am in the middle of a W.B. Yeats poem.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

When Yeats penned these words he saw the effects of World War I. The old ways of God and country  mixed with technology unleashed a cruelty never before imagined by anyone. Machine guns ripped apart bodies on smokey European fields, and soldiers doubled over in a fetal position as they wretched their last breath from mustard gas. There was no glory, there was no honor, and if God were there “he” already skipped town because we were too much to handle. In those dangerous days people thought, from their literal understanding of biblical prophecy, that Jesus’ return was imminent. That he would descend upon his white horse to slay the wicked with the sword pouring out his mouth. For Yeats that would have been a double tragedy. Twenty centuries of Christianity brought about The Great War, and now the image of the problem is the solution? That is too much to handle.

Where was the redemption promised? Where was that abundant life Jesus spoke about to his disciples? Almost a century after Yeats, and I can point out the effects of those promises as executed by the political leaders who look to Jesus as their example. Children deprived of education, the poor deprived of food stamps so they can eat, Flint, MI and the contaminated water, attacking Muslims, attacking immigrants of color, attacking LGBT, attacking transgender, oppressing women, Rich men creating wars so the poor can die to increase their bank accounts, and so on and so forth. There are Christians who will say these leaders who promote such ideas are not real Christians, but these people read from the same bible. Doctrine is not about following the example of Jesus but a healthy mixture of money and charisma. What is sad is these examples aren’t new today, nor were they new a century ago. Yes, right now the end of the world feels imminent because Donald Trump and his colleagues seem hell bent on destroying the world so they can be comfortable in the few years they have remaining, and I hear Christians calling out “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” The body of Christ here on earth has already done considerable damage. What improvement would the head bring?

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Though, I feel the same trepidation as Yeats, I am weary. Violence and insults come from both sides hurled towards the other, and I have done more than my fair share contributing to the violence in the world. I have not shown love, but fear, loathing, condescension, and smugness towards those on the Right. In the beginning I had a good reason. While they felt threatened by my presence and my questions, I never struck them or slandered them while justifying myself with God’s grace. Had they never hit me–figuratively and literally–I would not have felt the desire to retaliate. My response is not on them. I made the choice to sneer and belittle, but they are not completely innocent in the matter. While the Right introduced suffering to me from their words and actions, I exacerbated my suffering and theirs when I responded likewise. Though the Right is motivated by their understanding of Jesus, I take that understanding of Jesus and spit upon their faith as savage and childish. An eye for an eye until the whole world is blind. Looking to myself as one example, I see a similar patterns occurring between the Right and the Left in Portland and the rest of the country. No one group is better than the other no matter how they spin their rhetoric. Both sides perpetuate the violence, and somebody, regardless of who, needs to stop and say, “The violence ends with me.”
Is there something new imminent, or will the coming of Jesus only make matters worse? If that is the case, he can stay in Heaven because whatever this is, that he started, isn’t working. The magi crawled under the bright conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter proclaiming the arrival of the messiah to the people of God in Jerusalem. All of Jerusalem shook with fear, and their nerves were calmed with the blood of children Herod slaughtered to protect his throne. Today we don’t have Herod, we have Trump who has the support of Evangelical leaders, Catholic leaders, and more than half of their respective churches. The religious establishment that killed toddlers for political stability had Moses and The Prophets, but today the religious establishment destroys the innocent in the name of Jesus. Something isn’t working. Is it Jesus, is it the church, or is it both? If, indeed, the end is upon us, I shudder to think what will be born. For the time being each one of us, on both sides of the cultural spectrum, can, at the very least, stop responding with hate. We’re wearing ourselves out slouching towards whatever end awaits us.

 

 

Following Jack

Sunday was a lucky day for me. Ronnie and one of our friends spent time at our apartment to have a girl’s day. The original plan was to hang out with another friend, but he was otherwise incapacitated so I opted to go to the north side to Half Price Books to search for my more books by and on Jack Kerouac. There are four Half Price Books in Indianapolis—one on the south side, two on the north side (Castleton and 86th & Ditch), and another in Avon. I prefer the Half Price in Castleton because they have free coffee, and a quality selection of literature and Jazz. What I wanted to do at the bookstore was to sit, drink coffee, read a few books before buying them, and get in a little writing. Unfortunately, Half Price was busy with people lounging at the tables. No bother. There are plenty of coffee shops to go to, one of them a Starbucks one block east of the store. I found Stephen Eddington’s  The Beat Face of God: The Beat Generation Writers as Spiritual Guides and On the Road the original scroll with four essays of brilliant literary criticism. I have a On the Road based on the original scroll, but I had loaned it out to a friend who also enjoys the writings of Kerouac. I texted him to let him know he could keep the book as a gift. I think the 1957 Viking publication of On the Road too tame and did not say what Jack wanted. When Kerouac first wrote the book in 1951, he spent three weeks of all-nighters tapping out his story on a scroll so his thought would not be interrupted by the changing of paper. When told he would have to edit and revise, Kerouac, with his right index finger in the air proclaimed, “This was dictated by the Holy Ghost!” like an Old Testament Prophet. Having read both versions of the story, I am inclined to agree with Kerouac.

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With Eddington’s book, I felt like I hit the literary jackpot because this is the kind of criticism I should have written for my senior thesis on Dharma Bums. While keeping up with my regular academic load, I researched Jack Kerouac, The Beats, the political and religious culture of the United States, and, the protagonist’s, Ray Smith, role as a spiritual wanderer to support my claim that Dharma Bums, though published in 1958, was still relevant to 21st century spiritual seekers. Eddington made the remark that On the Road is the gospel for the modern world, and I agree. For many Christians I know they rely on the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to point them to Jesus. For me my four gospels are, On the Road, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels, and Big Sur pointing to the wilderness to look for the God who left the churches seeking honest hearts.

For the introduction of Eddington’s work, David Amram, who was a friend of Kerouac, noted how Kerouac was at peace with his Catholic background even though he stopped going to mass at the age of twelve. The reason he stopped had to do with the hypocrisy of the Church, and its control issues. The control wasn’t about the people, though that did play a significant part, but controlling God—going so far as to tame this God into a bland New England boil. I have similar objections with my refusal to go to mass. The doctrine of Republican Christianity has infected the holy faith and tainted the host. Every Mass has become an act of sacrilege. My last Mass was just before the election at St. Jude’s off Thompson & MacFarland where, in a sanctuary packed with white people, the priest roared about the persecution of Christians in this country, and how the laity needed to galvanize and impose their faith on everyone. I was done. The other Catholic Churches I went to in Indy shared similar sentiments, or talked about playing nice with Trump and his supporters. At the moment in the Mass where Christ descends upon the altar becoming the host we Catholics imbibe to be his image to a world searching for peace, he skipped the altar and ran out of the sanctuary.

I have been in a state of dissonance ever since I walked away from Mass, and I’ve been fighting that tension at every turn. I exacerbated this internal struggle when I threw out everything connected to Christianity, including God, but I am no more at peace than when I sat in the pews encumbered by robed Trump acolytes. The reality is, and I am loathe to say it, is I am still very much a Catholic who cares deeply about the image and message of Jesus, the Blessed Mother, and Holy Mother Church. Kerouac didn’t waste his energy bashing the negative behavior of The Church, but sought God’s face in everyday life while wandering. Perhaps, I should as well. Like Kerouac, and many others who were of similar mind, I am a displaced Christian. Alan Watts in his essay “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen,” talked about these Christians who desire to be like Jesus but lack the tools and examples in a Christianity whose adherents make the company man with the grey flannel suit synonymous with being a good Christian. That spirituality chews life into a gnarled mush spitting it on the ground. Where is that abundant life that Jesus talked about in The Gospel according to St. John? That life is overshadowed by waving American flags and hate pouring out from red clean shaven faces like sweat on the pulpit. It’s one thing to acknowledge this lack of life, but it is quite another thing to remain in the pew with constant complaints. The better option is to get up and leave the building, and finding God for yourself. Waiting for Godot in the church is an act of futility because “he” will not set foot in a church anymore. God can be found in the homeless face, the child’s laughter, the open flower, and the transparent artist. God is found on the road with a rucksack strapped to “his back” looking for anyone who wants to meet “him” in spirit and in truth.

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The way Kerouac came to peace with his own faith background was through the teachings of the Buddha which he came across by accident. One of his favorite American writers was Henry David Thoreau who daily read the Bhagavad Gita, the holy scriptures of Hinduism, and the basis for Thoreau’s writing. Kerouac wanted to tap into the same spirit as Thoreau, but instead found the Buddha. Kerouac’s discovery of The Buddha was serendipitous and answered the questions of his sensitive heart through the four noble truths, and the first noble truth, “All life is suffering,” spoke to him. Kerouac wanted to know more so he devoted three years to studying Buddhism. That research produced his book, Wake Up: The Life of The Buddha, and his posthumous work, Some of the Dharma. From his first four published novels, I can only speculate that Kerouac was influenced by The Dhammapada, the collected sayings of The Buddha. In this Buddhist text, The Buddha says, “’He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease. ‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’ in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.(3-4)” Kerouac does not mention his disdain for the poor practices of The Church, but remains Catholic while looking for God outside of The Church. He forgave everybody while walking down his road.

Going North

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In the ninth episode of the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Kimmy Goes to Church,” Kimmy had been burned by the new church she went to with Titus, and vented about the manipulation and control within religion. Kimmy had hoped for something different other than the religious abuse she endured from her days confined to a bunker. She decides to go to the church, and interrupts the service to call out the church for its hypocrisy. I have often dreamed of doing this at any church I’ve been to, but never had the reaction she received. The people took in her words and saw Kimmy as a prophet from the Old Testament calling for the repentance of God’s people. The congregation understood that moment as a time of confession. One man stood up and confessed he was cheating on his wife, the pastor says that from time to time she smoked “the devil’s weed,” and the person doing the scripture reading confessed she was a gossip and a scold but trying every day. The pastor concluded the thought that “when we know better we do better.” Kimmy gets it, and understands that religion had to do with realizing we are all flawed and we come together to learn from each other to become better. I nodded my head in agreement, but Ronnie vocalized what I thought, “Yeah, but that don’t happen in real life.” Wouldn’t it be great, though, if that were the case. My anger with the church doesn’t have to do with the character flaws of the individuals who meet under the stable, but the denial. Instead of taking responsibility for negative actions that harm people in the church or outside the church, the perpetrators claim righteousness because of grace. To make it worse, people in the community and the leadership reinforce that notion of grace and blame the victims. Yes, there is grace, and, according to what is written in the Old Testament by the author of Ezra, we are not punished as our sins deserve, but we do not escape the consequences of our choices. We all fuck up, but, before we know better to do better, we need to own what we do. I’m not angry with Christianity, but at the Christians who refuse to accept the responsibility of their faith or the responsibility of holding other Christians accountable as is set down St. Paul 1 Corinthians 5. I am angry at the injustice that could be so easily rectified.

I have had several conversations with Christians concerning  what I observed, and the response centered around no one being perfect as if I spent my adult life in a naive bubble. I grew up with the bible and the doctrines surrounding that book shoved down my throat to justify anything they did to me. These people, who were often leaders, cited the bible to justify what they said, and how they acted. There were verses I used to counter their justifications, and they responded with the back of their hand across my jaw. I think I can speak for others outside of myself who have been on the business end of Christian righteousness when I say we are tired of the excuses. I took the chance at a church in Romeoville, IL.

Ronnie and I drove from Lincoln, NE for her sister’s wedding. The wedding was being held at the church where Ronnie grew up, Bible Baptist Church in Romeoville, IL. Her parents still go there, and say it’s a good church, but Ronnie’s experience differs. For her, the people, including the pastor, are vile, manipulative, and judgmental. As we drove down there she told me not to let her opinions shape mine. I resolved not to, but I was having a hard enough time keeping my cynicism out of the way because of all the negative things I experienced in various churches. On top of that, we were going into an affluent church where the parking lot is full of the latest SUVs and white people. I walked into the school side of the church wearing my rope sandals, shirt, and chinos to deal with the heat. Ronnie’s sister and her mom were in the fellowship area. All I could see were white linoleum on the floors, white tables, white walls, and white ceiling. The space felt sterile, and the only nonwhite fixture of the room were the brown doors with long rectangular windows. As the people came in, they gave me sneers, but I wasn’t here for them. Ronnie’s mom wanted me to meet everyone, and started with the school’s principal. He looked me up and down while dismissing me until he found out I’m a writer with a B.A. in Literature and Religion. After that, he touched my shoulder laughing and talking to me like we were equals.

When I get annoyed, I slip into one of  my two accents: hood or Scottish Highlands, and the one I use determines my level annoyance. When I’m irate, my words rise up and down with the waves crashing against the boulders of the northwestern Scottish coast where my mom’s side of the family hails. I grew up hearing that while living with my great aunt who would break our ears with her anger. The hood accent, though, is something I picked up living on the Eastside, and comes out when I’m mildly annoyed. I found the principal annoying. I stopped him in mid-sentence, “You talkin’ like we equal. Nah, man, we ain’t equal.” I walked away to find some coffee, and sit with my mother in law and sister in law. I sat down and breathed out the painful conversation I just had, and went on about similar and worse experiences with church leaders. My mother in law and sister in law took turns saying that no one is perfect and I shouldn’t look to imperfect people. “Yeah, yeah. I know people aren’t perfect. I’ve been hearing that from every church I went to where I received the left hand of rejection. Your own bible tells you to hold your own fellow Christians accountable. What you’re telling me does not address the real problem that is in the church. When you, and others, tell me about grace and the imperfection of people, you make yourself culpable—you share in the responsibility.” Ronnie’s sister stopped with her mouth open. She did not expect such an encounter. This is what happens when a naïve Christian comes face to face with the hard truth of responsibility in their professed faith, and realized they live a professed blasphemy.

This is where the anger has to stop. This is where I take responsibility how I feel now, and how I want to feel in the future. I want a happy life. I want to heal, and walk into life with new eyes. What’s standing in my way isn’t the church, or the attitudes of several Christians, but me. I thought about this yesterday as I laid in bed. One of my favorite American writers from the 19th century, Frederick Douglas, who wrote about his life as a slave in his autobiography, captured they hypocrisy of the Christianity of his masters. I would not dare imply any connection with Frederick Douglas, but how he wrote about his masters is how I want to address my Christian experience. Douglas could have stopped his narrative and offered a thing or two about what it means to be a Christian, and explode into well deserved judgment upon his masters. But he didn’t. Douglas wrote his biography describing his life in great detail, and left it to the reader to make their own judgment. What I went through comes nowhere close to what Douglas went through, and he was able to move on into a life of service and love. That’s what I want. Douglas escaped his masters and escaped the South in to a new life as a writer and speaker for the Abolitionist movement. Douglas didn’t stay in hate, but channeled his energy into justice. I’ve no reason to stay in hate, and I’ve no reason to stay where I am. Constantly engaging Christianity keeps me stuck in this self-destructive cycle, and I constantly confront Christianity because, like Ahab, I need to kill that whale, and look how he ended. To save myself, I need to head north and leave that ship behind.

Consolation of Shifting Perspectives

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Sunday morning was slow and muddled as my mother in law showered and dressed, Ronnie putting on her clothes and eating her toast, and me looking for my misplaced wallet and keys. Church started at 10:30, and I liked to leave early so I can say hi to Eric and Ben before everything starts. The drive itself takes twenty minutes so leaving at 10:00 is no big deal, but I don’t like being late to anything. Yes, there was a ten minute cushion, but I might as well be ten minutes late. Welcome to my mess of clowns and candy wrappers cluttering my brain. The sky was bright with little clouds, and crisp air grazed across my chin like a razor calming me as we got into the van and drove to church. We got there in enough time, and I spent a few minutes talking to Eric and Veronica while Ronnie and Mom talked to each other. The sermon that Ben gave came out of Philemon, and he centered his hermeneutic on social justice and how to follow Jesus in the face of oppression. He hints at the Anti-Christian rhetoric and behavior of the Republican party and many Christians who join in with their inhumane practices, but never says anything blatant. The church is a poor church, but there are many across the political, social, and religious spectrum. Making blatant political statements would divide and alienate, and Ben wants people to come together as brothers and sisters in Christ to talk about their differences to realize their shared spiritual goals.

Ben doesn’t really preach anything new, per se, but he does not offer the usual diatribe I have often heard from the pulpit which is complete compliance to the Republican Party. I would often hear how revolutionary the message of Jesus was, but the pastor would make following Jesus and being a “good” American citizen synonymous. Jesus’ message turned the religious, national, and economic systems on their head. He said nothing about going with the flow of the state or organized religion. Ben’s message transcends party affiliation, and looks to the example of Jesus in the gospels. His message, though, put him in danger when an ultraconservative Trump disciple physically assaulted him in his office. Both Ben and Eric believe the best way to preach Jesus to everyone isn’t through words but radical hospitality. Everyone from different faiths, social backgrounds, skin colors, and philosophies are welcome by them. The point of this hospitality isn’t to sell their version of Jesus or get people to convert to their brand of Christianity, but to be an icon of God’s love to everyone. “Everywhere you go preach the gospel, and if necessary use words” as is attributed to St. Francis. This guy did not abide by that, but gave into fear and hatred. Eric and Ben stood their ground, and through Veronica’s calm demeanor the man left. Ben still preaches that Jesus from the pulpit, and while it’s something I agree with because of my own studies, I’ve never heard that Jesus from the pulpit.

What moved me to the point of agitation was Eric’s final hymn, the hymn that is sung before Ben gives the congregation a blessing and everyone leaves. The song was a prayer calling for Jesus to return quickly. Eric prefaced this song with three kids from our alma mater, Warren Central, who were shot the night before on West 38th St over shoes, and one died. Nothing has changed in that area. When I graduated in 1992, I knew of people in the school who were shooting or being shot over the original Air Jordans, coats with a sports team a particular gang called their own, or cocking their ball cap certain way that affiliated with a gang. Same story, different day. Indianapolis is a violent city, and many of us are weary of it, and Eric poured out his weariness in the hymn. It was a desperate psalm calling for God to come down, otherwise we’re going to kill ourselves, and there will be nothing that can be saved. I feel the same, but things are still getting worse. After Ben gave the blessing, and everyone went downstairs to eat, I went up to Eric.

What I like about going to this church is Ben and Eric make room for me to engage them with real questions and real language, and don’t flinch when my questions cut to the bone and drain the marrow. They understand my contentiousness with Christianity are a mixture of academic and personal issues, and the barriers I face because of my personal issues. I wouldn’t call myself a Christian, but Christian-ish to borrow from Anne Lamott. I’m not really anything, but when I sit down to the table, I’m with Buddha and Jesus. I like both teachers, and the teachings of the Buddha aided me with my academic career to make sense of the Christianity that had been forced down my throat, and the Jesus that motivated such abuses. Something can strike me during the week, or like Sunday, a word or a song will get under my skin, and I need to discuss it in that moment. Both Eric and Ben accommodate my urgency, and I’m grateful for it because, as an elder’s kid, I understand the scattered brained busyness inherent in church leadership.

I was exasperated with Eric saying, “Lord Jesus, come quickly.” People have been speaking of Jesus’ return since the time of the apostles, and those same apostles had to tweak some of their teaching because Jesus was not returning as quickly as they assumed. Instead of returning and restoring, Jesus is absent and many of his followers are set to destroy the rest of us and the world for a quick buck. “I’m not like the people mentioned in 2 Peter ridiculing the followers of Jesus by dismissing the return saying the world has been going, and will continue to keep going. If his return is literal then where the fuck is he? It seems to me that all he did at his first coming was to give us a different flavor of opiate.” To Eric’s credit he knows when I’m antagonistic and picking a theological or philosophical quarrel, and when I’m speaking out of disillusionment. Eric offered his insight on the matter. He believes in a literal second coming of Jesus, but he also believes that the church is the body of Christ on earth—a preface to the actual return. In his own life, he becomes a second coming in his neighborhood, the people he meets when he’s out running errands, when he has dinner with his wife, or when he’s talking to friends such as myself. He’s presenting Jesus until Jesus presents himself.

I took in his words, and I came to the conclusion that I have approached the idea of Jesus returning from an immature perspective. I was looking for a deity to come in and solve the problems I created–like the pampered pet mentioned by Boethius in his “Consolation of Philosophy” instead of an adult owning the consequences of their choices and how those consequences affect the world around them. I’m not taking responsibility for being the second coming in my own home, in my own community, or when I’m behind the wheel raging at other drivers. How can I be the shadow of restoration that is to come? How can God establish salvation when I hinder the process with my arrogance, condescension, and broad brushing? I’m speaking for myself, but there are other people who also thwart the process. The reason this world continues to get worse is because of you and because of me, and it gets better when you and I take the little moments given to us to love. I am reminded of something G.K. Chesterton wrote in response to a question in a newspaper. The writer asked, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton wrote his response, “Dear, Sir. I am.” When we love, God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven, and God’s justice flows like a river. The author of Psalm 8 says human beings are a little lower than God, and our divinity shines when we own our world and become the answers to our prayers.