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.

 

An Anglican, a Russian Orthodox Mystic, and a Catholic Mystic walk into a bar

 

What I enjoy about reading books written two or more generations before me is the issues present today were present in the past. There is some comfort in knowing we’re facing nothing new, but the despair sets in when the criticisms are ignored; or worse yet, very little is done to solve the issue. These authors wrote from different continents and countries which mean the problems we face are human instead of cultural. What issues do I speak? From my own American context the issues are misogyny, violence against LGBTQ (of which I am a part), violence against people and immigrants of color, violence against any religion outside of a white, heterosexual, patriarchal Evangelical Christianity, marginalization of the poor, disregard for the elderly, destruction of the environment, and so on. What makes theses matter so terrible is the political leaders who espouse a belief in Jesus legislates these disparaging policies; and 82% of Evangelical Christians with 52% of Catholics execute these policies with the backing of the government; but not Jesus. He never taught such disgusting practices, and these people know nothing of his work. The writers that come to mind whose books stood in contention against such attitudes are Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and Jack Kerouac. All three were Christians, but with minor differences. Dickens was affiliated with the Anglican Church, but detested organized religion with its practice of condemning people, and saw the poor attendance in churches as a protest to the negative behavior of The Church of England. Leo Tolstoy was Russian Orthodox, and a mystic, who became disgusted with the leaders of the church collaborating with the Czar and blessing the execution or imprisonment of those who refused to participate in mandatory military service due to their Christian convictions. Jack Kerouac was a French-Canadian Catholic brought up in the small New England town of Lowell, Massachusetts. He lost his taste for the religion of Catholicism and stopped attending mass at the age of twelve. According to Kerouac, The Catholic Church droned on with their lip service lulling to sleep even the priests. He lived a life of drink, women, drugs, and songs documented in his books, but that life was spent searching for the God who ran out of the sanctuary and wandered the American frontier as a hobo. What these men wrote still speaks to us and still encourages us to carry on in their work and seeking.

Charles Dickens experienced first-hand how oppressive his English society in Portsmouth behaved towards the poor. His family had been put in debtor’s prison until his father paid back what he owed, and young Dickens left school to work in a factory to survive. As an adult he saw the same suffering of the poor he endured and the people of affluence who ignored the poverty or increased the suffering. Dickens wanted to change society to improve the conditions of those in poverty; and he believed his writing could inspire that change. Through his novels he criticized the upper class for their lack of Christian charity by creating characters based on real people he worked under or the people who put his family in prison. Granted, the stories were fiction, but they were real enough and had the biting venom he wanted to deliver to his own oppressors. Dickens gave the harshest critique through the Ghost of Christmas Present to Ebeneezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, “’Man,’ said the Ghost, ‘If man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!” This sentiment can be expressed today towards the Republican senators led by Paul Ryan, a professing Catholic, who push bills to take away the arts, affordable health care for the poor, a woman’s reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, travel bans against Muslims, and instituting a school to prison line for minorities. Who are they to decide a person’s dignity and rights? Unlike these political leaders, Scrooge’s heart is completely changed after his journey with The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; and he takes care of Bob Crachit and his family. He also gives his wealth liberally to help those who are poor to have a happy Christmas and a happy life. Dickens criticisms do not stop at condemnation, though, but with encouragement arguing that grace can change even the most vile of people, such as Scrooge, into a vessel of healing. There is hope for them, but if they don’t change, their low quality of life and poor death is on them.

Leo Tolstoy, though, took a different stance with his criticism. In War and Peace, Tolstoy addressed the issue of men who refused mandatory military service who, due to their Christian conviction, disagreed with fighting and killing for the state because such acts contradicted with what Jesus taught his Sermon on the Mount. The Patriarch—or what we in the West would consider a Bishop—stood with the Czar who made threats of imprisonment and execution if the conscripted did not do join the military. The Patriarch would cajole the individual with veiled threats, and as the man was lead to his death the Patriarch would be there giving him his last rites. Tolstoy elaborated more on this distortion of faith in The Kingdom of God is within You where he stated outright that “any man who pledges allegiance to the state denounces his own Christianity.” This sentiment is not historically new, but can be traced back to the practice of The Church between the ascension of Jesus and the fourth century when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Any man who was a Christian who joined the Roman military faced immediate excommunication when he joined—furthering the empire of Rome contradicted the furthering of God’s kingdom. Tolstoy did not limit this behavior to his own Russian Orthodox Church, but extended the same criticism to the Catholic Church and Protestant churches throughout Europe and America. This book was first published in Germany in 1894, and the arguments and criticisms are still relevant especially when many American Evangelical Christians and Catholics wave the American flag transforming themselves into the image of the Republican Party rather than the image of Christ.

Jack Kerouac did not offer criticisms outright, but voiced the discontent of many in his generation and their search for something better than what they had been given. When President Truman ordered the atomic bombs to be dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima the cultural landscape had changed; and a cold war began with Russia. In America the exhaustion of the war, the anxiety over annihilation, and the pressure of conformity to the military industrial complex were met with the platitudes of Dale Carnegie, Bishop Fulton Sheen, and Norman Vincent Peale who taught positive thinking and a desire for America’s glory days—whatever they were. Theologians like Paul Tillich and philosophers like the Niebuhr brothers called for a different approach to the world. Humanity had reached a point where self-extermination was a possibility and could not be met with golden age fairy tales or optimistic thinking. Churches in America bought into the gospels of Carnegie, Sheen, and Peale, and became compliant with the rules of the anti-humane culture. Many people like Kerouac traveled America and parts of the world looking for God because God could not be found in the sanctuaries or in the hearts of the religious. His wandering was not limited to the physical, and discovered Buddhism as a means to understand his own Catholic faith; but he wasn’t the only one. Many of the Beats in the 1950s were disaffected Christians who saw Buddhism as a means to become more Christ like. That was the essence of his search. In her book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac,  his ex-girlfriend, Joyce Johnson quoted him saying he wished he elaborated on the characters of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road as “two Catholic kids looking for God.”

We don’t live in a Post-War environment as did Jack Kerouac, but the similarities are there in our own Post-9/11 world as many people leave churches or faith because their own faith traditions preach hate and intolerance to anyone deemed an enemy by the American state. Today 23% of the population is in the category, The Nones by not affiliating with any religious denomination. This group is made up of agnostics, atheists, and people who are still spiritual but do not align themselves with any part of organized religion. They may not be wandering the global landscape, but they are certainly wandering on the outskirts of the spiritual landscape. Many books and authors besides the ones I have mentioned here address the same feelings in similar situations, and the comfort found by the reader is they are not alone; nor is their situation unique. There is the possibility of finding a place in our story within the context of the stories before us, and through their ideas we can find a new perspective to address an old problem.

 

Path to Nobility

Patrick

Patrick: Son of Ireland written by Stephen Lawhead is a book I have read five times, and, at the moment, currently reading. Starting the book on the week of St. Patrick’s Day is coincidental because I go to this book when I’m feeling lost or incapacitated. Personal feelings aside, the writing is full of imagery engaging the senses, and is well researched. For this book, his Pendragon Series, and The Celtic Crusades Trilogy, Stephen Lawhead lived in Oxford, England exhausting the literary and historical resources at the Oxford University Library to create a realistic bit of historical fiction that is also a criticism of Christianity; and that is what Patrick: Son of Ireland is. Much of St. Patrick’s life is lost in history, and the what is known about him is his name, his father’s name, his grandfather’s name, he was a Roman citizen and a Briton—probably Welsh—, he spent seven years a slave in Ireland, he escaped, later became a bishop, and felt a call to return to Ireland to declare the gospel of Christ to his former captors. The details are anyone’s best guess, and Mr. Lawhead takes his best guess from his research to tell a story of religious wandering, religious abuse, and finding a God who saves Patrick outside the chaos of dogmatism. The language Mr. Lawhead employs to describe the arrogance and violence of The Catholic Church in the fifth century can be applied to modern religious behaviors expressed by the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. In the world the author creates, everyone and everything can be redeemed, but only after enough adversity has broken the heart open.

The book is divided into four parts detailing the four circumstances that made Patrick in to who he is. The first part of the story is called Succat which was Patrick’s birth name when he grew up as a noble born Briton whose life was self-absorbed and saturated with the arrogance of privilege—he treated people as a means to an end including his friends, and his friends behaved likewise. After his by an Irish raiding party, Succat spent a few years in failed escape attempts, beatings, hunger, and disregarded as a human being. As he treated others in his former life so had he been treated, but the blood and broken bones only strengthened his pride and his superiority to those he considered barbarians. For a brief part in Succat’s story his pride does soften with his relationship to Madog, an old shepherd who had been enslaved for thirty-eight years. Madog himself was a Briton, but had forgotten much of his language and past life, and became a mere animal grunting out the king’s desire for the sheep. Succat woke up the dead part of Madog as he reclaimed his lost British language, but soon realized he was nothing more than a distraction until Succat could escape again. When Madog expressed this sense of betrayal to Succat, Succat resolved to stay with Madog; however, Madog died from what seemed to be the flu. Succat refused to die a slave as Madog, and plans another escape but recaptured. He is beaten to the point of death, and the king informs him that the next time he escapes he will die. Succat’s broken body is taken to the bothy, and is soon healed by the work of the Druid, Cormac and his sister, Sionan.

During this time of recuperation, Cormac realizes there is a spark of something deep and mystical about Succat, and arranges for him to join the Druids. Cormac makes his request to the king, and Succat is taken into what resembles a monastery working in the kitchen. After much time had passed, Succat is taken to a hollow mound where novices were sequestered individually without food and water until they have a vision. The vision would determine how a person would serve the brotherhood of Druids and the community. When Succat is placed in the mound he has a vision where the universe is opened to him and when the vision ends he realizes he had spent three days in the mound without food and water. After eating and drinking, Succat spoke of his vision to Datho, and he tells Succat he had a healing vision—a rare vision given to the most powerful of bards—that spoke of his connection to the divine, and confirmed the choices made by the Chief Bard. Datho, with Cormac, and other druids were part of a new faction called Celie De, and they were Druids who had become followers of Christ. There were those in the Druid community who opposed Jesus and his message because they thought acceptance meant certain destruction to their culture. Datho and Cormac disagreed, in fact they believed Jesus a fulfillment to what they had learned in the past and currently practiced. After the ceremony, Succat is given the name Corthirthiac—meaning “bulwark” as stated by Datho—and begins his life as a druid.

Corthirthiac starts his new life similar to how he lived his life with Madog: the druid community became only something to pass through as he still focused on his escape. Corthirthiac did learn the druid’s ways and increased in spiritual power and authority while his robe granted easy movement around the community—or outside the community—without any suspicion raised by the king or his soldiers. When Datho is murdered by Corthirthiac’s rival, Buinne, he fears he will be next, and the plans of escape have to be hurried. He finds a ship of traders where he has earned passage as a translator and an adviser for the ship’s captain on matters of the local culture. Many months pass, and Corthirthiac realizes the promise made by the captain regarding his delivery to Britannia is empty. When confronted, the captain admits he delayed his promise because Corthirthiac had made him rich, but when Corthirthiac refuses to do anything until the promise is kept the captain relents and takes Corthirthiac to the coast of Britannia. Corthirthiac spends days walking through the country side until he comes upon his old village and sees there is nothing left of his home or his local haunts. He finds one his old friends, Julian, who is now a priest and regards Corthirthiac with condescension because he is still dressed as a Druid. Corthirthiac’s patience with Julian’s fellow priests runs thin, and he exclaims to one priest that he “became a pagan to become a better man.” Days later he discovers that Julian, through his father, stole the lands of Corthirthiac’s mother who had become maddened with grief over the loss of her husband and son, and sold it to the church. Enraged, Corthirthiac leaves Britannia for Gaul to become a soldier for hire on the frontier.

Corthirthiac arrives at a Roman garrison because Julian had mentioned their friend Rufus was now a Centurion, and sought him out by joining a group of soldiers to fight the Germanic tribes. He earns a reputation for himself as a fierce fighter, and eventually received the name Magonus–meaning “great.” The killing Magonus does in the name of the empire is mechanical, but something changes in a battle where be begins to see the face of Cormac in the Germanic warriors he fights; and becomes sick with the blood he has shed; but does not leave until after he saves the life of an influential senator. The senator also has a daughter, with whom Magonus falls in love, but the senator will not have it because Magonus is a soldier instead of a prominent man who could take care of his daughter. At the daughter’s suggestion, Magonus says that he too can become a man of authority through the word of the senator. and begins a comfortable life with his new family until a plague breaks out taking his wife and two children along with his wife’s parents. Magonus wastes away at the family villa with the servants taking care of him, but he survives the sickness only to haunt the nearby hills as an empty ghost. While he stares blankly at the grave of his family, Pelagius the priest to the Celtic tribes condemned as a heretic by the church and reviled by Augustine and Jerome, meets Magonus. Magonus pours out his despair to Pelagius while he listens. Pelagius’ word comforts him, and affirms the vision he had of an angel speaking on behalf of the Irish people to return; and he realizes he must go to Ireland to bring healing to others and to himself.

Magonus sells his estate, loads the money into a ship, and returns to Ireland as Succat. Upon leaving the ship, Succat finds a soldier who recognizes him and asks to be taken to the king, but the soldier reminds him that the king would kill him if he saw Succat again. He understood, but he thought the gold he brought might dissuade the king. When he walks in to the king’s presence, Succat is gripped with anxiety, but finds relief when he sees his old friend Cormac is the king’s adviser. The king sees the amount of gold Succat has brought, and is enraged because he thinks he is being shamed by a slave; but that is not Succat’s intention. Succat brought the gold to purchase his freedom and to pay back the king for the services he was due. For Succat the act is not about the money, but about honoring another human being he once loathed and accepting responsibility for how he treated the people in the community. With the king’s acceptance of the payment, and his freedom, Succat is able to complete instructions under the druids to become a bard, and take his place with the Celie De. This nobility in Succat had always been present, but distorted by his own pride. As he lit the fire on Beltane, and performed a miracle that brought glory to God, Succat became Patricius, Patrick, Nobleman. In this story there is comfort to be had in the darkest of times because there is the hope that something inside us is blocking us from our own calling.

Lawhead’s story takes on the hero’s journey as argued by Joseph Campbell when he saw a commonality of hero stories in cultures that were not aware of one another at the time of their compositions or recitations. Campbell extrapolated his research into the realm of the various religions that likewise share the similar hero stories, and concluded these religions were speaking of the same impressions of the divine and spiritual growth but with different languages and imagery. The conclusion of Campbell is various religions are pointing to the same thing, and that people need to pick a story they are most comfortable with and become the hero of that story. Lawhead follows that similar thought, but the story is choosing Succat, and he refuses the choice because he does not appreciate the imagery of his Irish captors or his druid teachers who see Jesus as a fulfillment of their story; and this Jesus is not a Roman, civilized and heavy with hierarchy. Through the Irish raiders, God had called Succat to leave his home, his family, and friends to begin a life that would restore him and the Irish people. Succat treated this journey with reluctance, and the route home had been met with recapture and beatings. Even after Succat’s eventual escape the story did not stop, but paused while Succat gained everything he thought entitled to him as a noble born. When he lost everything he returned to Ireland to resume his journey. If Succat had not lost everything twice he would have lived an unremarkable life drenched with complacency and immaturity. The demand on Succat’s life had been on one of spiritual growth, and that growth could never be achieved without suffering. God did not bring about his suffering to cause Succat to grow, but used Succat’s loss to complete his story.