When Faith Makes The Scene

My relationship with God has always been awkward, because I was never really certain as to what I was supposed to be looking for. It’s a signature of the human condition that compels us to define relationships, even those that can prove least definable. And as humans, we want something out of the deal.

When I was young and impressionable, I was seeking answers to the biggest questions the same way most young people of my generation did: By watching movies and listening to music. I had it figured that George Burns was God, John Denver was an Apostle and Ozzy Osbourne was the Antichrist. Looking back now I wish I’d been right. Shit, a God who smoked cigars and had a great sense of humor, an Apostle who sang folk songs and a devil who penned Ironman, one of the greatest rock songs ever? Sold!

When I was a teenager, I negotiated all manner of adversity by by dialing up the high and mighty hotline. It was more about kitsch than catechism. Mix too many adult beverages . . . put in a call. Bend a rule . . or maybe even a law . . put in a call. Get myself in a bind with a girlfriend’s girlfriend . . put in a call. Find out girlfriend or girlfriend’s girlfriend was late . . . put in a series of calls.

Adulthood is where I stopped calling on God because I didn’t feel like dealing with a busy signal. This is how adults survive. When we ain’t listened to in a way we deem appropriate, we look elsewhere: Financial advisors, general practitioners, insurance agents, mechanics, bookies, bartenders and therapists. Mediation comes at a price that we’re more than willing to pay because we’re assured that someone is listening.

Getting married meant churching, for a while, but the arrangement was never a fit for me because I was never much for country clubs. And that’s what church felt like, with all the networking and gossip mongering. I knew I could get more religion out of a bottle of wine or a baseball diamond than a Sunday morning in church.

Of course, it all comes down to faith. And faith is one of those things that isn’t found in a book or a house or a hymn. No doubt, these things can serve to inspire you, but they’ll never make you believe. No, that kind of thing usually makes the scene when we least expect it.

It’s been twenty years since I woke up in a hospital bed after having undergone a thyroidectomy to remove two separate cancerous growths. I remember feeling super groovy, as if Jimi Hendrix had just supplied me with some magical feel goods and chased it with a song. Needless to say, I didn’t give a flip about the tubes that were sticking out of me or the fact that I was sharing a room with a guy who was hacking up a lung. Before I could start doing the math on what came next, I passed out again.

Waking up at night in a hospital room is some truly creepy shit. For most people. But I guess I always had a morbid streak and a genuine curiosity for that kind of thing because I felt nothing but peace. And yes, the primo stock that was running through my veins helped. But it was more than that, because now my brain was working plenty well enough to remember back to that morning. The pastor at the church I’d stop attending had come by before my surgery to talk with me. He was a good man and I was genuine in my warm greeting. We talked for a while, about baseball and kids and steak houses. But I remember one simple exchange.

“Are you scared?”

“No, I’m not. Everything’s cool, it’s really cool,”

“Good, that’s good,” He examined my face as if searching for the lie, and not finding it.

It was as if I had waited all my life to feel the kind of peace I did on that morning. Uncertain as to what came next, and remarkably okay with that. I chatted with the nurses as they rolled me through the corridors until we arrived at a frosty operating room and I was introduced to all the players. And then they were serving me up a tonic to help me sleep and then I cracked a few jokes just to let them know it was paying off handsomely.

Something mystical was riding shotgun with me as I began to tiptoe through the tulips, because that’s when David Gilmour and Roger Waters started doing their thing. As my eyes grew heavy, I could feel the dumbest smile taking hold of my face as I muttered sleepily “Great fucking song . . .”

If there’s more to faith than that? I don’t need it.




Trust in God . . But Verify Everything Else

For the first time since I was too single to really give a blessed fuck, it happened to me again recently. It was the kind of awkward query that had me referencing my inner Rolodex of on the spot excuses, before I realized I had been asked via text . . which gave me enough time to make some shit up.

I was asked to church.

The last time I was asked to attend church, she was a thirty something looker who needed me to attend service with her. And I know this gets me no points with the guy upstairs, but the church thing became a deal breaker. This time around, a little different and much sadder.

I’ll call the person doing the inquiring Barry, since that’s his name. I’ve mentioned this dude before. We’re friends, kind of. He usually delivers up a text, unsolicited, about some stupid shit or other. I’ll respond with the requisite “LOL” or “How goes things?”. The average response time ranges from five and a half seconds to a couple weeks, which is why we’re just ‘kind of’ when it comes to friends.

The church thing caught me off guard, which isn’t an easy thing to do. Barry’s an ex cop, so I’m prepared for all manner of crazy shit to come down the pike. For all I know, he’s been leading a Walter White-like double life and he needs help getting across the border. And really, I would be more than happy to help him with that expedition in exchange for oh . . say a million in cash and a pair of those terribly overpriced AirPods.

If he called to tell me he’d just killed his pain in the ass next door neighbor, I’d bring the shovels and the lime. In exchange for say . . a case of bourbon. And if he got his girlfriend pregnant, I’d drive him to Mexico for ten grand and a taco dinner. Which is wholesale in comparison to the Walter White scenario.

In the event the authorities were to discover this post at some future date, let it be known I wrote this in jest. If I happened to follow through with any of these scenarios in the commission of a crime, I was most likely under duress. So you have my permission to shoot Barry on sight.

So the church inquiry. That was way more awkward a predicament for me than any of the above situations, and the fact that I ain’t kidding about it tells me that Imma have lots of ‘splaining to do when my ticket gets punched to the great beyond. But that’s another awkward conversation for another day . . .

As for this question, I could have taken it to mean the guy was being compassionate. So of course I looked at motive. Did he want some cover for the car ride to and from church, when he’s usually engaged in a steel cage match argument with his lady friend? Was he vying for a “Congregation Member of the Month” prize if he brought in some new recruits? And what did the winner get? Does this church offer sin passes? Maybe he’d get the pastor’s parking space for a month . . . or a psalm named after him. Or maybe . . . I should stop because that lightning I’m hearing as I type this, it’s getting too close for comfort . . .

That’s not my scene, but I’m honored you would think of me. 

That was my reply. Which is lame in comparison to what I might have used for a comeback. A top five? Sure, why not . . .

5- I don’t let Jesus take the wheel because I can’t afford his deductible
4- Church? Isn’t that where you vote?
3- I’ll go, but only if you promise not to wake me up until the service is over
2- I watch Filipino death match rugby on Sundays
1- Is it “Water Into Wine” Sunday? Because if so, I’m in . . .

I kept it high road given the subject matter. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the sentiment, because it means that Barry probably feels like my soul needs saving. And I like to think that I come across as being interesting like that. And it’s why I had to turn him down. Because I can’t let my personal relationship with God mess with the reputation I’ve been cultivating, basically my entire adult life.

God forbid.



The Story I Prefer

So my forty days without candy are almost up, and Jesus is really proud of me. I don’t know this for certain, since I’ve never actually spoken with the Messiah; he only speaks to televangelists. But I’ve no doubt Jesus is somewhere warm and sandy right now, checking up on all the many peeps under his roof. He’s probably in some remote locale that Trump has no idea even exists, sipping on a long tall glass of Sangria that was water before he held it in his mighty grip.

I think he probably marvels at the complications and wonders how we ignore the miracles on a daily basis. And I really do hope he has a great sense of humor, seeing as how I gave up candy inside this season of reflection. As if pushing away from the candy counter makes us square.

The ephemeral nature of my separation from a sugar rush is symbolic of something greater . . I get it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t find irony and humor in the exchange rate; seeing as how the exchange rate is in everything we do.

Think about the things to which we abide, and how we give them currency. We believe a diet makes us disciplined. That reading about the stoics makes us pure. That attending church every Sunday makes us ready. That praying has two ends of a line. We actually believe that holding on to liturgical observances is a testimonial to the sacrifice of someone to whom Stephen Hawking, the smartest man in the world, believed was a fairy tale.

This isn’t to damn any of it. To the contrary, this is to celebrate the idea that we even try. Because every time we step into an idea and make it ours,  we’re not simply adopting these sacraments, we kinda become them in the trying. We win and we lose and it can be beautiful and ugly . . both. And there’s a magical fascination to that, I think.

Which is why it doesn’t turn me on to think we are simply the progeny of some totally spontaneous thrust in the belly of the universe. The idea that we’re nothing more than one big lab experiment may be the prevalent explanation, but the Shakespeare of it all really sucks.

Who’s to say the math is right? Who’s to say the universe isn’t some gigantic art museum that sprang a leak in the roof one day and let us in? After which the Boss fixed us up with a sweet crib, whose origins are thornier than a rose garden and whose stories are taller than Andre the Giant?

And we made it a home, somehow and some way. We, the highly combustible elements of an epic union, making our way through the great blue yonder in our search for clarity and meaning. We gain and we falter, magnificently. And so what of it? Are we handed a big fat meh of a pink slip when all is said and done? Is that the end of the story?

Or is there a maybe to all of this? The kind of maybe that stands a chance against all our technology and snark and smarts?

Like, maybe there is something else . . and maybe it’s been hiding in plain sight all along . . and maybe there is a star in the universe that belongs to every single one of us from the beginning of us. And when we leave this patch of grass, we get tucked into the sacred blanket, next to Prince and Carrie Fisher and Richard Wagner and Hawking and Bowie, and on and on.

Forty days is a grain of sand inside all the beaches on all the planets in all the universe. But . . it came to mean something to me, the way Pi Patel’s story of a Bengal tiger meant something to him. It’s a favorite book of mine, and I always get a lump in my throat when I get to the part where he asks the interviewer which story he preferred. Because I prefer that story too.

And so, if there is a God . . I like to think his son might actually appreciate the try. Personally, I like to think there is a Jesus. In spite of myself, and because of it. And if so, I like to think he wishes and he dreams, just like us. I like to think there is a day he looks forward to, a day separated by oceans and planets and the forever impossibilities of such a trespass. And I like to think it humbles even him. But still, he keeps walking and wishing and dreaming. And perhaps most of all right now?

I like to think he has a sweet tooth.

A lesson in the true meaning of Christmas

I parked the car in the rutted grass whose green had bled dry and colorless to the roughly hewn tracks of an Amish plow, leaving dirt and gravel in its place. The cold temperatures made this patch of earth on the side of a tobacco barn appear stillborn to the fates.

The air smelled of burnt pine and it was delivered in hearty bursts of an icy wind full of proverbs, whose lessons proved elusive in its whistling rush to death. I moved from the car with my Christmas gift basket and walked the stone path to Mary’s front door. She had been a neighbor of mine for years before I moved away, and I still paid a visit to her every now and then.

The two story brick farmhouse was dark and empty looking. I guessed the old building to be a century old, give or take. The intrusion of all those years had been mostly kind to it, excepting in this instance when it took on a haunting snow-globe feeling. Maybe it was the years talking back to me, I don’t know.

I knocked on the door but there was no answer. I gave it one more try as I examined the spartan qualities of her front porch. From the looks of it, the floorboards had received a fresh coat of gray paint fairly recently. A porch swing dressed in white crackled paint held court to the right hand side of the porch with a rusted milk can placed beside it. To the left side of the porch sat a couple of old wicker chairs whose age was told by the splintery explosions that were breaking out across them.

Sunday is ‘visiting day’ for the Amish. After church services, they drop in on neighbors and family. I didn’t expect that Mary would be returning any time soon so I lay the Christmas basket at the front door.

I moved back into my car and I thought about the conversation I’d had with Mary many years ago. It had come after the Nickel Mines shooting in which ten Amish girls were shot inside a one room schoolhouse on a fall day in 2006. Five of those girls died-Naomi, Marian, Anna, Lena, Mary. They ranged in age from seven to thirteen years old, and I cry every time I think about those little girls being taken from the world before they ever got a chance to live their lives.

Mary gave me an early Christmas present inside that horrible month, and it came in the form of a lesson on forgiveness. There I was, railing on about the animal who had destroyed the lives of so many when Mary politely intruded on my runaway thoughts.

“We forgive him,” She said simply.

“How do you forgive?” I asked.

“Because it’s what God asks of me,” She replied. The tone in her voice let me know that she was having a hard time talking herself into it. But she was really doing it, she was forgiving this monster in spite of her inner turmoil. I didn’t press her on it, even though I had plenty of questions where that one came from.

“Every person has a soul. Everyone will stand in front of God one day and they will be judged by Him. It isn’t our place to judge another living soul.”

Eleven years later, I am still humbled by that conversation. It still makes me tremble and ponder and it still makes me cry. But more than any of that, it does provide a light to follow, a reason to believe. I derive comfort from her strength. It makes me think that maybe there is something beyond all of this. Maybe the world is like that dark two story brick farm house, seemingly devoid of life but full of the restorative powers of love and faith when you look closer.

They razed the one room schoolhouse where those girls were taken from the world. It’s now a quiet pasture whose sacred whispers have become a lesson. The New Hope School was built close by and it is a living testament to the very best of the human spirit, an answer to the darkest of days.

I don’t think I will ever possess the quiet resolve of Mary and her Amish neighbors. But I’ve come to learn that you can find virtue in the trying, you can find answers in the dark, you can find reason inside the meanest of seasons.

Merry Christmas.