I will preface this post with an acknowledgement – there are posts that I spend time editing and structuring until they are not perfect, but good enough. And then there are those like today’s, that reflect far more thought than what ends up being written; that I wish I had the eloquence and skill to resonate more deeply, but ultimately, have to just release and let them be what they will be. Please know, as you read this – I respect, value even, the differences that mark my many relationships. I have family and friends who have diverging perspectives from me on just about any matter you can name – politics, music, COVID, sexuality, and of course, the “big questions”. Lately with all the changes that continue to be a part of my life, I’ve had to think a lot about what I truly believe – and I feel it is important for me to write about it. Maybe some of you will get something out of it, but whatever your own place may be as you make your own way through life, I definitely make no claim to having any particular insight or answers as I work towards finding my own.
Growing up in non-metropolitan southern California in the 60’s, I think most of the people around me were pretty similar. White, middle class mostly (although my household was less so than most) – families getting started out bought homes in our little community. Most probably considered themselves Christian, although there was a Jewish family down the street, and I was grateful they welcomed me into their lives. And of course, many people were not church folks – but my parents were of a generation where that was routine, and we were regular attendants at the small local Methodist church where the beautiful stained-glass window of Jesus with the lambs shone brightly. Some of the traditions of that time survive, but I think are practiced less now – having palm fronds at Palm Sunday a week before Easter; musical pageants; acolytes with candles beginning the service; I remember the warbly voices of the primarily old, primarily female adult choir singing “Christ the Lord is risen today” every year, as we followed in our hymnal dutifully. My husband remembers that Easter often meant new clothes for the Sunday service – and for both of us, family gatherings, meals, easter egg hunts in the yard, and a belief that there was, for a while, a large bunny who brought wonderful treats for good boys and girls. Among my treasures is an old “Ideals” publications with photos of baby rabbits and kittens decorating eggs and delivering flowers.
Over the years, through much of my youth and adult life, I attended many church services – because I am just the kind of person that keeps looking for answers that satisfy some calling within me, even though they don’t really seem to be enough to resolve my own uncertainties. I have attended evangelical churches that were started by beach hippies in the 60’s “Jesus people” movement; denominational mixed race services that were primarily Hispanic, or Black; I visited a small church once where the pastor proclaimed, quite emphatically, that they were the only congregation going to heaven (not just their denomination, their location!!) I have been to the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City to hear the music of praise, to Israel to see the sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, and to deserted pagan temples in the Mideast where other gods were worshipped, in ways very different from my small town. I have prayed for the Holy Spirit to descend upon me in congregations where speaking in tongues was routine; I have attended teenage rallies to be pure for Christ, and visited group homes where young men were gathered to find a way to be healed from their attraction to others like themselves; I have had hands laid on me to deliver me from demons, and I have celebrated a different kind of closeness to God in my own times of intimacy with men in a way that no church ever would have considered sacred, or holy – and yet, to me, they are a connection with that which is eternal and divine in a way more real than any church service.
I have read books, and sung songs, and prayed in the darkness and danced with joy at the fervor of the promise of deliverance. Last night, watching the recent, and outstanding dramatic film “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” after it’s well deserved Oscar recognition, I remembered many such broadcasts that my mother would watch at home – crippled with debilitating arthritis, her limbs and bones distorted, her heart wounded by griefs I could not understand then, she was looking for hope, for healing, for encouragement. She surrounded herself with a small group of friends who prayed for one another- and for me. They brought me, a lonely boy with few friends, delicious birthday cakes for years – they were loving and accepting, to the degree they could be. I have long since forgiven them for their view of a God whose love could not extend beyond that which they knew, and hope I can grow in doing better on that front as well. And when I attended bible studies at local homes, and was baptized, I believed – not entirely understanding, but still, wanting to take that step, to belong. I longed for acceptance and love – from my family, my church, my society – but I never felt that I had found it, really.
I have read and studied, and continue to reflect, but I have no real answers to the big questions. I know many have been hurt by what others consider faith and truth – I know that pain, in my own way, but everyone’s is theirs alone, somehow. I realized that even the words “God” and “Jesus” and most of the traditions practiced for the past few centuries are adopted from other cultures, bandaged into what some group of men, somewhere, once decided was truth; that other groups selected from writings what they concluded was holy scripture, and left out other pieces; that translations are incomplete, even wrong, and that the familiar sayings that are easy to spout for simplistic answers to tough questions really do more harm than good. Ignorance is not bliss, but neither is half witted rebaked magical thinking. Like Elvis, the genie left the bottle a long time ago.
I also see in those who practice a different faith – and there are too many for any of us to even know or comprehend, in our own little circles of belief – can be just as sincere and devoted, even more desirous of finding those elusive, yearned for answers. I recognize that much damage, cruelty, and destruction has been accomplished under the guise of a loving god. The news is filled with the ugliness of what we can do to one another – and, sadly, I am a part of it, knowing full well that the values I claim to hold dear – love, forgiveness, hope, caring – are not fulfilled in all my walks of life, that I have just as many flaws and chasms within me that show clearly the duality of what I say I believe, and how I behave. In short- I know the mess inside me is there, and as much as I wish for some magical force to transform me into someone else – it ain’t gonna happen. But every day still offers choices for growth, and new direction.
So when Easter comes around, like Christmas, and I think of the people in my life that I love (and some I don’t, but I try to) – I know they all pretty much have their own beliefs, traditions, questions, and uncertainties. We may not talk about them much – thinking, perhaps, silence equals respect, or at least keeps the waters calm between us. Perhaps that is best. In my own circle of family and friends, there are so many ways of thinking about eternity, truth and what it is to be human, I am both amazed – and awed. I love these people – I don’t really care if they are agnostic, theists, Mormon/SDA/charismatic Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist (etc etc) – I have seen enough of their lives and their hearts to know they are not all that different from me, seeking. Some see truth in the cycles of the planets and ancient practices that others condemn; others cling fervently to remembered scriptures and emphatic exclusion of anything that lies outside the rites and rituals that were passed down to them from origins that many of them have never sought to understand. It’s so much easier to stay in our little boxes, safely and comfortably assuming we have the answers, and conclude it’s the others who are blind.
Whn someone asked recently if Easter had meaning for me, the answer is, yes. Yes, very much so – but a meaning that isn’t really easy so to define, or defend. I think our culture, at least in the “West” as it used to be called, is to have certainty – to know. To be “right”. Yet, I think it is a kind of growth, for me at least, to acknowledge I do not have certainty, and cannot claim to be right – only to be open and seeking. I realize, even from my very limited knowledge of history, that faith can be both healing, and destructive; that communities of belief can bring strength and hope, but also lead to conflict, exclusion and suffering. I am getting to a point where I can actually, despite the years of wanting to be someone other than who I am, I can be grateful that I am both inclined to seek a spiritual facet to my daily existence, and reconcile that part of me with my own nature as a gay man that many people who have claimed to love me could never accept as coming from a loving God. Now, finally, I can accept the many tiny little glimpses of a greater loving force moving through the threads of my life; I am working towards seeing each one of us as being a little reflection of that which is eternal, that creative force that exists apart from time and everything we can know and measure, anything we can ever prove or fully comprehend.
Perhaps some of you reading this may have reached a point long ago where you found answers that were sufficient – I am glad for you. Who knows? You may be right! Human history shows an amazing variety of systems of belief – rising and falling, evolving or disappearing completely, lost to time – only crumbling remains and museum antiquities we briefly look at in passing. But in me there is still a yearning to know the answers – and a determination to not stop looking. I am just more comfortable now accepting that I will never fully “know”, at least not until that time that, like all of us, my time on earth comes to an end – beyond that, perhaps there is even greater mystery, rather than “answers”. If you are a student of the “Bible” as we know it, when you stop and look at the many examples of God interacting with His children – whether it be the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, or the Roman occupied peoples of the Christian era – or even the “Old Testament” prophets – there are countless incidents where the expectations of the protagonists were, if met at all, not fulfilled in the way they expected. The very presence and life of Christ as depicted as the promised Savior from oppression was the opposite of what generations expected; the promise of deliverance was in a form far from what the hopes had promised; instead of paradise, people of faith were faced with oppression, rejection, and despair. Not exactly a salesman’s dream – and the prophecies of end times are hardly a trip to Disneyland. I think sometimes God, in whatever form we ultimately understand that which is eternal exists, gets a kind of delight in confounding expectations, just to keep us guessing.
Just as COVID changed our world forever, that which occurred which is commemorated still by many as Easter – watered down with bunnies, historically questionable and completely unproveable by science – has altered the course of human history, for both good and bad. Even for those who never hear any “New Testament” stories of the lone, itinerant teacher crucified without basis while a guilty man was set free, have been affected over the centuries by those who embraced that faith. There is one aspect of all this that occupies my thinking as I move through this season, and continue to search for meaning and purpose, understanding and acceptance in my own journey – the realization that the ultimate choice is uniquely ours to make. Because, finally, there isn’t “science” to follow, there isn’t “proof” of any of the essential elements of most faiths – only tradition. The “evidence”, many say, is in our lives and how we live it – but we each have a choice to make in what we believe, because regardless of what you ultimately conclude, it finally depends upon a leap of faith. Even a decision that there is no God, no eternity, no life beyond that which ends when our last breath is drawn – is a choice, a kind of faith. It is yours alone, mine alone – we can be in congregations, we can repeat chants and practice rituals, we can join together in song but when the time comes – we are all faced with choices that are ours alone. We may be in a choir, but our songs are all solos, in time.
My own understanding has much room to grow, as does my heart. I take comfort from what I believe, even though I have no proof – and I respect that others see it very differently. I don’t have the same need I did, when young, for everyone to agree with me, to prove that I am right – that I have the truth, and you don’t. I can share in your joy that you have found some degree of peace, hopefully, in finding your way through whatever you believe – knowing none of us is completely right, and no one in history ever has been. This morning, as I woke up somewhat before my husband, I came upstairs to find him watching the 60’s “Greatest Story Ever Told” version of the life of Christ on TCM. Having seen it as a teen in our little local theater, I remembered being moved by the reverence and craft that went into it as a traditional narrative of the life of Jesus, and the events of Easter – complete with the “Hallelujah Chorus” and Max Von Sydow appearing in the clouds. Like any story, it is not complete – just one version. But another movie comes to mind – less well known, but also powerful. “Resurrection” with Ellen Burstyn from 1980 isn’t shown much, wasn’t a hit – but it deals with the same questions we all face, or ignore. Is there a God? Is there life after death? What is the truth? If you get a chance to see it, I recommend it – the protagonist, having lived a life that defied the traditions and expectations of her community, ends the film by, in her own unique way, showing love, grace and mercy to a child in need. But – there is a final scene you will never see. Years ago, in an obscure defunct film magazine called Cinefantastique, in a profile on the film and its creation, there were pictures shared of a deleted ending; I wish I could find it online but have not. Alone, the camera follows her into a room filled with the symbols and signs of so many ways of expressing faith; of seeking truth; of knowing that which is eternal, but indefinable. She has reached a place of peace.
None of us will ever be able to know all the different paths that generations have taken to find their way to some kind of peace. For me, my Christian upbringing will always echo in everyday life – I am grateful to have it, but also learning that other wisdom remains awaiting discovery. So I am reminded of the story of the apostle, Paul – a traditionally religiously trained “enforcer” of his faith, who moved from being an oppressor of those who followed the radical teachings of the “messiah” Jesus, contradicting tradition – to questioning his understanding, and becoming open to a new way of thinking, a new pathway of faith and understanding. In writing to one of the emerging bodies of believers, he talks about their conflicts and disagreements – one of which was about what is ultimately the purpose of spiritual maturity. In one letter, he says the following about our inability to ever completely have the answers we seek to all these questions, at least while we walk this earth. In part, he shares about how what little we know today will one day be replaced by a greater understanding – (1 Corinthians 13) –
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
My wish for all of us is that we can find a place of peace, however incomplete – if not together, in acceptance; if not in unity, in tolerance – with faith; with hope, and ultimately, with love. We may not know the way, or even recognize we have lost our way now and then, but … keep on going, and as always … thanks for stopping by!