Tuesday, December 31, 2013

#138 - Looking Forward, Looking Back

New Year's Eve. The time of year when we traditionally look ahead and look back. As I get older, there is more to look back at and less to look ahead to simply because more of my life is now behind me. However, that doesn't me I don't still look ahead.

In the new year, I look forward to more opportunities to get out with our RV and perhaps find new places in which to enjoy nature. When I am out in nature, I feel myself closer to God. I hope to experience more of that in 2014.

In the coming year, I also hope to do more writing. Writing is a challenge for me sometimes. I'm good at it, and I have plenty of ideas on which to write. What I lack is discipline and focus. In 2014, I hope to find some of each.

I hope to start that process with this blog, hopefully becoming more consistently productive in terms of blog entries in 2014. One of the ways I hope to do that is by using this space to weigh in on various issues and topics. I have in the past shied away from writing on political matters here. That will likely end in 2014.

For some time, I have lamented the level of political discussion on Facebook. I have openly stated my assertion that Facebook is not the place for serious political discussion and is likely not an appropriate place for truly serious discussion of any issue. Twitter, because of its 140-character limit on each tweet, is even worse. Both are, to my mind, the 21st century technological equivalent of the 30-second soundbite. They might sound good, but they are not likely to give you the full story or even an in-depth look at any issue.

In the new year, I hope hope to do a better job of getting in touch with and of staying in touch with the people who have been a part of my journey to now. Facebook and this blog will, I hope, play a big part in fulfilling that desire. My cousin's annual get together of family and friends will also help, I suspect.

Those people, family and friends, some all but forgotten, were on my mind as I was writing these words. They were also on my mind when I wrote the words below, words with which I close this entry and 2013, words with which I embark on 2014. Happy New Year everyone!

My New Year's Wish
It's time to turn the clock again
Reflecting on the things we've done and hope to do
Another year has come and gone
Went by so fast, it seems as if the time just flew

More and more these days, I seem to find
Myself looking to another time
Filled with friends and memories in my mind

Here's to you -
Here's hoping that your dreams will all come true
I hope that you find joy in all you do
This is my New Year's wish for you

Looking back at all I have or had
I've come up short but learned to let go of regret
Remembering those who've shared this ride
Wish you were here but know that I will not forget

Along the way, each of you played a part
And your memory lives on in my heart
Long as it does, we'll never be apart

Here's to you -
Here's hoping that your dreams will all come true
I hope that you find joy in all you do
This is my New Year's wish for you

Time and distance separate us
We've had our bumps and bruises on the way
And while there may be things that I'd do different
I wouldn't trade a single day

Here's to you -
Here's hoping that your dreams will all come true
I hope that you find joy in all you do
This is my New Year's wish for you

I hope your dreams will all come true
This is my New Year's wish for you

2013. All rights reserved.

Monday, December 30, 2013

#137 - Thoughts on Faith, Spirituality, and Religion, Part Three

(This is the third and final part of a three-part series)

In August of 2008, I began training to take over the responsibilities of another person working in Utah. Over the course of that experience, and in the months that followed, she and I became friends. For my birthday that year, she sent me a book she said had really helped her spiritually. It would do the same for me.

The book was part one of the trilogy Conversations With God by Neale Donald Walsch. On the surface, a book in which the author claims to have actual conversations with God might sound like a delusional journey into hallucination or even schizophrenia. But something about the book resonated with me, and things that had made little sense before became clearer.

I got so much out of Part One, that I went on to read the remaining volumes in the trilogy. Part One is an intimate, one-on-one “conversation” with God focused mainly on the spirituality of the individual. Each succeeding volume broadens its scope and builds on the messages of the first. I later added another of the author’s books, one which helped me through the transition when I was laid off from that same job five years later.

As I read through the Conversations With God series, I began to get a better sense of what I felt and believed about God, about religion, and about spirituality. At about the same time, I rediscovered my love of camping or, at this stage of my life, RVing, and reconnected with the outdoors. The convergence of these things have helped me to develop a sense of what I believe.

I came to realize that, for me, a single church or even religion was too confining because each, while including some things and people, is in its own way built on its exclusiveness. You became Catholic or Jewish or Baptist, adopting the practices and beliefs of that religion and excluding or dismissing all others. To me, God is much bigger and much more inclusive that any single religion, even bigger and more inclusive than Christianity itself.

At the same time, my wife was undertaking her own re-evaluation, helped along through a revisiting of the teachings of the late Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello. As a result, I think we both ended up in much the same place in terms of what we believe.

So what do I believe? I’m still working that out, but my beliefs tend toward what is expressed in this Hindu saying: "There are hundreds of paths up the mountain, all leading in the same direction, so it doesn’t matter which path you take.  The only one wasting time is the one who runs around and around the mountain, telling everyone else that their path is wrong."

I believe there are many ways to find God, to experience God, to worship God, none better or worse than another. In the same way, I believe each religion and its corresponding holy text contains God’s truth, expressed in the way that makes sense to the culture in which that religion is practiced and the time frame in which that religion initially developed. Just as many different faiths, many far removed from Christianity, have their own versions of the Great Flood story, so too do many faiths have their own way of experiencing the divine, none of them better or more correct than any other.

I think perhaps the Founding Fathers and the authors of the U.S. Constitution had some sense of this idea. The First Amendment certainly expresses this notion when it states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...." Thomas Jefferson also seemed to follow the same lines when he wrote in 1802 that “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship …”

As Jefferson infers, religion, faith, and spirituality are ultimately individual affairs. Belonging to a church or an organized religion may help some feel a sense of belonging, but it should not serve to exclude others because their church, their religion, their faith is different. For me, church and religion are too confining. I find God much bigger than that and find I am closest to God when I am closest to Nature, closest to creation itself.

As I wrote earlier, I believe God’s truth  can be found in the texts of multiple faiths. (I do not capitalize truth here as many religious writers do because I believe no one text has a monopoly on that truth.) Because of that, I hope to spend time in the coming year reading some of those texts or at least parts of those texts. I suspect I will find, as many before me have done, that there will be more similarities than differences. If I am right, then there may indeed be hope for the future, and hope is itself an expression of faith.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

#136 - Thoughts on Faith, Spirituality, and Religion, Part Two

(This is part two of a three-part series)

In the spring and summer of 1984, I was a relatively young, relatively underpaid television reporter in Rapid City, South Dakota. I had just come out of my first serious relationship, and I was searching for something. A new co-worker, who was Catholic was leaving to attend a Sunday Mass, and for some reason, I asked if I could go with him.

At the time, there were several things that attracted me to Catholicism. First, it had been the faith of my family before I was born. Second, the structure and the ritual were appealing and comforting. I knew, in passing, the rector of the local cathedral, having interviewed him on several occasions. In addition, our sports director was also Catholic and as nice a man as I have ever met to this day. It was, in a religious sense, a perfect storm.

The  more I learned, the more I was attracted to Catholicism. So, in the fall of 1984, I began attending weekly classes with an eye toward conversion the following Easter. Formally known as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a six-month period that culminates in joining the Church during the Easter Vigil Mass. In my case, the ceremony included a second step as I was formally baptized at the age of 28.

My mother was, to put it mildly, stunned. Her first words to me upon my arrival home for a visit were, “While you’re here, don’t preach.” She later said she thought I might end up a Unitarian but never imagined I’d become Catholic.

Back in Rapid City, I dove headlong into the Catholic experience, becoming a lector, helping with taking the weekly collection, going to the weekly coffee and donuts gatherings after Mass. If I had stayed in Rapid City, I might still be doing many of those same things today.

However, less than a year after becoming Catholic, I found myself moving south, to Alexandria, Louisiana.  My church experience here was different. While most of the people were friendly, I never really felt like I fit in, either here or in Lafayette, where I moved seven months later. The sense of family I had felt in those first heady months after becoming Catholic was gone.

After spending two years in Louisiana, the time had come to move again. I hadn’t fit in and hadn’t made many friends, being a bit more reserved than many in Louisiana or in television are. So I moved back north, to Kalispell, Montana to take a job as an announcer with a Christian radio station. The general manager introduced me to his pastor and got me involved with the singles group in his church. I attended Sunday services, but something felt wrong about it. I was used to the Catholic Communion, and the way it was conducted in this church felt like a pale imitation to me. So I began attending Mass again, though I felt out of place here as well. It seemed I still lacked a spiritual home.

One year after I moved to Kalispell, I moved again, back to Lafayette, Louisiana. After a few months, I took a job in Huntsville, Alabama and looked again for a church to call home. After a few attempts, I settled on a Catholic church in a nearby suburb. I again dove in, becoming a lector and joining the choir for 5:30 Mass. I also joined the singles group, where I met my future wife.

After a few years, by which time we had a son of our own, my wife and I moved to Illinois, where we both struggled to some extent to find our place spiritually. Five years after moving to Illinois, we moved again, following the advice of Horace Greeley and moving west, to Idaho. Although we met nice people in both Illinois and Idaho, we struggled to find a place to call our spiritual home.

In writing this, I’ve come to the conclusion that I joined each church not so much to find God but to find a sense of family, of belonging. At the same time, I wasn’t really sure what I believed. I was sure I believed in God. But whose? My answers to those questions didn’t being to form for another few years and might never have formed if not for a particular birthday gift from a friend.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

#135 - Thoughts on Faith, Spirituality, and Religion, Part One

(This is part one of a three-part series)

My faith journey up to now might more accurately be described as a series of day trips, some extended, but all of them bringing me back to much the same place.

I was born into a not very religious family. Nominally Catholic at that time, my family might better be categorized as disinterested on uninvolved where religion was concerned. Part of that apathy, at least in my immediate family, likely stemmed from the fact that my mother spent time in a Catholic youth home growing up. Some of those facilities at that time had an apparently well-earned reputation for hardness, if not downright cruelty.

For the first eight years of my life, God, faith, religion, and church were unknown terms and concepts to me (although I believe God and Jesus were referenced in certain phrases I won’t repeat here). It wasn’t until my mother and her second husband separated that I had my first church experiences. (I suppose you might say I also had my first mystical experience at this time, a hallucinatory afternoon in the hot Mojave Desert sun where I imagined our dogs were with me protecting me from snakes and any wildlife that might be around. They were at home, and everyone except me thought I was lost.)

As a single working mother with two pre-teen children, my mother was not always able to be with us or care for us. To fill in the gaps, she paid an older couple to look after us during the week: feed us, get us on the school bus each day, provide a place to sleep five or sometimes six nights a week. Jack was an elderly English immigrant with what seemed a live and let live approach to life. Nora was stern, almost Puritanical, and while she was 20 years younger than her husband, she seemed older in many ways. To this day, I’m not sure I remember ever seeing her smile.

Nora first introduced me to church and religion when I was eight, taking me to Sunday School and then to Sunday services at the local non-denominational church in the small desert California town in which we lived. She gave me my first Bible, a King James version given to me for my ninth birthday. The nameplate inside the front cover had been decorated by her husband, and it was inscribed with my name, though it used the last name of my stepfather, who while separated from her was still married to my mother. I received a second Bible the following June from the Sunday School teacher. 48 years later, I still have them both, kept as physical reminders of my childhood, the good and the bad.

A few years later, we moved to the Seattle area, where most of my family lives to this day. By this time, the connection to Catholicism was broken. Some in the family had joined the Mormon Church, in part, the story went, because of their concern for my grandfather, who had been hospitalized after a heart attack.

My grandmother would make quilts each year for them to sell at church bazaars, but I don’t recall the family attending services regularly. However, I did belong to a Mormon youth group for six months or so while we were living with an aunt. I only remember two things from that experience: learning to read a compass and how to step off a pace, both useful skills but hardly religious or spiritual. After this my religious/spiritual/faith journey stalled. I was 12.

For the next 15 years, my only experiences with going to church came from attending weddings and funerals. My own beliefs were not well formed, though I did believe there was a God. I wasn’t sure, however, what else I believed beyond that.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

#134 - Thoughts on the Season

Today marks the day set aside by Christians to commemorate the birth of Christ. This, despite the fact that there is no real certainty that Jesus was born anywhere close to December 25. In fact, as some people know, Christmas was born out of the pagan festival Saturnalia as an attempt by early Christians to bring pagans into the flock.

What may not be as well known is that Saturnalia itself was apparently a raucous and somewhat less than Christian affair. From this web page on the  Origin of Christmas:

Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25.  During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration.  The festival began when Roman authorities chose “an enemy of the Roman people” to represent the “Lord of Misrule.”  Each Roman community selected a victim whom they forced to indulge in food and other physical pleasures throughout the week.  At the festival’s conclusion, December 25th, Roman authorities believed they were destroying the forces of darkness by brutally murdering this innocent man or woman.
In some way, I suspect some of that spirit of lawlessness lives on in the rush to shop on Black Friday. The "Lord of Misrule" certainly seems to be at work during the holiday shopping season.

That same web site also outlines the pagan origins of some familiar Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, which may have come from the Asheira cult. a tree worshipping pagan sect. Mistletoe is said to be taken from Norse mythology.

To me, none of this detracts from the spirit of or meaning of Christmas. Christmas originally drew from various cultures and various peoples, just as modern life in a variety of nations draws from the various cultures of its immigrants and the various peoples that make up its population. In a sense, then, Christmas is a drawing or bringing together, if you will, of various customs and influences.

In a more local sense, Christmas does the same thing. Many of us will spend the holiday with friends or with family or with a combination of both. I see it as a drawing or bringing together of people who may not always have time for one another or may not always agree with or get along with one another.

Growing up, my family was not overtly religious. Perhaps that is why, to me, Christmas has always been first and foremost about family. It wasn't always pretty; it was sometimes a bit messy, but that's how most families are.

Devout Christians will tell you that Jesus is the "reason for the season." Others will say that God is love. In my mind, I would go one step further and say that love is what Christmas is really all about - love of friends, love of family, and for those who believe, love of God.

This Christmas, I wish you all the gift of love. Give that gift to those around you, and you will be living out the true meaning of Christmas as I see it. Merry Christmas, everyone!