I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years.
It was a memorial service for the little daughter of a friend - a girl who had a degenerative condition which was expected to take her by age two. She made it almost to seven.
I can't imagine the kind of strength it must take to care for someone with a condition like that. I've known a number of people who have carried that burden, including my friend Karen, who didn't develop her condition until she was in her twenties; her mother had to watch her decline from a healthy young woman until she passed away last February. When I think about it all, it hurts; and I'm weak, so I don't often think about it. But my friends who are in that situation don't have the luxury of simply turning away and going back to a life like mine - they need to be strong and face it every minute... and they need to draw that strength from somewhere.
So I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years, listening to my friend's pastor.
Being a memorial service, it was all about the family's comfort. The songs they used happened to be mostly familiar to me, because I grew up with them; "Amazing Grace" and "It Is Well With My Soul" were featured. The first verse of the latter one is particularly appropriate, and I was struck today by how Zen it is:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
by Horatio Spafford
That part, at least, is a universal comfort; attaining peace in the tempest is a skill that everyone should learn - and the elemental imagery of the water here is striking. As I listened, I thought about how important that Idea was to me growing up, and how I've held onto it. That, at least, was something good and honest that could help my friend grieve, I thought.
But I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years, listening to my friend's pastor talk about Heaven.
And I started to feel angry and creeped out. Because listening to him speak, and toss out all of those Great Truths that pastors must keep in their repertoire, I bristled at the undercurrent of what he was saying.
It wasn't just that he kept referring to God and Heaven as if they are real things - like I said, I grew up with that stuff, and came to terms with it long ago. I think of it as the poetic license that grief and comfort require of religion. It was something else. Two things, actually.
First, I felt like this service was being used against me. My very presence was being co-opted by this man to accuse me - not personally, but as part of the group. He took the liberty of declaring that "we are all here to affirm what we know to be true - that there is a God and He is in control" - things that I don't know to be true, and do not affirm. This was a lie, and what's more, his body language and use of repetition and verbal sleight of hand showed me that he knew it was a lie.
This pastor didn't know me or what I believe. His descriptions of Heaven, and his logic for "proving" its existence, while being tolerable in the context of comforting the family, were cheapened by his assertions. His repetition of that idea, and his flowery and alluring descriptions of the things that the little girl would now be doing in Heaven - that all rang even more hollow.
It reminded me of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" - the pastor was George, spinning the fantastic story of a promised ranch full of puppies and bunnies, and I felt like Lenny. If you take a moment to review the plot summary, I'm sure you'll understand why I say I felt creeped out.
As for the second thing, the thing that made me angry, well that's more complicated... and it has more to do with my "atheist conversion experience."
Remember, I already expressed immense respect for the strength required of people who have to deal with something as painful as what my friend has dealt with. Raising ANY child is a challenge and a non-stop roller-coaster of fear, risk, and heartbreak - interspersed with just enough joy to make it worthwhile. But for these parents, that joy can be bitter and elusive - and even a victory can be tragic.
To do what they do - to survive and thrive as my friend has done - is a pure triumph. We cheapen these things in our culture with our perpetual tabloid stories and Lifetime or Hallmark "disease of the week" movies - but these are quiet, epic heroes who are doing the impossible. I don't blame any of them for leaning on something that I don't believe in. In the past I've made the mistake of referring to their faith as "a crutch," but it really isn't that. A better analogy would be to compare it to weight training or long-distance running; rather than a prop to support them, it is conditioning for facing reality in the long term instead of the short, escapist bursts the rest of us can get away with.
Look again at the first verse of "It Is Well With My Soul" and tell me which is easier - to look objectively at yourself from the middle of your pain and simply "decide" to accept it, or to tell yourself something comforting and poetic that helps you move past it? Most healthy and otherwise happy people I know can't face the prospect of a vast, cold, empty Universe that doesn't care about them; how do you expect people under tremendous pressure to cope without giving that Universe a name (God) and convincing themselves that despite all evidence to the contrary, there is hope and love and joy in it?
There is - but it's hard to see unless you work at it.
So, no - I don't balk at all when people need to draw strength from these ideas, and I don't think it would be helpful or kind to "correct" them when they tell me (and affirm to themselves) that it came from Jesus or God - or the Magic Feather they clutch in their trunk. The truth is that wherever they think they're getting that strength, it's coming from within themselves - and being humans, it is an amazingly deep well. (Doctor Who says so all the time!) So why am I angry at the pastor for playing into this helpful world of hopeful poetry?
My own break with Faith came when I realized what a logical cheat God was. Well, not God, but those speaking on His behalf. (Poetic construct that I believe Him to be, none of my anger is really ever directed at "Him" anyway.) Those pastors love to tell us that everything good comes from Him, and is solely to His credit. Without Him, we are not capable of anything at all. And what about all of our failures and sins etc.? That's all on us. Me, specifically. Or you.
(Today, I heard the pastor lay blame for the tornados and flooding going on in the Midwest on our wicked ways. Very comforting, indeed.)
The important idea here is, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try - or even if you don't try at all - God gets all the credit for your "goodness" and you get credit for the bad stuff... right down to horrific weather phenomena. It's a logical trap designed to prey on those who need to tell themselves that there is a source of strength outside themselves. To defy the pastor is to put the source of their strength at risk; to question his logic is to risk their faith in themselves. So the pastor tells them their own strength is an unreliable and dangerous flaw, and that they should trust in God - and someday, we'll have a ranch where we can pet the rabbits. Just like Lenny.
As I grew up, and realized that maintaining my faith meant I was expected to surrender to this double whammy of self-denial, I balked. Obviously, I assumed at first that it was just my sinful pride talking, right? Except... I came to understand that the source of my "slackerdom" stemmed from distancing of responsibility from myself, and placing it in this God who seemed not to take care of my homework or my auto maintenance and bills without a heck of a lot of assistance from me.
But I don't mean to trivialize this concept. I watch people suffer through these awful things in life all the time. They call on their God all the time, and sometimes, when they stop crying and dig down deep, they find something inside themselves that gets them through. Sometimes it's just a matter of letting go - of becoming the water, if you will - and they can cope. Then they thank God for it.
You can believe that is God, if you want to, and if it helps you get through whatever you're facing, who am I to rip that away from you? But it still bothers me because denying our successes and only claiming our failures robs us of something vital. It denies that we have that strength in the first place, and by taking away that faith in ourselves, we are weakened.
So I sat in a church this morning for the first time in many years, listening to my friend's pastor talk about God, and about her strength, and I realized that I, as a non-believer could see something in her that no Believer really sees. They pay lip service to her, but then steal her credit and attribute it to God - a construct meant to put a happy face on a cold, brutal Universe.
And while they were doing that to her, I realized that as a non-believer, I can see what is really divine.