Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Religious Exploration

Another unedited excerpt of Wrecking Ball

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter

T.S. Eliot, The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock

Religion has been helpful with my physical and psychiatric medical problems. But then again, I’d always been a religious person, well before my first nervous breakdown. Even as a little boy, I remember attending every worship service alone during Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday and ends a week later on Easter.

No one else in the family felt the compulsion to be present on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. My mother would drop me off in the church parking lot. I’d quietly sit down at a back pew, participate in the service, then Mom would come by to pick me up.

My own family was not as observant as I was, though weekly attendance on Sunday was stressed and practiced. Raised a United Methodist, I did go through confirmation classes to formally join the faith, and I was baptized in the faith at the age of twelve. The day I was to be baptized, I recall I went a little heavy on the hairspray. Unlike Baptists, Methodists do not baptize by full immersion. Instead, I received a handful of water to the crown of my head.

Because of the formidable amount of hairspray present, the water did not soak into my hair. Instead, most of it was deflected by the chemical stiffness and headed directly for the floor. I remember feeling humiliated, but then again, it’s never taken much to make me feel ashamed. No one seemed to notice, fortunately, and the baptism did indeed count. My initial fear was that I'd have to do it over again.

Though I went through a period of extreme religious doubt in my teens, I never lost belief in a higher power. God has always made sense to me. Spirituality and religion have always been very important, even when I couldn’t always articulate why. I spent several years as a seeker, critical of Christianity, but never rejecting the basic precepts.

On some level, I relate to Paul of Taursus, who had been actively persecuting Christians with impunity until a powerful conversion experience. As the story goes, Jesus came to Paul in a vision and asked him why the latter was violently suppressing his people and their ability to worship in peace. This roadside conversion on the way to Damascus transformed Paul into the most influential leader and writer in the early church.

I hadn’t been sending Christians to their death, like Paul, but I had been scathingly critical of the entire belief structure. I’m not proud of some of the words I used and the attitude I adopted at the time. In his own time, as is always the case, God came to me and presented me a leading and Spiritual direction. I am grateful that I was eventually granted an ability to convene with the Spirit and know God intimately. Some people go years without that opportunity.

My own sense of timing and perspective, as a mortal being, is meaningless compared to God's sense of proportion. Why did he wait until I was twenty-eight until granting me the vision to know where I was to do his work and where to go for strength and guidance? I may never know, and it’s all irrelevant in the end. I know that the way has opened for me, and why scrutinize a blessing?

Now I am a Quaker, and very happy with my decision to become Convinced, which in Quakerspeak means converted. I’ve been deliberately vocal about the particulars of the religion to others who are likely ignorant of them. One always fears being placed in the middle of a false dichotomy. Articulating what I mean and how I worship is not merely good outreach, but it is a defense against being misunderstood and wrongly categorized.

Ideally, this would be unnecessary, but I may always be defining what I believe for the rest of my earthly existence. I've accepted this and walk cheerfully through my life, seeking that of God in everyone, in the words of our founder, George Fox, some 350 years ago.

If I admit that I’m a Christian, some people automatically think I’m a religious zealot. Others conceptualize my beliefs according to their own perception, be it negative or positive. I admit that I don’t want to be perceived wrongly as an evangelical Christian, which I am not. To many followers of Jesus, my views appear heretical and contradictory to their own.

The Southern Baptist kids where I grew up were obsessed with outward perfection, placing significant emphasis upon acting the part. I believe that this was energy wasted. Inward perfection, by Grace, not works, is where I believe my daily focus should be.

I would like to be seen as a worthwhile, moral person. And I would also like to be seen as someone faithful to God’s direction and purpose, not my own. To some, the more graphic and truthful accounts of my life contained in this book might seem offensive. Every life contains shades of dark and light. Light is an especially important concept to the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), of which I am a proud member. We hold Light as sacred, as the Light of God and the divine.

If I were to ascribe to the school of the born-again, my past sins are wiped clean if I am truly contrite for my shortcomings, failings, and past sins. That is a very tantalizing concept. I understand why people are to go to confession in the Catholic church. And I do admit that I have several regrets, as I’m sure is true with many. I’m not sharing every story.

It’s embarrassing to be reminded of instances where mania and depression twisted my behavior. Like the actress Vivian Leigh, who similarly struggled with manic depression, she found herself humiliated when told of what she’d said or done in an episode. She retained no memory of what happened in her periods of sickness.

I have at times prayed that I might be able to go back into the past and find the right combination of meds earlier than I did. I wouldn’t have suffered as long, for one. Several people know me only as odd, eccentric, and erratic.

No comments: