04/26/04: Tell me all your thoughts on God...

For years I've sung as a ringer in various church choirs. I started singing at Christ Church Episcopal in Bloomfield/Glen Ridge NJ during my senior year of high school, and I continued with them through the first few years of college. After they cut their choir ringer budget, I moved onto St. Andrew's RC in Clifton to cantor. They too cut their budget, and I found myself as the tenor section leader at St. Cassian's RC in Montclair. This was a fun bunch of folks, and they were the last choir I sang with before I shipped off to Arizona in 1995.

While I lived in Arizona, I didn't go to church at all unless I was singing in an early music gig of some kind. Jeremy and I were serious back then, and I was studying Judaism and considering converting, since it was very important to Jeremy that his wife be Jewish. We belonged to a Renewal temple (think Jewish hippies playing drums and dancing) and attended services there, and I even went to a Rabbi a few times to talk shop. I didn't wind up converting, but instead landed very comfortably being merely "Jew-ish". However, the studying did make me examine how I felt about the doctrines of my religious upbringing.

My mother (a 2nd generation Italian) went to catholic school her whole life, and takes Catholicism very seriously. The coolest thing about my mother is that she doesn't blindly follow the catholic faith; she gives it lots of thought and molecularly understands and agrees with what they're getting at. She's not a Jesus-freak by any means; she takes a very thoughtful approach to her spirituality, and I admire that immensely. My father (a Mayflower descendant) is Protestant of some mystery flavor, and that's all I know. I don't know if he believes in God, I don't know how he feels about the whole Jesus thing, I don't know what he thinks happens to you after you kick off, nada. What I do know is that every Sunday growing up, Mom would take my brother and me to church and my dad would either go to work (he worked a weird schedule as a fireman) or he'd stay home and dawdle in the garage.

I remember being very young and having my grandmother (Mom's mom) attend mass with us, too. I remember resting my head on her thin arm and how good her sweater felt on my skin. I remember she'd secretly slip me wint-o-green lifesavers during mass in exchange for me not squirming. I remember Father Tom and how much I dug that guy, and before I received my first communion he would know that I was just up there for a blessing. He had a very kind face and gentle eyes, olive skin and a well-trimmed black beard and moustache. I remember thinking he looked like Jesus. I remember when he put his hands on my forehead and blessed me that I felt like I was beaming sunlight through every pore of my being and I could see it reflecting off of things. I saw this illumination not through my eyes but through some other sense of perception; I can't put my finger on it. This feeling was how I understood God. It was perfect.

I also remember sitting in the second row of pews and asking my mother, "Mom, why do I call the priest 'Father' if he isn't my daddy?" And my mom pinched me to keep me quiet, as if what I asked was this blasphemous slap in the face. I remember working on papier-mache projects at my house with my mom and making the paste out of flour and water... this was also around the time of me receiving my First Communion in second grade. I asked Mom what communion wafers were made out of, and she said, "Nuns make it out of flour and water, and they bake it." So I said, "You mean, it's just cooked papier-mache paste?" She just laughed and looked at me with this exasperated look. She shrugged it off as a "kids say the darnedest things" moment, but I was just trying to understand what cooked paste had to do with Jesus.

A year later we got a new pastor in church and he decided to start a Children's Mass at 9:00am, complete with puppets and silly songs and a special spot on the floor for the kids to sit. My brother sometimes served as altar boy at these masses, so we'd naturally attend those instead of our usual 10:30. I remember thinking that this guy was trying to buy my buy-in with a stupid puppet named Rolly. I wished he would just tell me something I could apply to my little 3rd grade life and answer my questions instead of pathetically attempting ventriloquism and kiddie-humor. I really hated feeling like someone was pulling a fast one on me, and in church I really felt like I was the only person there (child or not) who thought this whole thing was bullshit.

I felt guilty for thinking it was bullshit, but I also felt a sense of having to do what was right for me. Yes, in 3rd grade.

From this young, young age, I knew that spirituality and religion where two totally different things. Nobody talked about the glowing light, nobody talked about feeling God's presence in the magic of a fat bumble bee or in the way it felt to sit on my dad's shoulders. All they did was tell me that I shall not commit adultery and how I need to love my mommy and daddy. Well, duh.

From 4th grade through 11th grade, I went to CCD (Wednesday night church school) along with almost everyone else in my school-- we lived in a predominantly Italian town where everyone was Roman Catholic and we all went to this same church. The CCD teachers there also couldn't answer my questions. Again, they drilled me about the patron saint of protection against oversleeping (I kid you not, check out St. Vitus) and how to be nice to people and what "coveting thy neighbor's wife" meant, but they still couldn't answer my questions about faith.

I'd ask, "What do you mean Jesus ascended into heaven? You mean people were hangin' out outside and they watched this guy go up into the sky?   Since when is heaven 'up'?   If God is in heaven, and God is also everywhere, then isn't heaven everywhere?   Why did Jesus go up?"   I wasn't trying to be a wise ass, I was just trying to understand.

In my junior year in high school when it came time for Confirmation, I told my mother I didn't feel right about it. I thought she was going to have a coronary when I broke the news, so I gave in and told her I'd do it. I remember standing in the front of my church before the whole congregation with all of my classmates being asked to recite the Apostle's Creed, and I couldn't do it. I knew that prayer by heart because I'd been robotically saying it every week since I could read, but I couldn't stand in front of God and all of these witnesses and "profess my Catholic faith" in that moment when it really counted; I couldn't give into the bullshit. So while everyone else is parroting this sacred "hey everybody, this is what I believe and am committing to" prayer, I stood silently and only said, the lines "We believe in one God, the father the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen," and "He was crucified under Pontious Pilate; he suffered, died and was buried," because they were the only lines I believed. All of the rest seemed like 2000-year-old hocus-pocus to scare the would-be rabble-rousers into submission and servitude. This wasn't, in my opinion, for thinking people.

In high school, the cool thing to do was to go on these weekend retreats called "Antioch" held at my church. These retreats were a co-ed religious immersion/lock-in held at the church, where they have 10 peers give 20-minute "talks" (speeches) about how the hardships in their lives brought them closer to Jesus. These speeches were written so the speaker and the listeners would all cry and bond... and not just little sniffly cries, but full-on-robot-chubby use-47-tissues wailing cries. The format was simple: Sit in a room with everyone and listen to a 20-minute talk written and given by a peer, sing a pop song while holding hands, get all weepy, break out into your 'talk group' of 6 people and talk about what you learned and reveal all sorts of really personal information so you can be transformed from a closed up, tight-lipped "rock" to a blubbery, huggy, brainwashed, Jesus-loving "rose." By the end of the weekend, the loser kids and the popular kids were all best friends and vowing to be cool to each other in the hallway, necklaces with wooden crosses were handed out like medals of honor for surviving the weekend, and if you were lucky, you smooched some boy from another school in the choir loft during one of the few fun breaks you had to release the tension; or at the very least got a phone number. (I was never so lucky.)

Anyhoo, after you went on a few of these retreats and had proven yourself "a rose," some adult from the Antioch committee would ask you to be a team leader. As a team leader, you had to write and give one of these talks, and you had to lead a group of 6 people in heavy discussion. After my third retreat, I was asked. I said yes because I thought I'd be cool, but not because I had any religious message to deliver whatsoever. In the weeks preceding the Antioch weekend, I had meetings to attend and I had to give my talk to the other team leads and adults as a test-run so they could tune it up if need be. I was asked to give the first talk of the weekend- the ice breaker if you will. They figured funny ol' festive ol' Jill could warm up any crowd. Being the first talk of the weekend, my job was to set the tone as "Antiochs are fun and powerful experiences, and you can feel comfy crying in front of these people who normally beat you up in gym class, and Jesus is way cool." As I wrote my speech on my Tandy 1000, I remember being happy with the meat and potatoes of the thing-- it was very Breakfast Club -- but I was totally stuck when I had to whip out the Jesus. I remember asking my mom for some Catholic blag to stick in my talk, and naturally she had an arsenal of prayerbooks and meditations, so I threw a few in there which stuck out like an ancient tree root pushing up the sidewalk so you fall flat on your arse.

Actually delivering my talk went pretty well. I managed to jerk a few tears when I talked about my friend Tommy's recent suicide and how it affected me tremendously. But my next step was to talk about how Jesus helped me through the hardship, and I whipped out those words of prayer and meditation my mom gave me, and I felt like SUCH a fraud. These people were looking to me for religious guidance (not spiritual guidance, mind you), and I was delivering them pure bullshit. I never felt so cheap, but boy was I popular (still didn't get any phone numbers or smooches, though).   Kill me.

To tie this all together... A few months later, during my senior year of high school I got my first church gig singing tenor in the Christ Church Episcopal choir. This was my first exposure to some religion other than Catholicism. I fell in love. It had all the pagentry and familiarity of a Catholic mass so I didn't feel left out, but people seemed warm and thoughtful. The sermons answered questions. The ministers weren't patronizing. The congregation had people of different colors, backgrounds, sexual orientations, you name it. Old people, young people, new families. They had a coffee hour and lots of Entenmann's. I felt instantly accepted-- I trusted these people.

After high school, I got accepted into Montclair State U. As I was filling out the freshman paperwork, there was a card which asked your religious affilation. My mom was helping me fill out all of these forms, so she filled that one out for me and she checked the Roman Cathlolic box. I erased it and checked the Episcopal box instead. I overheard my mom relaying the story to a relative a few days later, and she said that she "couldn't believe that [her] daughter was a Protestant."   She didn't say it in a negative way or even in a disappointed or exasperated way... just very matter of fact. She had worked hard to instill the Catholic faith in me and my brother, and to this end, she had failed.

What breaks my heart is that my mother honestly believes that she will suffer in the afterlife for not instilling this faith in her kids. I like to think she'd be sitting in a higher spot for giving her kids the power to choose the path that is right for them.

Anyway, all of that stuff above brings me to this point.

I've been a student of religion for a long time. Like I said, I've studied Judaism pretty extensively (talked with Rabbis, joined a temple, cooked amd hosted a million seders, wore a yarmulke, did Friday night shabbat and the whole nine yards), I've done the Catholic thing, I learned about the Lutherans, read books on Buddhism, studied with the Unitarians, went to a couple of Quaker Meetings, and even dabbled in the whole New Age / Pagan thang for a while there. I have resigned myself to be an Eclectic Jillist, which is basically, "Don't be a jerk. Do the right thing. It's all good."

So why do I go to church? Because I like the community, I like the philosophy, I like the ability to debate openly without fear of judgment, I love the diversity. Above all things however, I am a choir slut, and Episcopals have the best music, hands down. (Oh yeah, and because of the Entenmann's. And because Matt Hearn makes me pee my pants.)

I've been singing with the choir at Cathedral Saint John in Wilmington for over a year, and I love them. Their music program is absolutely phenomenal, we sing very "big" music from the Episcopal's very rich English tradition, phatty Anglican chant (love that!), plainchant around the big holy days as well as the classics (your basic oratorio rep like Handel's The Messiah, Mendelssohn's Elijah, Fauré's Requiem, Vivaldi's Gloria, etc.). Having the chance to sing this stuff with such great musicians gets me out of bed early on a Sunday morning, whether I'm paid or not. It rocks. However, there's the big challenge: the choir stands in the front of the church where everyone can see us clearly, and every Sunday I am still asked to "profess my faith by reciting the words of the Nicene Creed." And every week, I rethink what is being recited to see if my mind has changed at all since I was in third grade...

Yes, I suppose I "believe in one God, the Father the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen." No real problem there, accepting the metaphor.

But do I "believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God"? Well, like I said, I don't consider God to be a dude... I consider God to be a force, a string, an energy. So to say that Jesus was "begotten not made", and that he "became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made truly human" implies that this energy source can impregnate virgins. I still can't accept that.

However, I fully accept as documented history that Jesus "was crucified under Pontious Pilate and that he suffered death and was buried". But the next line is the clincher: "On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures; he ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father; he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead". That's big stuff, and respectfully said, it's just not for me.

The next bit is about the Holy Spirit, and that one just leaves me baffled. Admittedly, I have a tough time with the concept of a Trinity, but then again, I don't know many humans (even theologians) who get it, so I'm not gonna beat myself up over it. :-)

So you may say to yourself, "Yo Knapp, if you don't believe this whole Jesus rising from the dead thing, then you can't possibly call yourself a Christian." Yes sir, that is correct sir! I don't call myself a Christian; I never have, even when being Catholic was "cool" back when I was going to all of those youth groups and such. I suppose I could call myself Jewish, that is, if you define a Jew as someone who doesn't buy the whole Jesus dilly... but being a Jew is so much more, and I am not those things either.

I have grappled with the concept of Christianity until 1998 when I heard Bishop John Shelby Spong on the Pat McMahon show on KTAR in Phoenix. I was on my way to work and chose to be late because I couldn't shut this man off-- he struck a chord that has resonated with me ever since. He was talking about his new (then) book called Why Christianity Must Change or Die and I realized that this book was written for me. All of these years I thought I was the only person thinking these "this is bullshit" thoughts, and here is a bishop who is saying that our modern religions are just the mythology of our present day. He speculated that in 2000 years Jesus may be no more real than Zeus and Apollo.

You might also be wondering how an Episcopal Bishop, one who has only recently retired, can be saying these things while being a spiritual leader for his people. Frankly, the fact that he has these questions while still having faith inspires me beyond words. I will never be able to do the book justice here in a journal entry, but I am happy to loan you a copy. Or you can grab a copy of it (or one of his others) at Amazon.

This book reviewer guy on Amazon, Allen Gathercoal, has this to say: "Bishop Spong radically questions the basic assumptions of conventional Christian theology and attacks the paradigms that ecclesiastical hierarchy find convenient. He rejects: Theism's tribal theology, bibliolatry, Jesusolatry, and Christianity as an exclusive pathway to God. His "beyond theism" theology demands that we stand and embrace our own humanity, not with shame or the stigma of sin, but recognizing that we are unique and full of potential. That we can, without an "eternal and omnipotent protector" and live fully, love fully and be all that we can be."

Amen, yo.