Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Ground Breaks Open Beneath Me (chapt 1, part 2)

(continued from the previous post)

Our friendship wasn‛t all grief and angst. I‛m not much of a film buff, but Pete was very much into foreign and art house films. I quickly learned to trust his instincts about films he‛d heard about. He‛d call me up and tell me about a film and when it was showing and soon we were on our way to the Dobie or some other artsy cinema.

We also had months at a time when we were not in touch. These were not precipitated by anything. I suppose we just didn‛t have much to say sometimes or else a drought of good films hit Austin. Still, some subtitled movie would come out that would catch Pete‛s attention and my phone would ring. We‛d see the film, catch up, and not see each other again for a while. Eventually, he found a girlfriend and they moved in together. As often happens when one friend enters a romance, the friendship drifted a little more, but then he‛d find a movie she wasn‛t interested in and off we‛d go. It‛s odd to me, now, but I never met his girlfriend until his memorial service.

It was during one of those long spells of silence that Pete was diagnosed with throat cancer. The cancer didn‛t kill him, complications from the treatment did. But all of that happened between foreign films. To hear the news on my answering machine was a shock to say the least.

In the shock, I had a moment of wondering why he hadn‛t called to tell me he was undergoing treatment. I let it go, though. He had a girlfriend to lean on and it‛s common for men to not talk about their health issues, least of all to other men.

And so it came to pass, on a bright Saturday morning, a small group of Pete‛s friends gathered to memorialize him with stories. We met under a gazebo on Town Lake, a few yards from the statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, by the hike and bike trail Pete and I walked so often. Pete belonged to a Unitarian church, so his pastor was there. She acted as something akin to an m.c. as different friends got up to speak.

One of these friends was a woman I‛d never met before, but I recognized her from Pete‛s stories. They knew each other from AA and Pete always spoke of her as a good friend, a close friend. He also always seemed a little suspicious of her religion. She was a charismatic Christian, a "holy roller," the sort of Christian given to ecstatic displays of religious fervor. I got the impression that he held that part of her at arm‛s length, a little cautious that she might try to convert him. He was doing okay at his Unitarian church, he got what he needed there, or at least he was comfortable there, not too Jesusy, not too emotional. I got the feeling attending his church helped him stay clean and sober, and there‛s much to be said for that, but definitely different from his friend‛s very emotional, very Jesusy church which, to be fair, probably helped her keep clean and sober, too.

Imagine my surprise, though, when this woman told the story of Pete‛s illness in relation to her. She told us that Pete called her up and said, "I want to meet your friend, Jesus."

That told me a lot about where Pete was with his diagnosis. He was scared, more scared of the cancer than of flamboyant religion. That made my heart hurt for Pete.

Then, because I am relentlessly self-absorbed, I turned her story into being about me. Why hadn‛t Pete called me, asked me about my friend, Jesus? Religion had certainly been a part of our meandering conversations. He knew I went to church, that I had a Master‛s of Divinity degree, for crying out loud. What was wrong with my Jesus?

But, okay, Pete wanted to meet her friend Jesus. She got him to visit her church, where he "accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior," and had the congregation lay hands on him for healing. I realized she was giving a testimony for Pete, how he came to the Lord, how he left that day convinced of his healing.

Somewhere in there, she had a slight pause. Whoops, that‛s right, she was telling of Pete‛s healing at his memorial service. She quietly said something about not knowing what happened, why Pete still died, but she came back strong with the comfort that Pete died a saved man.

In contrast to this testimony, the pastor gave a sermon based on the first verse of the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel According to John: "Let not your hearts be troubled." In context, Jesus is about to go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he will be betrayed by Judas and led away to be judged and, eventually, crucified.  The Gospel of John has the most confident and in control Jesus of the four canonical gospels, and at his last supper, he‛s telling his disciples what‛s about to happen. (John‛s Jesus is also pretty omniscient.) Jesus then tells them to be at peace. Jesus tells his disciples, "I go to prepare a place for you" and "let not your hearts be troubled" and other such famous words of comfort.

The pastor said, "Can‛t you just hear Pete telling us that today? ‛Let not your heart be troubled. I‛ve gone to a better place.‛ Can‛t you see his wide, open smile as he‛s telling us this?"

I‛m paraphrasing. Her words may not have been that saccharine, but I remember them as being pretty artificially sweet. I also remember thinking, Well, fuck that shit. My friend just died. You‛ll have to excuse me if I‛m a little sad right now.

The point being this: In that gazebo on Town Lake, presented with two very different messages in regard to my friend, a distinct and powerful and life changing thought entered my head, perhaps not for the first time, but in a new way, a way that made the ground give out beneath me.

I thought, This is all superstition.

All this religious talk is babbling about things that we can‛t know about and so we just make shit up.

Believe hard enough, accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, have hands laid upon you, and you‛ll be healed—or at least that‛s what they‛ll say about you at your memorial service.


Pretend hard enough and you won‛t grieve. Picture a happy face and a better place, and you‛ll almost be glad your friend died. At least that‛s what they‛ll say at your memorial service.

And neither message felt rooted in any kind of reality that I experienced. It probably looks really simple on this page, but the two messages, delivered within a single hour, created something like cognitive dissonance for me.

I lost my faith that day. I wouldn‛t have put it that way then, and not for a long time after, but at this distance, I can confess that‛s what happened. My way of thinking about faith certainly changed. I didn‛t exactly stop believing in God, but my creed became this one line: I believe in God. I just don‛t know what I believe about God.

Between graduating from seminary (May 1995) and Pete‛s memorial service (April, 2000), I had been trying to understand the phrase, "The Good News of Jesus," in terms that made sense to me, in a way that didn‛t feel intellectually dishonest. "Jesus died for your sins" had started to unravel for me somewhere around the question, "but why does an omnipotent God need anyone to die for my sins?" It also seemed increasingly unlikely that Jesus went about Galilee, preaching, "the reign of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Good News—which is that I died (will die?) for your sins."

That question, "what is the good news?" came to mind the day of Pete‛s memorial service. Was the good news that we could think happy thoughts and not experience ugly emotions like grief? Was the good news that we could all feel better about death if the deceased had been "saved?"

More importantly, what would have been good news for Pete? Whatever he got out of his own church, it wasn‛t enough to face cancer. It appears that he sought out good news in gifts of healing, but if the good news of Jesus is about miraculous healing, then, at best, it‛s capricious good news.

For my own witness, what good news would I have given Pete if he had called me and asked to meet my friend Jesus? We Lutherans pray for healing, certainly, and we say God is with us (Emanuel) whether we experience healing or not. We affirm the promise that God is with us in our suffering. God is with us in our dying.

Which probably doesn‛t seem like very good news when you flat out just don‛t want to die.

From this point on, I began listening to sermons with an ear for false hope, false promises. From that moment on, I would sit in my pew and scowl, thinking bullshit at any platitude my pastor offered from the pulpit (with apologies to all my pastors, who I love, even when I fear they‛re full of shit).

Paradoxically, I felt God being present, perhaps more intensely than I had for some time. So much of what I once professed casually now seemed like fantasy, but I never stopped believing in God. In fact, I felt God‛s hand in all this questioning. So began the sifting of my theology.

This is the first beginning of this story. It‛s the latest beginning, chronologically, and the one that got this particular ball rolling. But nothing happens in a vacuum. There are other beginnings.

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