The beauty of Facebook is that it brings together a diverse range of people who bring a variety of values and ways of being in the world. I believe it is limiting to only surround ourselves with people who look like carbon copies of ourselves, have the same ideas and agree with everything we say. It cultivates a myopic approach to life, nurtures a sense that we have it all figured out and stops any further learning. I had a conversation 45 years ago with a relative struggling to find friends who would not hurt her Christian witness. It has stuck with me because it reflects what I don’t want to be in the world. The fact that there are many different religions speaks to the fact that since the beginning of time, people have been trying to find meaning their world. They have gravitated to a conception of God and built the stories around faith traditions that make sense to them or welcome them into a community of belonging.
We give ourselves lots of credit for being the most highly evolved species on the planet. As a group we consider ourselves as intelligent. This does not stop us from looking at the person standing beside us and judging them as “ignorant” or labelling them as “bat shit crazy.” Or criticizing the way a person looks, or acts, or practices their faith. I read a Facebook post the other day and read a diatribe dissecting the Christian faith and bemoaning the intelligent people who are ridiculous enough to believe in it. This is not a perspective unique to this person. Trash talking someone’s religion in the name of your own intellectual superiority is commonplace. It just doesn’t have the earmark of the intelligent conversation of a highly evolved species. The more interesting conversation is to why faith traditions exist and why they play out as they do in people’s lives.
I grew up surrounded by Christian faith. My mother, divorced in a time when the neighbours freely speculated about divorcees, gravitated towards propriety. For her the shroud of respectability of the church and the promise of better times was survival for her. My paternal grandmother lost the love of her life during WWII and kept her four little children together in Germany. For her, Christianity was evidence of miracles and redemption for decisions made in the name of survival. For some, the promise of second chances after bad choices, created the appeal. For others it was the promise of better things to come. For me it was about answers. I figured the church would provide the answers in a world where the adults in my life could not.
I joined Explorers in Grade 3. I had missed out on the Brownies uniform with the “twit, twit tawoo” tradition that I coveted when my older sister had been allowed to join. I really wanted the Girl Guide uniform, complete with the special scarf. It was not to be. We had just moved to a new neighbourhood that had brought sunshine back into my life but no nearby Girl Guide pack. I needed to be able to get there on my own. Explorers had a uniform of a white blouse that you could sew your badges on. You could wear a navy-blue skirt but I rode my bike everywhere, so I rarely did. My competitive little soul gravitated to the badges, in a time when competition in girls was not ladylike. Explorers was in the local United Church and had a strong thread of Christian education. I took it to heart. I read the bible from cover to cover. I was very proud that I slogged through the boredom of the who begot whom part of the Old Testament. It concerned my mum to find me reading the bible all the time. It was not a quick read. My sister had gone to live with my dad in Los Angeles that year and I had been sad, lonely, and afraid for the six months we spent living in the unfamiliar terrain of East Vancouver. My mother called in the minister because it was counselling, she could afford. He came to chat. We talked about how Jesus communicated in stories and that you had to be a detective to figure out what he was trying to teach us. I liked that. The stories of Jesus made far more sense than the stories of the adults in my world. I liked the idea that there was a plan for me and someone looking down over me. Protection was good. My minister reassured my mother that I was fine and perhaps would make a good minister one day.
The notion of the plan and Jesus protecting good people came into question as I grew up. My favourite aunt died when I was in Grade 7 and sent everything, I thought I knew about the world into a tailspin. My mum was traumatized. My favourite cousin was traumatized. My sister had left to live in LA permanently at the beginning of the year. The rest of the family was reeling. None of it made sense. My Mum and I went off to find a church where she would fit. Although my mum lived in fear of what the neighbours would say, she was the toughest judge of all and perhaps her worst enemy. This was much the same when I went to Los Angeles. The minister in the white suit and suntan felt like a prop on a Hollywood set rather than a person filled with wisdom. My father and stepmother wanted his approval. The most important thing was to not be the one giving the neighbours something to talk about.
Then in Grade 12, my friend, Karen Lysyk had an aneurysm. The first time I visited her in the hospital, the nurse had to point her out to me. There was no plan. There was no miracle. There was no one to talk to about it. Off I went to Ryerson United Church to find answers. I didn’t find all of the answers, but I did find a supportive community. I taught Sunday School. I got baptised with an older woman who needed me to pull her up after we kneeled. Because supporting each other was the point. We planned. We did volunteer work. There were lots of people who fell short of being perfect but were kind-hearted and knew how to laugh.
Many people gravitate to faith communities in the hope of being better people. They believe that showing up on Sunday or giving big donations grants them “most favoured” status in the eyes of God. They believe that somehow this status gives them the right to quote scriptures to others to show them the error of their ways. To have others bend to their will rather than look inside to see how they themselves need to change. Once scripture is used as a stick to beat people down, it has become an institution of power and control rather than an opportunity to grow and learn. The corruption of the original intent of the faith community by the institution is evidence of fallibility of people. It is not a judgement of the striving of people to search for meaning.
I found Victor Frankel’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning, on the bookshelves of my Dad’s cabin many years ago. I have gone back to reread the book many, many times. I thought the book had been left there by the previous owner, Lyle Wright. He was a librarian at the Huntington Library and left his prime choices and many mystery books in the cabin when he sold to my dad. I just noticed a letter written in German to my dad this past summer in the front of the book. Apparently his book. His search for meaning. The little boy who lived through WWII. Who experienced hunger. Who had experiences that all children should be protected from. Whose father ended up in Russia after the war and started another life without looking back. My dad too searched for meaning. I can make judgements about his conclusions and his choices. I have done so many times over the years. Or I can just let his journey be his journey.
Christianity has helped inform my search for meaning. I don’t need for it to be the only way. I don’t need for it to be the right way. I don’t need to proselytize why others need to follow my path. In fact, I’m not sure I would recommend the long circuitous route that continues to meander. However, the beauty of a democratic system is that it leaves me free to choose. And the path I choose leaves lots of room to respect the path taken by other people adhering to other faith traditions, other reflective practices, or other ways of being in the world. Imagine a world where people did not feel judged but respected for their choices. Where judgement was left to God if he or she felt compelled to do so.
Sunday’s Child – This is the memoir thread in my blog. Many of my “aha” moments of life emerge from my reflections of the past. This is my place to do just that. And yes, I was born on a Sunday and was inspired by the oft-quoted poem.