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Sitting in the Pews

April 8, 2011

      There is something unquestionably wrong about going to church just to see a married woman, to be around her more, even if at a distance.  It makes me a faithful attendee, although diligent, persistent or regular are better words I suppose.
      My daughter stands beside me drawing in a Jesus coloring book that sits upon the worn pew.  Her hair has come loose from the ponytail I tried to put in this morning*; her straight dark hair, like her mother’s, hides her face.  Every time I see her, I see more of Denise in her.  My love for her is shadowed by something lost.  She hums quietly as she colors – she’s very serious about her art.
      Despite that, she’s probably getting more out of the sermon than I am.
      My church is over a hundred years old with beautiful stained glass and empty pews.   It’s where expatriate Catholics and protestant’s too afraid of the Holy Spirit’s fire go to die.  I’m more comfortable when God’s a distant whisper.  To be fair, I’ve been to a lot of churches and my church isn’t unique in that regard.
       The median age of the parishioners is over fifty and there are never more than five or six children at any time.  The governing body in the church talks a lot about getting young parishioners, but if my daughter makes too much noise I’ll get the disapproving backward glance from half a dozen people, usually the old women.  My daughter is oblivious to dirty looks.  I hope she keeps that. 
        “Little Timmy had a terminal illness. . .” The pastor is telling a story that’s come straight out of one of the million Chicken Soup For The Soul books.  The stories, like this one, invariably involve a boy named Timmy or Jimmy and might, although it usually doesn’t, have something to do with the scripture readings.
        “. . .told him Jesus Christ is my savior . . .”  I don’t really listen to the sermons.  It’s kind of a background noise.  If they were short, I could force myself to listen, but he doesn’t do short.  He does thirty minutes of saccharin.
        The minister pauses for dramatic effect.  “His parents found him dead the next morning. . .”  Lord, I hate Chicken Soup for the Soul.   It’s an insidious poison – a cancer causing artificial sweetener seeping its way into the lifeblood of Christianity.  I’ve gone to numerous churches trying to find a place that fit and, except for the rare occasions when the sermon revolved around tithing more money, the talk was centered on a Chicken Soup tale with the moral being that God is love, or my own personal deity.
          That’s fine but it doesn’t inspire anyone, or help someone who’s wrestling with the nature of God and existence.  Like television, the stories might make you crack a smile or shed a tear, but it doesn’t require anything.  No commitment to do good or to worship.  It’s empty words that fill the space where God should be.
          Once, the pastor spoke about a personal experience.   He was what comedian’s call “real.”  I’ll never forget that sermon.
          He showed for just a moment his pain, his loss, and his inability to connect with his father before the man died.  In those uncontrived words, he expressed the need to be loved and being afraid of never measuring up and by extension his need for God’s love and the fear, or perhaps the acknowledgment, that he didn’t deserve God’s love.   
          That it was a gift.
          Sarah looks up quizzically; the pastor said something that caught her attention, and she turns around scanning the pews.  Then she looks at me, puzzled, “Where’s God?”  Like she expects to see him sitting in the church.
          I give her an indulgent smile, “He’s everywhere, sweetheart.”  I say it like I mean it, even though it doesn’t feel that way.
          She thinks about that for a moment and then nods, like it makes sense, before turning back to her coloring.  When I was younger, it felt like God was everywhere.  That feeling has faded.
          Now before I go any further, I need to make it clear that I believe in God and to many people that’s enough.  The discussion ends there.  It’s not enough for me.
          I finally understand why Satan rebelled.  It’s seems strange that the Devil would rebel when you think about it.  He has to know that he can’t win.  In some ways he seems very American because Americans love underdogs and I can’t imagine someone that’s a bigger underdog.
          Yet he rebels even though he knows God exists.  Knows God’s power and has to know that he’s going to lose in the end because there can’t be any other outcome. 
          Supposedly there are two ways to look at God: a literal interpretation and a metaphorical interpretation.  The thing is no one takes God’s word literally.  Some claim to, but they’re not.  See, if you take things literally then it boils down to just a couple things.  God gave man free will.  God wants man to use his free will to choose God and to obey, serve and worship God.  To facilitate this choice God offers the reward of life and the punishment of torture and torment forever if you make the wrong choice.          
          That’s it.
          God could create beings to abase themselves to him, but that wasn’t enough, they had to willingly make themselves unquestioning slaves even if they suffer.  Look what he does to Job.  It’s a vain God that makes His followers suffer, makes a father like Abraham chose the Lord over his own son, just to know that He is adored.
          Some may argue it’s a test, but that really doesn’t make sense.  If God is omnipotent, then He knows the results of the test already.  If the test is for us to discover who we are, then He really just wants us to make a willing choice by making us suffer.
          There are some that believe that God’s grace, his love if you prefer, is only offered to a select few.  You can’t know whom, can’t even be guaranteed that it’s you.  You’re either saved or you’re not and there’s nothing you can do.  This is God at its most capricious and if that’s the case, then why bother with Him at all?  Go about your business and pursue any hedonistic desire* you wish because it doesn’t matter.  Why worship God if he doesn’t acknowledge it?
          Reminds me of some friends I had in high school with very strict parents and they got in trouble for everything.  It wasn’t long before my friends got involved with alcohol and then drugs, because if you’re going to get in trouble, you might as well do something worth getting in trouble for.
          Now if you don’t take things literally, and you think God actually loves every person and wants them to love and be loved then God isn’t terrible.  Like the prodigal son’s father He just wants you home, safe and with him.  Jesus spoke in metaphor, yet people want things to be literal, probably because it’s easier to want, or fear, a vengeful God.
          The problem is, I think God might be the literal one.  I might want God to be a certain way, a foible that may be all too common, but God just might be the way he’s described.  I think these things and I’m angry with God, even though I know that this is a displacement because I’m really angry with myself
          The reason is five pews down and a little to the left.  Amanda Seacrest sits with her husband and two sons.  She’s tiny.  Her hair’s as black and shiny as obsidian.  She always dresses perfectly – a glamourina.  A perfect princess and I mean that in both the positive and negative.  Even though it’s wrong, I love her. 
          Now you might be thinking “aha” I know why he became a public defender.  He’s set himself against God, society and even himself because of an affair with this woman.  Wrong.  I was a public defender long before the years long dance with Amanda made me her secret lover.  Some things are too private to share – too painful.
          The sermon has ended.  Despite the majestic organ, the parish, in a misguided attempt to attract young families, has elected to conduct folk masses.  We sing Kumbya in faint painful tones.  People shouldn’t try to be something they’re not.
         We come to the confession of sins.  I don’t say a word, because I can’t.  In order to confess, you have to have a contrite heart.  You need to repent and I can’t do that.  I know I won’t repent and I know, no matter what happens, that if I were given the same choices I would do the same thing again.
         My sins are my own and it would be a lie to say that I want to overcome them.  I have regrets, only psychopaths don’t have regrets, but I can’t ask for forgiveness because I won’t repent.
         Now I may be a fool, but I’m not stupid.  I know that my relationship with Amanda will end badly.  These things always do.  I’m not doing this blind.  I love her and always will.  Knowing that it could end any moment keeps the relationship from going stale, the danger is becoming needy, desperate.
         We’ve come to the Eucharist.  People leave from the benches slowly, as if partaking of the Last Supper is an onerous task, instead of a gift.  Amanda and her family head down the center aisle in the church.  I watch her kneel between her two sons, her husband Arthur is strangely to the side, like he doesn’t want to be too close to his family, or they are somehow separate from him.  Amanda takes the bread and holds it, dipping it into the wine before consuming it.  There’s a word for this, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it is and no, it isn’t dunking.
         I wonder, not for the first time, if she’s afraid of putting her lips against the communal cup.  Repulsed by all those lips, the saliva, touching this representation, or manifestation depending on your point of view, of the grail.  I wonder if any of the apostles were hesitant to imbibe.  Probably not, our morbid fascination with germs is a recent development.  Perhaps she’s not being squeamish, but it’s something more – a sign of her own feelings of separateness from God and the community.  A kind of concession she’s rationalized.  I’m tempted to ask her, but I don’t want to reveal my own antipathy toward God.
         If I did, it would hurt her and risk having her end our relationship in some noble, but vain, attempt to save my soul, or maybe it wouldn’t matter to her.  I don’t know how I’d feel if she disregarded it.  That might be worse.  Will she sense I’m withholding something?
         It’s time to join the multitude.  Usually I don’t go up to the railing, but my daughter is here, so we get in line.   Hold her hand.  She looks very serious.  I suspect that most men believe they’re damned.  Some grab desperately at grace, others become angry and condemning of others because it is easier to look at the mote in someone else’s eye. The rest look at their child and think that it will be different for them. 
         They want to believe the child will go where they could not.  They’re unblemished, not tarnished.  That’s one of the reasons so many people have difficulties with their fathers.  The father invests his sons and daughters with hope that they will succeed where he failed and is then disappointed when the child has its own flaws.
         Children want to make their father proud, but that can only be accomplished by exceeding the father, and the father is diminished.  I hold that tiny, soft hand and want my daughter to live, as I have not – to truly experience life and be alive.
         Someday she’ll hate me.  I hope she does because so often children of divorce turn the hatred inward, toward themselves.  Blame themselves.  As if they had any control.  They think if only I had done this or that dad or mom would have stayed.  Or they turn it on the parent that didn’t leave and blame them.
         Someday she’ll ask me why.  I don’t know what I’ll say to that.  What kind of answer isn’t a cliché?  Sometimes love isn’t enough?  People grow apart?  Or something more sinister, something that plays at the child’s heart, like “we thought it would be best for you if we separated.”  Subtly blame her for our inadequacies.
         In the end no matter how old you are, you’re still someone’s child.  We’re peculiarly vulnerable emotionally toward our parents even when we don’t want to be.  Often when we define who we are, even in opposition, it’s by what our parents are and are not.
         We try to put words to explain things that can’t be explained.  The human mind, the part that reasons, is young and naïve compared to that tiny curl of lizard brain that resides at the core of our minds.  A lizard doesn’t ponder or explain, it merely feels and acts.  Attacks or escapes.  Mates or rejects.
         People are not rational beasts, but rationalizing.  Rationalization is really just a defense mechanism, a way to explain away what we have done.  The more something is based on our hearts, the more words fail.
         Sarah crosses her hands over her chest.  I do the same when we come and kneel at the rail.  The pastor places his hand on Sarah’s head and whispers “May the Lord bless you and keep you all the days of your life.”
         He comes to me next and his hand hovers over the body of Christ.  He always does that.  Like he’s surprised that I’m not taking the Eucharist.  Then he gives me the same blessing as my daughter.  The preacher approached me once and told me that I was welcome to take the bread and blood.  I thanked him and told him I wasn’t ready.  He’s never brought it up again and no one else has mentioned it, although I know they’ve noticed.  They probably assume I’m dealing with my divorce.
         Or they don’t want to intrude, but I wonder if they’re afraid of why I don’t fully participate in the celebration of Jesus’ death.  Perhaps some instinct of theirs’ tells them I’m a lost soul and they’re afraid it’s contagious, which it might be.
         Several people do the Judas shuffle, sneaking out right after the Eucharist, before the mass has ended.  They have the same hunched look and quickening steps that you imagine the betrayer had as he left.  I always felt sorry for Judas.  He wanted so desperately to be part of God’s chosen and then discovered that God wasn’t anything the way he envisioned.  I know how he feels.
         I’m damned.  It would be easy to proclaim myself an atheist, but that would be just a lie.  I believe in God, but I have no faith.

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