Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Peace of the Buddha vs the Peace of the Christ

Buddhist teachings about peace repose at the core of its worldview and ethical teachings. Being a peaceful person and helping to create a future karma of peace for oneself and the world are at the heart Buddhist practice. Consider this statement:
Even if we feel our cause is just, if we in thought, word, and deed make war against injustice, we are still part of the problem and not contributing to the solution. On the other hand, if we concentrate on putting our own minds at peace, then we can broadcast peace mentally and generate peace through our actions. We should use a peaceful mind to act for peace in the world. From Buddhist Ideas for Attaining World Peace, by Ron Epstein (Lectures for the Global Peace Studies Program, San Francisco State University, November 7 & 9,1988)
One might be inclined--many have--to take a few select statements of Jesus, such as,"Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God," and suppose that he and his predecessor of four centuries, Siddhartha Gautama, were on the same page about this subject. There seems a sort of mania on the part of religious unifiers to show that all the great religious thinkers of the past drew from the same universal well of divine inspiration and that their differences are only peripheral and inconsequential. This unifying impulse is, I suppose, commendable on some level, but it winds up muddying things for those seeking clarity regarding religious and spiritual values.

Jesus spoke about peace a great deal. Just when you might begin to think that Jesus had perhaps slipped off to India in his younger days and hijacked the Buddhist teachings on peace, he comes out with,“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword" and really throws you for a metaphysical loop. Luke, recording the same teaching, has Jesus saying, " Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division." What's a follower of Jesus to think? Do these discordant sayings of the Prince of Peace rattle your mind and disturb your heart? Not to worry, the Master has a word for you: "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled..."

The Buddha would have us become human prayer wheels for peace, blowin' in the wind, "broadcast[ing] peace mentally" to the tumultuous war-ravished world around us. Jesus would have us speak the sword-sharp Truth about Himself and redemption--a truth he promises will brings division and even pit people against one another.

The Buddhist path would have us eschew any effort to battle injustice or confront oppressors, and instead have us create good karma for the future by means of projected peaceful thoughts and gentle friction-soothing actions. Isaiah exhorts us to, "Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows." [emphasis added]

The paradox in all this is that there is a profound peace for the followers of Messiah Jesus, even as they confront injustice and fight oppressors, for as Jesus told the original disciples, "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

If all this hasn't given you enough to think about, I'll just leave you with this final thought from the Apostle Paul:

"And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen." (Romans 16:20)

Monday, June 29, 2009

I've Got the No Time to Write a Post Blues

These days I am feeling a certain sort of obligation (a good obligation I am glad to have placed upon myself) to write a post every few days or so. I certainly would not want a whole week to go by without a posting of some sort. This (writing) is a new discipline and, in the scheme of things is no doubt an answer to my prayer for more discipline in every aspect of my life.

Today I had hoped to spend an hour or two at the keyboard, but it was not to be. It is late and I am left with but these few moments right before bedtime (In that respect, this post is rather more a journal entry). As today unfolded, I did a few chores, like shopping and emptying the cat's litter box, and then received an impromptu lunch invitation from a good friend--which I happily accepted. Coming home I had a visit from my brother and his girlfriend. We went to a neighborhood pub, the Ould Sod, for a beer and then home for pizza and some good and meaningful conversation. These things filled the day.

I did note, on a little index card during the day, a few potential topics, such as: neatness, order and what they mean; the peace of Christ contrasted to the peace of Buddha (now possibly a series); what makes a "man's man" or, a "manly" man; the cigar smoking interior decorator and a few others. These and other ideas will have to vie for next up to bat on this blog.

Please let me know if there is a particular topic you think I should explore. Who knows? You might just tip my hand in one direction or another. For now it is night-night time and in the morning the beginning of a new work week.

May the Lord shed his grace and goodness upon you and may your life be drawn ever more into orbit around him and his eternal truth. Amen.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

No man’s really any good till he knows how bad he is, or might be; till he’s realized exactly how much right he has to all this snobbery, and sneering, and talking about ‘criminals,’ as if they were apes in a forest ten thousand miles away; …till he’s squeezed out of his soul the last drop of the oil of the Pharisees; till his only hope is somehow or other to have captured one criminal, and kept him safe and sane under his own hat.

--G.K. Chesterton The Secret of Father Brown, 1927

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Face of the Buddha vs The Face of the Christ

The image of the Buddha greets one regularly in my neighborhood. Not just at the vegan restaurant on the corner, but even in less likely places such as gas stations and even the local hardware store. I've noticed that even Walmart is offering Buddhist inspired decor. A local furniture store is named, The Eye of Buddha.

Back in the late 50's, when I was a kid, there seemed to be an island craze which swept, if not the country, then at least our city. Tiki torches were ubiquitous. When I was about fourteen, I carved, from an 8-foot section of palm, a tiki to go by our backyard pool. It had big pukka shells for eyes. I remember my dad completing the exotic ambiance of our backyard with a one-foot high cement Buddha placed on a little pedestal. This Buddha was fat. It seems fat Buddhas are out of fashion these days.

I find the image of Buddha attractive and interesting. The perfect serenity and calm of his features has, I think, a universal attractiveness and appeal. Who among us has not gazed upon the soft and somewhat feminine features of the Buddha's placid face, with those smooth and relaxed eyelids so calmly and completely closing off all the stress and care of the outer world, and not longed to somehow attain this same deep inner peace and detachment from all worldly cares?

This stress-free Asian face reflects a deep peace which shields its soul from all the clamor and strife of the material world. It's the face of determined and disciplined detachment from a tumultuous and tragic world. The Buddha sits there silently and serenely inviting us to join him in that place where all earthly care has ceased and no striving disturbs the glassy stillness within. In this unlined face it is evident that all wants and desires have been released and all mental and physical tension have drifted away like some wispy vapor. This face silently whispers that all is--or at least can be--peace and perfect harmony.

Christ's face is portrayed most often as reflecting some deep emotion. He is either seen in anguish as he himself suffers upon the cross, or weeping in sorrow when at the grave of Lazarus. His face reflects protective concern for the woman about to be stoned. This is not to say that images of Christ cannot be found depicting him in relative ease, it's just that images of him in some sort of sorrow greatly outnumber the others. There is indeed the Prince of Peace aspect to Christ, but it is not the peace of detachment from the world, but a peace which comes at the cost of first engaging with and overcoming evil.

The Christ we find depicted, whether in the Bible or in art, is a Christ who is fully engaged in the world. We find him hotly debating opponents one minute, then dramatically delivering a demon possessed man the next. He makes no effort to shut himself off from suffering and pain around him, instead he seems wade into it and absorb it. Isaiah tells us, "He is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." This is the face of a man who feels deeply an inner grief over the plight of our struggling and suffering humanity. He weeps over Jerusalem. He gets angry and overturns the tables of the money changers. He cries out to the multitudes. He rebukes the pharisees. Christ is anything but placid and calm in the middle of the mess of fallen humanity.

The two faces reflect two ways of being in/coping with the world around us: We can, like the Buddha, shut it out and retreat inward to a serene and silent reflecting pond deep in the tranquil inner monastery of our souls or, we can engage the hurt and struggles happening around us and "weep with those that weep" allowing our souls to both confront and mourn for a broken and wayward world.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Confessions of Saint Allen, No. 3

I drive a gas-guzzling SUV. I suppose if Al Gore were to measure my carbon footprint, I'd become a whole segment for his next movie. As it is, I'm afraid I'll soon be required to submit to the new Cap-and-Trade program before they'll allow me to keep driving it.

For my confession is to be complete, I need to let you know that I have gone deeper in enviro sin than you may have imagined from the paragraph above. You see, the SUV I drive is not even a modern one with gobs of government-mandated pollution controls stuck all over it. The awful truth--and I can't hide the fact--is that it has no pollution controls on it whatsoever (There--I've said it). That's because it's a 1968 Chevy Suburban. The good ol' 3-door model. This thing has enough metal in it to make half-a-dozen Honda Civics. It gets about nine miles to a gallon. In a few years, when New York is fourteen feet under water, I know that I will personally be responsible for an inch or two of it.

Why am I so blase' about killing the planet? Well, it all goes back to Y2K. Remember? The computer glitch that was going to bring the gears of modernity to a sudden infrastructure-crashing, business-confounding stop at the rollover into the new century? That's why I drive my planet-destroying vehicle. The genesis of my fall from harmony with the planet goes back to early 1999. That's when I began noticing this '68 Suburban parked here and there downtown.

Being the prudent person I am, I saw it as the perfect worst-case-scenario vehicle to get us (me and my wife) through the wilderness years following civilization's post-Y2K collapse. So one day I left a little note under the wiper asking the owner to call me if he ever decided to sell it. He called me that evening. Next thing you know, bodda-bing-bodda-boom, I'd bought us our Y2K back up plan. This baby would be just the ticket to ride out the coming social upheaval. "Heck," I thought, "this thing is so spacious inside, why there'd be room for our three cats, a good stock of Friskies Special Diet cat food, their litter box, thirty or forty gallons of water, and a good portion of our book collection." I calculated that there'd even be room enough for a small fridge to boot. Then of course we'd need to invest in a diesel generator. Excellent thinking!

Well, you may have noticed that the social collapse following Y2K was somewhat less than total. Therefore we never did have to head for the hills and make the 'burb our back country survival headquarters. We grew to like the old Suburban so much we decided to keep her, notwithstanding the way it would warm the globe in the ensuing years. We still take her out to the back country, but now it is only for a week-end of camping.

There you have it. Another from-the-heart confession by the guy you don't want to spar with in traffic--especially if you're in a Prius.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Karma of My Neighborhood

I live in a San Diego neighborhood called Normal Heights. The joke around town is that it is anything but. My wife and I don't really fit the political/cultural make up of the area (I'd guess this neighborhood went 98.7% for Obama. The other 1.3%? Peace and Freedom. We really don't mind and actually like the charming and somewhat quirky flavor of the area. Up on Adams Ave is a very popular coffee house called Lastat's. It has lots of gargoyles making faces at you from many vantage points on/around the building. It's a popular hang out for the goths and several other sub-culture groups. I guess sub-cultures of a feather flock together. A friend of mine and I had coffee there once. It was nice. Next time I go there I think I'll wear one of those knit hats that come with dreadlocks sewn around the inside edge.

Anyway, that was all introduction to a recently overheard conversation I want to tell you about. It perfectly captures the flavor of our little Normal Heights community. I was out for a walk when, not far from the vegan/yoga restaurant I saw a younger looking woman on a bicycle stopped curbside asking directions from an older earth-mother type. The younger woman had on some flowing Buddhist style clothing and one of those odd pear-shaped shoulder sling things lots people in the area carry. Anyway, as the girl on the bike began to peddle away, the earth-mother woman called out to her, "Good Karma Sweetie!" "And to you" the younger woman called back over her shoulder as she peddled away.

Mr. Rodgers' attire might clash here, but I think he would have felt right at home in this neighborhood.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

The Confessions of Saint Allen, No. 2

I smoke Cigars. I suppose I should begin by explaining how I fell into this delightful habit. It all started with C. S. Lewis. Actually, it was more the Inklings [Excuse me while I google Lewis, Inklings, smoking]. OK, I'm back.
Here are the basics (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inklings):

The Inklings were literary enthusiasts who praised the value of narrative in fiction, and encouraged the writing of fantasy. Although Christian values were notably reflected in several members' work, there were also atheists among the members of the discussion group.

"Properly speaking," wrote Warren Lewis, "the Inklings was neither a club nor a literary society, though it partook of the nature of both. There were no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections."

As was typical for university literary groups in their time and place, the Inklings were all male. (Dorothy L. Sayers, sometimes claimed as an Inkling, was a friend of Lewis and Williams, but never attended Inklings meetings.)

A number of Inklings participants were smokers. And drinkers. They smoked pipes and/or cigars. A few years back I began to think about--and envy--the Inklings and their camaraderie. I could picture them gathering, Friday afternoons, at the London pub they frequented, the Eagle and Child (Which they renamed the Bird and Baby). By all accounts they enjoyed brandy along with their cigars, cigarettes and pipes. We live in a much different day and age with a much different set of values.

I had quit cigarettes more than a year before I began smoking cigars. By this time, I had no residual cravings for nicotine whatsoever. What drew me to cigars was the mental image of the Inklings and the camaraderie they shared. I began to wonder if there were, anywhere in all of San Diego, a place where men got together for interesting conversation. I could find none. Still, the picture in my mind remained. It was a picture of men of like mind sharing themselves and their thoughts together in a way which was pleasing to them and fulfilled the need all men have for camaraderie.

As fate would have it, that month National Review (a political fortnightly) had a full-page ad from Thompson Cigars for a sampler pack of six cigars--which came with a free humidor/carrying case. I went for it and ordered the cigars. I smoked them one by one and found one brand I really liked--C.A.O. (Still my favorite: the Brasilia Samba. Ummm...) I was so inspired, I began, in January of 2005, the Chesterton Cigar Club--named after none other than the great Victorian journalist (and cigar smoker), G.K. Chesterton (Seems everyone in that period dropped their first to names to initials. Just call me D.A. Randall)

There you have it--confession No.2. It is 7:00p.m. straight up. I am now going to go select from my humidor a big beautiful cigar and celebrate a day well spent relaxing, shopping, putzing and blogging by lighting one up and contemplating my next confession.

* The Inklings was an informal literary discussion group associated with the University of Oxford, England, for nearly two decades between the early 1930s and late 1949.[1] Its most regular members (many of them academics at the University) included J. R. R. "Tollers" Tolkien, C. S. "Jack" Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Christopher Tolkien (J. R. R. Tolkien's son), Warren "Warnie" Lewis (C. S. Lewis's elder brother), Roger Lancelyn Green, Adam Fox, Hugo Dyson, R. A. "Humphrey" Havard, J. A. W. Bennett, Lord David Cecil, and Nevill Coghill.

The Eagle and Child is a pub in St Giles', Oxford, England which is owned by St. John's College, Oxford.
From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inklings

Confession Series Explained

Below begins a new series. It will be an occasional series. That is, these "confession" posts will only appear from time to time. As the spirit leads, I will reveal some aspect of myself/my life that runs counter to something. That something could be the prevailing cultural norms, or current Christian norms (however defined), or it could be some revealing opinion of mine I feel readers might find curious, instructive, entertaining or interesting.

These will be my own personal, particular "confessions" or points of view I happen to hold at the time I express them. Some, even many, of the things I believe are in flux--but this flux is not one with wild parameters. Instead, it is a flux which continues to to be refined by what I discover, with God's guidance, to be true. This, I trust, will be a life-long process of discovery--lead ultimately by the one who some two-thousand years ago said, "I am the way, the truth and the life."

I belong to what is called a, "*confessional church"--the Presbyterian Church (USA). I have come to appreciate this aspect of the church. I don't mind opposing points of view. I like it when people declare, plainly, what they believe. I can handle disagreement and dissenting points of view--this sort of tolerance is a conservative/liberal value I hold dear.

*A confession is a public declaration of what a church believes. Individual Christians certainly confess their own personal faith, but a confession of faith is more than a personal affirmation of faith. It is a statement of what a community of Christians believes. Such statements have not always been called confessions. They have also been called creeds, catechisms, affirmations, formulas, definitions, declarations of faith, statements of belief, articles of faith, and other similar names. Whatever their form, confessions of faith express what a body of Christians believe in common. (From http://www.brookingspres.com/acc.htm)

The Confessions of Saint Allen, No.1

I like to shop. There, it's out on the table. (Oh, about the "saint" business: Since it somehow got applied to my buddy Augustine, then I figured what the h...oops, I almost forgot, we saints have standards to maintain. Ahem, ahem.) Where was I? Oh, shopping. Yes, well I suppose shopping is one of those things psychologists and sociologists [By the by--I'm beginning to think I'd really like to be a sociologist. At least I would if I didn't have to produce any long boring papers with lots of statistics and charts and graphs and things. I'd just want to go somewhere, like the airport or a local park and people-watch for an afternoon. I'd take a little pocket notebook and jot a few observations from time to time. Perhaps get a latte and have a friendly conversation with the the person at the coffee cart. I'd get home in the early evening, pour myself a glass of chardonnay and write a short opinion piece based loosely on my day's experience. That's the kind of sociology that would interest me. I think I'll check it out on Monster-dot-com]. Where was I? Oh, yeah, shopping. Anyway, as I was saying, I'm a shopper. I'm also a guy. I have the impression that guys generally don't like to shop. A guy only goes shopping if he is drug (dragged?) along by his wife or goes dutifully, perhaps resentfully, when sent on out by her on a shopping errand, "Oh, and honey, don't forget the maxi-pads. Thanks sweetie." [OK. I'm an amateur sociologist, you don't have to tell me: I know, I know, some guys have a live-in girlfriend instead of a wife. Also if I were a sociologist, I could do a "study" about this thing of guys not liking to shop. I really need to get over to Monster-dot-com]. Like I was saying, I like to shop. I went shopping just today--at Walmart. I like shopping at Walmart. I like the regular unprofessional looking old folks who greet you at the door. They're nice. I haven't done it, but I bet you could stand there and have a nice ten-minute conversation with any one of them. Do you think a sociologist would do a study of Walmart greeters? I would. [How much do sociologists get paid, anyway? Who in the h... oops. I mean, who in the heck pays them?]

[You don't want to go too long without a paragraph break. People freak out when they see a whole bunch of text with our a paragraph break. That's my theory anyway--as an amateur sociologist] Yes, shopping. Another reason I like shopping is I love bargain hunting and getting a good deal. Man, I'm jazzed if I look at "Your savings today" on my receipt and it is into the 40% range! Yippee--I done really good today! I stroll through the lot to my car feeling grrr-ate. "I bet the best anyone else did today was 34%" Best of all is when (I plan my shopping so this rarely happens, but it still does sometimes) we are out of something and have to get it and--it's on sale! Yes! I suppose the feeling I get then is the same as the one regular guys (Ones with the "sports gene"--which I don't happen to have) get when their team scores. I am a big comparison shopper. I love to evaluate things and figure out the best deal. Most evaluations are based on the two main factors: price and quality. There are also other factors which can come in to play, such as: desirability, ease of use, name brand, storage, calories, recyclability, etc. It is a game of sorts--a game I find both rewarding and relaxing.

Well, that just scratches the surface of why I like to shop. I could go on and on I suppose, but that's enough for one post. Sociologist have studied people's reactions to long posts and...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The post below is the final one in the 26-part series which chronicles the year-long period culminating in my conversion in 1972. If you followed along I hope you found it a rewarding investment of your time. Thanks for stopping by. Next week I plan on returning to doing a more random selection of topics. I hope to maintain your interest and make returning to this little blog worth your while. Comments and dialogue are enthusiastically encouraged! --Allen

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 26: The Starting Line

There I sat as the preacher asked any wanting to follow Jesus to raise their hands. It was only recently that these alter calls had been tempting me. After a year of thinking about it, I had concluded that the Jesus I had read about in the Bible was not a con artist, a lying schemer out for money or manipulation of some sort. I eventually, later, also came to the conclusion that the Jesus portrayed in the gospels was not insane. He was not suffering from religious delusions and thinking he was God when he was, in fact, not divine, but merely another flawed human being like everyone else. The elimination of those possibilities had left the third alternative, which was that Jesus was all the Bible claimed him to be: God come to earth in human form to give his life for a fallen and rebellious world--a world he loved so much that he was willing to become one of us and suffer an agonizing death in order to save us. From reading and thinking about the whole of what he taught, and how he lived and loved, and died, and the life-changing effect he had on his disciples and millions of others through the centuries--from all that I had come, little by little, to believe that he was indeed the way, the truth and the life--the unique Savior through whom sinful humans can come to a holy God.

But still--even assenting to all this in my mind, still--I was not yet a follower of Christ. For although I had come to believe a number of things about Jesus, I still had yet to commit my heart and life to him and begin to follow him as a disciple. I was very close to becoming a Christian, but there was one final step to be taken. I had been reluctant to take it. It was a decision which would have deep and profound implications for every aspect of my life and my future. If I were to take this final step, there would be no turning back. It had to be a complete and unreserved commitment.

As the preacher continued to invite people wanting to follow Jesus to raise a hand, I had a sensation which was like the feeling one might have watching the last train for some destination leaving the station with a loved one on board. You should have gone with them but for some reason had procrastinated. Now, in a few moments time the train would pick up speed and you would be left behind for good. I saw that train as standing for spiritual progress and growth and those on it were headed for a real and meaningful destination. I however had been clinging to the platform, frozen in indecision and moral cowardice. Now was my time. I had to make a choice and act upon it while the opportunity was open. My creator was knocking--had been knocking for some time, patiently, persistently--waiting for me to respond. He had been calling me. The next move was mine. Would I make it? I would. I wanted to be part of God's unfolding work in the world. I needed the forgiveness and new birth he offered. "Yes," I said in my heart and mind, "Yes, count me in. I will follow you--beginning here and now. Come into my heart and life and do whatever rebuilding is necessary. I submit to your will. Just lead me and show me the way.I will give it my best, but I will need your help and guidance. I am yours. Amen."

I am not a very outwardly emotional person. I did not have tears of joy or jump up and down with shouts of praise. I did not experience and rapturous spiritual sensations. I just quietly walked out at the conclusion of the service with a profound inner peace and sense of freedom. There was also a feeling that I was on the right track--a totally new, but at the same time very ancient track. It was the Way. Jesus was the guide. Our journey would now begin. The first step had been taken. Many more would follow.

-------------------- * --------------------

I walked out of that church building that June evening a changed young man. That change awakened me to seeing things--even things in the physical world--as if with new eyes. I remember being struck by beauty of the tree just outside the door to the church, and the flowers on the church grounds. The greens of the leaves and the colors of the flowers were so much more vivid than I'd ever seen them before; the colors more saturated, more deeply tinted. This seems to me now an unusual and in some ways trivial experience. I only relate it to show that, though my conversion was accompanied by no overtly spiritual sensations, sill I was profoundly effected--even in the way things appeared to me. It was as if I had never really seen the richness of God's creation around me every day. This changed way of seeing things was only one small advance indicator of how I would need to learn to see everything through new eyes and with a new God-enhanced understanding. That change continues to this day. Happy Father's Day!

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 25: Welcome Home, Son

By Father's Day, 1972, I had attended almost fifty or so Sunday evening gatherings with the Jesus people who met at All Saints Episcopal Church in Riverside. It hadn't taken long for me to figure out that these were not meetings of the local Episcopal church youth group or of Young Life, but that instead, the hundreds of converted hippies there were simply borrowing the building for their weekly services. The previous summer Lonnie Frisbee had been the preacher. Chuck smith Jr had taken over from him after a few months and now, a year later, Greg Laurie, another young evangelist was preaching there.

When I came for the first time in June of the previous year, I'd gotten into a bit of a debate with a former high school acquaintance who had been converted and was now one of the Jesus people. He had challenged me to read the gospel accounts--which I had to concede I had never read--and to decide whether I thought Jesus was a con man, a deluded fanatic or was, instead, all he claimed to be. With this challenge in mind I had read through the four Gospels and after continued on to read the Epistles as well. As supplementary "research" to my reading, I had attended the Jesus people gatherings nearly every Sunday evening. Those gatherings followed a by now familiar format: a band or singer would do a set of Christian rock or folk music; that was followed by everyone singing songs--some old gospel songs, some lively new clap-along ones, and yet others slow and worshipful. During these last type, quite a few in the audience would raise one or both hands and perhaps close their eyes as well and tilt their heads upward.

After that, the preacher would get up and give a twenty to thirty minute evangelistic Bible lesson. At the end of his talk, he would always give the alter call. I had sat through so many of them the pattern was quite familiar to me now: He would begin to pray at the conclusion of his preaching and, as toward the end of the prayer, he would shift to addressing the audience and say something like,
..and now, while all heads are bowed and eyes closed, I'd like to invite you--if you have never opened your heart to Jesus and invited him in as your Lord and Savior--to do that now. God has a plan for your life. He wants to change your life and forgive your sins and show you a whole new way to live. It all can start tonight. You can be born again--born from above, and have a fresh start in life. You may be a drug addict or have done lots of bad stuff in your life. You can come to God just as you are. He loves you more than you can imagine. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for every single sin you have ever committed. He paid it all--even for the whole world. You may be thinking you have to get cleaned up before coming to Jesus. You can't do it. You don't have to cleaned up. He'll receive you just as you are. Just come to him and he will change you from the inside out. If you want to know him tonight, I'd like you to just raise your hand and let me know that. While every head is still bowed, will anyone say yes to Jesus? I see that hand in the back. Yes sister, over to my left, I see your hand. And you, yes and in the middle there--I see your hand too. He's calling, he's calling the lost sheep. Over on the side, I see your hand. The Bible says there is rejoicing over one sinner who comes to repentance. Is there anyone else who would like to give your life to Christ tonight? Yes, both of you up front here. Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. His Spirit is calling the lost sheep and the prodigal sons home tonight.
Toward the end of the alter call, the band would slip back up on stage and begin to softly play an instrumental. The preacher would invite everyone to stand. Then he would tell those who had raised their hands, " While the band plays this next song I want those of you who raised your hands to come forward here so I can pray for you. Jesus said, 'If you confess me before men, I will confess you before my father in Heaven, but if you deny me before men, I will deny you also. So you need to be bold and publicly stand up for Jesus. He went to the cross and suffered for you, you can take a stand for him."

The band would begin to play more loudly now and many people would flock to the front of the church and stand there, most of them with their heads bowed. It seemed that each week, ten or twenty young people would go forward to profess their faith and be born again. When the music concluded, the preacher would lead those standing there in the Sinner's Prayer. The preacher would instruct them, "The prayer I am about to say, I want you to say out loud after me. Repeat after me, "Dear Jesus / I know I am a sinner / I know you died on the cross for me / I thank you for dying for me / And rising again from the dead / And I believe that all my sins are washed away / I give my life to you / Show me what you want me to do / Give me power over sin and help me to follow you / I receive you now as my Lord and Savior / I thank you for giving me eternal life / Thank you Lord Jesus, Amen."

With that, the preacher would ask those who had just prayed to go to a back room where they would be given a Bible and instructed in the basics of living for Jesus. The band would play one last song and then then everyone would leave the pews, mill about and there would be a lot of hugging and exchanges of, "Praise the Lord!" among the crowd.

I knew this routine by heart. In previous recent alter calls I had sometimes felt some inner stirring or a softening of my heart and a longing to perhaps know what it was like to be a follower of Jesus. At other occasions I'd felt an oppressive psychological heaviness, a burdensome mental weight which felt also at times like real lead weights on my shoulders. Sometimes I felt nothing, or just an inner emptiness and weariness. Tonight, Father's Day, was different however. Tonight...

Father's Day Revisited, Part 24: The Paradise Fire Escape

The sun was setting as I drove the final fifty mile climb from Yuba City to Paradise. All the way the redwoods and pines got thicker and taller by the mile. It was one of those sunsets which paints the sky and clouds with a full palette of vibrant hues, from deep deep purple to the faintest pink and everything in between. Shafts of yellow-orange sunlight burst from under a low floating huddle of clouds to the west. Different vistas came into my view, but only for brief moments as as I'd come to a rise or the road turned. As I drove I ventured glances, drinking in the fiery sky as often and for as long as I dared before having to turn my eyes back to the black road and yellow line. Although the thought did not cross my mind at the time, looking back now it was almost as if God were saying to that young questioning skeptic, "Watch this!"

Arriving too late in the day to do the repair job I'd come to do, I sized up the little town as the first buildings began to appear, hoping there was a movie theater or bowling alley or bookstore or somewhere to spend a couple of hours after I'd found a motel in which to spend the night. The town was not looking promising in the nightlife department as I drove the main road. Looked like they rolled up the sidewalk early here--and, after all it was a Monday night. I had about resigned myself to watching the game on the motel TV when, off to my right I caught sight of a small lit sign that said, The Fire Escape Coffee House. "Well," I thought, "if nothing else, I could hang out and have a couple of cups of coffee there if it turns out there's nothing else to do in town."

I found a motel, checked in, put my gear in the room and watched a little of the early newscast on the TV. I was antsy and so switched it off at the first commercial and went out to the truck. I'd go back and see if that little coffee shop I'd seen was open. As I parked the truck I saw someone open the door to the coffee house and go in. As I entered I smelled the brewing coffee and noticed the business was one of those which used to be a home. In the big sunken living room off to my left was a scattering of couches and overstuffed chairs. Six or eight people were there and I could hear the low sound of their mingled conversations. Something wasn't right though. There should be a register near the entry. There was not. Instead I saw a tall sofa table near where I stood and on it were some books and several little stacks of literature. I stepped over to look and saw that the books were really paperback Bibles and the stacks of literature were fliers for various Christian concerts and things. "What kind of business was this?" I wondered. A little yellow flag went up in my mind.

As a woman approached me another flag was quickly raised. "Hi, c'mon in," she said, noticing I'd hesitated in the entry by the literature table. Extending her hand, and taking a step closer, she offered, "I'm Sarah--and you are?" I'd have to decide quickly if and how to make a fast exit if I determined I'd stumbled upon the hangout of some cult or something. Perhaps I could say I just stopped by to get directions to somewhere. "Um, I'm Denny. Is this a coffee shop?" I asked. "Yes, we've got a fresh pot," she said, sensing my alarm. "Would you like some?" "Maybe, um, I don't know, well, you see I thought..." "Oh, we're a coffee house, just not a business. The coffee's free. Everyone is welcome to come by and hang out any time. We're mostly Christians and we meet here a few times a week to fellowship in the Lord, sing, study the Word and talk--things like that. Can I get you some coffee?" One year ago and I'd have been out the door before she knew what had happened. I still felt somewhat threatened by Christians, but being around them so much more in the past year had mellowed my antagonism. In addition, I was wanting to find knowledgeable, reasonable Christians I could probe and question of to see what a "normal" Christian believed and how they came to believe it.

"OK," I said, "I'll have a cup, but I can't really stay for long though," I added as insurance just in case these people turned out to be weird or Pentecostal or who-knew-what. Sarah though seemed very calm and warm--not weird or high-strung like some religious fanatics. She appeared to be in her late thirties or early forties. She was a little tall--at least she was a couple of inches above my five-eight--and had very long dark brown hair. It was the length one saw only occasionally. It went down, in loosely tied bundles, to just below her waist. She was casually dressed, wearing a very plain looking and modest corduroy dress with a long row of big wood buttons which ran from bottom to top. Most of the others, who I could see in my peripheral vision and were seated in the big sunken room off to my left, looked to be younger than Sarah, perhaps in their mid to late twenties.

Sarah showed me to the big coffee urn and I filled a large styrofoam cup from it and looked around for a place to sit. I wound up at one end of a very long and low couch, a good distance from the only others on it, a young couple sitting together with a big Bible open between them atop their two knees. At first I thought we'd just sit around and talk, but it seemed a meeting was about to start. A skinny young man with a neatly trimmed beard reached down and lifted a guitar out of its case and began to tune it. The guy on the other end of the couch who looked like a college student extended his hand to me and said, "Hey man, glad to have you, praise the Lord, how'd you hear about this place?" "Um, I just got in to town and saw it as I drove in," I replied, wondering if everyone else here knew one another or whether I was the only "independent" soul in the place. Sarah, who had met me at the door, now joined the group who were turning their chairs and circling up around a big old well-worn coffee table. The young guy with the guitar began a song and the others tentatively began to follow along. "We are one in the spirit, we are one in the Lord..." I recognized the songs and knew the words to most of the half-dozen they sang. I didn't sing along. I didn't want to give the impression the I was a fellow Christian.

After the last song and after Sarah had prayed for the Lord to, "touch every heart and speak to everyone here through your Word, Father, and by your Holy Spirit show us your way and show us Jesus so we can follow him and love him and serve him better--in his precious name we pray." Now a man in his fifties, perhaps Sarah's husband, opened a big Bible which looked as it it had seen a great deal of use and had been leafed though for years, and said, "let's take a look at Hebrews, chapter one," and began to read, in a firm voice, but rather slowly, "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son." He then began to go on to explain that passage and in doing so quoted from five or six other places in the Bible, some in the New Testament, some in the Old. The gist of it seemed to be that if you wanted to hear from God, you'd have to read what Jesus said and also that the life of Jesus itself was some sort of way God was speaking to the world in general. "Huh," I thought to myself, "wasn't I just a few hours ago trying to figure out how God, if there is one, communicates? Another weird coincidence I suppose, that I should just stumble across this place and hear this particular thing tonight."

There was some discussion, some more songs were sung, and finally, after the Bible teacher said a prayer, we were apparently dismissed to "fellowship." A couple of people introduced themselves to me but I was feeling kind of awkward as an outsider and I headed for the door. Sarah got there ahead of me and thanked me for coming. Before I could slip past her she asked me, "So, Denny, do you believe in Jesus?" I paused, trying to decide whether to give her a long or short answer. I settled upon short. "No, not really." "Why not?" she replied. This woman was really plain spoken, I thought as I pondered an answer. "Well, I guess I'm just not capable of believing something I can't see or prove or verify," I ventured. "I think I just don't have the capacity to believe and have faith like some people seem to have." "I see," she said, "but would you like to believe?" she asked. I was taken aback by that question. I had never before considered it from that angle before. How was I to answer such a question? I paused for a good while, trying to formulate an honest answer to her simple, but stark question. Finally I said, "Well, if it is true, yes, I do. I mean, I would want to believe it--if it was true. But if it's not, then no, I don't. I don't want to believe in a lie or an fairy tale or even something that just sounds good and makes you feel better when you are troubled. No, I'd rather not believe something like that."

Although we were having a rather intense conversation about God and faith, I didn't feel intimidated or pressured as I sometimes had when talking to Christians. Sarah was soft-spoken, her voice plesant and her demeanor calm. She seemed genuinely concerned for me and was willing to listen to what I had to say. She also seemed wise. I got the impression that she had been a Christian for many years. "OK," she said, "If you want to believe, but are finding it difficult, then you should ask God to help you with that." "Yeah," I said, "but that's the thing, I don't even know if there is a God, so that wouldn't do much good I don't think." She put her hand on my shoulder, like a mother would when giving instructions her boy before he left for school, "Denny," she said, "I'm going to be praying for you. And you can pray too. Even if you don't know if there is a God or not, you can just reach out with your mind and heart and say, 'God, if you are there, if you exist, I want you to help me to believe. If the Bible is true and Jesus is the savior, I want to believe. Show me the way to faith, Lord, and I will follow.'" she concluded. "Just try it. It couldn't hurt. If there is no God, you haven't lost anything. But if there is, I believe he will answer you prayer and help you to believe." She took her hand from my shoulder and continued, "Denny, Jesus said we must 'ask, seek and knock.' He said if you ask, you'll get an answer; if you seek, you will find what you seek; and if you knock, the door will open to you--so go ahead and ask him. You have nothing to lose. I'll be praying for you. God's going to help you find the answer if you seek him." I couldn't really argue with her logic, and I did feel her genuine concern for me. I thanked her, told her I'd give it a try, said goodbye and thanked her for the coffee.

Back in the motel room I watched Johnny Carson and tried to wind down so I could get some sleep. My concentration wandered back and forth from Johnny and Ed McMahon to the coffee house and what Sarah had said to me. After a little while, I turned off the TV, lit a cigarette, lay back in bed, and did as Sarah had suggested.

In the morning I tried calling the customer whose shower unit I had come to repair only to find out they'd moved months ago. Someone back at our office had messed up and had not called the customer in advance to confirm the repair order before I was sent. My services were not needed here in Paradise after all. "How strange," I thought, "that I'd be sent all this way here just to spend a couple of hours with some Christians in a coffee house." Who might have arranged for that to happen?

My experience in Paradise at the coffee house--what I'd heard in the Bible study and what was said to me after--lingered and replayed in my mind the whole way as I drove back down to Riverside. My life was in transition. I was newly married and happier than I'd ever been--than I'd ever known it was possible to be. Cher had married me even though I was not a Christian. I felt no pressure at all from her that I become one. Yet I was restlessness inside about the whole Jesus issue. Inwardly I continued to ask and seek and knock. The following Sunday would be Father's Day.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 23: The Spirit in the Sky and the Jukebox at A&W

I exited Highway 99 in Yuba City because I'd seen the sign for an A&W Root Beer stand. My train of thought still was circling around the question of whether God communicated with people in any way shape or form or whether, as some thought, God was an impersonal creative force from which all life drew energy. The idea of a personal God who knew and sought out individuals in order to communicate with them seemed very unlikely to me. It also seemed unsophisticated and "low-brow." That's what the fundamentalists and Pentecostals believed about God. The impersonal life-force concept was not only more sophisticated, but also more attractive for a number of reasons--the main one being that an impersonal force had no explicit moral code which one was obligated to follow. The Jesus I had read about in the Bible spoke of a Father in Heaven who required holiness but who could be reached by prayer and who loved, listened to and cared for those who came to him with faith and accepted Jesus. Still, how was one to know for sure? Does God really somehow point the way for people as they struggle to find the truth and understand life? How was one expected to have faith if there was none there to begin with?

I turned the company truck into a space at the A&W and headed for the store to get a hamburger and a frosty mug of root beer. It was late in the afternoon, long past lunch, and so the place was empty. I was hungry and glad there would be no line. I stepped inside a big enclosed patio area with big tables and bench seats. A great place to take the family. I went up to the window, put in my order, and then sat at one of the tables to wait. While I waited my mind kept mulling that pesky question about whether God, if he existed, ever communicated with people in any way. As these thoughts occupied my mind, a young man came in, walked to the window and put in an order for a large root beer to go. As the girl poured it, the young man walked over to the jukebox, put in a quarter, punched some of the big lighted buttons and walked back to the window to get his drink. As the arm inside the jukebox selected the record and began to swing it over to the sideways-mounted turntable, the young man picked up his root beer and walked out. I watched as he hopped into an older model ford pick up. As he pulled out of the driveway, his first song was beginning to play. "How odd," I thought, "the guy pays for some songs and then leaves without even listening to them. What's the point in that?" I recognized the song instantly. They were still playing it on the radio from time to time. It was Norman Greenbaum's Spirit in the Sky, a song about having faith in Jesus and going to heaven when you die. I picked up my burger and root beer and sat down to eat as the last notes of Spirit in the Sky faded. The jukebox mechanism dutifully put that record back in its slot and then reached for the next selection. As I took the second bite of my burger, I heard another familiar song rising from the jukebox. This time it was Put You Hand in the Hand of the Man From Galilee.

"Wait one second," I thought to myself, "how is it that, just when I am all perplexed and asking inwardly if God ever somehow communicates to people, just then some guy I don't know from Adam crosses my path and just happens to drop two Christian songs in my ears--and all for my sole benefit? "What's going on here?" I wondered. How was I to understand this strange coincidence? I couldn't help thinking that perhaps, just maybe, Someone was trying to give me a little hint at the answer to the question I'd just been wrestling with. This thought boggled my mind and helped prepare me for what was about to happen to me in Paradise.

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 22: Radio Preachers on the Road to Paradice

The day came for me to get in the company service truck and set a course for Paradise--California. I headed out early in the morning and as I settled in for the long drive up the I-5 I scanned the radio dial, as was my habit. I'd stop at a station if it were to be playing one of my favorites, but I was mostly looking for radio preachers. My determination to come to a conclusion about whether Jesus was a con man, a nut or really was indeed all the Bible claimed him to be was for me now stronger than ever.

I had finished reading the paperback modern English New Testament I'd been given the previous year. I was fairly certain Jesus was not a confidence man--out to scam gullible souls for his own profit or phony fame. The Jesus described in the Bible simply didn't fit the M-O of a con man. That narrowed the choices down. Could it possibly be that, for two-thousand years, millions of people had followed teachings and had even sacrificed their lives on the basis of some mentally ill man from the first century who'd believed a religious delusion that he himself was the only path to God? If that were the case, human history would be absurd--a planet thus deceived would be the laughing stock of the universe--if there were anyone out there to laugh.

The teachings attributed to this Jesus: were they the teachings of a schizophrenic, a delusional megalomaniac? That didn't seem to be the case at all. If it were the case, Christianity was the biggest fraud to ever come down the pike. I felt that, although I did not fully understand many of his parables and teachings and his dialogues about the nature of God and the way to eternal life, taken together they seemed to have a certain coherence and underlying logic to them. The Jesus I found in the Bible was not spouting theological speculations or mere personal religious opinions, but was making authoritative and bold declarations about God, himself and all humankind. If these things were not true, then he was a madman indeed.

I listened to many radio preachers of all kinds. Only a couple of them did I find intelligent and somewhat compelling. Most of the rest of them I felt were charlatans or out for money or, if sincere, then nutty as could be. Some wanted me to send in for a little piece of some cut up revival tent which was guaranteed to heal me or bring me money or success. Others were begging for money to keep broadcasting the gospel and saying they'd pray for me personally if I'd just send them money. I thought, "If--just supposing--if I were to ever, somehow, some way, to be convinced of the truth of Christianity, why then I'd have to be associated with all these nutty idiots. I'd be in their same Christian club." The thought of it made my intellectual skin crawl. No--I couldn't stand such an association, could never do it. No way. Not in a million years.

But then I'd think, "Well, what if it is real after all, and everything about Jesus were to be true? What then? Do I reject it all because there are some wacky religious fanatics running around doing stupid stuff in his name?" I had to admit that that wouldn't seem right. "I suppose I'll have to just ignore the crazy radio preachers and base whatever decision I come to on what I find in the Bible and whether I can believe it or not," I thought to myself. I continued in this vein, thinking, "...and even all that finally comes down to the one big question about Jesus. If he was not all that was claimed for him, I can forget the whole thing. No need busting my head trying to figure out if this or that miracle took place," I figured, "because if Jesus fails the test, then the whole thing--the Bible, Christianity, the church--they all go up in smoke and I can proceed with my life and not be bothered."

If in my mind I became convinced Jesus did not live up to what his followers had claimed for him, I felt I could then honestly assert that I had put the Biblical Jesus to a fair intellectual test and found that he and all the rest of it was unbelievable to me. These questions about the meaning of life, God, life after death and all the rest would no longer be worth my being concerned about. Could I believe what I'd read about him in the Bible or not? I still didn't have a definite answer to that one question. That's what I was hoping to I'd be able to determine at some point. Does God--if he exists--ever help a seeker with any hints? Does God communicate with people in some fashion? Christians claimed so. If so, how does he do it? As I pondered this last question, I notices a tall A & W Root Beer sign signaling a stand right near the next off-ramp.

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 21: A Hippy Wedding

Sometimes in one's life events converge in a way which leaves one wondering, "Am I meant to learn something from all this? Is someone or something trying to get my attention?" The weeks from late May to early June of 1972 had that sort of feel to them, as if things which were meant to be were coming together as intended. Cher and I had planned the wedding we wanted. Many things were coming to what seemed an ordained consummation. To begin the series of events, I turned twenty-two years old on the twenty-third of May. Eleven days later our wedding day arrived. It was to be a hippy wedding in every aspect, except that we had a real official Episcopal priest, Father Olsen, do the ceremony. He however, though not too radical to look at, did have a very progressive and hip outlook on the world and religious matters, so from that standpoint he fit right in with the counter-culture spirit of our ceremony.

Cher and I had made our own wedding invitations from scratch, writing them out by hand. After listing the day, time and location, there was a note at the bottom which read, "Bare feet requested." We thought this a nice touch. Cher had made us matching off-white smocks from muslin material. On the backs of them were embroidered brightly colored sun, moon and stars. It was a small wedding with perhaps thirty or so in attendance. Cher's sister, a committed Christian and talented singer sang to us as we stood in a shady spot, held hands and prepared to take our vows. Family members and friends stood in rows of circles around us. Someone had brought gardenias and in the warmth of the June day their fragrance was nearly overwhelming. As Father Olsen opened his Bible and began, "Jesus himself blessed this sacred institution by performing his very first miracle at a marriage ceremony in Cana, of Galilee..." At this moment I was as emotionally high and full as it seemed possible for a person to be and not faint or simply die from sheer joy. We exchanged our rings and vows in the shade of an expansive old Magnolia tree and then milled about the lawn in our bare feet and muslin hippy smocks while family members and friends came up to congratulate us. I felt half in a dream and under a spell of love which seemed so deep and of such an eternal nature it seemed a spiritual experience.

After the wedding we had a simple, modest and casual reception pool-side in the back yard of my mom's home there in Riverside. We mingled for a while with our guests, then it was time to get in Cher's green Volkswagen bug and head for our honeymoon in Desert Hot Springs. Friends had waxed the car all over and had written well-wishes through the white haze. Long strings with empty cans attached clanged and made a racket at we headed down the street to our new life together.

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 20: This Way to Paradise

By the spring of 1972 I had given up hope of ever making a career as a Fuller Brush salesman. As an alternative, I'd landed a job doing something I had more experience with: working with fiberglass. I found an entry level job at the Corl Corporation factory in Riverside. At first I was just a "finisher," wet-sanding and machine buffing fiberglass tub-shower units to eliminate imperfections left from the manufacturing process. These tub-shower units were mostly sold to mobile home manufacturers. Fiberglass finishing was miserable and unrewarding work, often spent on one's knees or bending in awkward, unnatural positions in order to get at the spot which needed sanding or other attention. In addition, after hours of sanding, the very fine-grit sandpaper we used would wear right through your fingertips until they oozed blood. I soon figured out why all the experienced finishers had their fingers wrapped in masking tape. I found the work tedious in the extreme and the hours dragged until my lunch break when--glorious retreat--Cher would come with a friend and we would have a sweet half-hour to visit with each other. Then I'd reluctantly force myself back to the drudgery and a seeming eternity until the final whistle blew signaling the end of my tortuously long shift.

Within a couple of months I was promoted to a much better position. I would now be one of the company's two fiberglass repair reps who would be sent to repair products in the field. These were shower units which were flawed or had been damaged in some way during installation. I had a company pick-up truck to use in which I carried a complete fiberglass repair and refinishing kit. I also had a company credit card and a small expense account. The mobile homes in which our products were installed would wind up in parks all over California as well as in the various states of the southwest. I was usually sent out to do a week-long loop. I would be sent to the repair order which was farthest away and then make repair calls as I headed back to Riverside. I liked the variety of work and the road trips to various states. My boss would give me my upcoming repair trip by telling me the the farthest city on my itinerary.

"You are going to Paradise," my boss told me one Monday morning. I was a bit unsure whether he might be joking around. "Excuse me, what did you say?" I replied. "I said I'm sending you to Paradise" he said with a bit of a smirk, emphasizing the word Paradise. "C'mon," I said, "What's the deal? Where am I really going?" "O.K, here's the deal: you are going to Paradise--Paradise California--to do a repair up there and then I have a few more for you as you come back down." I still wasn't sure he wasn't pulling my leg until he showed it to me on the map. There it was, right up at the top of the state, near Chico. This conversation struck me as particularly odd, especially since I'd been reading the New testament for several months and had begun to wonder about whether there really could be other "dimensions" to our existence or other facets of reality beyond the purely physical world of material objects. "So," I thought, "I going up to Paradise--wait until Cher hears about this!"

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 19: The Proposal

The time had come. I walked into the little jewelry store and came out with a plain gold band. It would have to do double duty, first serving as an engagement ring and then, about six months later as a wedding ring. It's circumference seemed impossibly small as I looked at it and it wouldn't even go on my little finger, but its size was my best guess and anyway we could have it re-sized later if needed. The next thing to decide on was the actual manner of my proposal itself. My counter-culture thinking ruled out the standard venues, such as some up-scale hoity-toity restaurant or any other Hollywood-style setting. No, in keeping with my hippy sensibilities, I would keep it low-key and simple. Christmas was only a few weeks away and I could make it a gift or perhaps combine it with another gift. Cher played acoustic guitar and the one she currently had was not in the best of shape. Yes--a new guitar was called for. At the guitar shop I talked with the owner and considered my budget. Money was no object--I was willing to spend thousands, if I'd had it. As it was, I had a few hundred. After agonizing over all the various brands to choose from, I settled on the best I could afford-- an Ibanez. I bought a nice new case for it, paid the store owner in cash and carefully nested the shiny new guitar in the plush velvety interior of the hard-shell case. Once home I took the guitar out and, in the little compartment in the case used for picks and things, I placed the small white cardboard box with the little gold ring inside.

When Christmas day came I travelled to Cypress where Cher and her sister were living with their mom. I had gift wrapped the case which held the guitar, trying not very successfully to disguise the tell-tale shape. She was thrilled upon opening the package and discovering the guitar and wanted to sit down and begin playing it. I had to coax her into opening the little compartment so she would find the other surprise it held within. Upon opening it there was, of course, a moment or two of no reaction as the meaning of it sunk in. Then suddenly she threw her arms around me and gave me a very long, very tight and reassuring hug. "Yes," the answer was "yes!" She ran to the other room to tell her sister who came to the living room to give us both a hug, along with her somewhat surprised congratulations.

We talked over wedding dates and somehow choose June 3 of the upcoming year--1972. Why we couldn't wait just a few weeks until her eighteenth birthday I cannot now recall. Whatever the reason, it added the complication of us having to get a parental permission form filled out and submitted to the county clerk. We decided we'd have an outdoor wedding on the big lawn adjoining All Saints Episcopal Church. This was the very spot where, just one year before, on a warm June evening I'd first encountered a whole flock of Jesus People who had gathered there to praise Jesus and listen to their hippy preacher. In the six months since then I had read through the New Testament and Cher and I had had a number of conversations about God, yet I remained very much the agnostic and skeptic. I was not about to make any feigned profession of faith just to get myself on the same spiritual page as the woman I loved. On the contrary, I wanted to keep a very sharp and bright line between my feelings for her and my evaluation of the things I was reading in the Bible and hearing from Christians.

I was unaware that serious Christians do not believe in marrying someone who is an unbeliever or is of another faith. However, an acquaintance of Cher's--a "brother in the Lord"-- took her aside and strongly counseled her against, "being unequally yoked together with an unbeliever." She told me later what he'd said to her and she let me know she was not interested in his advice and would marry me anyway. This comforted me and increased my confidence that she loved me as deeply as I loved her. It however made me a bit leery of the rules these Christians felt obligated to follow and often tried to impose on one another. I'd perhaps have to watch my step in the future.

It was one thing to believe some Jesus character walked on water or rose from the dead two-thousand years ago--it was quite another to have some dusty old book dictate your personal life choices. The Ten Commandments were OK, I supposed, on some level, but this "following Jesus" and "living for the Lord" 24/7 was really a bit much. I felt completely and comfortingly convinced I was a basically good and moral person. I didn't need any all-seeing God snooping around my life, looking over my shoulder and second-guessing me about every little thing--especially when it came to things like sex, or smoking or an occasional "hell" or "damn." Those things were my business alone and no one else's. Hey--I would never snatch a purse from an old lady or murder anyone or knock over a 7-11 so give me a break already. God's judgement and repenting and all that is for really evil people like Charles Manson or Richard Nixon or General Westmorland and the like. Surely God must have bigger fish to fry than to monitor a nice twenty-one year old guy who happened to be in love with a seventeen-year-old Jesus girl. After all, it wasn't like I was trying to talk her out of her Christianity--heck, she could stay a Christian forever, it really was irrelevant to me. Let's not mix faith and God with life and romance and personal decisions, I thought. Faith is for church and Sunday service. I could see I would have to keep from letting my feelings for Cher sway me toward making some emotional decision against my better rational intellectual judgement--not to mention against my absolute autonomy and right to run my own life the way I saw fit. Yes, a guard would have to be kept.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 18: Only Half Way Across the River

It was the the fall of 1971 and the family had just come from the hospital where we'd said our last goodbyes to grandma Randall. I was still an atheist/agnostic materialist with a cynical view of all religious claims and a particular hostility toward Christianity. However there was one new complication in my personal world: I was dating--and deeply in love with--a young Christian woman--one of the "Jesus People," an emerging subgroup within the evolving cultural landscape of the late sixties. Her freshly minted faith and my agnosticism made for interesting, and occasionally tense, conversations. We were about to have one of those now. After my hospital visit at my dying grandmother's bedside, she had said to me, "I'm praying for your grandmother, and so are some others at my sister's church--we put her on the prayer list." That was something I was not in the mood to hear and which flew in the face of my coldly rational outlook on things. I got angry with her and spit out suddenly, caustically, "What is it with you Christians? Didn't you hear what the doctor said? The woman is dying. She'd old, her time is up, and she's dying--d-y-i-n-g. Your silly prayers aren't going to do her one damn bit of good. You and your Christian friends can pray all you want; biological reality says that old woman will be dead by this time tomorrow. Damn it, there's nothing to do. Get over it! Face reality--stop pretending your prayers can change the hard facts of this uncaring material world. Damn, just don't give me any more of that crap about God and prayers and all that spiritual mumbo-jumbo! Let's just drop the subject!"

I think I even surprised myself at the emotion behind the words I'd thrown at her. She hadn't done anything to deserve my Mr. Rational mini tirade. As I recall, she didn't argue back, but had simply said, "Well, we'll pray anyway." and left it at that.

The call from the hospital the next day was that our grandma had somehow made it through the night and so had survived for one more day. Her condition however remained unchanged. The following day my dad gave us the news that grandma was somewhat improved. Perhaps this would be one of those long drawn-out deaths that only came after a weeks-long or, God forbid, months-long series of family-fatiguing ups and downs. The day after showed surprisingly good improvement and, to everyone's amazement, grandma was alert and talking. The following day saw grandma walking the halls and telling the nurses about Jesus. The doctors had no explanation. They were as dumbfounded as was the family.

Now the family trooped back to the hospital, this time to visit the same woman we all thought we'd be burying about now. As we had done before, we each took turns sitting by her bedside. When my turn came and I entered her room, I could hardly believe the change in her appearance. Was this really the same old woman who, just four days ago, was at death's doorstep? It didn't seem possible. Yet there she sat, smiling, and her eyes now full of light and life. She seemed anxious to talk to me. "It was all so beautiful," she said with an air of wonderment, as if still seeing something fresh in her mind's eye. "What was beautiful gramma?" I asked. "The rainbow, and the river and, well, just everything--it was all so full of light and the colors--my!--the colors were so vivid. I've never seen anything like it! There were so many more colors than I even knew. The beauty of it all just took my breath away," she said with her eyes closed as if remembering and relishing it afresh in detail. Then her voice took on a different, almost matter-of-fact, down-to-earth seriousness as she reached out, took hold of my hand and said, "He told me I could not stay--that it was not my time--that I wasn't finished yet and would have to go back." "Who told you, gramma?" I asked. "Why Jesus did," she replied and continued, "I wanted to stay with him more than I could say, and I somehow knew he knew it, but he kept saying to me, 'no, you must return, just for a little while' and I didn't want to, but knew I had to because it was not my time yet." She went on, "We were right in the middle of the river. I could see the other side and the hills and beautiful sky and oh, all the colors, but he just turned me around, very gently, and I knew I had to go back to my side of the river. That's the last thing I remember until, until I woke up here--was it yesterday?" "I don't know gramma, maybe, I said. "I just know you were really sick and we didn't think you would make it." I was dazed by what I was hearing from her. I didn't believe it was real in any sense of the word--just something that happens sometimes when people are very sick and on medication and things--but I could not deny the tone of absolute certainty in her voice as she was telling me about what she'd seen. It was clear to me that she had been genuinely deeply moved by the whole experience--or hallucination, or whatever it was.

I had no idea what to make of it all. My girlfriend could have really needled me now about my earlier scoffing at her prayers, but I don't recall her doing so. She probably just said something like, "Praise God--he is so good!" when I told her the news. I wasn't about to admit to anything supernatural having been at play in my grandma's recovery or any prayers having anything to do with it. Yet somewhere inside of me the perfect steel architecture of my starkly rational understanding of the universe creaked and shifted. One key rivet had popped and now the whole taut and steely structure was not quite as snug and inflexible as it had once been. Grandma may have beaten the Grim Reaper, but the Hound of Heaven was still at my heels.

Grandma Randall went on to live a full twelve years more, from 1971 to 1983. During those years she travelled twice to Alaska, bought a house in Chino Hills; did lots more gardening; painted pictures; blended more Green Drinks and taught Sunday school and crafts. As she had done in her previous eighty-six years, grandma always received, with humble gratitude, all the "gracious plenty" God had to give her. She lived a full and blessed ninty-eight years.

Father's Day 1972 Revisited, Part 17: Grandma Randall Crosses Over

Even health food nuts die, eventually. It seemed grandma Randall's time had come. My dad used to drive out to visit and check on her on her little 5-acre place in Romoland, an undeveloped rural area not far from Hemet. There she lived alone, grew all her own food, and played her favorite hymns a little Hammond organ. On one of those visits, dad noticed she was quite jaundiced. He took her to see a doctor who promptly admitted her to the Circle City hospital in Corona for tests. Nothing was found in the first set of tests, so more were scheduled. I should mention that our dad was the administrator of this small private hospital and so grandma got the best of care. Further tests were inconclusive and could not pinpoint a source of her problem. Meanwhile, grandma was going downhill, getting weaker by the day and losing weight rapidly. X-rays were taken to check for anything which may not have been detected by the other tests. Everything looked OK. Nonetheless, grandma condition kept worsening. Finally, for lack of anything to do, it was decided to do exploratory surgery to see if the doctors could find any explanation for her rapidly failing health. Finding nothing they sewed her up and sent her back to her room.

The doctor attending her said our grandma didn't have any disease, cancer had been ruled out, no infection could be found--in fact no medical cause for her worsening condition was apparent. The nurses monitored her vital signs and kept her comfortable. Another week passed by and her condition continued to deteriorate. The day came when the doctor suggested to my dad that the family be called in because, "Your mother's time has come. She is eighty-six and her organs are simply shutting down. Your mother is dying of old age, nothing else. The family should see her this evening--I don't think she'll make it through the night." I went to the hospital accompanied by my girlfriend and soon-to-be fiance', Cher, to say goodbye to my grandma. This was all new to me. I knew next to nothing about dying people or what to do around a dying person. I met the family in the hospital cafeteria where they had gathered. My dad filled us in on what the doctors had said about her condition. There was nothing to be done. She was comfortable, not in pain, but failing fast. It was after nine o'clock. We each ate our chosen comfort food from the cafeteria vending machine and chased it with coffee which was overly strong, being left on the hot plate much too long.

We held our little family meeting there at a round table in the nearly empty cafeteria. It was a small hospital, after visiting hours, and there were only a few others in the cafeteria, mostly hospital staff. As my toddler cousin entertained herself pouring piles of sugar on the tabletop, we each took turns acknowledging the inevitable along with our sadness and agreeing that grandma had had a long and full life. It was decided we would take turns privately saying our goodbyes to grandma in person, one at a time. My turn came and I walked tentatively down the dimly lit hallway, not knowing quite what to expect. What I found was a woman who looked much too small and already dead. Her face looked only vaguely familiar, for her teeth were not in. But more than that, her face looked starkly skeletal, her cheeks and eye sockets sunken to an extreme degree. There were the obligatory tubes and wires and things still dripping and monitoring while doing their own death watch. Besides the occasional soft beep of of her heart monitor, the only other sounds were the rattles and gasps which came at unnervingly long and infrequent intervals. The time between them was so long I would get myself poised to spring out of the institutional bedside chair and go call into the hallway for the nurse. Just when I was about to do this, her chest would heave and noisily draw in another gurgling gulp of air. This happened several times in the few minutes I spent with her and it set my nerves on edge. I didn't say anything to my grandma's form and didn't even know what I could or should or wanted to say. I just kind of did my duty--a nightmarish duty it seemed--by spending those minutes in her room. I felt at a loss for what to even to think about during those minutes. I felt out of place, embarrassed at my own awkwardness. To myself I seemed like an intruder, even as her grandson. I escaped back to the cafeteria in the briefest time decency would allow in order to show I had done a proper farewell and had not just stuck my head in the door of her room. I felt a little guilty for not knowing how to say goodbye to a dying loved one. They hadn't taught us that in vacation Bible school. It being late, and all of us having taken our turns, we hugged one another and each headed home. Someone from the hospital would call in the morning with the news.