Friday, June 19, 2009
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.
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.
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.
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!"
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.