Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Variations on a Theme

"I am not a myth." (Marlene Dietrich, actress)

            There is an old saying that all myth and rumour have some basis in fact. From this ambiguous statement, I suppose we should be careful where we place our faith. After all, a myth is a "symbolic narrative," usually of an unknown origin and it is usually based on one form of tradition or another. For appearances alone, myth relates "actual events" and is primarily associated with religious belief. These legends usually revolve around a protagonist and involve issues "with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature." These un-provable tales often act as a "false collective belief" and are used by some groups to "justify a social institution." Plato used myth as "allegory or parable" throughout his writings. Most ancient cultures used myth as a method for the transfer of oral history. I would assume it was always easier to remember grand tales of glory and desperate tales of woe than mundane information.


             Mythology is both the study of myth and the body of those myths "belonging to a particular religious tradition." It is understood that each exists outside of "ordinary human experience." It is interesting how many cultures and civilizations have shared similarities within their myths. Gods, morality tales of good versus evil, this study of the duality of man are all aspects "common within most mythological stories." They tend to have parallels and come from the same "creational force."  Take the Hebrew account of the flood from the book of Genesis and the story of Noah. Many cultures, based in antiquity, from varying regions, share one version or another of this same event. Sumerian, Phoenician, and most notably Babylonian accounts have strikingly close details to the flood myth that is relayed in the Torah and the Bible. Fragments of the Babylonian account from the Epic of Gilgamesh have been found on tablets dating back to around 2,000 BCE. While there are obvious differences between the two versions, many details of the flood account are shared by both narratives.
            In the Babylonian myth, Utnapishtim, a righteous character like the biblical Noah, is instructed to build a ship that will save him from a coming deluge. The flood will overtake all of the land and destroy all of mankind. This divine punishment is the consequence of man's wickedness. Utnapishtim brings "all of his relatives and all species of animals" aboard the vessel in order to save them from the cataclysm. When the downpour stops, he sends birds out over the water to find land. Eventually, the boat settles on the top of a mountain and mankind begins again.
            Whether one culture borrowed from the other culture or not, there is an "obvious relationship" between the two versions. From an evidentiary and historical perspective, there have been "numerous flood stories identified from ancient sources." They are "scattered throughout the world," not only in the areas relevant to the Hebrew and Babylonian civilizations. These varying myths all seem to share a standard version of the occurrence. It is therefore erroneous to assume that fantastic events like the flood have no factual basis. The word 'myth' itself has become synonymous with falsehood and misconception but hidden within, this type of myth has a grain of truth waiting to go to seed. There is a common factor, a subsequent relevance to each origination. Through examination of these base factors, we can distinguish between myths which have evolved from some form of truth and myths which are merely fictional and therefore untrue.

"A myth is far truer than a history, for a history only gives a story of the shadows, whereas a myth gives a story of the substances that cast the shadows."
(Annie Besant, British socialist)

            Most myths tend to serve some purpose. They attempt to relay through story a lesson or application appropriate to the culture from which the myth originated. Other cultures then borrow these tales, twisting them into their own culturally balanced representation. Rather than simply conveying the point, myth is used to carry on each tradition through diligence. For example, "world mythology is full of religious figures who have undergone resurrection." Dionysus is the Ancient Greek god of wine and divine madness, who was eaten by Zeus and then born anew. Odin, the high god of Norse mythology, took his own life to gain knowledge of the dead, then returned "stronger than ever." From Finnish mythology, Lemminkainen is rebuilt after his death by his mother, sewing together all the pieces of him. An ancient epic from the Mahabharata tells how Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu, the Supreme God of Hinduism. Krishna is eventually killed, but because he is a God, "he does not decay and instead ascends to heaven." He is physically resurrected.
            One cannot help but to wonder of any purpose behind parallel stories that existed during, and well before, the legend of the resurrected God called Jesus. If similar incidents to the Gospel accounts exist hundreds, even thousands of years before the written record of "the Christ," what does that reveal about that record? The idea that so many risen and saviour gods exist in overall mythology seems to indicate there is a lesson to be learned. The Judeo-Christian version of Jesus is not the only tale "about god-like characters who worked miracles, conquered death, and were revered by their followers." Christian optimists might argue that God used prophets and shaman as far back as "the foundation of the world" (Luke 11:49-51, NIV) to "prepare the Way," but this does not explain the not-so-unique revelation of so many. One has to therefore question whether it is the similar traits or the differences contained within these myths that we should look to for clarity.

“According to Greek Mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate beings, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”
(The Symposium, Plato c. 385–380 BCE)

            Comparative mythology is "the study of myths from different cultures in an attempt to identify shared themes and characteristics." The 'motif' of a dying/dying-rising god appears in many diverse cultures and mythologies. Numerous examples with variations on this theme predate Christianity.  In Greek mythology, we find Persephone and Adonis. Osiris and Horus are examples from Egyptian mythology. Later, Arabian mythology introduced us to the Phoenix and Akkadian mythology contains the tale of Ishtar. The fate of these protagonists is to eventually die, although the method of death can be rather diverse from culture to culture. Although claiming they would return, most of these "gods" did not resurrect "in a permanent sense as the same deity." Where Christian "mythology" is concerned, millions of followers are still waiting on Jesus to come back and save them from themselves. Entire segments of our modern culture revolve around such notions as the Second Coming and the End of Days. 
            The Egyptian god Osiris was not originally a god, although many of his followers believed he was, at least, "partially divine." Osiris would die and return to life at least twice, eventually becoming the Egyptian god of the afterlife. The cult of Osiris was centered on regeneration and rebirth and had a "particularly strong interest in the concept of immortality." Due to the rise of his cult a "democratization of religion" offered "even his humblest followers the prospect of eternal life, with moral fitness becoming the dominant factor in determining a person's suitability." Throughout the height of Egyptian civilization, "Osiris was the primary deity." His power was second only to his father, the supreme sun god Ra, "the leader of the gods on earth."
            According to the Egyptian calendar, Osiris was born on what would be our December the 25th, sometime in the 4th or 5th dynasty (2494 - 2345 BCE). It would appear that most of the lore surrounding Osiris "was appropriated by the Christian religion." Osiris "chose to become a man to guide his people." He was called 'the Good Shepherd' and he carried a shepherd's crook in most of his depictions. He was referred to as the 'Resurrection and the Life' and "his flesh was eaten in the form of wheaten cakes." His mother was "a virgin who brought forth a son who would be called 'the Savior of the World.'" Osiris himself would restore "order back into the universe." He acted as "the judge of souls," and in addition to the "judging of the heart" it was Osiris who "passes final judgment over the dead."  
            Considered one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt, the sacred city of Abydos was the location of many ancient sacred temples including the Great Osiris Temple. Abydos is one of the oldest cities from ancient Egypt. Osiris' "sufferings, his death and his resurrection were re-enacted each year at Abydos."  The ism of "eternal life and of the resurrection of a glorified or transformed body" was prevalent in the story of the resurrection of Osiris. Despite a horrible death and cruel torture "inflicted by the powers of evil, he rose again" and became the "true way." He was Son of the Almighty and the Savior of mankind.  He became a god. Osiris was "the god through whose sufferings and death the Egyptian hoped that his body might rise again in some transformed or glorified shape, and to him who had conquered death and had become the king of the other world the Egyptian appealed in prayer for eternal life through his victory and power."  
            One cannot help but notice the stark similarities between the myth of the Egyptian god Osiris and the Christian god Jesus. The narratives tend to speak for themselves. On the one hand, Osiris is rejected into history as imagination and art while the latter is considered gospel. One is a fabrication, a creation from superstition and ignorance, while on the other hand, Jesus is revered and worshipped and the Lord of our lives. I suppose had the cult of Osiris caught on in the same manner the Messiah called Jesus did, we would be culturally different but the god we worship would be roughly the same. Unable to truly prove either one of these protagonists ever lived, we are left asking if is there some lesson we can garnish out of all this speculation and mythology.

"For the myth is the foundation of life; it is the timeless schema, the pious formula into which life flows when it reproduces its traits out of the unconscious."
(Thomas Mann, German novelist)

            It seems clear to me. We need a god. We need a saviour. As far back as one can go in recorded history, it appears that we always have. It is what the myth offers us in itself that seems most important. We repeat these myths over and over, each new construct simply a variation of the theme. The setting is different, the names have all changed, but the essence is the same. The motif is always intact as if cemented into our culture, our lore and the way we view this reality. We, apparently, are not always aware of this psychological conditioning. Human beings have primarily lived superficial lives which temporally satisfy us. We are not cognizant of the creational force behind these stories. The similarities are not a coincidence.  They tell us more about the human being then they ever will about the real, true God, if there even is one.
            This is how religious faith works; it is a subjective experience. Two people can believe the exact same doctrine even though the culture in which the story manifests is a thousand years apart. Whether it is false or not is irrelevant, it is still a collective belief. Like with the story of the Great Flood, it doesn't matter what the details might be, it is the standard message conveyed within that is most important. These continuing, and often universal, myths are themselves a truth. There is an obvious relationship among them. Whether it is Romulus, the Roman state god, whose death and resurrection was celebrated in annual plays, or Zalmoxis, the Thracian god, whose death and resurrection assured his followers there was eternal life, or Jesus, the Christian God, who experienced the Passion and baptized followers into eternal life, there have been resurrection/saviour gods since myth began. Myth itself is the purpose, the instigator of faith. It does not have to prove itself. It simply must present itself. History will do the rest. All saviour-gods, all sons of god, they all must undergo their own passion. They all conquer death through resurrection in order to share eternal life with their followers. Each one is based in early human history with no conclusive evidence of their existence.

"The human mind, no matter how highly trained, cannot grasp the universe. We are in the position of a little child, entering a huge library whose walls are covered to the ceiling with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written those books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books, a mysterious order, which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of the human mind, even the greatest and most cultured, toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged, obeying certain laws, but we understand the laws only dimly. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that sways the constellations"
(Glimpses of the Great, George Viereck 1930).







Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How Water Works

"I need you
And you need me
Left alone
We will never be who we could be
So take my hand
And don't forget that
We can do anything

             I will admit that I am not the most demonstrative person on the planet. Public displays of affection make me squirm and prattling on about 'love this' and 'love that' is just not my style. I am a deeply feeling person, don't get me wrong. Over fifteen years with my partner is the proof in the pudding. It is just that I have never been one to place my trust in expressions or terms of endearment. I tend to demonstrate how I feel through my actions rather than bantering on about the depth of my being. Whether through my writing, or my daily living, I am most comfortable in this safe place. I don't like appearing vulnerable or to give my state of mind away. I often feel like a lump of beautiful coal, at least from the outside looking inward. Some might even describe me as a cold and heartless prick. If that is what it takes to keep them away, then so be it.
            I have a secret that few people know. Most would never even have a clue. I can share it from this protected place. The truth is I truly am a happy man. Considering my past and all the pain and suffering I went through, one might imagine any joy I have discovered would come as little ponds rather than a constantly flowing stream. A river runs through me. I have been given a gift. It is not a blessing or a run of luck. I did not earn it nor have I ever done anything to deserve the life I have today. Deep inside me where I breathe is the giveaway. It overflows but does not drown me. It is silent yet it rushes with the pull of a million waves. It is tidal and it is as deep as it is wide. Like any body of water, it all started as just one drop.
            I am no longer defined by the chaos I left behind me. Just take a look at my life and all the love that has been lavished upon me. Every part of me is filled with hope and much joy, even if I hold it all within. All things have been made new. I've been changed.  I've been saved from myself. I may have wealth and I may have my health. I have been loved by many and am hated by few. There is family that I cherish more than anything and family, just like everyone else, that I would rather not discuss. I have had romance that has ended and romance that has lasted. Ultimately, they both have been the greatest of reward. In one way or another, everything I ever wished for, everything I ever tried to gain, I have received fully and then some. I am finally, for once and for all, touched by a Grace I can only identify based on the experiences from my life. It healed my wounds. It gives me resolve. Every spoken need and silent prayer have been answered. It is a Love that is far too great to give me lesser things. Who knew it would end up living in this room and turning a light on somewhere down inside? It gives me a reason that I've never known before. Yes, it was a long wait but now is the right time.   
            While I may not be the best person to convey this experience, I know it started many years ago but I did not understand. I was empty or at least it felt that way. One drip became a trickle and the trickle became a puddle then the puddle filled the body of a once all dried up lake. I am no longer defined by the mud I left behind. I am full but not by volume. The great weight has washed away. I am re-made. I still hear the many voices of regret and defeat. There are all the lies that just won't let me forget. I no longer heed them as I have finally been set free. My cup flows over and I am good to the last drop.

 "Come with me now
Look and see how
There's an ocean
Overflowing with our hope so
Let's jump in
And take a swim
It's you and me


            The best things in life are not things. No matter how much you accumulate from this world, it will never be enough to silence the inner part that whispers out to us. Whether people, relics and material possessions, or even memory, no matter what we surrender to there is always that still small voice, calling out for Love. It can haunt you. The atheist experiences it. The Christian feels it. The Muslim just knows it. It is often a secret thing that we try to hide. In many ways we don't want to share it. If we could we would keep it for ourselves. It is precious like a golden dream. Each night as mortal men dance with darkness, just before they fade to sleep, the vessel may hear it. It reminds us we are more than flesh and bone and feelings. We are more than certain love. We do not know why it stays with us or even how it got there. A great deal of the time, most of us are not even aware of it. It is that one small drop that can become an ocean but you have to have enough faith to jump in and try to swim.
            They say that when an egg is broken by an outer force, life ends. They also say that when an egg is broken by an inner force, life then begins. I had been fighting it far too long. I was holding it all in, thinking that it would make me strong. It's odd that the things we hide inside always come peeking out, looking for Love. A touch of faith the careful may seek, but it's hard to catch forever when you are broken, cold and weak. Although the New Testament tells me it will come after the water (Matthew 3:16-17), I would argue I have been wet all along. It was my special friend when I was a young boy. All my life I had thirsted for even one tiny hint of dew, begging like I was in the desert looking for rescue through condensation. All I needed was one drop.    

"Just one drop of your Love
A single ray of sun
Just one thing to change the world
It's just you and me
Starting with a dream
And giving it all we've got
Only takes one drop"

            You can beg, steal, and pray all you want, one very important step when trying to survive god is to recognize that the kingdom which you look for is within. Every single day of our lives it whispers inside us. You have to pay attention to hear it. It is an endless dripping bead plunging over and over again so you have no choice but to listen. Other voices will try to drag you down, leaving you only with your belief. Without trust, God cannot lavish upon us all that He gives to the seeking. After all, "If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you" (Matthew 17:20, NIV). We are more. We are more than this and more than that. The only thing that matters is the Love. All of the pain and all the disappointment, all of the languishing in this life was the very thing that revealed the presence from which we all have tried to hide. Don't be of little faith. It may not always be beautiful, but it sure is a beautiful ride.
            I had to take a leap of faith. I had to convince myself that God had found faith in me, but I just couldn't be sure. The best thing I could do was not to think, or to look, or to create or even to want. I had to believe everything would work out for the best. I had to trust and in trusting, I had to surrender. With one humble act of faith, I had to let it all go and commit. I had to ask the rain to come. Once I learned the way was faithful, all my pain faded to memory. When all the things I thought inside my head met all the things I've said and done, it is here I found balance, that I found happiness. I had to learn how to activate it from within and abandon all the waiting for something to drip on my head. I finally realized that if you don't have the faith that God is really with you, then you really are all alone. The still small little voice has always been there so you know you can trust it. Take another look at my life. It's not easy to face this world yet still love it. Leave all your cares behind, seek Him and you will find He always loved you so.
            I am not a very demonstrative person.  I don't enjoy sharing how I feel for the entire world to see. I am a private man. I am a somber soul. Occasionally, I just have to let it out. I have to stop leading and just follow. I am compelled to share. I have faith that it is the right thing to do but if anyone asks, we never had this conversation.

"I need you
And you need me
We can do anything
(One Drop, Plumb 2013)







Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tip of the Tongue

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. ” (1 Corinthians 13:1, NIV)

            Most religious people place a great deal of trust in their Holy Scriptures. More fundamentalist sects tend to place a lot more than trust in them. They seem to base their entire lives on the pages of books and texts written two thousand years ago or more. There is nothing wrong with placing your faith in something you deem sent from God, but when those words outweigh the love and compassion you’re supposed to have towards your fellow man, then there is a problem. I often wonder, in some warped way, whether these zealots have turned these “sacred” constructions themselves into a god. A god to whom they bow and pray and worship. They seem more concerned with what their scriptures say than what the legitimate God might think.   
            Sometimes they will fight for it. Sometimes they will kill for it. Some are even willing to die for it. Regardless of their fundamentalist claims, either Christian or Muslim or any other like-minded group, they will always stand by their truth. They claim to follow it completely, of course. They use its certainty as a weapon against those they deem unfit. If they have nothing else, at least they know that every letter of verse should be taken at face value. You cannot deviate from the word of a god.  It is here that books like the Bible or the Quran present a challenge for the literalist believer. Both contain vast volumes of literature almost impossible for an average intelligence to memorize, let alone follow completely. At the end of the day, these followers are forced to pick and choose the parts of these written cornerstones which apply to them. Occasionally, it seems to me that they just make things up along the way.
            Selective literalism becomes a convenient tool for the literal-minded. It allows for a focus on those things which apply to the belief structure of that group while dismissing, in many cases completely ignoring, any part that may contradict or undermine the teachings formed by each unique faction. You don’t have to be a fundamentalist to dissect and discriminate parts of your scriptures based on the appeal or aversion each selection may hold. Most schools of religious thought take what they will from their scriptures, all the while dismissing the rest. The Metropolitan Community Church, based in Toronto Canada, is a diverse and progressive faith community with a primary focus on gay rights and the inclusion of all homosexuals into the Christian family. Conveniently they disregard, or even ignore, key verses from the Bible, found in Leviticus and Romans, which condemn such “impurity” as vile affections (NIV).  
            Like attracts like. With each interpretation or embellishment, varying  denominations evolve, each centred on that version of the truth. Once you have a religious gathering, you need rituals and dogma to really validate your existence. Small alternate views may form within the overall group, but the basics of these highly  compartmentalized teachings tend to spread like wildfire. Jesus may have sat with His apostles for one last supper, but all these years later people still drink and eat from His body, transubstantiated through a form of consecrated cannibalism. He may have suggested we remember Him in such a vivid manner but He failed to inform us of the mystical journey that would occur on our tongue every time we kneel and produce our appendage to consume Him. Most Sunday mornings you can find over a billion people chewing on the Lord and gulping down the blood of Jesus.   

“And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues. ” (Mark 16:17, NIV)  

            I have been exposed to people speaking in tongues since I first entered a Pentecostal Church when I was a teenager. The display has always struck me as quite the spectacle. You can see it almost anytime you want these days. Whether on mainstream television programs like 2014's Big Brother, or in films like 1997's The Apostle,  the Spirit now moves in High Definition. Pick the right religious television station, or walk into the right Church, and you can watch a multitude of frenzied believers pour out the Holy Spirit with unintelligible bliss. Each receptacle of this Divine energy streams a message far too alien to comprehend. It can often seem, if you watch them, and care to listen, that they are possessed by some foreign magic. This is a Holy and special gift granted only to them (and a few million other Christians scattered all around the world). I often imagine the harmony of all those souls crying out, as if some immense chorus of this indwelling rises as a voice of the one true God. In unison, they chant and sing in babble. I want to understand the message contained in this outpouring, but I cannot. I try and I listen, but I cannot identify a single word they are trying to convey. This Holy Ghost, apparently, does not know English. 
            Glossolalia (speaking in tongues) is babbling in a nonexistent language. This repetitive and pseudo-meaningless speech pattern is primarily associated with Christianity and the day of Pentecost, but not exclusively. Other manifestations have been observed in other religious practices including Paganism, “the Voodoo religion of Haiti, ” as well as “in the Hindu Gurus and Fakirs of India.” The experience is usually accompanied by a trance-like state or religious fervour. The body of each carrier tends to dance, moved by the jargon only they get to understand. Possessed by a spirit that was not there before the event, the receptacle is overcome by a “profuse and often emotionally charged speech that mimics coherent speech but is usually unintelligible to the listener and that is uttered in some states of religious ecstasy.”
            Glossolalia should not be confused with Xenoglossy, that is “the putative speaking of a natural language previously unknown to the speaker.” In the Acts of the Apostles, this was the experience the disciples had on the day of Pentecost. Peter, John and the rest of the gang had gathered “all together in one place” when out of nowhere  “a sound like a violent wind blowing came from heaven and filled the entire house where they were sitting”(Acts 2:1b-2, NASB). The reader can assume the Descent of the Holy Spirit occurred here in the Cenacle, better known as the Upper Room, first mentioned in the Gospel of Luke (22:12-13). The event eventually moves to the area of Herod’s Temple, where Judeans and Gentiles from all over the world gather. Thousands of local and foreign traders, merchants and worshippers moved about en masse. A tumult of different languages and different dialects must have risen far above the Holy Place like heat on a summer afternoon. So many voices calling in a muffle of each other, blended together like a banshee rather than one chorus. Each disciple, having been filled with the Holy Spirit, urges the crowd and then “they began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. As they spoke, “a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language (Acts 2:3-6, NASB).
            The crowd was amazed at this wonder and asked, “How is it that each of us hears them in our native language? (Acts 2:8, NIV) Later in Caesarea, a group of people spoke in tongues (Acts 10:46) and “those present compared it to the speaking in tongues that occurred at Pentecost. Throughout 1 Corinthians (12,13,14), Paul discusses speaking in “various kinds of tongues but does not differentiate between our two modern types. We can only assume he refers to the xenoglossy experienced by the Apostles in Jerusalem. He reminds his audience that when speaking in tongues, “What good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? (14:6) He attempts to shed light on his own experiences as well as how this gift from the Holy Spirit should be used in the churches. He notes, “Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air (14:9). For Paul, speaking in tongues is speaking to God, but God is not the only one listening. He compares the manifestation to lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? (14:7)
            Speaking in tongues requires an interpreter. How can anyone receive a message if they do not understand what is being said? So Paul teaches that, when in the church, I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue (14:19). Tongues are then to be a sign, not for those who believe but for those who do not believe (14:22). For Paul, if God is to summon you, you must understand the message; If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? (14:8) In fact, Paul warns what will happen when members of a congregation come together and everyone speaks in tongues. He urges that when “inquirers or unbelievers are present, will they not say that you are out of your mind? (14:23, NIV)
            For more contemporary people of faith, who adhere to the practice of glossolalia , it is considered a sacred language unto itself. Practiced prominently within Pentecostal and Charismatic communities, this fluid vocalizing has been deemed miraculous and a spiritual gift from Jesus. These well-meaning Christians believe their fundamentalist experience with tongues is the same experience described in the New Testament. Nothing could be further from the truth. Selective literalists claim that either form can be real, both the unlearned languages (xenoglossy) and the mysterious babble (glossolalia). They claim the later is the “language of the spirit, a “heavenly language, perhaps even “the language of the angels. This position has no scriptural foundation whatsoever.
Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.
(1 Corinthians 14:10-11, NIV)
             I sat with my mouth open. I did not utter a word. Almost the entire congregation, with few exemptions, prattled on in some state of frenzy, spewing forth words and phrases as if coded messages to one another. Some raised their hands in an apparent bliss while others bounced around like children desperate to find a bathroom. The minister was the loudest of them all, prattling on in a strong but distorted version of a language with which I was most certainly not familiar. I had always believed that speaking in tongues was a tool used by believers to deliver a message straight from God to the masses. I just assumed from the jubilation in the room that this gift had somehow found its way to each one of the people all around me. When the service was over, when the grand display finally ended, I asked the church deacon, the friend who had brought me, what language it was that they were speaking. When he inquired as to my meaning, I thought he would let me in on the joke. He softly touched my shoulder and sincerely expressed his faith in things unseen. “You are blessed, he confirmed to me. “You have been witness to the very voice of God, a gift from the Holy Spirit. I was dumbfounded, quite sure this was not the way I had been instructed in my church that the Spirit would move. I had no idea that God had a speech impediment. “But what does it mean? I inquired. “That is between each person and Jesus, he replied with much conviction.  
            Over the years, I have debated this spiritual issue many times. Most fundamentalist Christians I have challenged refused to admit that the nature of their tongues spoken (glossolalia) is not based in scripture and goes against the very teachings of Paul on the matter. It was often like pulling teeth just to get them to listen. With many, a rage seemed to swell and fester. It appeared to surge from the back of each head. How dare I question an act of God? I am not the only one. Purists ask where in any text such an interpretation finds validity and Cessationists claim “the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, prophetic utterances and faith healing, ceased being practiced early in Christian Church history. For many observers, the fundamentalist practice of glossolalia  is an artificial ritual and not a true rendering of the legitimate manifestation found in the Bible. What then is this experience?
            The truth is hard to hear when the lies sound so good. Just because you believe in something does not automatically make it so. Faith in a ritual or an interpretation is not really Faith. It is illusion. It is a subjective experience and is not real. I suppose if you get to pick and choose what scriptures you use, excluding those which serve you no good, then creating something for your own purposes is not that far of a stretch. I have to wonder, considering this reality, just what the hell all those people are spouting day after day, week after week until heaven? I ask myself, since this form of worship is not a valid scriptural expression, then where is it coming from and just who sent the message? Ten million Christians babbling together doesn't mean that God has spoken.
"Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.
(Proverbs 30:6, NIV)
            It is irrelevant what fundamentalists do with their lives or believe in their minds. Anyone can have faith in something, even if the object of that faith is a figment of their imagination. If they want to howl at the moon, then more power to them. The issue for me is not what they believe but the claim they maintain that every word of the Bible, or other Holy books like the Quran, are true and then they shape each to suit themselves. All the while they babble in the aisles and urge the homosexuals, the liberals and the heathen flee from them with little or no exception. They do this very thing. Everyone who does not follow exactly what the “word of God says are destined for doom and hellfire, but somehow this ruling does not apply to them. The damage such expectations can cause to a searching soul, unable to adhere, is often crippling and even deadly. What options do you have spiritually when you are told God doesn’t want you?
            It is ironic, and seems quite hypocritical (Matthew 6:5), in light of the very non-scriptural glossolalia practiced without evidentiary support. Those who cannot tow the spiritual line that has been created are often excluded, shunned and even abandoned as non-believers. When the words of sacred texts outweigh our responsibility to love one another (John 13:34-35), we have discovered part of the problem with religion, false faith. The Words are the end all and the be all. Everyone else has to follow the rules except those making the rules. They forget that adding to scripture does not only include the addition of words, it can also mean changing words to mean what they do not. Just because you believe in something doesn't mean you won’t fall for anything. It’s like a taste of their own medicine on the tip of their tongues.
“For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19, KJV)



Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Being Human

            Empathy had always been a great challenge for me. I never seemed able to look outside my own little world. I could express compassion towards someone who struggled. I could actually experience that compassion, but I could not find it within me to see things from another person’s point of view. I was unable to walk a mile in their shoes. Quite frankly, I found it almost impossible to imagine someone else’s circumstances from an emotional perspective. I could tell myself I was trying, but the truth is I just never cared. It’s funny how empathy works that way. If you don’t have it, none of that shit matters.

            As I continued to push forward on my (then) Christian journey, I realized that empathy explained the archetype of Jesus. It has been suggested that God, from His Omniscient place above us, needed to relate a wee bit more. Down He came and we know what He went through, but in the end there was no end. He was reunited with Himself in heaven, His empathy defined by the scars He took upon Himself. It’s an argument 2000 years in the breaking. If God was really, actually here, then He truly understands us. He knows what it is like to be human. Christianity taught me this much. This did little to improve my disposition towards others. It almost freed me from any personal responsibility I might have accumulated along the way. After all, if God went through being human, then He must get why I do this and do that. I don’t need forgiveness when I can rely on His understanding. He gets me, so why change at all?
            Change can creep in like carbon dioxide. It is silent and can be clever. I would argue that exposing myself to the spiritual realm shaped me into someone different, whether I wanted it to or not. It was not a quick process, to say the least. I still am being moulded, sculpted by the life that I lead.  There have been times that the chisel dug deep, but I still had such difficulty seeing things through the eyes of another. Perhaps the part of me that wrestled with my own sense of struggle limited me in this regard. I have never really understood why empathy was such a challenge for me to obtain. In the end, I had to be led to a place of understanding. I had to find the connection that would allow me to not only comprehend how someone else was feeling but to also imagine how God was feeling about that person. I figured if I could see things the way God does, or at least try in my limited human form, then I could not only learn to sympathize but could also relate more personally to the idea that each of us is a fellow passenger, simply on a different path, and that life chips away at us all.

“Give me Your eyes for just one second
Give me Your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me Your love for humanity
Give me Your arms for the broken-hearted
The ones that are far beyond my reach
Give me Your heart for the ones forgotten
Give me Your eyes so I can see”

            My Dad always says, “Sometimes God has to knock us down to get us to pay attention.” I had been knocked down and was a broken man as a consequence. I was in deep grief over the death of a loved one and I was searching for anything that might ease my pain. I was greatly burdened with guilt and hungered for relief. I took to study. I read everything I could get my hands on. From religious texts from around the world to academic studies of theology and theistic history, I went searching for God. I vigorously studied the one place I was sure that I could find Him, the only place I had been told I would find Him. The Bible is an intense read. I sped through it as a young man so I knew all the stories. In class, I had analyzed popular verses but I had never once investigated what it really had to say to me. I kept notes, researched my questions and often found myself in disbelief. All alone, still grieving, still searching for a ray of light, I would sit for hours unmoving, hoping and praying God would reveal Himself to me. Doug’s death had left me yearning, but I still just could not see.
            The adage “Coincidence is God pointing a finger” never really rang true to me until I started to listen. I believe this time of heavy burden was necessary for me to learn the most motivating revelation from all of my study. I do not mean to imply in any way that God was responsible for my hardship. Free will took care of that all on its own. I began to pay attention, listening for a voice, for anything to direct me. Faith is letting God lead you whether anyone else recognizes it or not. Faith is following when there is nothing there at all. Blind faith is true faith. It is allowing yourself to be guided without surety. It is trusting regardless of every reason in the world not to trust. It is recognizing when God speaks to you through the things you know.
            During my hibernation, I used to read from “the Good  Book” as another stimulus played on in the background. I still find outer noise stops my inner dialogue from running away with itself when exposed to the ideas and suggestions made within the Bible. On June 2, 1997, I put on CNN, a modern companion piece to an archaic report, and sat down on my couch with the television turned down low. For over an hour I read through the Gospel of Matthew, keeping more notes on my questions and any points on which I wished to return for later study. The Great Judgment began like it always did. My conviction passed before my eyes, scribbles of confirmation. Matthew 25 has always had a profound effect on me. I have felt both condemnation and proclamation from its lessons. As I approached verse 36, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me”(NIV), the news channel broke in with an update regarding the Timothy McVeigh verdict. The Oklahoma Bomber had just been found guilty on 11 counts of his federal indictment. In less than a heartbeat, I finally made the connection. I looked at the verse, then at the TV and I got it, I finally understood what had been asked of me. I was finally able to see.

“I've been there a million times
A couple of million eyes
Just move and pass me by
I swear I never thought that I was wrong
Well I want a second glance
So give me a second chance
To see the way You've seen the people all along”
            When you ask God for a solution, never forget to listen for the answer. Faith is believing you have found it. All the clues, all the signs will point you in the right direction. Often they were hidden in plain sight. Unfortunately for most people, they ask God to lead them to a place, then refuse to go somewhere they just don’t care to go.  Many times God will lead us someplace we don’t want to go. The way I viewed people changed that day. I discovered all I needed along the way. McVeigh was not just a monster, a psycho nut job who murdered all those people, He was a person. There were reasons he turned out the way he did. I asked myself just what he must have experienced throughout his life to make him into such a fiend. The television started playing image after image of the destruction he brought to Oklahoma City that day and I grew angry. I thought back to April 19th 1995, and I remembered the carnage that this “human” brought into all our lives. Then it hit me. Empathy doesn’t excuse a person’s behaviour, empathy allows one to apply compassion regardless of their behaviour. This is how God must see us all. Yes, even Timothy McVeigh. Even him.   
            The idea that I would have to spend eternity with McVeigh, Jeffery Dahmer and even Hitler, was a hard pill to swallow for me, but it was the remedy that I needed. In attempting to see humanity, without exclusion, as worthy of God’s forgiveness and love, I freed myself from my own thinking. God could love even me. I finally came to realize that if I was to be how God wanted me to be, then I need to start looking at people the way God does and not from some tainted mortal perspective. I had to trust, to have faith that God knows what He is doing. In discovering this Divine Grace and Empathy, I realized that God is for all. He is for the hungry and the thirsty. He stands with the stranger. He clothes anyone who is naked. He tends to anyone who is sick. He visits the prisoner. You can find Him there.

“Give me Your eyes for just one second
Give me Your eyes so I can see
Everything that I keep missing
Give me Your love for humanity
Give me Your arms for the broken-hearted
The ones that are far beyond my reach
Give me Your heart for the ones forgotten
Give me Your eyes so I can see”
(Give Me Your Eyes, Brandon Heath 2008)
            On September 4th 2013, I was in a department store when the news broke. In the shop sat dozens of television sets, in all shapes and sizes, glimmering like digital wallpaper set to the very same flame. It mattered little your position on the floor, one could not help but stop to listen when they turned up the volume. Ariel Castro, the Cleveland man who kidnapped and enslaved 3 women for over a decade, had hung himself. From one side of me a woman, I believe she was a clerk at the store, expressed, “Burn in hell!!” I also heard other grumblings from the busy place. “Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” spoke one older gentleman. You could almost see some form of glee in their faces. There was joy in them. I was not surprised at this reaction. When we demonize people, they stop being human. It didn’t matter how valid or justified each reaction was. I could not hide my own, so I said, “What he must have had to experience for him to turn out that way.” Of course, your own compassion rarely meets another’s approval. If looks could kill, I would have been as dead as Mr. Castro.  
“For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2:16-18, NIV)




Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Self-Indulgent Tripe

“There is nothing to writing.
All you do is sit at a typewriter & bleed.”
(Ernest Hemingway, American author)

            If the truth be told, I am often tempted to turn to atheism. The idea that there is no God is not foreign to me, nor is it unappealing. I have considered it many times in the past. The complexities of science, humanism and my faithlessness towards my God seem almost easy in comparison with theology, dogma and most religious people. I have looked outside of theism for the answers, well knowing no one else has them either. Examining other religious traditions has left the same bad taste in my mouth, only taken from a different cup. I find it difficult to understand how human beings can continue to justify their gods as they do. For all our convincing, for the struggle to know, we seem destined as a people to suffer greater in the realm of stupidity.
            It is our inability to understand or to profit from experience that defines us as a society. We do not learn from the past and we constantly repeat it. We claim to have Faith yet war over the one true God. We place “the bottom line” above humanity and the planet. Every day across the world, people pray to Divine Beings that would kill, ravage and threaten complete annihilation in the name of goodness and right. Everything we touch appears to warp, then melt into a puddle of narcissism and self-indulgent tripe.  Billions of well-intentioned people around the world claim to worship one God or another, yet we continue to ignore the very basic truths that the revelation of each deity holds. We seem blind to the true meaning behind words such as compassion, mercy and forgiveness yet have no problem bestowing them upon ourselves. If you pay close enough attention, even Love itself seems absent most of the time. It is not just unavailable, it is deficient.
            A friend of mine pointed out to me the other day that I already was an atheist. He assumed having no formal faith structure left meant that I had abandoned “the realm of make believe” altogether. He is not far from reality. I don’t believe that any of the world’s religious traditions and esoteric concepts fully represent the true nature and quality of God. It is not that they are wrong, I simply doubt, with much certainty, that we are ever able to truly know God while in this mortal coil. We think we know, but I believe that deep inside, we all ponder and question and scream.

“There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”
 (Alfred Lord Tennyson, British poet)

            All kinds of people have Faith in something Holy. Unfortunately, most don’t act on this Faith. They do not follow the tenets of the very religion they claim to serve. I would rather be a man without Faith and help the sick, be kind to others, and live life with a regard for my fellow man than to claim a seat in heaven only to rest on my laurels. I would rather abandon God Himself than allow an institution to validate harm against anyone. Mankind has the propensity for such goodness but seems crippled by its own overwhelming ego and religious imaginations. We all make grand claims for peace and unity but expect others to come to our way of thinking for resolution. We fill the air with such sweet songs that turn bitter with our sting. It is more than enough to convince me that there is nothing else at all without, just me still sitting and collecting the dead.   
            Some claim that I am running away from God. Somehow my thinking, my new definition, no longer falls in line with the status quo. As if I am a lesser man for challenging, confronting and channelling new ideas about God and what He represents in the greater scheme of things.  Each are trapped inside themselves, unable to think, unable to evolve. They are so high and mighty that they have nowhere left to go but down, way down. To have no Faith is like searching and searching only to discover in the end there was nothing to find. I do not suggest that the religions of the world have no great purpose and do not reveal part of the nature behind the Divine. I suggest that each is tainted, spoiled by the very creature they are meant to save. When religion is corrupted, our vision of God is corrupted. Apparently, Faith can be quite blinding.

“No one really runs away from anything. It’s like a private trap that holds us in like a prison. You know what I think? I think that we're all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
(Psycho, Norman Bates 1960)

             The same friend who assumed I was atheist because I no longer professed faith in the Christian God also assumed I had abandoned any desire I once had to proceed with searching for answers on a spiritual level. He was surprised that in light of my experience, I continued to strive to understand God based on any Faith, particularly the Judeo-Christian platform.  I have explained over and over to him that lack of evidence does not negate existence. Just because a room is dark does not mean it is empty. I have attempted to make him understand that, on occasion, even the most intangible idea has great substance. Just because we can’t see or touch something does not mean it isn’t there. He occasionally mocks me for my blind faith. He just doesn’t understand. “Am I in or am I out?” he pleads for clarity. I often refer him to the story I have shared many times in  the past. I digress but for a paragraph. 
            Once upon a time, (I usually begin), men of God headed into the far north to evangelize the aboriginal communities. They were unenlightened and they did not know. Branding weapons of salvation against these heathens, each missionary struck out to save as many souls as possible. With translators, the Bible and Jesus at their side, they went forth with vigour and the Grace of God. Their great commission was bent on revealing the truth of Jesus Christ to every last ignorant one of them. Entire villages were saved from themselves and their falsehoods. Ancient cultures that had been preserved for hundreds of years were infected with the truth that only Jesus is the way to heaven. One shaman, secure in his own philosophies, seemed to question everything that these strangers had to say. He did not know. He would listen carefully, through a translator, then a completely new set of questions would spew from his toothless mouth. He dared to question the authority of a scripture of which he knew nothing. In frustration, one priest played the nastiest card in the deck. Hell has always been trump when heaven just won’t do. When the dangling had concluded and the brimstone was put away, the old man once again sought understanding amidst this chaos. He asked in his own tongue, “If you had not come here, if you had not revealed your God and sin to me, would I still go to this hell?” The priest, bewildered by the man and his inquiry, answered, “If you did not know, then you are not accountable.” Without hesitation, the witch doctor replied in proper English, “Then why in the hell did you tell me?”   

“Why are you scared to dream of god when it’s salvation that you want?”
(Conor Oberst, American singer-songwriter)

            I am a man without a Faith. I no longer believe the way I used to believe. I have witnessed, and experienced, the damage that a manmade god can do. I wish I had never listened to what I am supposed to believe, who I am required to worship. There was no screaming in my head before I was told the only Way. I find the irony almost more than I can stand. I am supposed to believe that by accepting Jesus, I will be saved from Jesus. No devil can cast me into hellfire. I am to rely on salvation from the very thing that might condemn me. There is much to this paradox. To threaten punishment unless one believes seems to me more like something Hitler or Stalin would do than a loving,  benevolent Creator of the universe. The missionary position has always been to save the sinner. In light of my conversion away, I wonder what we really need saving from?  

“The paradox is really the pathos of intellectual life and just as only great souls are exposed to passions it is only the great thinker who is exposed to what I call paradoxes, which are nothing else than grandiose thoughts in embryo.”
(Soren Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher)

            I have experimented with the idea of abandoning it all and becoming an atheist. I have even left my obligation to Christ behind me. While I may no longer have a Faith to live by, I still have much faith. I am certain that everything will be okay in the long run. I have tried to turn off the voice inside my head but it still calls to me, urging me to keep on going, to keep trying, to attempt to understand. I can withdraw from Christian thinking, turn away from a systematic process like organized religion, but I cannot find it within myself to deny the existence of something out in the void, greater than myself. I may be laden with questions that have no answers, but I find it impossible to stop asking them. I want so much to believe despite having a Faith no more.
“A man can no more diminish God's glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word 'darkness’ on the walls of his cell.”  
(C S Lewis, Irish novelist)




Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Baa Baa Black Sheep


            Since the onset of textiles, black sheep were not the kind of sheep you wanted in your flock. Baa baa black sheep, we don’t want your wool. Black wool is almost worthless commercially because it cannot be dyed. It is difficult to sell. Even one strand of it can spoil the entire shear. It is no wonder that in antiquity, any sheep that happened to be black were a liability to the owner. Shepherds would remove each one from their flock to restrict inbreeding with white sheep and tainting the purity of the lot. The term “black sheep” evolved from a practical solution for an age-old problem. Along the way, the meaning shifted from simple differences in appearance to the state of one’s character.
            To be the black sheep is usually a negative connotation, one that is synonymous with moral deficiency and lapses in judgment. The black sheep tends to be rebuked and ostracized by their family, friends, people at work, even church members. Any person who is regarded as a disgrace or failure by that family, peer group or faith institution is considered a black sheep. Any member of any group that stands in contrast to the other members of those groups, usually by reason of undesirable character, is a black sheep. It just goes without saying that the group gets to define these unsuitable traits. There is always a black sheep to every flock. No one can be bothered to take their coat either.
            To be a black sheep does not always infer blackballing. It can refer to being special yet still different from the rest of us. Again, this will always depend on exactly who you are talking to and their own view of the person in question. You can choose to be the black sheep. Every rebel, each revolution found movement by breaking away from the norm. Some people take great effort in resisting. They try so hard to be different, so much so that being different becomes who they are. The modern age of information has set upon us all kinds of black sheep. From the Neo-Nazi ex-con calling for the rise of the Fifth Reich to the homosexual teenager who blogs about being bullied at school, it seems that being a black sheep is so much more in fashion these days. Being different gets you noticed and that appears to be all that matters.
            Psychologists now refer to the behaviour of not wanting someone to be part of a group or institution as the "Black Sheep Effect." This tendency to ostracize people that are undesirable is so prevalent the term itself has become the norm. I suppose that in some sense the world would be very different from what it is today had there been no black sheep. Throughout human history, it has been the dreamers, the great thinkers and even the rejects who have shaped our civilization, our culture. Without them and their cause, there would have been no effect.
            One of the greatest challenges in life is to be yourself. For some, it can seem so easy. For others, it is most difficult. This reality we exist within does its very best to ensure we are all like everyone else. Harmony really means conformity. To stand apart, to maintain your fortitude in the face of compliancy, these are not negative traits cast upon the outcast. To think for yourself, to challenge the status quo, to be unique among the obligingness of your fellow men, despite all the consequences, this is integrity. If nothing else, history has taught us to “be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind” (Dr. Seuss).

“He who places self-merit in goods, acknowledges and believes that all good is from himself; because in the goods he does he has regard to himself, and not to the Lord, and accordingly demands recompense on account of his merit. Such a one therefore despises others in comparison with himself, and even condemns them, and consequently in the same proportion recedes from heavenly order, that is, from good and truth.” (Arcana Caelestia, Emanuel Swedenborg c.1749-56)

            I always felt like a black sheep growing up. Sometimes I still feel this way. When I was young, the term was more of a social label that I placed upon myself because I did not always fit in. It wasn’t that I didn’t have my friends, or a place in the scheme of it all. I was different from other kids. I did not always play well with others. I never understood what my peers where thinking, or why they behaved the way they did. I was often angry. I was introspective, sensitive and felt isolated within my own little world. I preferred sitting with my comic books or playing with my action figures far more than street hockey in the parking lot or checking out girls at the swimming pool. I did those things but they held little interest for me. Books interested me. Adventure interested me. Thinking was my forte and everyone constantly talking seemed only to distract me. This occasionally gave way to resentment. I was a black sheep to a few of my extended family members as well. Telling your Grandmother to fuck off usually results in that sort of label.  I rarely ever bit my tongue or edited what I had to say. With the exception of my parents and a few siblings, I literally felt like I was very much alone.  
            For the most part, I was quite well liked within my immediate family. I got along with most, that is until I stopped being heterosexual. My internal dialogue, while in the closet, coupled with any fragmented rage I brought with me from my childhood, turned me into a force to be reckoned with. I grew up tough, strong and completely resilient. No one dared to say a thing to my face for fear of what I may say or do. I like it this way. Behind my back is a different story. Relatives I had been extremely close with allowed the idea of my homosexuality to dictate their contact. Some even allowed others to use my sexual orientation as a means of demanding they not have anything to do with me. Over and over again, there always seemed to be a reason people stopped calling or neglected any relationship I had built with them. People I had known almost my entire life walked away from me because of what I did under the covers. People can blame someone else for their decisions all they want, but only the individual has the power to stand up for what is right. The times may have changed, being gay may be in fashion and much more accepted, but the bigot never is. Coming out was an expensive decision on my part, despite no longer having to worry about the cost.

“What if my greatest disappointments
Or the aching of this life
Is the revealing of a greater thirst
This world can't satisfy
What if trials of this life
The rain, the storms, the hardest nights
Are your mercies in disguise?”
(Blessings, Laura Story 2011)

            The summer after my Mother died found me travelling with my Dad and my sister’s family up to Hanover, Ontario to see the remaining members of my maternal bloodline. I had always felt welcome when I visited these people in the past. As I stood discussing my charity work with my Great-Aunt Doreen, she noticed the wedding ring on my wedding finger. It was her inquiry that led me to reveal myself to her. In due course, she proceeded to ask why I had made such an immoral lifestyle choice. Not wanting to offend in return, I quietly said that I had not made such a choice. I had been this way all along. This was not the first or the last time I would be sentenced to hell by someone who had been given the authority to speak for their god. According to her, I was consciously choosing to dance in the flames. When we left, all pleasantries were bestowed upon me. I forwarded a list of family members and their bios to my Uncle Chuck for his Family Tree project as he had requested. We saw my Aunt Fran and my Aunt Vi and we visited the rest in the cemetery. Not one of them condemned me for my good looks.
            During the heat wave of July 2013, my Aunt Vi passed away at the age of 91. I have such fond memories of her shop full of treasures and of her rather brash use of the English language. I liked her very much. We sat halfway back from the coffin and portable pulpit, attempting not to presume anything. As people came and went, I noticed it was not like it used to be. Occasionally, someone would recognize my father or my sister, but I sat convinced I had chosen a good spot to avoid such meetings. At times, I forced myself into someone’s space but only to honour my Mother and what I know she would have wanted from me on this day. As the services ended, the room emptied out rather quickly considering the average age of those attending. I turned around and noticed her, dressed all in black and standing alone. No one had bothered with her. Not one person had thanked her for coming. It was as if she wasn’t there at all.
            My second cousin Faith and I hit it off almost immediately when we first met back in the 1980s. Her mother Elsye was my Mother’s favourite aunt and a delight for me. A few correspondences and the occasional visits only cemented my appreciation of both these ladies. Distance and time may have restricted any real closeness, but I have always thought highly of both. When Elsye passed away, her death left a large gaping hole in any reason I had to enjoy my visits to this central Ontario town. Over the years, my Mom told me horror stories of how neglected and rejected Faith was at the hands of my Christian relatives. Her appearance, the way she lived her life, gave them all plenty of reasons to shun her. Not being involved on a daily basis, I really had no grasp on just how cruel and uncaring these pious and ‘just’ followers of Jesus seemed to be towards certain members of their own flock. Having experienced my aunt Doreen a few years before, I should have known better. Still, I never felt sorry for Faith. She was better off without them. Certainly, I feel anger over the way she has been treated over the years, but I am not surprised. Regardless, you could assume from her demeanour and all the empty space about her that she was unwanted, even at a funeral.
            I could sense my Mother pushing me, begging me to notice who she was. I could almost feel her shove me from behind. It was a message I could not ignore. It had been twenty years but I knew it had to be her. She is the one person that no one else had really spoken to. She was pretty and looked younger than one might have expected after living in Hanover her entire life. We connected, we exchanged info, and I left with my family and headed straight home. I caught a glimpse of her walking away from the memorial. Her black dress, matching hat and pumps seemed  apropos. 

“If you had not suffered as you have, there would be no depth to you,
no humility, no compassion. ” (Eckhart Tolle, German author)

            Most of the people that I know who are considered “black sheep” are more successful, have greater internal fortitude, and are much more together than the rest of their flock. Having been ignored, shunned and rejected all your life tends to make you either a strong person or a dead person. For those who refuse to surrender, it is often a lonely path. The isolation can hurt but black sheep always seem to bounce right back. They have been stepped on and devalued so much that words no longer hold power over them. What others think of you becomes a moot point. You realize very young that most people are not going to be there for you so you learn how to deal with things all on your own. The truth is the only person you will ever truly be able to count on 100% is you. To survive, you must have faith in yourself.
            When it comes right down to it, you have to decide if you are the one with the problem or those condemning you are the ones with the problem. Perhaps all who have rejected you are themselves black sheep and your coat has been snow white all along. We have to remember that it is not always a bad thing to be excluded or left out. Being the black sheep may give someone permission not to associate with you, but this can be a helpful instrument in disguising your own disinterest in them. You never know what may be a blessing in disguise. People forget black wool is just as warm as any fashionable white fleece and it’s affordable to boot. Convince yourself, then you can forget about everyone else. There are no walls, no barriers, no restrictions on your forward motion unless you place them there yourself. Leave all that to the haters. Let them be your greatest teachers. Let them test your compassion, strength and most of all your faith in  yourself. These things shall not kill you.
            Religion infers the idea we cannot handle the trails of life without God. We should depend on Him, rely on Him and make His will our will as well. We are told that without God we can never do anything on our own. The truth is, God wants you to be able to handle this life, with or without Him. The lessons you take from living are supposed to give you the ability to stand on your own two feet. He wants us running through a meadow, not grazing on life like a sheep in a pasture would.  When left alone, when cast out from others, you are in a process. God has not abandoned you, He is training you, shaping you, believing in you.

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.  Then Jesus told them this parable:  Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.” I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:1-7, NIV)

            You cannot truly believe in God until you believe in yourself. You must have faith in who you are, before anyone else can believe in you. It is easier to have self-assurance and confidence when life has been easy. When you are number one, when you are a winner, you don’t really need God, at least not in the conventional ways. God wants us to “come” to Him, not because we need His help or we fear Him or want something from Him. God wants you to trust Him because you realize that you never have to go through anything on your own. That is what Faith is for. He is with us as comfort, not assurance. Life is hard and believing in yourself is a necessary tool for surviving it. It sucks, but while we exist in this reality, we really are on our own. The Christian tradition teaches us that God understands this isolation because He was here. We tend to forget that Jesus himself was a black sheep.