Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Seig Heil

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind." (James 1:2-7, NIV)
             To my mind, grade three at Fenside Public School in Toronto was pretty much like grade two and grade four. It's not that I cannot recall any special times I had in my classes throughout the fall of 1973 to the start of summer 1974. There are far more positive experiences that I can remember than negative. I am not surprised, however, that the strongest memory I have of that school year occasionally plays over in my mind like almost any disco song from the 1970s. I recognize it then I cringe. I try to block it out but it seems endless like some reckless form of torture. I have flashes of Adolf Hitler and the library and the first time I discovered how much I like to write. The experience reveals to me just how spiritually alone I felt in this world. I had my family and friends, but it is through this misadventure that I ascertained God doesn't answer the prayers of bad little boys. Just before I turned eight years old, I was suddenly isolated and convinced I was doomed to hell for my ignorant behaviour.  
"Do you wonder why you have to
Feel the things that hurt you
If there's a God who loves you
Where is He now?
Maybe, there are things you can't see
And all those things are happening
To bring a better ending
Some day, some how
You'll see, you'll see"
(Before the Morning, Josh Wilson 2010)
             The assignment was a simple one. The class was instructed to head off to our school's book depository and create a fifty to one hundred word biography on any person from history. With only one afternoon to complete the deed, we were all herded into the library like lambs led into a slaughter. Unfortunately for me, superheroes and fantasy figures were not allowed with this assignment. The person on which we based the paper had to have existed in this reality and must have left a lasting mark on mankind and/or history. We could document anyone, without bias on their place in time or their gender. We were required to include basic facts about the person like birth information and physical appearance. With little else to go on, we had to outline how and why each choice made a difference in the past. No one even once said that that difference had to be a positive one. Our teacher, Mrs. Gizler, never drew a moral distinction.
             With no Spider-man or Green Lantern to rely on, I found myself in the biographical history section, vapidly searching for a person of interest. I saw books on Gandhi and Churchill. There were volumes on George Washington and John A. MacDonald (the first Canadian Prime Minister) but I quickly realized I felt no draw towards these great men and their story. There was so much to history, and so much to the people who defined it, that I became somewhat lost in the presence of them all. To be frank, I had never really paid attention to such things as historical figures. I was only eight years old. With the exemption of Jesus, the greatest men I knew were my Dad and Stan Lee. I am sure that the point of the essay was to not only introduce us to some of these extraordinary men and women but to inspire us enough to write about them. 
            I had heard of the villainous Adolf Hitler both on television and in movies. Looney Tunes and Walt Disney had mocked him and introduced me to his name. I always knew he was a villain. It was the comic books about Captain America during World War II that really cemented him as an evil and treacherous monster to me. Of course, you can't read every comic and these representations of Hitler contained little definition or detail. I was, at least, familiar with the man. I grabbed a copy of a few books and settled down to the hurdle before me. There was an awful lot of information so I piled on the Encyclopaedia Britannia to clarify things and make my approach easier. It was that damned volume H that changed everything for me. Reading on and on I experienced an epiphany, you could say. I had never understood something so clearly. I had never taken the time. Page after page, note taking all the while, I quickly realized exactly why people think of Hitler as they do.
            I had written before and I had read books before but I had never actually used the two together, to help prove what I think, at least not on paper. I had penned much from an early age, but suddenly I had found expression in it. It took some time to complete but I threw myself into my masterpiece. I remember succinctly the feeling of something overtaking me and the words flowing into my hand, carried out onto paper by my spirit and blue ink. I still experience this every time I create with words. The bridge I crossed that day has always stayed with me, no matter the path that might have tried to take me away. When the lesson neared completion and we were about to be set free, I put my papers on my desk with my books and turned to my friends as they chatted amongst themselves.  
            My pal Michael Kosloski had finished long before me and seemed happy to have someone to hang with as the end of our afternoon approached. It was innocent enough when he asked who I had chosen for my project. When I told him, he appeared shocked at my decision. Rather than fighting him on it, I started to tell him all about Hitler, about the death camps and about how he shot himself in the head at the end of WWII. I opened books so he could see for himself and eventually stood to demonstrate the Nazi pose. With my right hand I saluted and with my left hand I made a finger moustache, then proceeded to march about the aisle like a good Nazi solider would. At first, I thought some had died in the library, but this fury quickly found my place.
            Mrs. Gizler took me by the arm, clutched my assignment, and pulled me straight into the principal's office. It didn't matter the reason I had done what I had done. It was of little consequence to justice if I was simply demonstrating my points. My Jewish classmates cared little what had prompted this scene. The principal had even less encouraging words. I was given an automatic F on the paper, without them even reading it. They sent me home early and requested I stay there at least for a day. When my Mom arrived to pick me up, I feared for their safety. She had watched me imitate characters like Flip Wilson's Geraldine and re-enact comic book heroes like the Hulk since I was a smaller child. The first thing she did was read my essay.  
 "These are the places I was so sure I'd find Him
I looked in the pages and I looked down on my knees
I lifted my eyes in expectation
To see the sun still refusing to shine
But sometimes He comes in the clouds
Sometimes His face cannot be found
Sometimes the sky is dark and gray
But some things can only be known
And sometimes are faith can only grow
When we can't see
So sometimes He comes in the clouds"
(Sometimes He Comes in the Clouds, Stephen Curtis Chapman, 1995)
             My spirituality formed early. By the time I was five years old, I grew more and more curious about God, Jesus and the idea that He (They) punished us for our sins. Thanks to Christianity, and my maternal Grandmother, for all my yearning to know more, I feared God more than I embraced Him. It was bad enough you had to face indictments here on this planet but the spectre of eternal punishment loomed over me like a halo pulled from a dung heap. Although this event may not have been so dramatic to another student, for me I was crushed and defeated. The energy I had discovered that afternoon through writing was smothered by some 1970s version of political correctness. My Mother tried all she could to make them reverse their decision but it was to no avail. The F given would stand and the suspension would as well.
            Despite arriving home early for a change, regardless of all the extra TV shows I could watch in almost two days, I found no resolve. I fled to my room feeling evil and unrighteous and hated by my classmates, teachers, and even God. I didn't understand how He could let something so traumatic occur when I had done nothing wrong. My Mom had argued that if I had been demonstrating how to saw off another student's limb they might have had a point (so to speak). I felt condemned not so much by the charges but that God had found something to punish me for. I was condemned and found guilty in spite of my innocence. I cried out in silent prayer, occasionally spurting a violent mix of choking and tears. I was devastated despite all concern and support I was given by my family. I swore that I would never write anything again. 
            I wasn't just embarrassed. I wasn't just humiliated. I was incarcerated. It had been made very clear to me at this time of my life that bad things happen to people because God is punishing us for doing those very things. My Mother felt I did nothing wrong. My Dad didn't say an unkind word. I got tossed in the clink and it was God who held the key. No matter how I asked Him to help me, there was no answer. It was clear to me that there was just no one there. He seemed to be hiding and was nowhere to be found.
            When I returned to school, there was no fanfare. The other students couldn't have cared less what had happened. Most of my friends I had met up with the night before to play Blind Man's Bluff, and the only mention of the situation was in congratulations for getting a day off school. I was surprised when not even Mrs. Gizler acknowledged the problem. At the end of my first day back, they all had forgotten. I suppose it was my Mother's cursing them that might have silenced any residual mention. Still, that great big black F on my paper stared out at me every time I opened its hiding place. My comic book collection was the safest place that could mask my shame. Whether God had tried to silence me or not, I failed to follow through on my threat. I started keeping journals, writing short stories and I successfully dipped my fingers into poetry and prose. I took creative writing classes before high school and continue to hone my craft. That one little story that had done so much damage was my saviour in the worst of times. It inspired me to write, to create, to use the words that met me like a soft wind then to raging storm. They revealed the power that words can have. I am humble about my gifts and do not wish to come across conceited, but I have excelled in the art. It has been my livelihood and my luxury. From that one small moment of clarity has come my salvation and my direction. Writing has become a part of me.
            I have never forgotten the distance that night brought between God and I. I have never forgotten the lesson which has been revealed to me in hindsight. I would not be the person I am now had this event not occurred. I may be the same body, but my life would have followed an entirely different path. Faith is following even when you have nothing to follow. These words in themselves would never have come to be. When I was in the situation as a child, I thought God had abandoned me because of my actions. Little did I realize His silence was my catalyst.
"Sometimes all we have to hold on to
Is what we know is true of who You are
So when the heartache hits like a hurricane
That could never change who You are
And we trust in who You are
Even if the healing doesn't come
And life falls apart
And dreams are still undone
You are God You are good
Forever faithful One
Even if the healing
Even if the healing doesn't come"
(Even If, Kutless 2013)