Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Sing me to Sleep

As I write these words, my cousin is dying. Earlier today, she underwent surgery meant to save her life, one of many she has endured in a life that has always been threatened by fragile health. The surgery could not save her; my uncle is at her bedside for one final vigil.

Last year, I learned that a high-school friend lost her husband. This past week, she lost one of her ties to him: her mother-in-law passed away.

Two weeks ago, my wife's grandmother died, after years of dementia.

I mourned each of these in different ways. My cousin's has been the hardest, for she is not yet gone, and I weep mostly for the father at her bedside, for I refuse to explore the corridors of the pain he is feeling. They overwhelm me. I can imagine my own death...but to imagine my child's?

I used to have answers for moments like these, and then I learned that there are no answers for grief. I no longer have the confidence of the faith I had in my twenties and thirties. Somewhere along the way, I went from an expectation of life beyond the grave to satisfaction in the life I lead today. I no longer anticipate an afterlife. I wouldn't say I don't believe in one, but I am no longer living for it. I am living for, as I once sang in lyric, "this breath I now steal."

I suppose I'm an agnostic when it comes to the afterlife. If there is one, then that will be lovely. If there isn't...

When I confess these things to my friends in hushed tones they ask if I'm scared about that. I probably will be, but I stumbled upon a perspective the other day, and it's given me peace.

If there is no afterlife, then when I die, I will cease to be. My consciousness will fade to black, and that will be the end. For many, this is terrifying.

And yet I do it every night. Some times, it comes upon me without warning. My eyes close, and I cease to have conscious thought. I rest. I dream. But the me that speaks and thinks and acts is asleep. Between dreams, there is nothing. When I first go to sleep, I welcome that falling sensation into darkness.

And this is why I mourned differently for my wife's grandmother than I do for my cousin. Jenica's grandmother wanted to rest. After 90 years, she decided it was time to sleep. She refused to eat, and waited for the end to come. And when it came, she was listening to her daughter play piano.

But the other deaths cause me pain. They are what terrifies me. The life cut off. To use the language of Ecclesiastes, the golden cord torn. The bowl shattered. It is on nights like this that I am most challenged to see a pattern in a senseless world, where the rain falls on everyone, good and bad.

Since I received the news about my cousin, the lyrics to "Asleep" by the Smiths, as sung by Emily Browning have been running through my head.

Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
I'm tired and I
I want to go to bed

Sing me to sleep
Sing me to sleep
And then leave me alone
Don't try to wake me in the morning
'Cause I will be gone
Don't feel bad for me
I want you to know
Deep in the cell of my heart
I will feel so glad to go 

I do not think these are the words my cousin had in her mind earlier today, before she closed her eyes, waiting to go into surgery. I am certain she wanted many more years. I hope, as the lyrics go, that "There is another world / There is a better world / Well, there must be." But that is only a hope, and not something I have any confidence in anymore. And while those lyrics might have had a darker meaning in the minds of Steven Morrisey and Johnny Marr, I hope they'll be the words in my head when I go into that good night. That I will have lived long enough that I will be ready to close my eyes and go to sleep.

For Andrea.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Why I'm Looking for a Church Again

My wife and I are back in the market for a church. We were attending a big Pentecostal church for about a year and a half, but then I made the mistake of wanting to get involved as a leader of a Bible study. This was a mistake for several reasons.

First, because this church, which kept saying it was about the "things all Christians can agree on," was just as Pentecostal as any PAOC affiliated group I'd experienced previously. I hoped they might be different, because they kept saying they were different. I was dubious about the idea that there is anything all Christians can agree on, but decided to keep my mouth shut, since I really wanted to have a church to attend with my family. But once I indicated I wanted to teach the Bible, something I trained six years of my life for, and then spent another ten actually doing, I was told that I needed to pass through seven fiery hoops which represented the seven-fold Spirit of God in Revelation (okay, that's not really true, but it might as well have been). I would have to become a member, take membership classes, sign a contract, and agree to everything this church believed. Initially, I didn't see that as a problem, until suddenly we went from "things all Christians can agree on" to "things only conservative Charismatics believe." We came to a compromise by which I would co-lead with someone else who was already a member in good standing.

The first study night proved to be the next pitfall, because apparently no one studies the Bible in big churches; you get a leader's guidebook that gives you a bunch of lame discussion starters but never requires that you or your group do anything more than read the passage briefly. You can then talk about whatever the hell you want, just so long as it doesn't involve exegesis or historical context. Too heady. Too weighty. And to top it all off, you get a shiny DVD with some guy you've never met sharing his story of conversion. This wouldn't be so bad, if our study was about conversion, but it wasn't. It was about waiting on God. The Bible passage was (drum roll...it's a Pentecostal church...drum crescendo...) the second chapter of Acts, as the apostles wait on God on the day of Pentecost. This would be infuriating all on its own, given that it's typical of most churches to have a screaming bias to one or two favorite passages, and Pentecostals are exceedingly fond of Acts 2. But I really couldn't be too mad about that, since we really weren't studying the passage anyhow.

So I'm watching the shiny guy from the shiny DVD tell us his conversion story in a study about waiting on God, when he says the following words: "And then something happened, which I can only describe as demonic oppression."

He did not follow up that statement with a lurid tale of fiery pentagrams, bastardized Latin phrases in a Cookie-monster voice, or floating even five inches above his bed. It made me pine for the days of Mike Warnke. In the 1980s, when conversion stories involved demons, they were at least colorful and entertaining. All I could think was, "that was the only way you could describe it?" How about depression, or drugs, or bad gas? How about a deep mood swing, or a shit day? And more to the point, what the hell does any of this have to do with waiting on God?

I waited for him to roll that demonic oppression around to the topic of waiting, but it remained the first speed-bump in the evening's discussion.

The second came when one of the attendees claimed that modern Christians have it harder than the early Christians did, because we have so much awful stuff to deal with. You know, the usual grocery list of things conservative Christians think are destroying the fabric of space and time: porn, gays, gay porn. I wanted to say something about living in a society where stage plays involved massive dildos, or one where women were second-class citizens, or one where you could own slaves, or, say turn Christians into light fixtures using pitch and FIRE, or something about being eaten by lions...but I was simply too stunned to speak.

So I vented to Jenica on the way home about these speed-bumps. When we got home, I took a look at the book we were supposed to read as an accompaniment to our so-called discussion of the Book of Acts. The first chapter was about the writer meeting the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and arguing against same-sex marriage. While this was to be expected, given the source, the way the author talked about countries that allowed for same-sex marriage resulted in the third speed-bump, which was more of a giant-sized pot-hole, like the one that the Alien Tripod rises out of in Spielberg's War of the Worlds. The author said that he didn't want his country to "fall into darkness, as other countries had."


Admittedly, it was the start of Edmonton's descent into darkness, our annual shift into the long night (we live close to Winterfell), when eventually, the sun sets at 5:30 p.m. and rises at something like 7:30 a.m. Physical darkness, yes. Spiritual darkness?

Sorry. No. I love Canada. I love Edmonton. I love that conservative, red-neck Alberta has passed permissive same-sex marriage laws. Even before my paradigm shift towards openly supporting same-sex marriage, I was in favor of the law, because it was just. It was fair. If two hetero people "live in sin," they have civic rights related to common-law marriage, even thought they aren't married. If two same-sex people just live together, they have none of these rights, fornicatin' be damned. What's the sense in that?

At any rate, a line had been crossed. I came out of the closet and admitted that, not only was I not opposed to gay marriage, I supported it. If the church would prefer I desist in being a teacher's helper because of my views, I was cool to step away. I'm not interested in being a shit-disturber anymore. At least, not to the faith community I belong to. It's disruptive and often hurtful. I prefer to live my life and hope others see it as an example.

So we left. Sadly, that was last fall, and we still haven't found what we're looking for, which will be the subject of some upcoming posts, including "What I'm Looking For in a Church and WTF doesn't it exist?" and "OMG! Hip Churches, Hip Pastors, Lame Exegesis of the Third Commandment."