Memorial Day 2016, 1:53 AM

“Do not be quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools. Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.”
–Ecclesiastes 7:9-10

“Can you not advance in your concept of God’s dealing with man to that level where you recognize that the watchword of the universe is progress? Through long ages the human race has struggled to reach its present position. Throughout all these millenniums Providence has been working out the plan of progressive evolution. The two thoughts are not opposed in practice, only in man’s mistaken concepts. Divine providence is never arrayed in opposition to true human progress, either temporal or spiritual. Providence is always consistent with the unchanging and perfect nature of the supreme Lawmaker.”
–The Urania Book

A few thoughts that have been on my heart tonight.

Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time mourning, grieving. The loss of a parent is never easy, and as I approach thirty, I feel like I’m also mourning the last vestiges of my youth and hurling into middle age more quickly than I’d like.

As such, I’ve been revisiting a lot of places and memories that I held dear in my childhood. I will also be able to return to these places when need be, but no one can or should live in the past. It isn’t helpful for one’s present state of mind, nor is it wise. In fact, too much dwelling on the past can inspire anger. It can make us begin to question, “Why aren’t things as they were? Why are things so messy now? Why can’t it be simple again?”

But as children of God (and we are all children of God, divine creations of one Great Architect, whether we know it or not), we are not called to glorify the past but to live fully now in the present in hopeful and active expectation of a better future to come. That is God’s promise. That is the supreme reality of the universe man inhabits.

Yes, we will face calamity. Yes, there will be bad times. And yes, the future is uncertain. But faith calls us to recognize that ultimately, all will be made right, that through trusting God to call us into the fullness of our own humanity, all things will be brought under God’s Providence. To recognize that even if the moral arc is long, it bends toward justice, as Dr. King famously wrote.

I see much of this yearning for “simpler” “better” times in the American spirit as well, especially here in the mountains. We want to retreat to a golden age that never was. We want to “bring back jobs” and “make America great again.” But these are empty words, devoid of meaning. They are blatant nonsense.

The challenges we face as individuals and collectively as a species can not be answered by looking to the past. No politician or businessman can save us, and anyone who says that they can is lying. Don’t be fooled. And don’t fool yourself into believing their “tickling of ears.”

The future is uncertain, yes, but it is ultimately in the hands of God. We must each walk our own path and pick each other up when we fall. Our hope lies in the love and compassion we build for one another.

As this election season approaches and heats, I remind both my conservative and liberal friends not to let our differences of political opinion keep us, all of us, from seeing each other as what we truly are: brothers and sisters, children of God.

And I remind myself not to fall into the trap of looking so fondly on the past that I forget that I have a bright future ahead of me.

Love you guys. Peace.

Living Into the Promises of Faith: a Reflection on Death and Resurrection on Easter, 2016

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Crucifix on the altar of All Saints Episcopal Church in Norton, Virginia on Easter Sunday.

As I write, it is now the evening of Easter, 2016. I am holed up in my attic which also serves as my makeshift home office and writing space. It’s been quite awhile since I have written anything that I have felt that I needed to share publicly, and as such, this blog has mostly gone without being updated. It isn’t that there hasn’t been a lot on my mind. Far from it. In fact, the thoughts and emotions I have been dealing with for the past few months extend far deeper than anything I have ever faced in my twenty-nine years, and articulating much of what I’ve been feeling into coherent language has proven a challenge, though not for lack of trying.

 

Let me start off by saying that I have to make a confession. Although I am currently attending seminary, Easter has often been challenging for me. I want so badly for the message of Easter, on which the entirety of the Christian faith hinges, to be true. I want to believe in the empty tomb. I want to believe in angels in white, bearing witness. I want to believe in the reality of Eternal Life. I want to believe in the dead Jewish rabbi who has become the Risen Lord.

Most of the time, like many people, both religious and secular, I have a hard time believing in the literal truth of this claim. In my experience of dealing with death, no matter how much we mourn and grieve and cry out against the loss of those we love, the dead stay dead.

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One of the last photos of taken of my Dad and I together, eight months before he died.

I lost my father unexpectedly in August of 2015. He died just six days after I turned twenty-nine. He was only fifty-seven. As much as I was grieving, and as much as I still am, in the days and weeks that followed my father’s death, I felt a peace beyond anything I had ever felt. It wasn’t an emotionless peace. Far from it, I felt love and joy and sorrow and pity for all of my fellow human beings beyond anything I have ever felt, and yet, at the same time, a serenity of mind overcome me, a feeling that, ultimately, all was well with everything. God’s presence was an ever-present reality that was not only undeniable but self-evident.

It may sound odd to say, but nothing brings out the beauty in life quite like death.

Dad’s death was the most intensely I had ever felt this state of mind, but this wasn’t my first rodeo with the Big Sleep. Death has been a constant, unwanted companion in my life and in my consciousness for the past eight years, ever since my younger cousin, Stephanie, was killed in a car crash. Her father, Dad’s younger brother, followed her in a separate car accident, just over a month after she died. My great-grandmother followed the two of them about a year later. The events of 2008 and 2009 had left me mindful of my own mortality and deeply anxious and fearful about my own impending demise and the eventuality of losing everyone I loved.

My emotions following my Dad’s death were different. I found that I no longer feared death at all. I had faced it at its bloody worst, having watched my own father die of an internal hemorrhage. The thing about hemorrhages is that, at least in my father’s case, the blood didn’t stay internal. Transfusion after transfusion was bled out from the inside, pouring from his mouth and into a tube that poured into a clear bucket behind the hospital bed. I must have watched the nurses carry at least a dozen buckets of blood that had passed through my father’s veins out of the intensive care ward at the veteran’s hospital.

 

In Dad’s final moments, I prayed over his dying body. In his medically induced comatose state, I don’t know if he heard my prayer, but it is my deepest hope that he did. I didn’t beg God to spare my father. I didn’t beg my Dad to stay with me. I prayed instead, to my own father’s Heavenly Father, that it was my will that His will be done, telling my Dad that if he needed to go, he could. That he had given me all the tools I needed to be my own man, with the most important one being faith.
In that moment, I can honestly state that I had no fear of death whatsoever. And as my dad went into cardiac arrest, I remember a still small voice within me saying, “the years between now and when you see your father again will fly by faster than you can imagine, and when you see him again, Rance, you’ll both be young again.”

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My Dad (left) as a young man with his brothers, John (center), who died in 2008 and David.

In that moment, I was living into the promises of my faith, releasing my father’s soul to the care of God and trusting completely in the promise of resurrection and eternal life. Though my soul had never known such sorrow as it did in losing my kind and gentle and unconditionally loving father, the reality of Heaven and the presence of God had never seemed nearer. There are still occurrences that I think back on in the days that followed my Dad’s death that seem to me to be more than coincidence, as if I was receiving messages and winks every day that my Dad was fine and was happy.

Now, though, it is seven months out from that day in the ICU, where my entire world seemed to take on the quality of a Renaissance-era religious painting. Though I am enrolled in seminary studies, and while I pray and attend church regularly, the world doesn’t seem as meaningfully filled with the Spirit of God as it did in the days and weeks after my father’s death. Life is normal again, and I am once again just a normal man facing the same struggles and trials and temptations and doubts that many of us face every single day. Dare I say it, heaven no longer seems so near, and life is once again mundane and routine. Working, paying bills, saving money, keeping up with my studies and trying to balance those responsibilities with my responsibilities to my family and my community take up most of my time.

 

I can even say that over the past couple of months, I have slipped into a mild state of restless depression. Not a sadness, no, the sadness has mostly departed, but an emptiness remains.

When even our sadness in the wake of a death leaves us, it is hard to believe in resurrection. It is hard to believe in eternal life. It is hard to believe in hope.

But I wonder sometimes, what would happen if I started to live as if I did believe in those things? How would I live differently if I believed that a man had risen from death? How would I live differently if I believed in the same unconditionally loving God that my own Dad did? Would I think differently? Would I feel differently?

Since enrolling in seminary, my faith has been tested, many, many times. I often feel, in my heart, that I am “not good enough.” Not good enough to serve. Not good enough to teach. Not kind enough to reach people. Not strong enough to meet people in their darkest moments, to carry the weight of their baggage and my own.

I’m too angry. I’m too bitter. I’m too cynical. I’m too fat. I’m too lustful. I’m too poor. I’m too filled with darkness.

I’m too empty. I’m too much of a sinner.

 

But today, listening to the softly singing voices of older ladies in the choir and eating the Eucharist, drinking the blood of Christ, I decided that I am going to try, God help me, to live into the promise of my faith.

You see, my faith promises me that there is no darkness that is too dark for God to shine His light into, including the darkness of a tomb. There is no sin that is too egregious to cancel out God’s unconditional love. Even as Jesus was crucified, his words cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” There is no doubt that cannot be answered by faith and grace and there is no emptiness that cannot be filled by God’s love and no death that cannot and will not be ultimately overcome by Christ’s resurrection.

People often make the mistake, I think, of trying to “prove” or “disprove” an article of faith, as if faith is about a simple intellectual agreement with a propositional statement. But faith is about much more than that. Its true call reaches into the deepest and darkest corners of our being and unites us with the Being that is beyond all time and space.

Ultimately, faith is about trust. Faith is about hope. Faith is about moving forward when we don’t even know where the destination is, let alone have the route traced on a map. But above all this, faith is about love. It’s about loving the unlovable elements that you find in other people and maybe, most importantly, it’s about letting go of your guilt and your bitterness and your anger and your sadness and seeing and loving yourself and others as God sees you and as God sees them.

With unconditional love and acceptance.

That, to me, is grace. That, to me, is the promise of faith. And that is what Christ in his resurrection offers each of us. The possibility of a better and more compassionate world and the hope of eternal life, lived without fear.

11891148_10155977474210346_7291437913122335138_nAn hour glass, which was going to be my father’s birthday to me.  My step-mother gave it to me the day after he died.  It is surrounded by smaller “egg-timers,” which my Dad bought me as a little boy.  This gift was a great comfort to me in the days after Dad’s death and still serves me as a reminder of his love and the preciousness of life and time.  

A Couple of Passages that Have Struck Me Today from the Hindu Scriptures

Those closest to me (and many of those who aren’t so close to me, thanks to the wonderful advent of social media) know that I am deeply interested in philosophy, religion, theology, and the like.  For most of my life up to this point, that has meant exploring the Christian tradition I was raised in despite the fact that I have believed for years now that all religions contain divine truth.  Now, however, as I approach my twenty-ninth year, I have reached a point where I am no longer trying to hold on to my faith.  What I mean to say is that I have grappled with questions surrounding my own Christian identity throughout most of my twenties and have discovered that faith that must be constantly grasped and clung to isn’t really faith.

This is not to say that I have abandoned Christianity in any sense, but that I feel (notice I did not say “believe”) that whatever those of us who use such language mean when we speak of God or of the Divine cannot be contained within the confines of any one religion or book or, God-help-us, dogma.  Instead, for my part, I have decided that I will let the Spirit blow my intellectual and spiritual curiosity wherever it will.  I now float in my faith rather than grasp at it, to paraphrase the philosopher Alan Watts.

There is a book entitled “The Bible of the World” that has been sitting rather neglected on one of my bookshelves for quite sometime.  It is a considerably old book, at least from my perspective.   It was published in 1939 under the editorial guidance of Robert O. Ballou and contains English translations of many of the world’s major religious texts.  I am currently making my way, albeit more slowly than I’d like, through the section containing a selection of Hindu texts.  While my study of Christian theology and first-hand Christian experience has taught me that a religion is much more than its own revered books, reading through the Hindu scriptures has, over the past few days, filled me with incredible peace.

I’ve found the two following selections particularly beautiful.

“Even in bondage thou shalt live with the virtuous, the erudite, and the truthful; but not for a kingdom shalt thou stay with the wicked and malicious.  The vile are ever prone to detect the faults of others, though they be as small as mustard seeds, and persistently shut their eyes against their own, though they be as large as Vilva fruits.”  This was taken from the Garuda Purana. Obviously, I can’t help but notice the similarity to the words of Jesus in the Book of Matthew when he asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3).  It makes me wonder to what extent Christ and the biblical writers were exposed to the predating Eastern philosophy of the Indian people.  It also begs the question of why is it that if these themes are so well-entrenched into all of the world’s religious traditions that we have such a hard time applying them in our daily lives?   I can’t help but feel a tinge of guilt as I know that the capacity to judge others is definitely within me, even as I often give myself a pass on my own faults, much to my own detriment.
I was also especially struck by this passage in the Vishnu Purana:

It should therefore be the assiduous endeavor of wise men to attain unto God.  He dwelleth eternally in all beings and all things dwell in him; and thence the lord Vasudeva is the creator and preserver of the world.  He, though identical with all beings, is beyond and separate from material nature, from its products, from properties and from imperfections; he is beyond all investing substance; he is universal soul; all the interstices of the universe are filled up by him; he is one with all good qualities; and all created beings are endowed with but a small portion of his individuality.  Assuming various shapes, he bestows benefits on the whole world, which was his work.  Glory, might, dominion, wisdom, energy, power and other attributes are collected in him.  Supreme of the supreme, in whom no imperfections abide, lord over finite and infinite, god in individuals and universals, visible and invisible, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, almighty.  The wisdom, perfect, pure, supreme, undefiled and one only by which he is conceived, contemplated and known:  That is wisdom.  All else is ignorance.”

A final note on this blog update.  I’m in no way claiming to be an expert on comparative religion or anything of the sort.  I am very much a student of these things and have much to learn.  If anyone who considers themselves a member of the Hindu tradition should read this, know that if I have incorrectly made any assumptions, misstatements, or have presented any un-truths about that faith that such things were done out of my own ignorance, not out of any sort of willful maliciousness.  I only wanted to share with my own small readership that which I had learned today.

The Bible of the World, published by Viking Press.

The Bible of the World, published by Viking Press.

Birth and Death

I can conceive of no imaginable purpose for the meaning of man’s seemingly brief existence apart from community.

My, my, my, what mighty big words you have, Rance Garrison.  But I really can’t.  It is for this reason that I have trouble with traditional notions of both religion and irreligion or secularism.  So much of our modern religion, or stance against it, in the United States today comes from a long tradition of individualism.  I am not a believer in individualism to a great extent.  It is through a community, a Communion, to use “Christian” language, I suppose, that man achieves his greatest heights.  Without the community lifting him, challenging him, even at times, fighting against him, man is nothing.  It has been said that no man is an island.  Forget the island, no man is apart from the web of life.  And those who seek to go it completely alone for long never it make it very far.

These thoughts poured into my mind earlier tonight while I reached an almost transcendental state while making love to my (soon to be) wife.  It is ironic that we live in a society that teaches a man to fear the two things that are most readily at his disposal to achieve the ever elusive immortality he so desperately seeks, birth and death.  As younger men, many of us, or at least in my own case, view the approach of fatherhood with an almost dreadful apprehension.  On the one hand, we long for the opportunity to pass on our knowledge, our philosophies, however half baked, and, at a more subconscious animal. level, our genes, onto our offspring.  On the other hand, though, we long to live in a state of perpetual boyhood like billions of grown-up Peter Pans, desiring a life of adventure, swashbuckling, skirt chasing ahead of us on into eternity.  What we fail to realize is that time stands still for no one, and if we pursue that life of constant adventure, danger, non-commitment, and individualistic “freedom” we will find ourselves not as Peter Pans, but more likely, as the sad old man protagonist of the 1977 Pink Floyd song, “Dogs,” in that we will be “just another sad old man, all alone and dying of cancer.”  How strange it is that the number one regret of dying men is that they wished that they hadn’t worked so hard and that they had spent more time with their wives and families.  For as we men age, our work becomes our play, and the pursuit of money, fame, the respect of our fellow men and more importantly, the sexual adoration of many women, the ultimate set of prizes in the cracker jack box. To many men, the thought of being domesticated into the family life might as well be the same thing as being neutered.

As for death, here I must divert from earthly matters and expand a bit upon my (quite often misunderstood) religious views.  See, I call myself a Christian because it is the religious path that I am most comfortable and familiar with and because I feel especially close to the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  When I pray, it is Jesus that I imagine on the other end of the line if you will.  At the same time, I understand that this very personal theistic conception of God is a symbol, not God-in-entirety.  This conception of God which lives in my mind is no closer to being the true “God beyond God” than a single cell in my pinky fingernail is to being me.  But the only way that I can even begin to be in relationship with that which is Infinite is by constructing within my finite mind a finite symbol which can serve as a doorway into the Infinite God.  And while I personally have my reasons for believing that there is some historical basis for the Christ as viewed in much of traditional Christianity, even if it was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, that wouldn’t shatter my faith because I understand that the Infinite God could never be completely bound in anyone symbol or person or book.

And so, believing therefore, as I do, in a God that is Infinite beyond my own comprehension, I also dare to believe that this same Infinite God is Infinitely Loving beyond all comprehension, and that this existence, created as it was through Love, will not perish.  That God truly will call all things unto Godself in due time.   I unapologetically say that in my heart of hearts, I feel that all sentient beings are in the process of growing into a complete union with God.  To be said again, I believe that each of us, as individuals and also as a fully integrated cosmic body of stars, planets, people, cats, spiders, sponges, jellyfish, pine trees, microbes, and atoms, are part of a process that is the universe not only becoming aware of itself but aware of its Source and transcending mere consciousness into a form of superconsciousness, that from our perspective, would indeed be God-like, if not God.  And on the day that this state of perfect love and perfect infinity is reached, the union of God and cosmos will make all things as One.

And so, with the vast and hopeful expanse of eternity ahead of, we understand that death is nothing to fear.  Yes, we may lose a part of our individuality in dying, a statement to which I imagine neither theist nor atheist would disagree, but we gain a greater stake in our community.  Our bodies become food for other creatures and feed the earth with needed nutrients.  And those thoughts, feelings, and experiences that we’ve shared with others live on in their minds and in whatever we’ve managed to leave behind.  If we have children, what we have taught them as well as our biology lives on in them.  As for us, I believe that we begin a process of further spiritual growth in which we grow, like weeds, toward the source of ultimate goal of our lives:  godhood.  But this is a communal thing, because we are all heading there, each and everyone of us, each and every soul, each and every atom, and as long as one single soul is left behind, the journey is not complete.  We will reach the promised land, but when we do, it will be together, growing out of the Ground of all Being, toward an Omega Point. The Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

But if ultimately all are not redeemed and brought home, is there true grace? And that is why I feel in my gut that all will be.

For as long as one individual is allowed to fall, then we have not achieved what I view as the ultimate purpose of man, to live in and through his communion with his fellow sentient beings.

I love my wife.  And no, we’re not having a baby right now.  🙂

 

The Messiah, Ironically

Recently, I recommended the book Christ:  A Crisis in the Life of God by Jack Miles to a friend.  The truth is, I had never read it, but had read the first book in this two part series, God:  A Biography by the same author.   I knew that Christ would at the very least equal Miles’ first book in quality.  Having given the friend the recommendation (this friend was interested in modern biblical scholarship) I decided to give Christ a read for myself.  For those unfamiliar with Miles’ work, Miles studies the Bible quite differently from many theologians who come at it from a pastoral perspective or from biblical scholars who approach the Biblical text historically.  Miles is far more interested in analyzing the Bible as we would any other work or art or literature, from the creative perspective.  The conclusions he comes to in taking on an artistic and literary analysis of the biblical texts would be quite startling to many orthodox believers.  Since I have never claimed to be an orthodox person of faith, I’m not particularly bothered by them.

So far, I’m only about half way through the first chapter, but I am very impressed.  In chapter one, titled “The Messiah, Ironically” Miles explores the many ironies of the New Testament’s account of the life of Jesus Christ.  The chapter headings alone are worth reading and include:  

“He talks, but to himself, of God as illness and remedy.”
“He speaks of a new creation, but privately.”
“He admits, but to a heretic, that he is the Messiah.” 

Of course, each of these headings is followed by an in depth explanation of what is meant, but that isn’t my purpose in writing this tonight.  As some of you reading may recall, my last blog was focused on the issue of Appalachian poverty and why I have decided, at least for the time being, to attempt to stay in the region and make a life for myself and my wife here.  Poverty and economic and social justice are two issues which are frequently on my mind in part due to some of my own financial strain for the time being and also due to the hardships I have seen poverty and lack of resources cause many of those around me.  

Furthermore, we can look globally and see a world where powerful interests seek to bend the human spirit to the profit motive of the invisible hand.  Those who find themselves unable to adapt to these powerful interests are often chewed, swallowed, and vomited out of the belly of a great beast we have deemed “the market,” acting as if this Market is a type of God, an ultimate and transcendent being, that is benevolent, omniscient, and utterly beyond our control.  This Market has become modernity’s Golden Calf, and like all idols, it must one day yield to that which is truly Ultimate.

We see a world where children are born and die in such abject poverty that it baffles the imagination that this can be allowed to go on, and yet at the same time, there is a “captain of industry” who owns a private yacht and five luxury vacation homes.  Some will accuse me of making an emotional argument for wealth redistribution of some kind.  I can only reply, if there is one issue in the world that is worth getting emotional about, isn’t it the suffering of our fellow human beings?

Truth is, I don’t have a solution, I can only look at the world in its current state and conclude that there is something wrong, very, gravely wrong, with a global society that allows this to happen.  We should be rioting in the streets until every child is fed and well nourished, until every homeless person has a home, dare I say it, until every human being has access to health care that doesn’t put them at risk of bankruptcy.  But we don’t, including myself, because we are cowards, and at the core of our being, we feel that maybe, perhaps one day, if we work hard enough we will be the man on the yacht.  The man with the five homes.  The man who has it all.  Because we are hypocrites.  And in the words of Saint Paul the Apostle, “I am chief among sinners.”  So, instead, I sigh, and moan, and write my blog, and post to my twitter feed, and wonder if I am not just perpetuating a system that I claim to despise.  It is so hard for us to trust our own motivations, is it not?  

Perhaps an older, more experienced, more jaded, version of myself will look back on this in ten years and laugh at how foolish and idealistic his younger self was.  Perhaps not.  Only time will tell.  

You might be wondering what in the hell these past few paragraphs have to do at all with a work of religious scholarship by Jack Miles.  “The Messiah, Ironically.”  The Irony of God.  The Weakness of God.  Pretend, even if you don’t believe in God at all, that the traditional Christian belief that God was Incarnate as a poor carpenter from Nazareth in one of the poorest regions of the world in one of western civilization’s most chaotic time periods is true.  

I had an atheist friend who once challenged me and asked why would God reveal himself in such a backward part of the world when he could have revealed himself amongst the more learned Greeks or the more powerful Romans.  Why would God reveal himself to a people who by most accounts had suffered defeat after defeat and who were, according to some secularists, much more backward than the people who surrounded them?  Why would God operate in this way?  

But I cannot fathom God, assuming that God exists, working in any other way.  A God who was truly loving would reveal himself in the poorest of places and give hope to the most downtrodden of his creations.  A God who would reveal himself only to those who were in power, whose ways were the ways that were so responsible for the crushing of the human spirit, would not be God at all, but Satan himself.  And as religion, the political establishment, and the large multinational corporations have grown more and more intwined, it makes you wonder just who they’re serving.

How’s that for irony?  

How I Became a Christian Universalist

I’ve come to a point in my life where I have realized a very deep truth about my own life.

The cynicism, apathy, and lethargy that I picked up and thought was so cool in high school never was, never has been, and never will be.

I’m not sure where it started.  Sometime around the age of fourteen, following me on through the rest of high school, on through the the first not one, but not two, but three failed attempts at college before I finally got my damn act together and decided to go back at the age of twenty-three (four years later, baby, and I’m graduating with B.S. in business administration in three weeks!). I suppose that the twenty-third year was when my cynicism and apathy begin to break.  There was beginning to form in my mind the spark of an idea, that life was actually, really, very important.  This was punctuated by the loss of my younger cousin in a car crash.  She was just sixteen.

I realized that life was short.  That death wasn’t just something that happened to the old.  And as much as I loved this young woman who I considered my spiritual sister (oh, the conversations the two of us had!  She was so wise for her age!), I also realized that this truly meant that none of us are ever, EVER, EVER guaranteed a tomorrow.

I dove into philosophy, finding that I especially loved the work of Plato.  I read books about Buddhism.  I studied world religions.  I stopped moping around over that ex-girlfriend that dumped me and dared to love again.  And I met an old friend again for the first time:  Jesus Christ.  Having been raised southern Baptist in a pretty fundamentalist church, I had gotten pretty sick of the hell-and-brimstone brand of “only us Christians are getting into heaven” brand of Christianity I had grown up with.  It had little appeal for me, as I had obviously realized that there were so many good, beautiful, kindhearted people in the world who simply weren’t Christians, whether they were Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, atheists, Muslims.  Whatever the case, how could an ever-loving god send all of these people who he created to hell?  Something just didn’t add up.

My disgust with Christianity grew even more when a certain preacher preached at my great-grandmother’s funeral and made the entire thing an attempt to guilt-trip the unsaved who might be at the funeral home that night.  “Now, not all of you will get into heaven to see Granny again.”  His exact words, when some of us, myself included, were at our most vulnerable.  I also couldn’t shake the image of a kind hearted but undoubtedly hellhound Hindu grandmother, doing exactly the same sorts of things for her grandchildren that my great-grandmother had done for me and my cousins:  watching over us while our parents worked; cooking us meals; hosting all those holiday dinners and serving as the matriarch of a clan of adoring family.

As the stars aligned in my twenty-third year, I stumbled into the work of liberal Christian theologians such as Matthew Fox, Michael Dowd, John Shelby Spong, Paul Tillich, Karen Armstrong, and others.  At the urging of an older cousin, I began to attend a small Episcopal Church where I met a cool middle aged priest who reminded me of George Harrison and who, unlike the preachers I had known growing up, seemed to be more interested in listening to what I had to say, no matter how unorthodox, than in telling me why I was wrong and why I needed to change my opinions or suffer a terrible eternal fate.

My eyes were opened to a version of Christianity I had never known.  Here was a form of worship whose ancient liturgy was older than even the oldest “Old Time Religion” we had sung about in the Baptist church I grew up and which seemed shrouded in a sacred darkness.  The first time I partook of the Eucharist, I had the epiphany that at this table, all people were equal, regardless of their socio-economic status, an increasingly radical notion.

And here was a God whose very being was, first and foremost, love.  Whose joy over his creation and whose love for ALL of his creation knew no bounds.  Whose grace could heal any spiritual wound even there were no easy answers and whose capacity for aiding the growth of human potential was unperturbed by even the hardest of questions.  This was a God that I could believe in, that I could get excited about, that I could serve by serving my fellow man.  This was a God who I felt represented the best of who we are as human beings while giving us an exalted idea toward which to chart our evolutionary progress as a species.

This was a God who would let both my Granny and that dear little Hindu grandmother of my mind’s eye join in his kingdom, and who would go out of his way to make sure that they were both equally happy there, whose infinite creativity could work through the souls of both women to make sure that they were both at home in his heaven.

And most of all, this was a God who could kill my cynicism dead in its tracks and replace it with a  joy that was only a brief prayer and a moment of meditation away.  A God who could help me through even the toughest of life’s storms by giving me a point upon which to focus, and more importantly, a spiritual awakening that has led me to believe that no matter what happened, has happened or will happen:  I am loved.

We are loved.  Everyone.  And everything.  And when you really stop and stop thinking, and just feel the experience of being truly and completely alive:  you’ll know.  There is nothing.  Nothing.  Nothing to fear.  Ever.  Except for fear, and the cynicism within ourselves and others that drives us to fear and to doubt the existence of the divinity that each of us hold within us and that was especially present in a poor carpenter from Nazareth two thousand years ago.

I know that in writing this pure testimony of my personal faith, the first time I’ve ever completely told the story of how I became a self-described Christian universalist, there will be non-believers who will call my journey illogical, unreasonable, or irrational.  That is fine.  I am also aware that there may be those Christians who will say that my universalist beliefs are heretical to Christian tradition or the Bible or what-have-you.  But I am not claiming to be right.  How arrogant that would be.  I am merely telling my story.  This is where I am.  And this is how I got here.

Whatever your path, may we all meet up a little further on down the road.

On That Whole Refusing Service To Gay People Thing. . . . .

In the aftermath of this whole Arizona bill that would allow refusal of service to homosexuals based on religious grounds, I’m saddened to have seen several people cast this as an issue of “business owner” rights over the course of the past few days.  Carrying this logic to its conclusion is very dangerous.  Hospitals are private businesses.  Should a doctor be allowed to deny life saving care to a gay patient on the basis of “freedom of religion” or “business owner’s rights?”

Truthfully, we shouldn’t even be having this conversation in 2014.  Discrimination is discrimination is discrimination and all of it is wrong.  Period.  And unless you own a business and are also planning to discriminate against anyone who has ever engaged in premarital sex, had an affair, told a lie, stolen something that didn’t belong to them, or hell, done as little as envy another human being or coveted something that didn’t belong to them, then you are just discriminating against people who engage in one particular “sin.”  And according to quite a bit of Christian theology, all human beings have sinned, and therefore all are equal with no right to judge one another.

So rather than laying this at God’s feet, let’s just drop the bullshit and call it what it is:  bigotry.  And no amount of waxing patriotic about the rights of business owners or going on about how you simply cannot condone the lifestyle of someone who is “living in sin” will change that.