If You Doubt and if You Don’t

If you have unshakable faith and practice it through some form of organized religion, my respect and admiration are yours. If you practice your faith through an organized religion and you find yourself doubting, you have my empathy. If you have neither religion nor faith, I respect your position. What follows in this post is not an indictment for or against any of these convictions. It is an opinion based on my experiences, my many years of life.

Background: I was raised in a family of blended religions; my dad was a non-practicing Jew; my mother, Presbyterian; my maternal grandparents, Protestant; and my paternal grandparents, practicing Jews. Lucky us, I thought of my sister and me. We were in junior high school, when I began to think about such things. We landed in both worlds with variety in each. I liked learning about both Christianity and Judaism. Sometime in high school, I gravitated to both in turn, taking an interest in a local Methodist Church with a fine youth program. I dated boys of different persuasions, including Islam. Eventually, in my middle adult years, I became quite active in the Methodist Church.

To devote many pages to a discussion of my church life would be a nostalgic task, wistful and whimsical, meaningful and time-consuming. The capsulated version will suffice. Participating in choir filled all of me with joy, as if taken for a brief time to Heaven. Founding a church drama group (Acts of GodÒ, in case you wonder) required a commitment and helped me learn to be more patient. Anyway, I hope that’s what my team would say. At first, I wrote, produced, directed, and performed in scripture-related short worship plays. A couple of others expressed interest in the production end, so we developed a loose cooperative. Set design and execution for the short pieces and longer plays for special events were part of the mix.

Other church blessings included co-founding a food pantry, serving on the staff-parish committee, occasionally working in the community garden. It is community that was fulfilling in the sum. Never did I realize this as much as when we left California to start a new cycle in Northern Michigan. Barren is the word that best describes how being apart from my oldest friends and my church life affected me. Something of me was gone, perhaps not to be recovered. Indeed, I searched for another house of worship. I rejoiced when I thought I had found one. The Episcopal priest was a passionate researcher and teacher. Weekly discussions of scripture couched in his depth of knowledge rekindled my love of midrash--from the Hebrew for study, investigation, and the like. Then the pastor left to answer a call. An earnest attempt to continue this engaging group ultimately failed and, again, I felt emptied, my mind and soul bruised.

Connection with other churches did not satisfy, so gradually, I set the search down like a too-heavy suitcase, and began to identify in myself what other means there were to cultivate community. The discovery is incomplete, and yet there are sturdy hooks on solid walls where I can hang my longing awhile and get on with an otherwise full life.

It will not surprise you to hear that in my writing, I have located family and friends and familiar faces. Some are newly minted; others may be built upon abstractions of lifelong relationships. Whether personalities take shape from what I know or from sources that my unconscious mind alone can identify, the people, animals, and places that “come to me” are real and precious. Old people cannot make long-life, life-long friendships; there is not that much time! Young people think a relationship will last forever, to find in short order that it does not. So, Imagination is a place to shop for community, to flesh out the neighborhood contacts, casual friends, and the few intimate bonds that one is blessed to form in the later years. Add to this some volunteering, some hobbies, some exercise, and one achieves a wholeness that becomes spiritual, but not religious.

This brings me to observe, if you stayed with me thus far, that what I suggest as curative for the soul — for isn’t it the soul we are discussing here? --- is a shift in focus. The known and beloved patterns of the past are not displaced by new ones; there is ample room to contain nostalgia in all its forms side by side with new explorations. Make a midrash of yourself. As you begin, pay attention to only two regular practices. You know you can always add more if you fear becoming a slacker. Give these two your sincerest attention:

First, pray gratitude to God. Ah, my atheist friend, not so fast to throw up your hands and stare at the page with disbelief. Pretend you believe in God. Assign God a name you prefer, say McTavish or Hollybracken. Now pretend belief in an all-knowing and infinitely patient divine who will not abandon you no matter how unruly your life and your spirit. This is a variation on the sage advice often given the timorous: act as if you are brave [talented, a Venus or an Adonis, fascinating, or whatever adjective fits]. The difference here is that you are not pretending for anyone but yourself. With your real or pretended belief, say thank you to McTavish or Allah, Jaweh or God for everything you are, feel, think, or think you know. Ask nothing of the divine; only be thankful.

Second, when you are ready, start taking a daily walk with your divine. Spend time in appreciation of everything you see. Everything. Even the Styrofoam food container some thoughtless so-and-so left on your neighbor’s front lawn. See it as an opportunity to be of service; pick it up and dispose of it. (Wash your hands.) Refrain from telling your neighbor that you performed an act of good will. If you find the food container on a busy street, ask yourself the reason it is there. Come up with several possibilities as long as you do not call the perp a twerp or something worse. The key is to find something to appreciate in that discarded container. Of course it’s a goofy idea, at least at first.

Whether you are devout or doubt, wayward or solidly atheist, I will wager you this: If you pretend to believe in and thank the divine, if you appreciate the object least deserving of it, you will be somehow uplifted. You will come to trust the inexplicable, and though you do not understand any of it, you will find in yourself a sense of community. Please don’t ask me to explain. I can’t. Maybe you will. That’s it for now. I am grateful you read this far. Thank you. You are a joy in my day.

July 25, 2020