Saturday, September 19, 2009

When My Mom Died

My mom was raised in South Carolina in a strong Southern Baptist tradition. My dad grew up in Finland with a father who was a Lutheran minister that traveled the world starting Finnish speaking churches. I grew up with a mixture of these traditions and in high school decided that I wanted to be a minister.

At eighteen, I went to college as a religious studies major. Although my focus was Christianity, studying the bible and learning Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament), I also studied other regions and belief systems. When I was nineteen, I wondered into an Assemblies of God Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts that totally changed my concept of worship.

Led by God
Rather than sitting in pews in an audience configuration, chairs were arranged circularly so we all looked at each. The service seemed to evolve without any clear leader. One person would start singing and everyone else would join in with beautiful harmonies. It would get quiet and another person would read something from the bible. People would pray. Some spoke in "tongues", which to me sounded like accented gibberish or a pseudo foreign language. Others would interpret what had been spoken. It felt as though the spirit of God were leading the service.

At one point, the pastor stood up and delivered a sermon. We closed with some more singing and prayer. And then, two and half hours later, we were done.

I fell in love with the experience. It felt fresh and pure to me. I deeply involved myself in the church working in street ministries, playing music, helping people in need, and studying the bible. It's still one of the most memorable periods of my life.

Spirit in a Bottle
Over time, members of the church started thinking of ways to capture the wonderful experience that we had during worship, taking what had been totally impromptu and spirit-led, and routinizing it. Slowly services evolved to something more organized and formal. The worship changed, and so did the people.

Out of this loose affiliation of like-minded people emerged a hierarchical organization replete with politics and power struggles. There was a subtle yet pervasive shift in motivation from simply worshiping and serving God to doing things because they were "right" or "good" or "just" or "correct".

Tipping Point
Years later, I ended up as the church's music director. While meeting with the pastor one day, he brought up the fact that several of the choir members smoked cigarettes and that they were setting a "bad" example that he didn't want to endorse. He told me to ask them to either quit smoking or to leave the choir.

I was dumbfounded, but not speechless.

I mentioned to the pastor that I saw no prohibitions against smoking in the bible. I pointed out that there were, however, prohibitions against gluttony and that several of the people in the choir were fat (the pastor's wife being one of them). So, if we are going to set a good example from a biblical perspective, we should ask all the fat people in the choir to either lose weight or leave the choir. It seemed the logical conclusion.

The pastor withdrew his request and then the next Sunday during his sermon brought up the fact that there were members of the congregation demanding that he preach "logic" rather than "the word of God".

For me, that was the tipping point. I left the church and never looked back.

Starting Over
After leaving the church, I decided to start over, from scratch. I tossed out everything I ever believed and began looking at other religions and belief systems with an openness that I'd never had as a Christian. I started looking for themes, attitudes and beliefs that were common to all or many religions and belief systems. I developed my own set of beliefs that work for me.

Today, I would describe myself as a happy existentialist. I believe that we're simply here; whatever meaning we find in life is up to us. In particular, I find the conceptualization of a conscious god or gods (from the all-powerful, monotheistic god of western religions to the multiple gods of eastern religions to the new age concept of a universal consciousnes) to be decidedly dis-empowering. These concepts, while helpful when we're feeling weak or helpless, also contribute to our feeling week and helpless.

All that said, I love many of beliefs, attitudes and concepts of various religions. I love "spiritual" experience. Contrarily, I think that religion (whether based on the spiritual or the material), is the root cause of most of the conflicts we face as humans today.

When My Mom Died
Several years ago, I got a call from my brother telling me that my mom had had a stroke and was in the hospital. At seventy, my mom had still been teaching aerobics classes; we anticipated her to recover quickly.

It turned out that the stroke was the result of her blood having thickened due to an advanced state of pancreatic cancer. She died within a few weeks.

As we prepared for her memorial service at the church in which she'd invested so much of her later years of life, I received calls from different people who wanted to say or sing something at the service. I decided, why not? So, we opened the service to anyone who wanted to say or present something.

When we arrived at the memorial, the church was full with more than 300 people. What might have been a solemn occasion became a remarkable celebration of my mom's life. People told stories, people sang songs. I still get chills thinking about it.

After the service, countless people approached me to tell me about the time my mom showed up at their house unannounced to help them with this or that simply because she'd heard that they needed help. I found out that for at least the last decade of her life she'd managed to prepare a meal every day for someone who "might need a meal". She'd then send my dad out the door to deliver it.

Although my mom still had some beliefs that were more religious and judgmental than they were spiritual, she'd managed to not become religious. She simply wanted to serve and worship God in the best way she could.

Rethinking Religion
These stories moved me. Up to that point, I'd been quite resentful of religious people. I'd felt lied to and used. I'd felt that religion was simply a tool by which a very small group of people could manipulate and control a very large group of people. I changed that.

Today, I'm of the mind that we as humans have developed wonderful systems by which we explain the unexplainable and manage the unmanageable. I believe that, in their pure forms, any of these systems can serve us remarkably well. I find beauty and spirituality in all of them.

I also believe that, when we convert any system of beliefs to a system of truths, we undermine them and transform them from something beautiful to something, well, ugly.

Food for Thought
What are your spiritual beliefs? Do they stem from a tradition that you grew up with or are they something that you came to later in life? Are you religious about them? If so, why? How is being religious serving you? Is it serving you?

Perhaps you've walked away from the beliefs of your youth or your tradition. If so, is it the beliefs themselves or the religion that boxed them? Have you looked at the beliefs in isolation from the formal religious structure? Perhaps it's time to revisit them?

Happy New Year, Teflon


  1. Bullseye! What a wonderful story of unfolding self-realization. Awesome sharing of how many embrace 'sheep-hood' rather than 'self-hood.'

  2. I think it would be useful to post this to 'a christian option' what do you think? bw

  3. Dear Mark,

    Whenever you bring stories about yourself I fell deeply touched (even if this could also be seen as a story about your mum).
    Thank you Mark, this was beautifull to read.

    To answer your last question: the seed of religious beliefs came from my earliest friends who intived me to join what they were doing. - whichs was part of church.
    Later it became a place to look for peace and understanding - mostly an understanding of my etics and moral beliefs, and an acceptance that everything that happens might be happening for a reason, and that god is bigger than I therefore I do not need to understand everything that happens. Just trust.

  4. BW,
    I'm not a blogger on the 'a christian option' site and am not familiar with the tenants of the site, but I'd be happy to have this post posted there if you think it would be useful.

    If so, please let me know what to do.


  5. well, they aspire to spread the option process(R) as Gospel ;)

    I conveyed your permission to them bw

  6. I really enjoy your writing, Mark. That was no beautifully said. I learnt quickly to separate the principles of religion from the people practicing the religion. So many of us, religious or not, say we believe one thing, but our behavior shows us up. I decided not to use a person's behavior to 'validate' a belief that they claim to hold. Option has been a great way for me to uncover beliefs that were totally contrary to the ones I thought I held!

  7. Joy,

    Thank you so much for you loving comments. I really enjoy your thoughtfulness and insights.

    When you talk about "trust", who or what are you trusting? What are you trusting to take place?

    For example, are you trusting that things will work out in a certain way? Or, are you trusting that, regardless of the way they work out, you'll be OK?

    Are you trusting a conscious entity to act on your behalf in the present, or, are you seeing everything unfolding as some kind of divine plan set in motion eons ago?

    Even if trust means simply "letting go", what do imagine takes place when you do so? What's going on for you in that moment?

  8. Faith, you really got me thinking about inconsistency between belief and action, and about credibility.

    I realize that when I was younger, I frequently accepted new ideas and beliefs simply because I trusted the person telling me about them. In fact, many teachers would consider me to be a "bad" student if I didn't just trust them and accept.

    As a result, I often let inconsistencies in the belief system slide by without questioning them. If the person proved later to be unreliable or inconsistent. All those inconsistencies would stand up and start shouting at me.

    As I think about it, I've totally abandoned this approach. While learning something new, I'll temporarily suspend disbelief so that I can really learn it from the perspective of the teacher. But then, I really process it to see if it makes sense to me.

    So, I could find out that Einstein was an axe murderer, but it would have no effect on my thoughts about relativity. I really like this decoupling of belief from believer, and doing so right from the beginning.

    Imagine if, as parents and teachers, we asked children not to take our word on things, but instead, to decide for themselves what they believed? It would probably cost us more time at the outset, but perhaps would result in kids whose foundations were rock solid.

  9. When I say trust, it is trusting that the world makes sense and there are some kind of reason why things happens. In trusting this to be so, it helps me let go of wanting to understand things which right now doesn't make much sense. Such as war, illnesses, pains etc.
    - to me it's similar to what Bears says when he say "the course is in the future".

    He calls it a benevolent world, I call it God.

    I don't think of God as a micro manager who decided everything a long time ago nor is he acting on my behalf - but he inspires me to look for "heaven on earth".

    I don't believe in time, I just think that we do not yet know that there is just the now and the past and the future are captured in the now. - I don't have a scientific reasoning for this, but it makes the present moment more precious.

    - and reminding me to enjoy the autumn wheather and now I 'll walk the dog.

    Have a wonderfull day



Read, smile, think and post a message to let us know how this article inspired you...