"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, July 14, 2017

Born Only Once

St. Andrew's Anglican Cathedral ~ Sydney, Australia

I have to completely agree with business writer Brett Nelson who wrote that the phrase "'Come To Jesus Moment' Is The Most Annoying Business Expression On Earth." I understand that the concept has some currency in the common parlance, with connotations of humor and threat; but if you were subjected to the real thing as a child and urged repeatedly to "come to Jesus," it is not even remotely funny, and the threatening aspect falls sickly flat.

American poet Langston Hughes -- also, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri (not far from where I grew up) -- explains it much better than I ever could. For anyone who was not brought up in an evangelical tradition, Hughes provides a glimpse of the impact that fundamentalism can have on the heart of an impressionable innocent child, black or white. His description certainly rings true to my experience. I did not come across this essay until I was an adult, but it made me feel less lonely and bizarre about my religious upbringing in the Church of the Nazarene -- such a strange way to be raised, such a harsh thing to do to a kid or to an adult:

"Salvation" by Langston Hughes
I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved. It happened like this. There was a big revival at my Auntie Reed's church. Every night for weeks there had been much preaching, singing, praying, and shouting, and some very hardened sinners had been brought to Christ, and the membership of the church had grown by leaps and bounds. Then just before the revival ended, they held a special meeting for children, "to bring the young lambs to the fold." My aunt spoke of it for days ahead. That night I was escorted to the front row and placed on the mourners' bench with all the other young sinners, who had not yet been brought to Jesus.

My aunt told me that when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to you inside! And Jesus came into your life! And God was with you from then on! She said you could see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul. I believed her. I had heard a great many old people say the same thing and it seemed to me they ought to know. So I sat there calmly in the hot, crowded church, waiting for Jesus to come to me.

The preacher preached a wonderful rhythmical sermon, all moans and shouts and lonely cries and dire pictures of hell, and then he sang a song about the ninety and nine safe in the fold, but one little lamb was left out in the cold. Then he said: "Won't you come? Won't you come to Jesus? Young lambs, won't you come?" And he held out his arms to all us young sinners there on the mourners' bench. And the little girls cried. And some of them jumped up and went to Jesus right away. But most of us just sat there.

A great many old people came and knelt around us and prayed, old women with jet-black faces and braided hair, old men with work-gnarled hands. And the church sang a song about the lower lights are burning, some poor sinners to be saved. And the whole building rocked with prayer and song.

Still I kept waiting to see Jesus.

Finally all the young people had gone to the altar and were saved, but one boy and me. He was a rounder's son named Westley. Westley and I were surrounded by sisters and deacons praying. It was very hot in the church, and getting late now. Finally Westley said to me in a whisper: "God damn! I'm tired o' sitting here. Let's get up and be saved." So he got up and was saved.

Then I was left all alone on the mourners' bench. My aunt came and knelt at my knees and cried, while prayers and song swirled all around me in the little church. The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans and voices. And I kept waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting - but he didn't come. I wanted to see him, but nothing happened to me. Nothing! I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened.

I heard the songs and the minister saying: "Why don't you come? My dear child, why don't you come to Jesus? Jesus is waiting for you. He wants you. Why don't you come? Sister Reed, what is this child's name?"

"Langston," my aunt sobbed.

"Langston, why don't you come? Why don't you come and be saved? Oh, Lamb of God! Why don't you come?"

Now it was really getting late. I began to be ashamed of myself, holding everything up so long. I began to wonder what God thought about Westley, who certainly hadn't seen Jesus either, but who was now sitting proudly on the platform, swinging his knickerbockered legs and grinning down at me, surrounded by deacons and old women on their knees praying. God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I'd better lie, too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved.

So I got up.

Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise. Waves of rejoicing swept the place. Women leaped in the air. My aunt threw her arms around me. The minister took me by the hand and led me to the platform.

When things quieted down, in a hushed silence, punctuated by a few ecstatic "Amens," all the new young lambs were blessed in the name of God. Then joyous singing filled the room.

That night, for the first time in my life but one for I was a big boy twelve years old - I cried. I cried, in bed alone, and couldn't stop. I buried my head under the quilts, but my aunt heard me. She woke up and told my uncle I was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus. But I was really crying because I couldn't bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn't seen Jesus, and that now I didn't believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn't come to help me.
"First Confession," by Irish author Frank O'Connor is more often / more popularly anthologized:
"But the worst of all was when she showed us how to examine our conscience. Did we take the name of the Lord, our God, in vain? Did we honour our father and our mother? (I asked her did this include grandmothers and she said it did.) Did we love our neighbours as ourselves? Did we covet our neighbour's goods? (I thought of the way I felt about the penny that Nora got every Friday.) I decided that, between one thing and another, I must have broken the whole ten commandments, all on account of that old woman, and so far as I could see, so long as she remained in the house, I had no hope of ever doing anything else.

I was scared to death of confession
I have always preferred the Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967) essay because it captures the existential angst through the eyes of a child. O'Connor (1903 – 1966) manages to be more light - hearted and find some humor in the situation, but his narrative speaks less to my experience. I find it an interesting twist that the Irish Catholic writer is the one to describe the "hellfire & damnation" method of scaring children into religion (or, should that be scaring religion into children) rather than the Southern American writer. They both make the point that trying to force kids into some kind of mystical religious experience might make them more cynical rather than increasing their faith.

Like young Langston, I decided long ago that if I kept waiting around for a conversion experience or a personal relationship with God, I'd end up waiting forever. Maybe it's a literary thing, but over the years, I have decided to cast my lot with ritual and liturgy over abstract faith. I've never been able to latch onto the idea of a personal god / goddess who cares for me individually. I don't understand what people are talking about when they say "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." Perhaps it is a matter of personality or nature, i.e., maybe it's "just my nature" to doubt or be unmoved by emotional appeals to the supernatural, while other people have a deep response to those methods. In the Church of the Nazarene, experiencing these emotions was the central act of faith, so I always felt really excluded -- a goat, not a sheep -- because I never felt the hand of god move or heard Jesus speaking to my heart. Again, I ask, what on earth do those phrases mean? I, for one, could never figure out.

Every time I re-read "Salvation," I am reminded that Hughes also said:

"Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true

And in a related thought, Czeslaw Milosz writes,

"We are born on earth only once
and we indulge in much mimicking and posing,
dimly aware of the truth, but with pen in hand
it is difficult to escape that awareness:
then, at least, one wants to keep one's self-respect."

So in a bid for self - respect and truth, I thought I'd go out a limb here -- although I'm not a minister of the Gospel, nor do I play one on TV -- and compile a few posts about religious experience, especially since it has been in the news a lot lately, though, sadly, not in a good way. For example:

1. "Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors
ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord."

-Andy Crouch‬

2. Mike Pence: The servile schemer who would be president"
by Richard North Patterson
American fiction writer, attorney and political commentator

"Trump, not Jesus, became Pence’s personal savior: Cravenly, Pence proclaimed Trump a model paterfamilias and man of deep faith. To cognoscenti, the reflexive alacrity with which Pence swathed Trump in pieties confirmed a surreal obliviousness to his own moral smallness. Even so, he swiftly elevated serial hypocrisy to unforeseen heights."

3. "Mike Pence and the rise of mediocrity"
by Richard North Patterson

"The effect is that of an unctuous church elder selling pyramid schemes to credulous parishioners, never doubting he is doing God’s work. Every self-serving self-deception reveals the depths of his shallowness, the breadth of his hypocrisy. His salvation is not ours."

4. "Trump Can't Reverse the Decline of White Christian America"
by Robert P. Jones

"Two-thirds of those who voted for the president felt his election was the "last chance to stop America's decline." But his victory won't arrest the cultural and demographic trends they opposed."

So according to Michele Bachman, Trump is "somebody who will stand up for godly moral principles." Heaven Help Us!

Wow! Talk about a deeply held belief: "In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office." Hypocrisy takes the day.

"Like Esau, who exchanged his inheritance for a pot of stew, white evangelicals have traded their distinctive values for fleeting political power. Twenty years from now, there is little chance that 2016 will be celebrated as the revival of White Christian America, no matter how many Christian right leaders are installed in positions of power over the next four years. Rather, this election will mostly likely be remembered as the one in which white evangelicals traded away their integrity and influence in a gambit to resurrect their past."

My friend Olynn responds: "He instead actually hastens a decline that is now real - but wasn't before."

5. "Mike Pence’s New God"
by William Saletan

"The Christian conservative was supposed to bring morality to Trump’s campaign. Instead he caved to Trump."

"The idea that’s being projected for public consumption is that Pence’s values somehow rub off on Trump. But what’s actually happening is the reverse. Pence came into the Trump campaign with some firmly stated principles. In less than a week, to conform to his new boss, he has bent them."

"This scene, this genuflection of one man before another, is a warning. It’s what happens when you worship power. It’s what happens when you use religion to glorify a man rather than change him."

6. "Why people believe Trump's lies, fake news, and conspiracy theories"
by Linette Lopez

"Science writer and historian Michael Shermer believes that human beings are conditioned to believe, rather than disbelieve, things. . . . And so we believe. But more than that, in that belief we create patterns. That helps us structure our lives. It gives meaning to what could easily be random. It is from there that Shermer believes we develop things like superstition and conspiracy theories. They make sense of what is random."

7. Awaiting Someone Like Mike Pence as a Messiah
by Kieryn Darkwater
Interesting discussion regarding Christianity, culture wars, and home schooling.

A Different Kind of Salvation:
A Fairy Piper by Richard MacDonald
"Forever piping songs forever new . . ." ~ John Keats
from "Ode On A Grecian Urn"

Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, July 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

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