Belief vs Faith

I like working with my hands. I find that doing repetitive, physical tasks lets my mind wander and think its own thoughts.

When I was a kid, some of my favourite times were sitting on the lawnmower, cutting our 5 acres of grass. My mind would wander. I might be a famous Formula 1 driver. Or a pilot. Or any number of other stories.

My mind was wandering today, and I recalled a time from a few years back.

I had just come out of the hospital after a relatively short period of time. Although I was able to go back to work, my body was drained. My mind was fuzzy.

These conditions have hit me, over the years, and I knew that I could rely on one thing to see me through: my unbridled optimism for life.

Through all the things I’ve gone through, my spirit has always remained strong. I could rely on it to see me through.

And now it was gone, too.

I have never felt so low. Not when my business went under. Not even when I was in a hospital bed for 4 months at death’s door.

I had no energy to examine what I was thinking. I had no energy to seek answers to my predicament. I simply existed, wondering when it would all end.

I was lucky. I have family and friends who continued to love me and wish me well. But there was a question that kept nagging at me. In the back of my mind, the voice kept asking: where was God in all of this?

My life is intertwined with the church. I went from birth. Against my will, a lot of the time, but I went all the same.

There were a few things that I remember being taught: God is a just God, God loves you, pray to God and your prayers would be answered.

I had tried, in my way, to be faithful to these beliefs. This all came tumbling down.

If God was just, why was I sick? If God loves me, why was I sick? If God answers prayers, why was I sick?

At the time, I had no answers. I couldn’t do. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t feel.

I just existed.

It hit me today that I had mistaken belief and faith.

What’s the difference? I used to think none, but I was mistaken.

I think belief is some construct that your mind comes up with. I see the earth. It looks flat. I see a ball. If I tried to stand on the bottom side of a ball, I’d fall off. Therefore, the earth must be flat.

We snicker, now. People believed that the earth was flat for millenia, and that you could fall off the edge. This is not even an ancient belief. I remember an uncle of mine saying that the earth was flat. Also that no one had ever stood on the moon. It was so small, how could someone stand on it?

But this belief in a flat earth changed. I suppose seafarers had known it forever. They saw a ship go over the horizon. Oh, the earth must be curved.

Now, of course, we all know that the earth is round.

That’s a belief. A mind-made construct.

Faith, though … faith, I think, is something that comes from a different place. That intangible place we call soul or spirit.

As my mind chattered on about how all my beliefs were wrong and how I’d wasted my time believing them, my spirit started to say it’s OK.

All of my beliefs were crumbling before me. All the things I had thought about God and religion were passing away. All of my beliefs were up for review, but my faith, apparently, had remained intact.

It’s OK.

Even if my whole belief system was flawed or outright wrong. Even if I had wasted so much time and energy putting on a “good front”, trying to be perfect, or someone I wasn’t. Even if I didn’t know what to think anymore.

It’s OK.

Beliefs, I believe, come and go. The earth is flat. The earth is round. This race of people is good. This race of people is bad. The government is for the people. The government is for itself. God punishes the bad and rewards the good. God let’s the rain fall equally on the good and the bad.

Through all these belief changes – and they can be pretty traumatic – faith is what keeps you tethered. In electrical terms grounded.

Did God do this to me? Or was it just the circumstances of life? Belief needs to know the answer to this question.

Faith, on the other hand, says I don’t know, but it’s OK either way.

 

On Sons, Soaps, and Sermonizing

I’m an addict. They say that realizing – and then verbalizing – that you are one is the first step to recovery. If so, I am taking my first step. In public.

You see, I’ve been living with a dirty little secret.

I find myself getting up early for a fix. By the afternoon, I need another hit. If I’m alone in the evening, I can’t seem to stop myself.

I’m addicted to Sons of Anarchy.

Sue and I have a few shows that we watch together; at the moment, though, they are all on hiatus. So I was looking around for a series to start. I was also home alone for a while, so I was thinking I’d watch something Sue wouldn’t want to see.

I found Sons of Anarchy. 

For those of you who haven’t seen the show, it’s the story of a motorcylce club (NEVER called a gang, by the way). In particular, it’s the story of a dysfunctional family: step-father, son, and mother.

Sons is a train wreck. If you’ve seen it, you might be thinking I maybe shouldn’t be watching. I’m finding it hard to turn away. Too fascinating.

I was talking to Sue about it, one night. As I explained a bit about the show and the plot, she said “Oh. You’re watching a soap opera.”

Was she ever wrong.

This is a story about men beating the crap out of each other. It’s about gun running and drug dealing. And revenge. For example, when Jax’s (the main character) son is kidnapped by the IRA, he and the club go to Belfast for revenge. In the meantime, after nearly having sex with a woman who turns out to be his half sister, Jax discovers that his father had an illicit affair with …

Holy Crap! I’m watching a soap opera!

In the interests of full disclosure, this isn’t the first time I’ve been hooked on soaps. Back in my university days, I was looking for a way to keep from having to study. What I meant to say was that I occaisionaly needed a break from studying.

General Hospital and Another World filled the bill nicely. I kind of got caught up trying to keep things straight: who’s sleeping with who (or whom, to be precise), who’s broke, who just got out of jail. How all the men had such chiseled jawlines and cheekbones. And so on.

Plus, GH had Felicia Jones. Who was a babe.

Anyway, I thought I had given up my addiction decades ago. Now I find myself relentlessly slogging through this series on Netflix.

You may be thinking that a fellow who is a pastor – a peace-loving, Mennonite one, at that – shouldn’t be watching such a violent, drug infested, sexually suggestive show. You may be right. But, as I follow along, I realize that the problems of a motorcycle club aren’t that much different than the ones a church faces.

It’s interesting how both institutions use similar language. For example, the club calls the “council” together. They meet in the “chapel”, and this meeting is called “church”. Many of you may recognize these terms from the spiritually uplifting joys of working on various church committees over the years.

The Sons face many issues – drug running, prostitution, turf wars, a guy kicking over the boss’ motorcycle – that need to be discussed and handled. Likewise, the church also has problems: fewer members, hard economic times, fear of becoming irrelevant, whether or not we need a bulletin. These things must also be discussed and handled. Or swept under the rug. Either way, action (or, I suppose, inaction) results.

Perhaps the reactions are a bit different.

For example, in the motorcycle club, if someone is trying to push his own agenda, he disappears. The boss puts out a “hit” and the individual is never seen again. This is for the good of the club, as they believe that the wishes of the many are more important than the wishes of the individual.

With any luck, the skeleton doesn’t come back to haunt you in Season 2.

In the church, we believe that the bible may frown on such drastic measures. At the very least, it’s a gray area.

I’m not saying that a pastor doesn’t consider this option. Come on, pastors, you know that there is just that second – a blip in time – when you wish you could take out a hit on old Mr Froese. If he brings up the fact that all sacred music must be played only on a harp one more time, maybe it’s time that he started playing one. Permanently.

“Jimmy? Yeah, it’s The Rev. Take out the old man.”

Of course we don’t do it, but …

Anyway, where was I? Right. The church is a lot like a motorcycle club. Hmmm. The analogy might not be quite right. Or it’s more right than I care to think about. Either way, I’ve started taking notes. The church council could maybe learn something. Sure, it’s a show about outlaws. Truth, however, comes in many packages and appears in many different forms. Maybe even in a show about a band of opinionated, self-serving, self-centered misfits.

Or not. The Lord works in mysterious ways, so it’s so hard to keep these things straight.

I guess I’ll keep watching. If only for the church’s sake.

Is It Really All About Sex?

*This post contains some of my views on marriage and same sex relationships. Keep that in mind when deciding on whether or not to continue reading.

Without a doubt, the best thing about my job is that it brings me into contact with young people. Being around people with high energy, high hopes, and big dreams makes me feel young – in spite of what the evidence in the mirror says.

Having the privilege to be a small part of their major life events is icing on an already pretty great cake.

Events like marriages.

I suppose it is inevitable that, in spite of soaring divorce rates and tough economic times, young people still have enough hope and faith to marry each other. And I, being the somewhat sentimental old fool that I am, get caught up in it like I am still a twenty-something,  full of high hopes and big dreams.

While I’m not a parent to these people, I feel a bit like a happy uncle, cheering them on from the sidelines. When these young people happen to marry each other, it simply kicks things up a notch.

So, it was with great pleasure that Sue and I responded to a couple of wedding invitations this year. The first was a summer wedding that took place at one of my favorite places on earth. The Timberlodge at Shekinah Retreat Centre was packed. There was a lot of singing and laughing, and when the couple had eyes only for each other, I am not ashamed to say that I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

The next was New Year’s Eve. The church was packed out, the singing was great (singing is one of the things that Mennonites DO), and the couple had eyes only for each other. The pastors had prepared carefully and spoke of joy, the specialness of the couple, and the importance of community. Again, the lump and the tears were evident. Sue would catch my eye and shake her head.

She’s not as sappy as I am.

Then we danced the night away, and I marveled again at how blessed I am to know all of these fine young adults. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should have put danced in quotation marks. Suffice to say that I took up space on the dance floor. Dancing may be too strong a word.)

As with every couple, I wondered if these two really knew what they are in for. You see, in my experience, marriage is not a Disney fairy tale. While, in my case, there is a beautiful princess, I have often been more frog than prince.

Marriage is tough. You need to adjust to someone else being in your space. You find out that the things you thought would change don’t. I’m not saying that there aren’t good things about marriage. There are.

I can’t think of any just now.

OK, I can think of a lot. Someone who loves you unconditionally. A life partner. Someone who laughs at your “jokes”. Someone who tells you that you are full of crap when you are sure you are not. Someone who, in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, thinks you are great.

Trust me, the good far outweighs the difficult.

But there are adjustments to be made. We somewhat blithely make promises during the wedding ceremony: For better, For worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health.

What we really mean, though, is For better, For richer, and in health.

Sometimes, it’s the opposite. Those are tough times, and they can really test your love and character and your comitment to each other.

And so, when I was at this wedding, a few of these things were going through my mind. Because, you see, marriage is difficult enough on its own. If you add in complications, it just becomes that much tougher.

Did I mention that my New Year’s Eve young friends are gay?

I’ve known these two young men – like that distant uncle – for a long time. I’ve seen them grow up at summer camp. I’ve seen them commit themselves to God and their churches. I’ve seen them become authentic, wise, and caring members of society.

Unfortunately, many people will only see them as being gay.

It’s not right. It’s not fair. But there it is. We live, it seems, to put people into the proper categories.

I am no expert. I don’t even know the correct terminology to use so as not to be offensive. I apologize for that. But, you see, I do know a few things about relationships.

Why is it that sex doesn’t come into the equation when people judge me? (Yes, I know you are judging me. It seems to be a human pastime.)  For example, I was baptized late in life. I was already married, so I suppose my pastor could have assumed that I was having sex. And yet, he never asked me about it. “Are you kind and loving in the bedroom, or are you a person who believes that sex is something you are entitled to because you are the “man of the house”?

I’ve never, to my knowledge, been judged on my sexual preference. Sexual performance, maybe, but not preference.

I would find it offensive if someone told me that my relationship – my nearly 30 year realtionship, filled with hard times, sickness, and unbelievable joy and love – with Sue was all about sex. I don’t mean to burst any bubbles, or give too much information, but we don’t spend our every waking hour having sex. Sex, as great as it is, is really a small part of a relationship.

Important – and great – but small.

Again, with bubble bursting in mind; you can have sex without getting married. Shocking, I know. Marriage is about something else entirely – love, commitment, and the promise to put the cap back on the toothpaste.

How can we judge the commitment and depth of love that two people have for each other solely on the basis of sex? How did that happen? How is that even possible?

This is not a theological debate for me. I know that people far smarter than I will point out the biblical verses that condemn same sex attraction as being sinful. Others will point out the life of Jesus and show that his compassion and love for all outweighs specific verses.

I will let the biblical scholars continue to debate that one to decide who, in the final analysis, is in or out. Although, and this is just my thought, it may not be up to them to make the final decision.

You might think that I am dejected and downhearted about where this whole debate is headed. While I wish gay vs straight was a non-issue, I take great comfort in the marriage celebration itself.

One of the groom’s grandparents was my pastor when I was growing up. In spite of being a very kind person, he was a fundamentalist pastor – with more hell-fire and brimstone than forgiveness – and I suspect that this marriage was difficult for him – personally and theologically.

The blessing he gave to the couple was beautiful and filled with hope. Grandma cried tears of joy at the wedding. Gay and straight people danced together and rang in the New Year. Old and young partied like it was 2014.

For me, if there was ever a New Year’s Eve filled with hope, it was this one.

I’m just a regular guy who got so lucky in the marriage department that it’s nearly unbelievable. And I’m grateful to have never had my love for Sue judged by sexual performance or proclivities. Those of us who are “straight” take this for granted.

Doesn’t every couple deserve the same respect? Is marriage really only about sex?

On Drunks, Cells, and Phone Lines

Today I gave up something that has been a part of my life for over 48 years. Since before I can remember, I’ve had access to one. In my growing up years, it was there. When I was finally on my own, I paid for my own. But today – and against the advice of my mother – I broke free of this thing I thought I had to have.

Today I got rid of my land line telephone.

Land lines were a given where I grew up. We had a phone, but not like the phone you have in your house now. This was a rotary phone that hung on the wall of our kitchen. Black. I think all phones were black, because who would want a phone to be a different colour?

Pressing buttons is easy, but a rotary phone took finesse. Dialing it was fun, but it took a while. To dial a zero, for example, took an hour and eight minutes. You put your finger in the “zero” hole, pulled it up to the right (clockwise, if that phrase has any meaning to you), and let go. It would make some satisfying clicking noises.

If you realized that you dialed incorrectly, you had to hang up and start over. If there were a lot of 9s and 0s, you could be in for a long day.

Our phone was on what was called a “party line”. A party line is like a regular phone line, except you share it with three or four other families. Let’s say that you wanted to call someone. You picked up the phone. If you heard other people talking, you knew the line was busy.

That’s right. On a party line, you could hear the other people talking. Proper etiquette said that you would immediately hang up, but … let’s face it, no one’s perfect. I’m sure there were as many conversations “accidentally” overheard as there were conversations.

I suspect there were fewer extra-marital affairs happening back then. Imagine this scenario:

Guy: Oh baby. I can’t wait to sneak out on my wife and see you.

Girl: I can’t wait.

-Heavy breathing-

Girl: Oooh. You’re all excited and breathing heavy.

Guy: I’m not breathing heavy. I thought you were … Crap! Mrs Johnson, is that you listening in?

Mrs Johnson: You should be ashamed of yourself, Johnny Miller. I’m telling your mother.

While the line was in use – or busy, as we used to call it – you could not use it to send or receive calls. That’s right … you couldn’t use your own phone. As mentioned, though, you could listen in. Unless you had a conscience. Which my sister didn’t.

I’m sure those of you who are younger are shocked to hear of this invasion of privacy. I know that the internet is much more private and secure.

Then we moved to standard phone lines. No sharing. A dialtone every time you picked up the phone. Heaven. Long distance charges became less, which encouraged more phoning. In the old days, long distance was so expensive that it was cheaper to pile your kids into your gas guzzling, 9 miles per gallon, 47 foot long Buick and drive 700 miles than it was to call to make sure there was someone home.

“Are they home?”

“Nope.”

“Well, still cheaper than phoning.” [Turn car around and head home.]

The first time I saw a cordless phone was in a movie. It was some schlocky 80s flick with Anthony Edwards. You know, Goose from Top Gun. But younger. Without a mustache. With hair. Goose was sitting by a pool with a cordless phone. He said something like “I’m coming to you cordless!”

I thought that Hollywood sure took liberties with reality. There was no such thing as a cordless phone.

Next came cell phones. People with cell phones all had one huge arm, because cell phones were the size of a two litre milk jug and weighed 46.5 pounds. (Yes, I noticed that I mixed Imperial and Metric units in one sentence. Thanks PM Trudeau for bringing in the metric system in grade 7. The worst of both worlds.)

One of my favorite cell phone stories happened in Hawaii. Sue and I were on a bus tour around Oahu. Cell phones, at this time, were around but not common. We’re listening to the tour guide when the guy in front of me yells out “What the f*ck? You said you would have it yesterday!”

I thought to myself “Lord, why is it that the crazy ones are all huge?” This guy was about 6’6” and weighed well over 400 lbs. Why couldn’t he be 5’2”, 110 lbs with an overbite and thick glasses? (I’m not trying to be stereotypical, here. I’m just saying that a tiny crazy man seems less scary than an extra large one.)

I braced myself for him to lose it and start throwing passengers around – and off – the bus. I had a strategy. If he came my way, I was going to throw the small, bespectacled man with an overbite sitting across the aisle into his path.

The giant was mad. Ranting and raving. Talking to himself.  Everyone else was sitting serenely, ignoring him.

Then I happened to see something glowing on his ear. “Ah,” I thought. “The mother ship has finally made contact and is calling him home.”

Sue, meanwhile, was calm beside me. “Don’t you see the crazy guy?” I asked.

“The guy talking on his bluetooth?” she asked.

His what now? Sure enough, he had some sort of headset that was connected wirelessly to his cell. The giant finally ended his call. To this day, I still think he was a douche, but I wouldn’t say it to his face.

Cell phones now are amazing. I know you all think your smartphones are too slow, but they’re really not. My cellphone has a gajillion times more computing power than the first computer I ever owned – a 386sx with 1 megabyte of RAM. Did you know they still use 386 chips? Yeah, they still use them. In microwave ovens.

So, I moved to the cellular age – or, as I like to call it, the Star Trek age. Remember Kirk and Spock? They’re on a planet. Everyone in a red shirt is dead. Kirk pulls out a communicator (which looks and works suspiciously like cell phones do today – by magic) and barks “Mr Scott. Two to … beam … aboard.”

I’m waiting for transporters to come next. Sort of like faxing, but with people. For those of you who don’t recognize “fax”, this was a method for sending a paper document to another place on earth through the phone lines. It was a bit like using a photocopier (properly called a Xerox machine) that printed to another photocopier … on the other side of the world!

Now we just send an email which, I’m pretty sure, works through voodoo.The speed and ease of email has ensured that people realize the power and immediacy of the medium and treat it with respect. Thankfully, there haven’t been any reports of someone firing off an email in anger. Or worse, prematurely.

Although I am now completely cellular (yes, I’ll wait for you to get that one), I still have a landline mentality. What I mean is, it’s like I have a landline in my pocket.

“Is that a landline in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?”

I have never been tied to the phone. A phone ringing doesn’t need to be acknowledged, in my opinion. Even if it’s playing Brahm’s Requiem as though a dog is barking. This is not a habit that the younger generation (ie anyone under 45) has acquired.

I spoke with a young friend a while ago.

“Hey, I called you last night, but it went to your voice mail.”

“I had my phone turned off.”

-long pause-

“What?”

“I was watching a show, so I turned my phone off.”

-Silence-

“You turned your cell phone off?”

“Yeah. I don’t like to be interrupted while I’m watching.”

“Why have a cell phone if you are going to turn it off?”

“Well, I’m not required by law to keep my phone turned on. It’s my choice, isn’t it?”

“No,” he said. Seriously. “No, it’s not. You must answer all calls.”

“What if they’re in the middle of the night?”

“Especially then. It’s probably an emergency.”

This is not accurate. I have had a few of these “emergency” calls in the wee hours of the morning. They have all gone like this:

“Johnny Miller!”

Me. Pissed off, because I woke up. Because I forgot to turn my phone off. “I think you have the wrong number.”

Drunken idiot laying in a pool of his own vomit. “Johnny. Why are you mad at me? I said I was sorry about Gwen.” He begins crying.

Me. For the love of … “You have the wrong number. There’s no Johnny here.”

-Pause-

“Oh. You’re saying I dialed the wrong number?”

Me. Canadian. And Mennonite. Always polite. “That’s right.” And I hang up.

And I wait for it.

Ring!!!!

“Johnny Miller!”

Might as well go with it. “That’s right. This is Johnny, but I don’t want to talk to you. I’m still mad about Gwen. Don’t ever call this number again.” Wait until I hear sobbing and hang up.

Hey, if you’re up, you might as well enjoy it.

It’s weird to give up our phone number. We’ve had it for a long time. My mom still has the same phone number she has always had. Since the flood. Oh, she has a cell, but she just uses it for emergencies like if her car breaks down or if she needs to kill a few hours during the day while waiting for an appointment.

Mom was against me getting rid of my landline. “What if the power goes out? Then how will you have a phone?”

“Well, Mom. Right now we have a landline through our cable provider. [I have a mental picture of one side of my Mom’s head exploding] If the power goes out, the phone goes out, too. And then we use our cell phones.”

“But how will people get ahold of you? What if they don’t have your number?”

“Well, then the Captain will have to ask around for my number to inform me that I have won a cruise.”

“What if the people at work don’t have your cell number? How will they get ahold of you?”

I’m not sure how to translate me smiling into the written word.

If the idea of not having a landline is foreign to me, imagine how strange it is for my Mom. Ah well, she’ll get over it. Or she’ll stop calling. Hmmm.

Our number, I assume, will be recycled. I’m not sure how long it will take, but someone else will end up with “my” number. That’s OK. I’ve come to terms with technology. I’ve accepted its role in my life. Besides, my plan is, in about 6 months, to call my old number at about 3AM.

“Johnny Miller!” I’ll say.