Thursday, September 08, 2005

This I Believe

On a performance review at an internship during my junior year of college, my supervisor wrote that I was “honest to a fault.” It’s taken me five years to understand his meaning.

This weekend was my last to spend in West Virginia before going to Asia, my last to spend around the people and places that are both family to me. I was there to see my mom, stepdad and his family. We had a good visit, good conversation, a bluegrass music festival, card games and plenty of great food. Soon the day will come when I will long for a home-cooked American meal.

I’m a person who craves depth. The farther I get beneath the surface and the more I have to think, the happier I am. Small talk is fun, but eventually, I always find myself wishing for more. I got some of that this weekend in a late-night chat with Mom and in dinner table talk about everything from Hurricane Katrina’s fallout to the different peoples and cultures I will encounter in my upcoming travels.

On Sunday we went to church, then came back to my step-grandfather’s house for an early dinner. I was meeting my good friend Kevin Scanlon in Grafton that afternoon for one last bit of West Viriginia railroad photography before my departure. Dinner had ended and in the process of saying my goodbyes, I found myself talking to my stepfather’s stepmother about Maureen and all the similarities we share.

Then she said the one thing that I suspect everyone else in my family thinks, but is afraid to say.

“I just wish she would go to church with you.”

That’s no light-hearted, whimsical statement. My family is strongly Christian, and church is a matter of eternal life or death.

The thing for me to have done there was to cock my head to one side, flash a thousand-watt smile, and say with confidence, “We’re working on that.”

I know my family worries about me, and I love them so much that I wish to the bottom of my heart I could tell them that.

I can’t, though.

Because I love them so much, I have to tell them the truth. I don’t always tell the truth about everything, but with myself I am brutally honest. I can’t live a lie with the people I love.

The truth is that we are working on that, but not in the way it would be taken if I responded the way I wish I could. Maureen and I are deeply spiritual people and are both seeking a spiritual home that we can share together. We haven’t quite found it in the religion of my childhood, but we’re looking.

So I took a deep breath.

“Be careful, Francis,” I responded.

She went on, not quite getting my meaning.

I tried again, more direct. “My beliefs have changed a great deal, and we’re both still searching for what we believe.”

Still, she continued.

So I took another deep breath and stood down. “I don’t think this a good time to discuss this.”

It doesn’t bother me that Francis brought up the matter. Perhaps she was the only one who could. What does bother me a little is her timing. That’s not a conversation I wanted to begin ten minutes before going away for a year or longer. It wasn’t easy, though. I needed to have that conversation. Just not then. So I’m left to my writing, and I hope they don’t mind too much that I’m getting it out this way.

To her credit, she seemed to understand. Still, before letting it go, she reminded me that my soul was at stake, that my soul was important to her, and admonished me to check whatever I find against the Bible.

I just nodded. How do I tell her that no matter how much I love so many of the teachings in the Bible, there are a few parts of it that I just cannot accept? How do I tell my family? How do I respond to such genuine, compassionate, loving concern for my eternal well-being when I adamantly disagree with one of the most fundamental beliefs of their religion?

Mom and my stepdad weren’t in the kitchen for that discussion. I think I’m grateful for that. Only my step-grandfather was also present, a quiet, stern man and one of the most devout Christians I know. He remained silent. Probably he didn’t want to get involved. Or, maybe, he remembered.

It was thirteen years ago, half my life, that I first asked Mom the question. Christianity, like all religions, like all spirituality, requires the belief in some things that transcend the boundaries of reasonable explanations. There comes a point in all matters of faith when some things just don’t make sense, and the decision has to be made to simply believe in them out of sheer desire. That’s what makes faith a thing that’s worth having. That’s why I admire them so much for their faith. I’d like to think I have that kind of faith, too, or at least that I’m capable of having it. But what happens when faith demands adherence to a belief that I simply cannot, will not believe?

Later this month I’m going to China. There are 1.3 billion people in China. That’s a bigger number than I can comprehend, but I’m rather certain a few of them died today. Among them, I’ll bet there was an old woman in a rural village who did everything she knew to do in her life. She married and was a faithful wife, had children and raised them the best way she could, was a friend to her community and a helper of those in need. Perhaps she never heard of God's plan for her salvation. Perhaps she did. Even if missionaries came and preached and left Bibles, how could that compare to lifetime of Buddhism or Socialist atheism? In the past 2000 years, billions, billions like her have came into the world, lived, and died.

Thirteen years ago, I asked Mom, “Mom, what happens to all the good people from other religions who die without believing in God and Jesus?” I had begun to look at my own life and begun realizing that my Christianity was largely a product of the time, place and people I was born into. So many others were born into other circumstances and trying to live the best way they knew how, just as they had been taught to believe. Surely a loving God Who created them, Who brought them into the world, couldn’t possibly condemn them from birth to the fires of Hell.

Wisely, Mom deferred. “Why don’t you ask David’s Dad? He’s an Elder of his church and has studied the Bible a lot more than I have. I’m sure he’d be happy to talk to you.”

The next month, while the gentle waves of the Atlantic washed over the sands of a North Carolina beach and the June sun shone down warm and strong, a 13 year old boy and a 60 year old man sat down together in an upstairs bedroom of an oceanfront house.

Where I wanted to be was out on those warm sands, chasing hermit crabs and dodging the surf. Even then, I had a deep respect, almost a fear, for Clarence. I was nervous being alone with him and anxious for the interview to be over. I needed an answer, though. Tentatively and meekly I asked my question.

Clarence looked deeply into my eyes. He looked at me with the look of a father about to tell his son that his dog was just hit by a truck. He loathed the task, but he knew it was his to complete, that I was mature enough to know the truth, that it would hurt at first, deeply, but that time would heal the wound and bring about understanding. So he told me. He told me with all the gentleness, compassion and sympathy that the situation would allow, yet with unquestionable firmness, that, as far as he could tell from his years of studying the Bible, “Those people are lost.”

I choked back a sob. “You mean, they’re going to Hell?”


I didn’t believe him. I couldn’t. It was too much. Too much to imagine. I doubt he expected me to believe him then. But he was wrong about something. Time didn’t heal that wound. I didn’t believe him then. I don’t now. I don’t think I ever did. Time did allow me to push it back to a deep, dark, dusty corner of my mind where the cobwebs were thick and on which the light of my teenage eyes rarely shone. For years it was enough to ignore it, to run through life strong in my Christan faith and content in God’s grace. But I never did forget.

It didn’t come back all at once. It crept in slowly, first resurfacing from time to time in my later years of high school. Then came college and the realization of such a bigger world than I’d ever known. Had it not been for a fabulous minister at my church in Cleveland and a devoted family during my stint in Arizona, I imagine my breaking away would have been much swifter.

But those people came through my life, and I’m sure there was a reason for that, and so I kept holding on. It’s so hard to let go of something that has been a part of you, has instilled so much good in you, has defined you, for so long.

I don’t mind that it was hard letting go. I don’t mind that it took me so many years. By hanging on for so long, my eventual departure overlapped with my meeting Maureen. What does bother me is that my departure may then be blamed, by some, on the one person who, more than any other, helped me to look deeply inside myself, and see who was really there. That would be a greivous error.

There’s a series on NPR right now called “This I Believe.” All listeners are invited to submit a 500-word essay on their most fundamental beliefs, religious or otherwise. I'd really like to participate in it, but I'm at a point in my life where I think I have a much better idea of what I don't believe, as opposed to what I do believe. Such a negative outlook bothers me tremendously.

Yet there’s one belief to which I hold very strongly. What I believe is that we become the people we are by the experiences we have, that every experience we have, no matter how great or small, good or bad, profoundly shapes the people we become. I believe these are all connected, are all interconnected in the great web of life that we all share. I believe every one of them, every last one, from the greatest tragedy to the tiniest joy, happens for a reason. I don’t need to know that reason, or even understand it. It’s bigger than me, bigger than all of us. It is exists and it is good, not every last piece of it, but it is good overall and in the end. This I believe with all my heart.


Pink Lemonade Diva said...

this was wonderfully written - so introspective, yet so engaging for an outsider as well.

I wrote about the questions I have with my faith recently, and believe me - we aren't alone!

Mia said...

A God who is just and fair will be just and fair to those who had deliberately ignored him. You need to find your own truth about people who are lost from the bible. Do not let any elder or spiritual leader do that for you.

I hope you find your spiritual grounding. But I know that Jesus will never let you drift too far from him without taking u back in His loving arms.

May He take care of you. Have a great time with Maureen. Is she Japanese?

The Webmastor said...

I hope this helps. One can see from the universe is not an accident butthe product of an intelligent being with purpose. I call that being God, but you don't have to. Then, looking at the creation as it was intended including the excellence of humanity, one can develop an appreciation or love for that creator. Jesus taught that the entire law of God could be summarized in love: to the best of our ability we should love the Creator and the creation (defined in the Bible as your neighbor). He also taught the measure of love is one's willingnes to give up self for the greater good of someone else. The greatest love is the willingness to give up one's life for his friends. (This also includes all creation). Everyone must reach his/her measure of love.
consider the dog's love for humans and compare that to the cat: Different strokes for different folks. Note that the creation that we observe has been spoiled by that opponent of the creator, satan. If you love the Creator and the Creation will you have eternal life. I am an African Methodist Episcopal Preacher and a Christian but labels are not important.

Torah Cottrill said...

Like you, I grew up in West Virginia, and like you, I find myself in Japan this fall (interesting coincidence, my running across your blog). Unlike you, I did not grow up with a strong Christian grounding; my father created a household where rhetoric and objective proof were important and "fuzzy" things like religion weren't.

Two years ago, a Jehovah's Witness started visiting me at my home in Kansas City. He asked me if I agreed with some passage from Genesis, and after thinking about it a moment, I told him the truth, that I didn't, and repeated to him the agnostic, scientific view of the creation of the universe that I believe to be true. He kept coming back, and having a cultural background that ranks rudeness to guests right next to farting loudly in public, I kept engaging in these five-minute debates. Randall was well educated and clearly very committed to his beliefs, and I came to respect his beliefs, but not to share them. As you, I discovered that I could not have faith in a God who would damn Mohandas Ghandi, Buddha, every one of my Muslim, Jewish, and Gaean friends, and the billions of people who lived prior to the birth of Christ. But that year's worth of brief conversations about our different spiritual beliefs gave me a real yearning to explore the shape of what I do believe, and I came to see that while I don't share Randall's beliefs, or those of your family, neither do I share those of my father. I wound up at the Rime Buddhist Center in Kansas City, taking a class in basic Buddhist beliefs. Turns out, I'm not convinced by Tibetian Buddhism, either, but Buddhism's emphasis on the effects your actions, you very thoughts, have on the world and people around you fitted very well with my sense that the world is interconnected and we are each responsible to affect the world in a positive way. So, now that I'm in Japan, I'm going to try to see if Zen Buddhism matches my convictions. It's not an easy search, is it? I wish you the very best as you follow your own path. If you and Maureen come to Okinawa, send me an email at and maybe we can all share some yakisoba. :)

itrimble said...

very good post, after having read your first post, I felt the exact same thing. I have for a long time now... I have been to Cambodia, Thailand, China & Japan, and I am in the same boat... what about the rest of the people in the world ? what right do we have to judge ? you will be alright, I believe that everyone should find their own spirituality and it is to each his own.... hope that helps !!