1 – The Mystical and the Sublime
In 1977 I was working as a food prep employee at a very popular burger and shake joint named Mad Dog and Bean’s. I was a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin. Chopping lettuce and onions Samurai style and making onion rings and potato salad from 4AM to 11AM was the perfect job. I would typically stay up until it was time to go to work, go to classes (maybe) in the afternoon, and try to intermingle a bit of homework with playtime before it was time to go back to work the next morning. Sleep was optional, and like studying for tests, was more of a cramming effort to get back on track.Out the back door of the restaurant and to the right were men’s and women’s restrooms. With barely room for toilet and sink, the amenities were no more than wooden closets with often painted sheet rock walls. But these little lavatories were local lore, for upon the walls one would always find the collective wisdom of customers, employees, and all others who knew these hallowed stalls.Like glyphs on some ancient Egyptian sarcophagus, this profound collective scribble was a mysterious graffiti tapestry that often took much talent and time to fully decipher. While many shallow minds encoded crude and common content, more often emerged deep sentiment and iconoclastic commentary on topics as diverse as politics, rock bands, upcoming events and local cuisine. As much appeared as sonnets as fragments and many colorful cartoons and sketches (though some were ink-blots at best) were interwoven with great abandon or great care.Occasionally, an artifact delved deeply into the mystical and sublime. Jan, a close friend, was a brilliant, though thoroughly undisciplined, skinny, stringy haired character that I had known since high school. He was astonishingly well read in areas of science, mysticism and philosophy, and was a skilled thrower of pots.
Jan also had eidetic capacity in certain interests, one of which included accounts from the pioneers of psychedelic experience. Naturally, he held Aldus Huxley, Abby Hoffman and particularly Timothy Leary in high esteem.
He had in fact given me his job at Mad Dog’s to apply himself fully to his investigation into the nature of psychotropic drugs, a pursuit supported by selling large quantities of LSD. It was no doubt a profound result of this research, at some lonely juncture in time (and, based on the angle and location of his unmistakable scrawl while otherwise preoccupied), that Jan humbly wrote on the wall, “Does anyone know who or where God is, or what he, she or it may be?”
Some days later, there beneath inscribed was the ominous and foreboding reply, “We all know, but we agreed not to tell you.”
I was greatly impacted by the sharp humor in the anonymous response to my funny friend’s most serious inquiry. For it is that very same sense of separateness that then, and for many years following, characterized my search for the purpose of my ephemeral existence.
For this, I felt very much alone, nearly despondent at times, at my inability to connect even with friends and acquaintances; both those who had long enjoyed a relationship with a higher power, predominately referred to as God, and those who had avoided the question with varying degrees of equanimity.
2 – What Does God Do With the Money?
It wasn’t that the various people in my life who seemed to know God were unwilling to talk to me about Him. Indeed, most were only too anxious to question my dis-beliefs and to subsequently, encourage my participation in whichever organization they had found a formal structure to substantiate and advance their relationship with that power supreme in whom they found comfort, support and an underlying purpose for their lives (at least, that’s what they told me they had found, and assured me, I would find it too, if only I would relinquish my self-centered dissociation and join them on their altruistic path to glory).
But, it was at these times in particular, that a certain and distinct queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach distorted whatever meaning was to be found in their words. In fact, however desperately I tried to grasp the dove of their understanding, the faster it flapped and disappeared without even a feather left at my feet!
One of my clearest memories of this sense of disillusionment was from my early childhood. I was baptized into the Lutheran Church in Grand Junction, Colorado where my family lived until I was eleven. In this instance, I was about five years of age and sat next to my father; fidgeting as usual, he would often put his hand on my bouncing knee or whisper sternly in my ear, “Sit still!”
The service was coming to a close and the big brass offering plates were being passed down each row under the guidance of the ushers. Mom or Dad always gave each of us (I have two siblings) a dime or a quarter to put in the plate. I vividly recall asking Dad why we were putting the money in the plate. He told me it was called an offering to God and was to show our thanks for everything He does for us. “O.K.,” I thought.
“But Daddy,” I asked, what does God do with the money?”
My father had a particular sense for dealing with such innocence. He had a way of talking in a very loving, though most condescending manner.
“Well, we give the money to God by giving it to the Church. And the Church does what God wants done with it.” He smiled ever so gently and put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me closer to him. “Do you understand?” he asked.
I told him I understood.
As he smiled his approval I asked, “Daddy, what does God want the Church to do with the money?”
Somewhat distracted, but still patient he replied, “Well, we pay the pastor a salary, you know, that’s the money he gets every month to live on. And we’re going to use some of the money to build a new parsonage, and…”
“What’s a parsonage? I interrupted.
“Oh, well that’s where the pastor and his family live: that’s that other building next to the Sunday school building. We have to pay for that, and he and his family have to have money to live on. They have to buy food and clothes and put gas in the car – all the regular stuff just like we buy.”
“And some of the money is being put away to build a new, bigger Church, so more people can come to church. And then, some of the money goes to people that are poor and need our help.”
By that time, the ushers had come to our row and nodded slightly which meant we could go.
I knew better then to try to get Dad’s attention after that. The congregation filed out of the church, shaking the pastor’s hand and complimenting him on his fine sermon. I too, shook hands with the pastor and he told me how nice it was to see me and that queasy, distraught feeling followed me all the way down the cement steps to where the adults smoked cigarettes and talked and the kids played tag or pelted each other with hard blue-green berries pulled from the many Junipers around the grounds.
Just that morning in Sunday school we had learned that Jesus had told his disciples to cast off their worldly goods and follow him to spread his teachings. We had read about the Sermon on the Mount and how a single loaf of bread and a single fish had fed the multitudes. Even so young, I was in awe as I listened to how, though faith in Jesus Christ, all things were possible.
I recall so clearly that dime silently disappearing into the wads of cash and checks heaped up on the green felt covering the bottom of the plate – that memory became my cornerstone of great uncertainty.
3 – The Odds Were Not in My Favor
The next stone laid came as the result of having a Catholic classmate and friend.
I was about eight years old and had ridden my old green bike some distance to visit his rather remote house, beyond the outskirts of the Redlands neighborhood where we lived. James Bishop was my friend’s name, but I barely recall him today. His family moved not too long after my first and only visit to his home.
Certain things stand out in my memory. He had some horses, and his mother gave us milk and cookies and sat down with us while we ate. On the wall by the front door was a very lifelike Jesus hung nailed to His cross, eyes open and turned up to, I knew, his Father in Heaven.
I had also noticed a statue of a round faced woman with her arms held slightly out from her body with her palms up and her head bowed. I had no idea who she was.
So, I asked Mrs. Bishop and she was only too happy to explain.
She told me the significance of the Holy Mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and dodged my question about what a virgin was by offering me more cookies as she asked me if I went to church.
I told her we were Lutherans and she told James and I all about Martin Luther and how he was a Catholic that got in an argument with the Catholic Church and then went on to start the Lutheran Church.
She explained fish on Friday, purgatory and hell, and expounded the importance of regular confession. Today, I can barely recall the details of this lengthy conversation. But I do remember with great clarity that as I was at last to leave for home, she smiled most kindly and reassured me that God would forgive me for being a Lutheran, as it was my parent’s fault, not mine.
I left for home on my bike, feeling queasy again, astonished that there must be a Catholic hell and a Lutheran hell and that by extension, for all the different Christian sects – my father’s parents were Methodist, my mother’s folk’s, members of the Church of Christ – each had their own set of rules for relating to God, and the odds were not in my favor: so many hells, only one heaven. Who could know until it was too late?
4 – Disdain for All Things Religious
The foundation of my uncertainty was completed while living in New Orleans, where we moved to from Grand Junction in 1967. We had a rented house with a pool and plague of toads on the driveway and sidewalk after any given rain. My first year I attended a Lutheran school as did my sister. My brother went to public school since the Lutheran school only went through the eighth grade. I was in fifth grade and part of the curriculum included studying the Bible.
I must confess that the only aspect of that training that I recall thoroughly is cheating on the test of our knowledge of the books of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments. But that fact is only indicative of my rapidly growing disdain for all things religious – I had never before cheated on a test.
The following year we moved across the river into a new neighborhood and new house. We went to a new Lutheran church. My father complained of the inappropriateness of metal folding chairs in place of pews, and it was but one of his many disappointments. I believe we attended that church only three times. The family involvement thereafter was solely to secure confirmation for my brother, who is nearly four years older and my sister, who is nearly three years older. I was spared those hours on Saturday which my brother loudly pronounced so loathsome.
That summer my sister went to visit my mother’s parents. Not long after she left, she called home to announce that she was to be re-baptized the following Sunday, crying desperately that Granny and Grandpa had made it clear that the sprinkling performed in the Lutheran Church was contrary to the Word of God and that only immersion would save her mortal soul.
My mother was on one phone, my father on the other. It was a fierce and frothy confrontation fraught with sobbing and condemnation. I sat silent and stolid on my bed, listening easily through the walls of my room to which I had been confined.
I recall that my father’s voice had taken on the tone of a cornered dog, as he growled, “Over my dead body!” and yelled one curse after the other and said something about legal action and something about no one touching a single hair on my sister’s head and something about every bone in his body while mom cried hysterically, “Mama no, you can’t!” and “Daddy, that’s not right!” and ultimately, my sister was ordered home on the next plane out of Pueblo, Colorado.
I resolved then that God and religion were as distinct as reason and emotion and that self-righteous interpretation of the way, not faith, dictates all communions with God. It was to remain a real and unchallenged conclusion through which every religious overtone, for many years thereafter, would be filtered and ignored.