Church… I like it in theory. In actual practice I’m opposed to it. (Does that mean I don’t go? You bet I do. Mary drags me along with great force against my will. Just because she’s an idealist doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a tough side. Damn right she does).
You can imagine how surprised they were, when we walked in carrying a foster baby. “Were you pregnant?” asked a surprised old woman.
Having a baby was turning out to be more than just an act of kindness. It was a blessing for someone like me with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. When Baby Thomas, or as I called him, Jub Jub, started crying and he didn’t need changing and he wasn’t hungry, I picked him up. That’s when THE POUCH came into its own. If you have a baby and if your back is strong enough, I heartily recommend THE POUCH. You’ve seen the ex-hippie types walking around with their kids in the pouch. [Reader’s note—a lot of people, myself included, labor under the impression that it would have been cool to live in the sixties and be a flower child or a hippie. The reality is that I probably would have been drafted and sent to “NAM. I can hear the drill instructor yell, “Private Zollner! You want to go to Vietnam, don’t you!”] The pouch is essentially a papoose for the front of your body. When the baby is really tiny they face inward, warm and cuddled up. When they are older they have to face forward, and you cannot see what their expression. Still they’re warm, they get to snuggle up close, and you have your hands free to do things. I could keep him in the pouch for a long time. Pouches rule! Anyway, when Jub Jub got too squirmy in church I could pouch him and walk around in the back of the church. Good for him and good for me.
We Become the Holy Family.
At church there was a tradition. Whichever family has the youngest baby plays Joseph, Jesus and Mary at the Christmas play. I was in my late forties, and my wife was in her late fifties, so forgive the incongruity between us and the other Holy Family. We would get dressed up in robes. Tommy was already in a modern version of swaddling clothes so he didn’t need a visit to the costuming department. Then we walked down the aisle, asking people if they will give us shelter, and everyone shakes their head no. Nobody will take in Jesus and his family. We get to the front and find a crib/manger where we lay baby Jesus. Behold the holy family! The pastor takes the moment to ask: What is a family? She talks about the different kinds of families and mentions that Mary, Tommy and I are a family: two “substitute” parents and a foster baby. Tommy starts crying from his straw manger bed so I pick him up. Little Jub Jub.
Mary insisted we invite the birth parents to church—they all went with us. Our church allows homosexuals to attend and be a part of the whole routine. If any of the biological parents had a problem with that, they didn’t show it. For a lot of people, especially a lot of tough guys, homosexuality is the ultimate abomination, after all, goes the conventional wisdom, Jesus must have had to hang on the cross a little longer for the sins of homosexuals. People can commit heinous acts of temple desecration, selling guns to Indians, etc. and still figure they aren’t so bad because at least they’re heterosexuals, damn it!!! Still the biological parents who went to church with us said nary a word about this horrific travesty.
The sight of the parents holding their kids thawed my cold, cold heart a little. I saw Ellen with Augusta, and I mostly remember the times when she cradled the baby close and bent down to look at her face, their sharp pointed noses inches away from each other. With Neesa’s parents it was different. Lizzie demonstrated no evident parental affection. She always acted a little high and would smile and look over at Neesa, looking amused and a little curious, like she was about to giggle. Mario showed a heavy sense of sadness, almost remorse. One had a visible conscience, the other did not—or at least the conscience was not able to surface over the layer of drugs littering the top of her mental ocean. Mario would hold the baby more than his girlfriend did. It created an instant change in his personality. He was no longer the gangbanger who would drop everything and roll with his buddies whenever they came over and “had some business to take care of.” When he held Neesa something cracked in his shell, and you look through the cracked surface could see a little of his essential humanity. Lizzie might become a human being if you could just separate her from the drugs for a while.
I was worried about April, the foster baby we planned to adopt. I wanted her to go to heaven even if I was sometimes a cynic. Okay, I decided. I’ll go to heaven so April can get a better head start. My soul might be disposable, but April’s isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, I generally like the teachings of Jesus; even though I think some of his teachings are pie in the sky idealistic. I mean, how practical is it to live like he did. I keep thinking that people will take advantage of you. When I read the Gospels, I worry that Jesus is such a nice guy that he might get killed in the end. I’ll have to finish reading His story and see how it turned out.
I used to have a joke that all that stuff about the resurrection was thrown in later for all the stupid people, but those of us who read between the lines know the real story. Who am I kidding? My cynicism doesn’t go that deep. I like the agape love stuff in the New Testament and am put into a state of awe when I read about it. I may not understand it completely, but I wish I was better at emulating it. I had a litany that I would say to April, “You’re pretty, and that’s good. But more important than that; you’re smart. And even more important than that—you are a kind and good person.”
So, I’m slowly getting closer to God—I can’t completely shake the cynical, doubting Thomas side of me, but I have made peace with it.
Not easy for a former skeptic who very reluctantly came to believe in God. Yes, I believe in God, and God damn it, it irritates the hell out of me!
My road to moral improvement is a slow one.
Some of the disciples said to Jesus, “We believe. Help us in our unbelief.” Yeah, it’s kind of like that for me; although it’s getting less and less like that every day. The farther away I get from my nineteen year old self, the less important the doubt seems to be. I sometimes protest to Mary, “I don’t think that cynical way any more.”
Mary softly murmurs, “You do too.”
She thinks I’m a complete heathen.
Then again, in Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley’s adoptive mother thought Anne was a complete heathen too. Jesus said all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed. Dude! That’s me! Jesus must have understood. If I met Him on the street, I think I’d like him just fine and buy him a beer.
D.H. Lawrence regretted that the Bible was losing influence because it could no longer be used as a cultural or literary reference. Writers could always refer to a verse, and that passage would bring up a wealth of associations. My favorite—one that could be used when someone says something ridiculous was: And then Balaam’s ass spoke. You get the idea. Now we have Pop Culture as a ready to communicate set of references. We don’t say he’s more like Peter than Paul, we say he’s more like the Beatles than Elvis. I prefer And Balaam’s ass spoke; although that particular reference isn’t very Christ-like, I suppose. Then again, the Bible isn’t consistently Christ-like.
I have an image in my mind—I am beaten, lying down in the rain, trying to get up. Jesus comes along and lends a hand, helping me stand. He’s not like the Jesus we see in the movies, not saintly or glowing. He’s a regular guy—the kind who could listen to a streetwalker’s stories and grin along with her. I say, I know you love me, and all. I’ve heard that since the age of three, but what I want to know is, do you like me?” Jesus smiles and says, “You bet.” No, that’s not some kind of vision, just a daydream that keeps me wondering, keeps me optimistic.
Imagine a reality show—an unaffiliated person is courted by several major religions. Every week they visit a new church, and they have to pick one by the end of the season. They could call the show, The True Faith.
That’s kind of like what I went through at the time. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the church I attended, but I wanted something with a little more meat to it, and the preacher was a vegetarian. I was starting to believe more and more strongly in heaven and hell, and I wanted April to choose the former. I didn’t know it then, but the topic was discussed in the Sunday School classes I never attended, but I never let lack of knowledge stop me before. Mr. Inconsistency.
So I tried out a number of other churches.
I went back to a Catholic Church. I was raised Catholic, and I like the architecture in the older churches. It gives me something to look at when I get bored with the sermons.
Our neighbors across the street were Mormons. When they found out we were foster parents they started bending over backwards helping us out. I visited their church and liked it. They keep the churches small, and they help each other out, but I don’t want the local bishop telling me how I should cut my kid’s hair. (On the other hand, if she comes home with a Mohawk someday, maybe I do).
I tried out some evangelical churches, but they make me feel so cold. Not their fault, I’m sure. When I go to an evangelical church I always wonder: Are they going to make us sit in the back with the sinners? Again, that’s not their fault, but it’s a hard notion to shake.
I finally came back to my old church because I became comfortable with the honest ambiguities. I don’t agree with everything and never will. But I feel like it’s okay to have doubts and undertake an ongoing journey of discovery, and I don’t always get that impression with every church I visit.
I always had a love/hate relationship with God. I suspect most people do too. What would the value of faith be if it were easy to have a relationship with God? Even St. Teresa of Avila complained to God, telling Him, “No wonder You have so few friends.”