Reflections Following Two years of Genealogical Research

According to an ancient myth, the world rests upon the back of an elephant and that elephant rests upon another elephant, it being elephants all the way down. I had similarly thought that the foundation of my identity was my surname, but by the further back in time I went, the less my surname seemed like a solid foundation and the more it seemed like a pinpoint in space. 

Because I exclude cousins, my tree contains a mere 512 names, but even that is too many to keep straight. For example, when I’m telling Peggy about some new discovery, she’ll ask, “Is that on your mother’s side or your father’s?” or, “How many “greats” ago was that?” and I will realize that I had lost sight of the forest while studying the trees.

For some researchers, the point of genealogy is to accumulate as many names as possible and to go as far back in time as possible, and to do these things as fast as possible. The point of genealogy for me is to avoid mistakes, and this means accumulating as much information as possible about one person before I move on to the next.

I’m haunted by the thought that, if I make a single mistake in naming someone as my ancestor, then every prior name in that line will also be in error. To find such mistakes, I sometimes start my research all over again. Well, sort of. The problem with really starting over again is that going over the same ground repeatedly would become so tedious that I
would probably give up my research. For instance, having explored the matter thoroughly, I’m convinced that the Ellis branch of my family came ashore in Virginia rather than Massachusetts, so I’m not inclined to research the Massachusetts’ Ellises all over again. Another reason for my reluctance is that not only did generation after generation name their children with the same few names, eg. John, Caroline, Richard, Sarah, Charles, Nancy, William, Mary, Henry, and Elizabeth; they mixed and matched, often making it impossible for even the most diligent researcher to know which person an old document refers to. The further back in time one goes, the more genealogy becomes a process of educated guesswork, and the thought is ever with me that, no matter how hard I try, I will never be able to do more than to dip my toe in the waters of time.

Another challenge is that it can be very hard to find researchers whose work is helpful because few researchers are even remotely conscientious, most of them using appallingly few sources, and many building their entire trees by copying information from other people’s trees. This leads to mistakes being the norm. For example, nearly every tree that includes my father has his first name misspelled; or it gets his name completely wrong (Thomas instead of Tommy); or it mistakenly applies the suffix “Jr.
I frequently find trees in which people are listed as giving birth when they were six; being born before their parents; fighting in wars that didn't start until a hundred years after their deaths; or living their entire lives in Jasper County, Alabama, but registering their wills in Poughkeepsie, New York, etc. I’ve gone from being impressed by people who claim to have traced their families back to the 16th century to thinking to myself, “Fat chance!” For one thing, 1500 is the outer edge of meaningful research for even the most diligent and experienced researcher. For another, 500 years would equal ±1,048,576 ancestors.
Upon reading 200 year old wills, I’m ever surprised by how little people owned, most of it being things that no one would bother to itemize in our age of automation. For example, in a will from 1767, my ancestor wrote: “I do likewise give unto my godson Andreas…four of my best shirts.” The testators’ slaves (I’ve found scores of those) were usually listed alongside the livestock and sometimes shared the family’s surname. As for the first names of slaves, I
’ve found Richards and Elizabeths but also Caesars and Napoleons. Ive also found slaves who remained with their former masters long after the government freed them.

Most of my genealogical research boils down to the tedious job of data entry, but when I find something like the 1862 letter that one of my Confederate great great great uncles wrote to his wife a month before he died behind enemy lines following the Civil War Battle of Murfreesboro (Tennessee), the tedium becomes worth it.

This isn’t to say that data entry can’t be poignant. For example, it has enabled me to feel affection for a great great maiden aunt (Mary) who was born in Alabama in 1843. By the time of the 1880 census, her father had died, and, except for a maiden sister (Sarah Jane), her six siblings had died or moved. In that 1880 census, Mary, Sarah Jane, and their mother, Sallie, owned a 400 acre farm. They hired eight laborers (four white and four black) to work four weeks that year at a cost of $20, and they reported a gross income of $592. Their largest expense was fertilizer. Two years later, Sarah Jane and Sallie were dead (Sarah Jane at 52 and Sallie at 78), and Mary had fallen off the map as far as surviving records go, only to reappear for a final time thirty years later when she was 67 years old and living alone in a house that she owned free and clear. I’ve been unable to find her grave.

Alongside Mary in my affection comes her maiden sister, Sarah Jane, who had the courage to remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War, this despite having three brothers who fought for the Confederacy and despite being surrounded by families whose sons and brothers were falling before Yankee bullets. In 1863, she was visiting some inlaws when the Union Calvary came along and took her horse, which she later described as “a fine valuable sorrel mare sixteen hands high.” After the war, she demanded that the federal government reimburse her the value of her horse, which she set at $160, and they responded with a list of eighty questions and required that she produce three witnesses to attest to her loyalty. In response to those questions, she swore that she had shed tears of disapproval when the South seceded; had done her best to keep her brothers from joining the rebel army; had given the Union army all the help she could; and had denied assistance to the Confederacy except when compelled to do so (she was forced to cook for the troops). One of her witnesses said that she was a quiet woman who neither hid nor advertised her loyalty to the Union, and that only her gender saved her from being physically harmed. Thanks to the fairness of the Union, my aunt got her money.

New! Sundry! Hardly Edited! Utterly Uncensored!

I went to the pharmacy yesterday for a flu shot. The clerk had me fill out a form, and said that I should come back in twenty minutes for the shot. I had no watch, so I asked her for the time. She looked at her computer and said it was 11:55. I proceeded to kill time by walking around the store. I looked at the walls for a clock, but there wasn’t one. There never is anymore. If I had cared enough to ask someone for the time, he or she would have pulled out a cellphone. I have no cellphone, and I only wear a watch when I anticipate needing it. Since it is easier to look at one’s wrist than to take out a phone, I don’t know why so few people wear watches, this being but one of the many things that I don't understand about modern life. Another is the abundant misuse of the word like and, to a lesser extent, the word perfect. “For example, a clerk might ask, “Like, what is your phone number?” and when I tell her (it’s usually a her), she will say, “Perfect!” Sometimes, I will respond with, “I’m so glad!” or, “At least there’s that.”

Every year, Peggy and I buy Christmas presents for the kids next door. This year, Peggy called their mother on Xmas day and left a message to call her back to arrange a time. She then left the same message on their father’s phone. Neither called back, so when I saw the woman two days later, I asked her if they had gotten Peggy’s messages, and she said that, no, they never check their voicemail because they prefer texting. Based upon my knowledge of her, I had no reason to think she was lying, yet I couldn't quite believe that she was being truthful either. A few days earlier, I was with someone who pulled out his cellphone to look something up, and he said, “Hey, I see that I got an email from you. What did you want?” I had to think for a moment because I had sent the email two weeks earlier. When I asked him why he hadn’t seen it, he said, “I don’t do email.”

My first watches were wind-ups, which were all that existed in the 1950s and ‘60s (come to think of it, my first radio had vacuum tubes, but that’s another story). I don’t remember when battery watches came out, but since they were cheaper and kept better time, I never bought another wind-up. Even so, I regard battery watches as aesthetically lacking. A wind-up watch was something to cherish, partly because it really did require daily care, whereas a battery watch is simply a way to tell time.

Another thing that puzzles me about people who are a lot younger than I is that they will sometimes watch movies or TV shows on their cellphones. My family’s first TV had about a twelve inch screen, so for the next several decades, manufacturers did their best to develop larger screens with clearer pictures, which makes the current desire to watch TV on a cellphone baffling. I don
t even recognize the names of the famous people that they watch or listen to on their cellphones, that is unless those people became famous more than twenty years ago.

When I was a child (I was born in 1949), my family’s phone number was 65M2, and since, in rural Mississippi anyway, dial phones didn’t exist, a person who wanted to place a call would pick up the receiver, and an operator would say, “Number please.” My birth family’s last phone number was 833-5184. I’ve gone through several phone numbers since then, but I only remember those two, my current one, and my last one.

Every year, fewer and fewer people will know—or care—about the technology that dominated my first several decades. They also won’t know that, instead of the word “like,” there was a time when people who lacked self-confidence would simply say, “uh…,” and that the word perfect meant superlative. I’ve always heard that many old people reach a point of feeling “ready to die.” They probably get to that point primarily due to poor health and the loss of loved ones, but I suspect it might also be tied to the fact that the world that they once knew, and still care about, is a thing of the past, and they devalue what has replaced it. The fact is that young people have a tendency to regard the old with condescension, and that the old regard them similarly.

Not that modernity is all bad. For example, I love i-Macs, safer cars, ready access to old movies and TV shows, and even cat litter (prior to the 1940s, people used sand, dirt, wood shavings, or shredded newspaper—ha, my spell check doesn’t recognize the word newspaper). It’s also true that Peggy and I would be dead by now had we been born even a few years sooner. I say this because I suffer from severe sleep apnea, and not only did CPAPS not exist prior to 1983, arrogant doctors would have thought I was lazy or that my sleepiness was all in my head. Peggy would be dead because, starting several years ago, every time she gets a cold, she ends up with bronchitis and has to go on nebulizers, inhalers, and steroids. I’m certain of it—we would be dead. On the downside, increased suffering usually walks hand-in-hand with increased longevity. While doctors can ward off many fatal ailments, they have less to offer when it comes to problems that simply make a person miserable.

I would guess that a great many changes are a mixed bag. Slavery and Jim Crow are gone, but bigotry and discrimination remain. Women have more rights, but they’re still objectified, and many of them seem hell bent on presenting themselves first and foremost as something to fuck. The cold war is over, but horrific violence and the threat of another cold war remain. A heightened concern for the environment exists, yet few people are willing to change their behavior one iota in order to avoid catastrophe. A greater concern for endangered species exists, yet we are in the midst of the second worse mass extinction the world has ever known, and it
s all our fault.

Peggy and I sometimes congratulate ourselves on not having children. We do this partly because most of her sisters’ children and grandchildren turned out to be parasites who, quite literally, never left home. More importantly, neither of us is optimistic about the future, which means that much of the worrying we do is for ourselves, for some vague entity called the planet, and for the millions of other species that we so-called homosapiens are
dragging down to hell with us.

Cream, Candy, Cat, Baranki and Samovar,

Peggy's new painting
When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is feed the cats. Breakfast done, I try to pet them. Brewsky lets me; Ollie and Scully walk away; Sage runs away after looking at me like, "My god, who are you, and why do you want to kill me!?" A half hour later, he lies on his back with his legs stretched out, and I pet him. I go to the computer. Ollie comes in to be petted, so I pet him. He goes to sleep on a chair next to me. Scully comes in to be petted, so I pet her, and she goes to sleep atop the cat tree.

An hour or two later, Peggy gets up, and Sage cries to be petted. She picks Sage up, and he climbs onto her shoulder. Most afternoons, I go to church, and when I come home, Scully greets me, and I pet her, but if I try to pet Sage, he again looks at me like, "My god, who are you, and why do you want to kill me!?" A few minutes later, he’s on his back again, and I pet him. Brewsky wants to be petted 24/7. Like Sage, he too lies on his back. I would kiss his plush belly if not for fear of getting a mouthful of fur. Scully is our only tuxedo cat and our only girl. She's also our most timid cat, so I'm honored when she kneads my thigh, which she does almost every morning when Peggy and I have our "cuddle time." When she's done with her daily kneading, she puts her head on my thigh and go to sleep. Our cats treat Peggy and me differently. For instance, Sage doesn't climb onto my shoulder, and Scully doesn't knead Peggy.

Although cats love orderliness and routine, they often surprise me. For instance, a cat will do something in the same way for months or years, and then never do it again. For example, everyday for years, Ollie would sit in a particular office chair with his front legs resting on the left arm of that chair. I had thought the behavior was a part of his Ollieness, and it saddened me when he stopped.

Ollie's Chair
I own over 200 books about cats plus a small collection of cat knicknacks. Last week, Peggy won an $850 Russian oil painting of a cat. During the many decades that we had dogs, I never owned more than a half dozen books about dogs, but I have added to my collection since I started buying cat books. Right now, I'm reading A Small Furry Prayer, a really good book about dog rescue.

Peggy travels, but I won't go with her because I would worry about the cats. Peggy is the only being that I love more than I love my cats, and if she would consent, I would probably get another kitten every two years because kittens light up a house. The funny thing about our having four cats is that Peggy chose three of them. Cat-hater that she was, it was to my utter astonishment that she chose our first cat, Brewsky, but once she got him, she said that was it, NO MORE CATS. After a few years of me wanting another cat, she gave in four years ago, and we got a gray kitten that we named Ollie. Brewsky loved Ollie at first sight and still "nurses" him. I wanted a third cat, but Peggy stood firm until we were in PetSmart looking at the rescue cats "just for fun," and she saw Scully. When we left PetSmart to buy groceries, I kept encouraging Peggy to let me go back and get Scully. When she finally said “yes,” I ran from the store and arrived at PetSmart moments ahead of someone else who also wanted Scully. Peggy later said she thought I was joking about getting Scully. As it turned out, the joke was on her!

Brewsky was thrilled to have another kitten, and he was thrilled again when we got Sage, only this time, it took Peggy three days to give in to my constant urging. Ollie’s background was the saddest; he and his siblings had been abandoned on the side of the Detroit Lakes’ Highway, which is why the shelter volunteers had named him Detroit Tony. Sage and Scully are our only cats whose names we didn’t change.

Scully on left, Sage on top, Brewsky on bottom

When we got Brewsky, I was as nervous as a first-time father. It wasn’t just that I had no idea how to care for a cat; I had no idea how to be with a cat. I had imagined that cats were timid, aloof, and selfish, and would hate me forever if I made the least mistake. Luckily, Brewsky was mellow, unabashed, and forgiving. He was also stubborn. I would tell him not to do something, and he would do it anyway, again and again and again, after which I would chase him through the house yelling and slapping seat cushions with the flat side of a yardstick. Not only was he un-afraid, he would suddenly stop running and roll over on his back to be petted, so what could I do but pet him? I finally stopped ordering Brewsky around unless I was deadly serious about something. Most times, I wasn’t. For example, to make the bed, I would have to first put him out of it. He would immediately jump back in, and I would put him out a second time. One day, I put him out nine times. Brewsky isn't my pet, he's my brother, my father, and my son. He's my "starter cat," my "walking miracle," and "the patriarch of the cat side of the family.” 

At age eight, Brewsky is no stubborn except when it comes to trying to steal food off Peggy's plate, and I haven’t yelled at him in years. He is our only cat who occasionally throws a tantrum. For example, he used to enjoy sleeping under the furnace (he got there via an air intake vent), but when I discovered that he was chewing electrical wires, I put a cover on the vent. He became enraged, stomping (you've never seen a cat stomp?) around the house and cursing for all he was worth. The only time I ever saw anything like it was when I cut a tree limb that squirrels were using as a bridge between the tree and our roof. After I returned to the ground, various squirrels stood on the roof and cursed me mightily. They were so mad that I believe they would have killed me had they been able, and it's a wonder they didn't at least try. I respected squirrels a lot more after that.

When we got cats, I consoled myself with the thought that their imagined aloofness would save me from excessive grief when they died, but I was wrong. Cats are beautiful, loving, graceful, dignified, and mysterious. They're self-cleaning, don’t have to be walked, and don't have to be put out in the rain at midnight to pee and poop. Back when Peggy and I hiked and camped, dogs were preferable, but those days are gone. If I were marooned on an island and had to choose between a cat and a dog as my sole companion, I would take the dog, but in my current situation, I prefer cats. What I’m trying to convey is that, when I think of dogs versus cats, I don't think in terms of species superiority but of preferability on the part of a given person or for a given purpose. I get out of sorts with those who act as if there’s something wrong with anyone whose choice of a pet is the opposite of their own, and I have no use whatsoever for anyone who hates dogs, cats, or both (back when Peggy said she hated cats, I knew that what she really meant was that she was afraid of cats).

I have an acquaintance who acted like he wanted to have a closer relationship with me, but I didn’t want to have one with him once I observed that, when my cats greeted him, he wouldn’t acknowledge them, that is unless staring at them like they were objects counts as acknowledgement. I further learned from talking with him that he not only disrespects nonhumans, he disrespects humans who try to help nonhumans, “…there being so many needy people.” I concluded that his soul was impoverished, and that I didn't want him in my life.

One of the things I like best about our four cats is that, unlike our last two dogs (who never were close), our cats are devoted to one another. Shelters will often label a pair of cats as "bonded," meaning that they have to be adopted together. Our cats are a bonded foursome, so god forbid that Peggy and I should die at the same time (a car wreck or the flu come to mind), and them end up in a shelter. I actually worry about this.

...I consider it  unlikely that my life will ever get any better than it now is, and I owe a huge debt to cats for making it that way.

Honorable People Don't Support Filth

When Trump was elected, I stupidly imagined that his supporters had inexplicably failed to understand that he was devoid of honor, decency, and compassion. I told myself that, were it otherwise, they wouldn't have voted for him. As the months passed, I was nonplussed to observe that his supporters clung to him ever more passionately.

Last Saturday, Trump held a campaign rally on the very day that eleven Jews were murdered in the city of Pittsburgh. He explained his decision by saying that he could no more cancel a rally on a day when eleven Jews were murdered than he could cancel a rally on a day when his hair didn't look right. 

His statement on Saturday was no worse than much of what Trump says, but, combined with my outrage over living in a country in which any fool can murder people with a legally obtained assault rifle, it forced me to conclude that Trump's supporters don't adore him because they're too stupid to see him for what he is, but because they see him for exactly what he is, and they like it. On a comparable note, the people of Brazil just elected their own fascist president, not because they failed to understand how vicious he was for telling a female legislator that she wasn't worth raping*, but because he made it permissible for men to indulge their own misogyny.

People who elect "strong man" fascists invariably equate cruelty with strength, and they only think better of their choice when their country lies in ruins. Until such time, they are content to offer rationalizations worthy of a four year old. For instance, on the radio today, I heard someone say that Trump can't possibly be an anti-Semite because, after all, he has a Jewish son-in-law. By the same reasoning, he can't be a misogynist because he has been married three times....

My conclusion regarding the honor and integrity of Trump's millions upon millions of supporters has grown stronger everyday he has been in office. It is: 

There is something wrong with these people. 

I just wish I could come up with some way to think about it that didn't cause me to hate them so much. 

*Trump has expressed the same sentiment.

To clarify my thoughts regarding the existence of God and religion in general...

What follows is a statement of my faith, or rather my absence of faith, that is intended as a corollary to my recent and my upcoming posts about attending church.

The world as we know it shows no evidence of an all knowing, all wise, all good, and all powerful deity, but to posit a God that lacks these qualities (as in pantheism, deism, and much of liberal Christianity) is to render God's existence all but irrelevant.

To respond to a question about how something came about by saying that God did it or God made it that way isn’t to give a reason but to evade the question.

To say of God that he is a supernatural being is to define God with a term that cannot itself be defined.

Other than to project attributes that we wish we had onto God, no one can say what God is, yet millions of people imagine that they know God’s mind, and that God wants them to oppress those who disagree.

The more effectively science can explain the existence of the universe and life on our planet, the harder it becomes to defend theism. This is why lesser educated believers tend to be hostile to science, while better educated believers worship such an attenuated version of God that they are left with little that outsiders can criticize or that they themselves can find comfort in.

Alongside the complete lack of evidence to support a belief in God’s existence, there is strong reason to believe that God (as a being who is all good, all knowing, and all powerful) does not exist. This proof is evident anytime any creature suffers, whether from violence, accident, deformity, disease, addiction, oppression, mental illness, starvation, natural disaster, natural selection, or for any other reason.

Despite what theists commonly argue, there is no evidence to suggest that those who believe in God are more open, honest, moral, compassionate, spiritual, sensitive, fair-minded, intelligent, common sensical, open to wonder, or superior in any other way to nonbelievers. I would even argue that the reverse is commonly true with religion being used to justify behaviors that require a lack of positive qualities on the part of those who engage in them. For example…

In nearly every instance, the God of a given nation is portrayed as favoring that nation above other nations (Gott Mit Uns the Nazi belt buckles proclaimed), and that nation’s powerful above its oppressed, the latter of whom are told that by submitting to their wealthy oppressors in this life, they will receive mansions in the next. It is even commonplace in modern America for ministers to promise the poor that they will receive mansions in this life if they are willing to prove their trust in God by donating generously to those same ministers.

All of the above being what I believe, it follows that I don’t attend church because I think I am in good company, it being my conviction that the company of believers as a whole is very bad company indeed (America's Christians continue to support Donald Trump), or because my beliefs about God or religion have changed. I instead go to church because I gain from the experience in ways that I have blogged about and will continue to blog about, and because I make a strong distinction between liberal Christians and other Christians. Unfortunately, liberal Christians are in the minority, the reason being that most people have an emotional need for assurances beyond what liberal religion can provide.

I finally open up in the face of growing outrage... offering some pesky news cliches for your consideration. The fact that most of them concern the president is due to the fact that although he was elected to deal with events that are in the news, the reality is that, more often than not, he is the news, and he goes to pains to insure that it will remain that way.

Walked Back, as in, "The president walked back his earlier comments."
Fired Back, as in "The president fired back against his critics."
Pushed Back, as in, "The president pushed back in the face of continued allegations."
Doubled Down, as in, "The president doubled down when his statement was shown to be in error."
Opened Up, "In an exclusive interview, she opened up about sexually predatory behavior on the part of the president."
Broke His Silence, as in, "He finally broke his silence about what really happened on that deadly night in July." 
Speaking Out, as in, "Victims of sexual abuse are finally speaking out."
Growing Outrage, as in, "The president's remarks have inspired growing outrage."
Taking Heat, as in, "Donald Trump's children are taking heat for using their father's office for monetary gain."
Heads Turned, as in, "Heads turned when Melania Trump proclaimed her concern for children in a jacket upon which was emblazoned the words, 'I really don't care. Do you?'"
Dog Whistle, as in, "Many argue that the president's boasts of being a credit to his genes are a dog whistle to white nationalists."
America is talking, as in, "America is talking about renewed allegations that the president colluded with Russia." 
Explosive new allegations, as in, "Yet another woman came forward today with explosive new allegations of sexual impropriety on the part of the president. 
Witch Hunt, as in, "The president said that the investigation into whether he used his office for financial gain is a witch hunt."

Flooding Event, as in "The president left the small North Carolina town just hours before it was inundated by a record flooding event."
Drought Event, as in, "The state is in its fifth straight year of a record drought event."
Forest fire event, as in, "A record forest fire event is being fueled by high winds and extreme drought."
Fatal event, as in, "Zebrux has been shown to cause fatal events in some users.

Whence cometh this constant use of cliches on the part of reporters? While plugging in the same formulaic language in story after story might spare reporters the necessity of thinking, it is a disservice to the public in that it causes disparate stories to run together in a muddled whole. As for the senseless use of the word event, I assume that it is intended to make one sound more precise and knowledgeable than one actually is, except in Big Pharma commercials where it is clearly euphemistic.

In all cases, a disrespect for language is evident, and I haven't even gotten into the relatively recent and almost universal misuse of pronouns. I might comprehend what you're trying to communicate when you say, "Me and him got drunk," but what I don't know is why mere comprehension is all that matters to you. If you or someone you know teaches English, I would love to know if proper speech has officially become a thing of the past.  Please, if you can, tell me.

Gnosticism and My Experiences with Mysticism

Marcus Borg
Scores of widely accepted Gnostic works were excluded from the New Testament's canonization in 397 A.D. because they contradicted the beliefs of the Catholic hierarchy. Before and after the canonization, many such scriptures were destroyed, although one or more occasionally turns up in a cave or monastery. In 1945, a treasure trove of such documents was found near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, and, thirty years later, the Gospel of Judas was discovered nearby. Although Gnostic beliefs were diverse, the following suggest how different Gnostic thinking was from what became orthodoxy:

There is only one "true God," but there are numerous lower deities, three of which created the universe as we know it. Those three were: Jehovah, the god of the Hebrew Bible who behaved like a jilted lover; Saklas, the fool who created humanity; and Nebro, a blood-drenched rebel. 

Judas was hated by the other apostles because he alone understood Jesus' message. He turned Jesus over to the Romans at Jesus' command. 

Jesus didn't die as an atonement for sin but to escape earth. We're not saved by faith but by secret knowledge, and we can only obtain that knowledge if we're among the few people who are immortal. 

Jesus laughed easily, often at things that appalled his apostles. For example, he laughed at their piety; at their inability to understand him; at the heroes of the Hebrew Bible; and at the conceit of Jehovah. During his crucifixion, the essence of Jesus comforted his frightened followers in their hiding places.

In some Gnostic stories, Jesus occupied the body of a grown man after expelling its previous occupant. In others, he was born a baby, and his supernatural powers made him into a bad-tempered brat who killed, blinded, or paralyzed anyone who angered him. 

The Gnostic writings are so filled with absurdities that I assume their writers were either trying to be funny or else their intention escapes me. For instance, in one part of the Acts of John, the Apostle John successfully commanded bed bugs to leave his bed and stand outside the door; in another he raised from the dead a celibate married woman with whose corpse a man had tried to have sex, his attempt being thwarted by a guardian snake that encircled his ankles and scared him to death. Then, a few pages later, I came across one of the most hypnotic passages of Scripture. In it, the apostles joined hands and danced ecstatically around Jesus while responding Amen to his chanting. I will share but a few lines...

The number Eight singeth praise with us. Amen
The number Twelve danceth above us. Amen
The Whole on High taketh part in the dancing. Amen
He who doth not dance, knoweth not what is being done. Amen

A lamp am I to thee that beholdest me. Amen
A mirror am I to thee that perceivest me. Amen
A door am I to thee that knockest at me.
A way am I to thee, a wayfarer. Amen

As I read those words just before dawn, my bedroom began to spin; I became unable to judge distance; and my plants beneath their grow-light shone with glory. It wasn't the first time I experienced a euphoric hallucination, the early ones dating from childhood. I especially remember my inability to judge distance and the extreme clarity of objects, experiences that were like being in Oregon's High Desert on a sunny day when all things seem alive and it seems that I can reach out and touch mountains that are two miles high and eighty miles away. Although some of my later hallucinations involved drugs, they were all more real and memorable than most of life. 

A recent help to me in making sense of my experiences are the writings of theologian, Marcus Borg, who also loved the remote clarity of the Oregon High Desert and died there in 2015. Only upon reading about his experiences did I stop interpreting my own to mean that I am too sensitive, too suggestible, overly impressionable, or borderline insane, possibilities that worried my mother, although she didn't know the half of it. The word that Borg gave me was mystical, which seemed to leap off the page and with it, years of striving, of wondering, of challenging, of drawing demarcations, all fell away or, perhaps, came to fruition.

Do I mean to say that I have been in contact with something from without? No, but then I don't consider the distinction meaningful. I'll try to explain myself with an example. In 1978, after a night that started with waking nightmares during which I became too scared to speak as a succession of chimeras leaped toward my face, and that ended with a heaven of kaleidoscopic colors playing before my closed eyes in a darkened room, I sat atop a farm truck to watch the sunrise. As I looked across cotton fields at a row of large oaks that stretched along the bank of the Mississippi River, the trees began to sway, even to dance, and I knew that I was one with the universe, which, I believe, was what Jesus felt as the apostles danced. The fact that I had taken a chemical the night before in no way lessened the profundity of the experience because the drug was but a key to a place that had been there all along.

I've surely forgotten entire years of events that occurred during the intervening decades, but I'll never forget what I felt that Louisiana morning. Church is a little like that, its truth being in something other than consenting to dogmatic absurdities, something that is the result of many things, among them tradition, antiquity, community, sanctuarial beauty, liturgical elegance, the transition from sitting to standing to bowing to kneeling to making the signum crucis and back again, and to something else that I can't name anymore than I can name what happened as I sat atop that farm truck. After receiving the Eucharist, I watch as others proceed slowly and quietly down the center aisle and kneel before the altar, some of them so old and frail that they can't kneel. As I observe the poignant solemnity of a procession that started in Eugene 164 years ago and that always ends in death, tears sometimes come, and I don't know why. I just know that they come from the best part of me, the part in which trees dance, and rooms spin, and I experience compassion, and I love my wife as myself. 

"Neither shall they say, 'Lo here! or, Lo there!' for, behold, the kingdom of God is within."

Peggy's narrow escape

Peggy has been attending a hobbyist convention (she collects clothing buttons) in Jacksonville, Florida, with her friend, Sandie. Peggy and Sandie were taking a walk today when they escaped being shot by a matter of seconds. Twelve people were not so lucky, and four of the twelve are dead. Among the panicked survivors who ran past Peggy and Sandie was a man with a bloody leg.

It is Republicans who are to blame for making our country into a war zone, and it is evangelical Christians who dominate the Republican Party. How do these good Christians (the same people who claim that I can't be moral because I don't believe in hell) justify forcing the rest of us to live in constant fear of being murdered simply because we chose to attend school, go on vacation, drive down the street, sit in front of an open window, or take a walk? They say that:

(1) Gun violence is the price of freedom.
(2) Gun violence can be greatly reduced by putting more guns in the hands of more people, thereby making all of us afraid to start shooting.

My tolerance for those who vote Republican has been going downhill for years, but the hill steepened dramatically after Trump was elected because it was then that I lost my final vestige of hope that these people even mean well. 

The last time I spoke to Peggy's father, he said that he and his fellow Baptist deacons were considering whether to start bringing guns to church simply because one never knows when a gun might come in handy. After I received Peggy's call, I wanted to phone him and ask him if his position about gun ownership would have changed had his daughter been murdered. I didn't do it because I didn't want to hurt Peggy.

If you vote Republican, blood is on your hands, and while, in my present state of outrage, I don't really care one whole hell of a lot what happens to you, my anger would know no bounds if my wife had been murdered because of you.

Shabbat: an epiphany

I had long planned to someday visit Temple Beth Israel. The website calendar listed a class with the rabbi on Thursday followed by Shabbat on Friday, so I emailed to say that I would like to attend both. I arrived at the synagogue behind another man. The door was locked, so he rang the bell, told a disembodied voice why he had come, and was buzzed in. After the door closed behind him, I went through the same procedure. I thought my bookpack might invite inquiry, but it didn't.

At the start of class, the young female rabbi asked me pointedly why I had come, and a kindly woman named Gail said, "Nothing like being put on the spot." I said that I enjoy interesting religion classes. I added that I last attended a synagogue in 1969, and that despite both the synagogue and the rabbi's home being bombed by the KKK two years earlier, I received a warm welcome. I told about my grandfather having arrived in Mississippi with a wife, two kids, and no money in 1908, and how Samuel Abrams of Abrams' Mercantile extended him credit when no one else would. I told of a dream I had as a teenager in which I entered my town's synagogue and found it beautiful beyond imagining.

The rabbi said that I was welcome to come to any of the synagogue's events without giving prior notice, and Gail offered to sit with me at Shabbat. The class was over my head, but I participated as much as I could. When it ended, the rabbi said that there was nothing on the handouts that couldn't be recycled. I asked her what would have happened if there were, and she said they would have to be buried.

I was so tired on Friday evening that I wouldn't have attended the two hour service had Gail not expected me. This time the door was unlocked, but a man was sitting just inside. As is my habit for most things, I arrived early, so upon seeing a courtyard adjacent to the sanctuary, I went in and immediately spotted a large and distressed jade plant. Upon finding that the soil was bone dry, I went looking for something to carry water in. The man at the door found a bucket. I thought that the plight of that plant cast the synagogue in a bad light.

On my way into the sanctuary, I donned a yamulke and was handed a hymnal. There was a box of tzitzis, but the service didn't require one. I  took a seat in the back, but Gail, who was down front, looked for me and motioned for me to sit with her. When the rabbi walked over, I stood-up, thinking she would welcome me, but she ignored me entirely while speaking to Gail. Gail told me as much about the service as she could as fast as she could, but I was too busy soaking in the atmosphere to listen.

Nearly all of the service consisted of singing joyously in Hebrew to the music of banjos, guitars, and mandolins. Some people danced. I knew that Hebrew was read from right to left, but I was momentarily thrown by the hymnal's page numbers running from what is normally the back of the book toward the front. Alongside the Hebrew text, the hymnal contained English translations and an English guide to Hebrew pronunciation. Christian songs tend to focus upon sucking up to God, but these were love songs of trust, tenderness, and longing, and I was unprepared for how beautiful they were. My tears started to fall with the first song, and they kept falling throughout the service. Because I sitting in the middle of a row in the front of the sanctuary with the pews being arranged in a semi-circle, I was in view of many eyes, and because I had no handkerchief, the tears ran down my face and onto my shirt. I wiped my nose on my fingers and wiped my fingers on my pants. When I noticed that my pants were glistening, I asked Gail if it was an appropriate part of the service to excuse myself to the bathroom.

When I returned, I sat in the back, in a chair that was at the end of a row. I thought I had regained my composure, but I was wrong. When I leaned my hymnal against my chair leg to wipe my eyes, a woman crossed the aisle and handed it to me, saying that putting a hymnal on the floor was not permitted. I later thanked her, and she said that it had been hard for her to say anything. When I got home, I learned that, while I was at synagogue, a man 300 miles to the north had intentionally crashed a plane onto an island after telling air traffic control, "I'm just a messed up guy." I found it harder than usual to grasp the fact that such extremes of happiness and misery can co-exist. 

Why did I cry? I cried because I have never experienced a more beautiful service. I cried because the seemingly ancient music was filled with romance rather than abasement and supplication. I cried because Gail was alive with love for her religion. I cried because those with whom I stood retain the courage to be happy despite the suffering of their people. I cried because Jews live under an increasing threat of violence, and I cannot protect them. I cried because I grew up being told that, unlike Christianity, Judaism is coldly legalistic, yet I had never experienced such passion and adoration.

The next evening, Saturday, I attended an Episcopal "circle communion" for the first time since December 15, 2012 (I remember the date because the Connecticut school shooting occurred the day before, and the group was consumed by grief). In an ordinary Episcopal mass, the priest and one or more attendees serve the elements. In a circle service, each person serves the bread and wine to the next person in the circle. It's the kind of small group atmosphere in which I thrive, and I only stopped going because I was expected, while serving communion, to say a single sentence in which I didn't believe. I shared my dilemma with someone I trusted and, in her outrage, she told others, the result being anger on their part and a feeling of betrayal on mine. For years, I wanted to return, but I knew I would be unwelcome. Now, I think of the words that I objected to as a gift rather than a statement of faith.

The group recited, "When I searched for Love, the Beloved answered within my heart. Look to the Beloved, and your face will radiate love," and I was again overwhelmed by emotion. The songs of the previous night, the words of that night's circle service, and the writings of Anglican bishops John Robinson, James Pike, and John Spong, all emphasize the concept of the God-Within to the point that the God-Without disappears. It's theology made poetry. It does not believe; it awaits. It does not fear external hell; it fears internal emptiness. It does not obey dogma; it obeys conscience.

As I cried, the woman to my right, a stranger to me, laid a comforting hand on my leg, but I couldn't return her touch because I was in the latest throes of a struggle that has lasted for over fifty years. On the one hand, I need church, which is to say that I need the Episcopal Church, but on the other, I feel that I have to renounce my integrity to attend. 

During the Shabbat celebration, and then the circle communion, I realized that I simply must find a middle ground between being true to my intellect and being true to my heart because this internal war is becoming unbearable. The mere fact that I can be so moved by the beauty of worship that my life doesn't work well without it, suggests that I have an unalterable need to attend, and that no compassionate person, including myself, can deny me that right.

Check Your Brain at the Church Door

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

This anonymous prayer depicts religion as it can be but seldom is. The fundamentalist Church of Christ of my childhood neared a worst-case scenario of hatred and intolerance. I was raised to believe that:

1) The Bible was dictated word for word by God. The Bible is true historically and scientifically, and it outlines God’s plan for salvation so simply that “even a child can understand it.”

2) Salvation is by a combination of faith and works. Anyone who deviates in any way from New Testament teachings does so out of pride, and is doomed to an eternal fiery hell. Teaching the gospel meant warning people of hell in almost every sermon.

3) The Church of Christ is the only church that Christ instituted, although it was driven underground by persecution soon after Christ’s death until the 1830s when two former Presbyterian preachers brought it back above ground.

4) God will guide those who sincerely seek him to the Church of Christ even if they live thousands of miles from the nearest Church of Christ and have never heard of its existence. With the exception of children who have yet to reach an unspecified age of accountability, only members of the Church of Christ will go to heaven. The fate of someone who dies on his way to join the church (by being baptized) is unknown.

Some examples of what all this looked like in practice is that the Church of Christ doesn’t have instrumental music because the Bible doesn’t say that the early church had instrumental music; the Church of Christ practices baptism by immersion because Jesus “went down into the water”; the Church of Christ has weekly communion because the first Christians “broke bread upon the first day of the week”; and Church of Christ buildings are unadorned because the Bible doesn’t say that the early churches were adorned. The Church of Christ belief is that if the Bible doesn’t overtly approve of something, it is a sin to want it.

Despite insisting that God’s will is so clear that “even a child can understand it,” and that everyone outside its ranks is bound for an eternal lake of fire, the Church of Christ is divided into three branches, each of which insists that the other two are going to hell. The most conservative branch only uses one “cup” to serve communion wine because Christ said “take this cup in memory of me.” It doesn’t allow women to preach, teach Sunday school, or make announcements in church because the Bible says, “For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

The middle of the road branch (which was my branch) serves communion wine in little glasses that nest in stackable trays, but it doesn’t allow women to preach, teach Sunday school, or make announcements in church. 

The most nearly liberal branch serves communion wine in little glasses, and although it doesn’t allow women to preach, it does permit them to teach Sunday school and make announcements in church. None of these churches existed in my area.

Despite having a grandfather and a great grandfather who were Church of Christ preachers, I was the most religious person in my four person family. When I was eleven, I improvised a pulpit in my backyard, decorated it with wisteria, and preached to the neighborhood kids. I was the only person in my family who went to every one of the church’s four weekly services, and I never missed a revival at any of the area churches that were a part of my branch of the Church of Christ. I led singing, served communion, collected donations, preached short sermons, and went with preachers on out of state revivals. Despite all of this activity, I began to question the justice of the Biblical deity during the same year that I built my pulpit. At age eighteen, I optimistically tried to liberalize the church by writing articles for the newsletter. None of my articles were published, and, seemingly overnight, I became a persona non grata. When I left the church for good at age nineteen, no one inquired after me.

I hadn’t gone far, my town’s Episcopal Church being only three blocks away. Before I settled on the Episcopal Church, I went through a period of church shopping during which I visited fifty Christian denominations and a synagogue. Because my town didn’t have fifty denominations, I had to drive the sixty miles to Jackson (Mississippi) to find some of them. It was a period of great joy during which I had every confidence that I would find a church I could love. The Episcopal Church proved to be that church. My first experience with it occurred when my girlfriend, Sherry, and I were walking past my towns Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and, upon discovering that the door was unlocked, went inside. While sitting in silence admiring the beauty of the sanctuary, we heard the door open and the priest walk in. He greeted us warmly, performed whatever task that had brought him there, and left. 

A few weeks earlier, we had in the same manner walked into one of the area’s most conservative Churches of Christ. Because the different Churches of Christ have nothing to do with one another, we didn’t know anyone who attended that church, yet because we too were members of the Church of Christ, we anticipated a friendly welcome when we heard the door open, but the preacher was livid, accusing us of using the building to “gratify our lusts,” and threatening to call the police if we didn’t leave immediately. I interpreted his behavior versus the behavior of the Episcopal clergyman to symbolize the difference between the intolerant close-mindedness of conservative Christianity versus the openness and welcoming of liberal Christianity.

The biggest difference between myself and those who flourish in environments like the Church of Christ is that, while they feel threatened by differences, differences pique my curiosity. It is also true that, no matter where I go, I never truly feel that I belong because I am always the odd man out. Another difference is that I have a strong need for ritual and physical beauty, and the Church of Christ is largely devoid of both.

When I was a small boy, my family attended the Catholic wedding of my first cousin, and upon comparing the beauty of that church with its bright colors, saints’ statues, stained-glass windows, confessional booths, and fount of Holy Water, to the plainness of my own church, I began to yearn for the ornamentation that the Church of Christ says is sinful Having a rich history also matters to me, and although the Church of Christ claims that it had simply “gone underground” for 1,900 years, I don’t know if anyone really believed it, there being no record of the church having existed prior to the 1830s. The Episcopal Church used to run ads that proclaimed, “You Don’t Have to Check Your Brain at the Door,” and while the claim is debatable when made by any religious institution (all of which require belief in the unsubstantiated), checking one’s brain at the door is exactly what one must do to find contentment as a fundamentalist. Despite what many of their detractors claim, all churches are not alike.