Faith of our fathers and mothers

Some time back, my kids asked me a series of questions, the answers to which were published in a book for them and their offspring. One of those questions was “How is your faith different from your parents’ faith?” Here’s my answer. As with all my personal reflections, I offer it here in hopes others might find something with which to relate.

My parents’ faith was simple, traditional and seemingly based on a literal reading of the Bible. They attended all activities at the church and had little social life otherwise. Sometimes this need to attend appeared to border on obsessive, though I’m sure they did get a lot from being there.

For 18 years, I bought into all this with little or no questioning. It worked for me. And then it didn’t.

In the journey that followed, I soon realized that music, poetry and other art forms affirmed for me that there is something beyond the physical world. I felt a connection with other people, a connection sometimes called “love.” There was something spiritual about that.

In the midst of all this, the musical “Hair” came along. In it, a character named Claude sang, “I believe in God, and I believe that God believes in Claude. . . .” I had never thought about that relationship in that way. The phrase played often in my head. I was struggling to understand the nature of that which we call “God,” but somehow — maybe because of the power of music and poetry through which the idea was presented to me — I couldn’t help thinking that “God” believed in me.

I spent years redefining virtually every Christian symbol and ritualistic phrase from my childhood. Eventually, not only could I affirm those symbols and say those phrases again, but also they took on deeper meaning. Or maybe, I could affirm and say because they took on deeper meaning.

It wasn’t about merely reading the Bible and mindlessly following it as a road map, never mind that the map was hundreds and thousands of years old. It was helpful to hear someone point out that the Bible is a book of Truth, not a book of facts.

It worked for my parents to view what they read in the Bible and heard at church fairly literally. If the Bible said it, there was no reason to question it, even if you don’t understand it. I think it’s all more complex than that. I want to understand. I don’t think trying to understand denigrates religion. Yet I’ve come to accept that it is not possible to understand everything, and I’ve learned to affirm and celebrate mystery.

I’ve also become able to accept that my parents’ faith was just as real for them as mine is for me.

Perfect happiness

(In a different context, my offspring have been asking me random questions. Back in the spring, one was, “What is your idea of perfect happiness?” This is my answer.)

I experience perfect happiness at the start of almost every day. I sip fresh coffee, beginning in the pre-dawn stillness and through the coming of the light. Often enough I see the sun itself appear. When at the beach, I am out for each day’s sunrise.

It’s interesting this question popped up this week. For the first time in 16 months — a break necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic — I just got to visit in person with my three granddaughters and their parents. Genuine hugs can bring perfect happiness, especially after so long.

Or maybe a better word here is joy. I did a little research. Happiness results from external causes. When happiness gets into your soul, joy is engendered.

When I think of moments of perfect happiness, among the first thoughts that come to mind are holding one’s child or grandchild and being together with family or other loved ones in any of a variety of contexts.

Many years ago, a peer-counseling agency of which I was director had a journal in which anyone — staff, volunteers, clients — could write whatever was on their mind. One day I wrote a brief paragraph about sitting on my front stoop for an hour or more, holding my first-born while she slept. The afternoon sun warmed us just the right amount. Her tiny hand wrapped tightly around my finger. Much of my life was a struggle at that time, but for that moment — perfect happiness.

When I first read this question, I began to overthink it. “Perfect”? No matter how happy you feel, you know that high is not going to last forever. So how is that perfect? This led me to realize that one important reason it’s perfect is because it compels you to be completely in the moment. In that moment, it is not temporary because there is no tempus.

Another moment of perfect happiness that comes to mind took place about 65 or so years ago. My family had driven all day returning home from my grandparents — 550 miles in the days before interstate highways. I remember entering my room and collapsing onto my bed, caressing it. I chanted, or maybe just thought, “Oh my bed, my good ol’ bed” more than once, but probably not much more. Then it was morning.

Disney World claims to be “the happiest place in the world.” I’m sure a lot of other places would beg to differ, and I know it’s a marketing slogan, but I’ve certainly had a lot of moments of perfect happiness there. A key element is sharing the experience with people you love.

Petting a dog is a scientifically-proven source of happiness.

Also music. Countless times, listening to or performing music has enabled me to experience perfect happiness. Or, as with other experiences cited, joy.

Signs of hope

Here’s a couple of recent encounters with people showing their better sides.

One night recently, we attended a concert by Sammy Miller and the Congregation. They play “joyful jazz–music that feels good. It is a style the entertains, enriches, but most of all uplifts.”

As you can surmise from the group’s name, Sammy Miller is the leader. When the concert began, he came out on stage (without fanfare), along with the pianist and bass player. Sammy was carrying an armload of bottles of water. He dropped at least one, then picked it up before depositing most behind three standing microphones.

The three began to play as soon as Sammy sat down at his drums. Shortly, we heard more music behind us. I turned to see the trombone, trumpet and sax players at the top of three aisles. Ah, so that’s whom the three mics and the water were for, I thought. I also realized why they couldn’t have carried their own bottles onto the stage. So the band leader — rather than a stage hand — took care of that for them.

After the requisite number of bars, they made their ways down the aisles, greeting audience members. The trumpet player, appropriately named Alphonso Horne, shook my hand on his way to the stage.

It was a great show and not just because they are such talented musicians. For about an hour and a half, they really had a good time, which easily rubbed off on the audience. It was easy to feel joyful and uplifted.

Ringo Starr tells of a time he visited George Harrison during George’s last days. When Ringo mentioned that he was about to fly to the US because his daughter was to have surgery there, George asked, “Do you want me to go with you?” Here was a man who was terminally ill and in poor health offering to support his friend.

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when a friend texted me, expressing concern for my relatives in Alabama (none of whom she knows personally), after the tornado-filled storm that had just blown through. (They were fine.)

Certainly a thoughtful gesture from anyone. More so, perhaps, from this person, who is in Hospice care.