Tuesday, I started my lecture with the same illustration up on the board and began by recapping how tribalism worked. I walked the class through the development of group behavior to accomplish tasks that enhanced survivability, specifically that as soon as the concept of belief became established, people could engage in activities that they believed would enhance survival. It wasn’t just the doing of things together to stay alive; it was also believing that the doing of things together became important. The actual activity may or may not have anything to do with survivability. Once that was accomplished, the group is now defined not by just what they do together, but also by their shared belief systems as a group-binding device, which has improved on what natural selection provided. I asked if they were following, and most seemed to be with me.
“Great, now understand that those belief systems developed into religion, and that was the initial cultural system used as a framework for social behavior to develop. Then within that framework comes the development of ritual. Then it is possible for a communally shared belief to function as a social binding mechanism because the source of the ritual is a belief. They’re self-reinforcing. You may not think that the belief system is directly associated with survival, but early belief systems were pretty basic, as Prof. Higgins will help you understand, and following the belief system enhanced the group’s survival. Now is where it starts to get interesting, because to reject the belief system is to threaten the survivability of the group, which is a really good reason for expulsion or even elimination. Belief systems then provide a means to define who is in the group and who is not by identifying whom to support and whom to kill. The belief system then defines group membership. Now, can you begin to understand the binding role that belief systems play within tribalism? Once you understand that, you’re on your way to see how belief systems evolved into formal religion by including mythology and deity worship”
I took a couple of questions about the development of specific beliefs and doctrine, and then continued on by saying, “Mainstream religious traditions provide a lot structure in how they order daily life, which imparts a sense of purpose and importance to the individual. It’s important to understand that this isn’t about logic. It’s performing the ritual in order to satisfy a basic emotional need, the need to be bound into groups. Religion and its rituals make us feel as though we are not alone, like we are all part of something greater, and provide emotionally satisfying explanations of mysterious phenomena, satisfy a fundamental human need.”
I looked around, and no one seemed to be falling asleep.
“We’re at a point now where I hope two things are happening in your heads. First, I hope you are sincerely interested in what you’re going to learn about mythology, because it has to do with you, with each and every one of you, and who you are whether you know it or not. Second, I hope you’re also looking at the lower part of the diagram and noticing that it is about faith. Faith, according to James Fowler who has been publishing research on it for the last few years, is a generic human capability. It is found and it operates the same way in all people, Christians and Hindus, Muslims and animists. Think of it as a small cup you’re all born with that grows and develops across your lifetime. Are you with me so far?”
I knew this was a lot of material, but most of the heads were nodding.
“Alright, then I’ll start to wrap up. Faith is a generic attribute or ability that we all have, and it grows and develops across our lifetime. Fowler has identified six stages of faith. The earliest two or three pretty well correlate with the age ranges of Childhood and Youth and Young Adult, but here’s the first eye-opener. That majority of adults never get beyond Stage 3. That’s why the long yellow arrow below the stages themselves says ‘Across Life.’ People’s faith may or may not develop to full maturity. The second eye-opener is that this generic faith we all begin with is informed, it is filled and shaped by the beliefs and rituals that come from a variety of sources, but principally from the tribalism in which we are raised, because why?”
The student who had made the incidental comment last week raised her hand, and when I nodded, she said, “because that’s where our religions and belief systems come from.”
“Right on,” I said, “you’ve got that one down. So, I hope you see we have here a set of connected and interacting dynamics: identity, tribalism, belief systems and faith. That’s as far as I’m going on them in this class. My purpose was just to heighten your understanding of personal identity as it relates to mythology. I will tell you, though, that for those of you interested in pursuing this further, I’m about to start a discussion group at Campus Ministry about these subjects. It is non-denominational, and the purpose is to further understand these dynamics and how they impact and form our own individual identities. The goal is to help people explore their identity, improve and do well in life. If you’re interested, just come over to the Campus Ministry building and sign up or we can talk about it.”
With that I turned the class back to Carter. He reviewed the reading assignments for the next class and then dismissed the students. He was quite pleased with what I’d covered and actually said he thought it drove home the relevance of personal identity and mythology in ways he’d been unable to do. That made my day!
Four students from Carter’s mythology class had expressed an interest in the discussion group I’d mentioned to the class, and that was enough to get going. We agreed to meet on Wednesday evenings, and that worked out well because it allowed Jackson to be part if he wanted to, after his afternoon Glee Club practice. We began with introductions, and everyone was pretty much having a fun time seeing if they could avoid falling into the name and education trap I’d talked about in class. The challenge, then, was to actually share a little about themselves and why they were interested in the discussion group. The student who had made the incidental observation was among them, and her name was Ruth. She was actually pretty sharp.
When it got around to Jackson, he smiled at everyone and followed a script we’d agreed on, introducing himself as a first-year student who wasn’t in the mythology and comparative religion class, but was interested in the subject and was a volunteer at the Campus Ministry center. He looked around the group, smiling, and then said, “It wouldn’t be fair to stop there. I know a little about the subject because last year I was in a Youth Fellowship that Pastor Dave led. He was the pastor of my church and as luck would have it, I was accepted here, at my top choice college, and then he got hired here as Campus Minister. But don’t think I’m a plant in the group. I need as much help with this stuff as everyone else.”
He got a round of laughter at that, and I went on to make clear that this was not a group counseling session, but that attendees could feel free to share as much as they chose to, and conversely, we all had an obligation to support each other and to treat personal information as confidential. As an example, I shared a student’s experience last year in Youth Fellowship, where inadvertently in sharing about being bullied by jocks at school he’d outed himself as gay to the whole fellowship. There we’re a few ‘Oohs,’ but that let me make the point that it became a real test of youth fellowship, could they be a fellowship and care for each other rather than take advantage of it, and it turned out that’s just what happened.
“The other thing I want to say is that you all probably are here for completely different reasons. Some may be struggling with a spiritual problem, another with an identity problem, some just see it as an adjunct to Prof. Higgins’ class where you can get practical insight. All of those motivations are fine. Now, we can do this group a couple of ways. We can go free form and discuss what’s on people’s minds each time we meet, or we can read and discuss a book, or I can do a few minutes talking about a subject that may be on your minds and then we discuss that. Thoughts?”
We batted the options around, and settled on I’d talk about a subject and then discuss it, and I told them that I’d start with identity and stages of faith to get it going, then choose topics based on input from them or other students with specific concerns or thoughts. That would make our discussion group tie to the mythology class that got this going, and I suggested that each person complete an Identity Chart that we’d discuss together the next time that we met. I reminded them about the challenge they’d experience being real candid and transparent about it, and also to be cautious about being too open with elements they weren’t ready yet to discuss in public.
Jackson glanced at me and caught my eye, seeming to look for a go-ahead. I nodded feeling pretty sure I knew where he was going. “What Pastor Dave is talking about happened to me last year in Psych class. The teacher handed out identity charts as an assignment, and she was doing it for the right reason, and she even ended up having Pastor Dave teach a class about it, but what she didn’t say was the caution about putting down private info because her idea was that we turn them in as a class assignment. So, at the time my father was in jail for child abuse, and my Mom was dying of cancer. That wasn’t public knowledge, and having the news that your father’s in jail isn’t the kind of stuff you want going around school, right? So, for the class his suggestion was to not put down stuff you wouldn’t want everyone to know. We’ve all got stuff like that, and maybe we can all trust each other with it, or maybe not yet. Right now, we don’t know, so that’s why I’m saying this.”
Ruth said, “Wow, that must have been hard, having your Dad arrested and stuff. I feel for you.”
Jackson smiled at her and replied, “Well, it wasn’t fun, but it turned out good because he was a real piece of work, in the bad sense, and we all found out when he got arrested that he was my step-father, not my real father, so that was actually a liberating experience.”
After the discussion, when we were all saying goodbyes, she thanked him for sharing that. “I’m going through a, I guess you’d call it a spiritual crisis, and my parents would lose it if they knew I wasn’t going to church and believing everything they taught me and stuff. Thanks for sharing what you did. I’ve got to figure out how much info to make pubic and when.”
Thursday, Jackson called Will to check in, and he was totally pumped that Kevin was coming down to Eugene again. The weather forecast was good, so he hoped it’s a repeat of last weekend.
That Sunday, I’d been in the study working on constructing a non-denominational worship service. Jackson walked in after I’d been at it for an hour and a half and said he was curious and wanted to know how it was going. I smiled at him. “Pretty well, I think. The challenge is the “non-denominational” part, you know, taking out the content that would be denomination-specific, while still having it be an acceptable Christian service…and then making it upbeat and spiritually uplifting too.”
“Have you figured it out?”
“No, not completely, but I’ve had a couple of inspirational ideas. One of them is kind of like what got me in trouble with the Presbyterian minister guy over your Mom’s funeral.”
“Really?” He didn’t like that guy, was grinning, “Come on, fill me in.”
“Okay, so cut me some slack, I’m early on in laying this out, so this is all preliminary. I decided to come at it from the early church perspective, meaning, that you’ll remember or soon find out, that there was a point in history when Constantine, the Roman Emperor canceled the law that outlawed Christianity and then became Christian himself. After that the state and the church began operating together as a theocracy, and a lot of major changes started happening. Among them were changes in worship, meaning it changed to conform to certain doctrines and later even included, for example, a prayer called the Prayer of Justinian. He was the emperor at the time, and this way he forced into worship a doctrinal statement to try and settle competing positions and establish the doctrinal standard he supported. The point is simply that before all this, worship was much simpler and varied. So, I’m thinking about working on a simple Christian worship service using that model. What do you think?”
He rolled his eyes. “Well, you know, I don’t know anything about it, but I’ll take your word for it on the approach. What’s the part like where you got in trouble over the funeral?”
“Oh, I almost forgot that was your question. Remember when you and Gary and I talked, I suggested we use that Russian Orthodox hymn?” He nodded. “Well, I knew about that because my Systematic Theology professor encouraged us to attend churches in all different denominations and experience different types of worship services my second year in seminary. So, I went to Catholic services and Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox, and Methodist, and Baptist, and even a couple of Pentecostal churches too. Anyway, I heard that hymn, Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace, that we did at your Mom’s funeral, at a Russian Orthodox Vespers service. It’s used to close the service. One other thing that hit me was that on Sunday morning in Liturgy (that’s their word for Mass), they sang the Beatitudes in a simple chant arrangement. Having everyone hear the Beatitudes every Sunday is a pretty good thing. You can’t get any closer to the most basic teachings of Jesus than that”
“Sounds cool to me.”
“I may need your help.”
“My help? What do I know about it?”
“You know how to sing. If I can get the arrangement would you help me learn it so I can lead the singing?”
He grinned. “Sure. That’s easy. And, if you’re really nice to me and keep being such a wonderful person who does all these things to make me feel loved and wanted, I may even attend every once in a while, and help out!”
He’d been pacing around since we had lunch, waiting to hear from Will and find out how the latest date with Kevin had gone. Will finally called around 1:30 PM, and I could hear him laughing on the phone call. When he finally came in, he was all smiles and gave me the thumbs up. “It went well again. Will found a local BMX track and there weren’t many people, so they rode and raced each other, had a great time, then went back to the apartment and had dinner and did a movie again, and then went back for the evening.”
He paused. “Are you beginning to feel like a voyeur? I am. I don’t like quizzing him about his love life and getting him to tell me all these sex details. It’s like it shouldn’t be any of my business.”
“You’re right, it shouldn’t in a normal situation. But this isn’t normal. Meaning Will recently admitted he’s bisexual, you tow have a relationship like few others, he’s starting a relationship with a nice kid who’s apparently gay but deeply in the closet and really religious, and we’ve seen the potential for real problems. Things are looking up and the problems may not happen. If so, we turn off the TV. Meanwhile, you’re being a good friend. If Will was a patient in counseling, don’t you think he’d be sharing the same info with his counselor or psychologist?”
Jackson grinned. “Yeah, but probably not the nitty gritty detail about the color of his pubes, and the way his cock feels.”
I rolled my eyes and grinned back. “Touché. You’ve got me on that one. My point is, though, that you and Will are totally open with each other about this stuff. If that’s your agreement, then so be it. I’ve never asked you, but I have no doubt it goes both ways and you’ve told him what it feels like to have my cock inside you. Am I right?”
He grinned again, and blushed just a little. “Yeah, but it was part of his education. It’s not like we’re sharing war stories or anything.”
“I know, and come here so I can give you a hug.” He came over and sat down next to me. “So, the date and the evening went well for them. That’s progress.”
“Well, it sounds like it. He said that this time Kevin had no problem getting naked, and when they started getting it on, the leather necklace thing was getting in the way or something, so he had Will untie it and he took it off.”
My curiosity was getting the better of me. “So, did they really get it on?”
He leaned back to look at me, a salacious grin spreading across his face. “So, Pastor Dave wants to know if they fucked?”
He’d caught me and I sputtered, “No, no, it’s not that, I just wondered if it went further than last time….you know.”
He was laughing now. “I know, and the answer is no. They just sixty-nined and had a great night. I’m beginning to feel way better about this. Kevin seems to be getting in touch with his feeling, he’s expressing them to Will, they’re getting physical and that’s going smoothly, they both are enjoying the time together. It’s romantic and they’re having a good time. What’s not to like?”
Wednesday evening at the Campus Ministry discussion group, we had the initial identity chart discussion, and Ruth volunteered to go first. Most of the chart had descriptors about herself and her family. She had two siblings, had been an honors student, came from a really religious family where her father was a minister, had a large and close and supportive family, but to her credit, she was able to include Questioning My Faith and Wondering if God exists. I commended her for her candor and told her I hoped our discussions would help her sort it out.
The other three students provided a much more limited amount of information. James seemed like a typical All-American student, had been a high school athlete, did pretty well academically, but didn’t seem to know where he was going. Kathy gave the impression of going to college to get it done, but also not really sure what for. I was reminded of Guest’s comment in the opening or Ordinary People about a guiding principle…or not. But then decided to reserve judgment when I thought back about myself at that stage…did I know any more than them my first year in college?
Ron was an artist, from Utah and attending on a scholarship. His chart information was also limited, but I had the distinct impression it was because he was specifically limiting what he was disclosing. Much like I’d advised Jackson last year in high school to decide just what public identity he wanted to put out there, Ron was controlling the information. Jackson went through his, and it followed what he’d said the week before and expanded on it about him, except that he’d included two elements that got everyone’s attention: Gay and In Love.
It was Ruth who spoke first. “Wow! You’re out! That is incredibly gutsy. I mean, I’m worrying about being public about doubting God with my Dad being a minister, and you’re publicly saying you’re gay. That kind of makes my problems look like peanuts.”
Jackson smiled at her and then said, “No, Ruth. That’s not true. Everyone has their own problems and challenges, and the importance is tied to the person and the situation. Being gay was a big problem for me last year, being in high school and living in a really conservative farm town. Now I’m in college, an open and progressive college in Portland, a much more progressive place to live. That just means I’m further down the road dealing with my challenges. That’s all.”
Ruth grinned at him. “You know what? I like you for a lot of different reasons besides the fact that you’re cute! And you know what else? We’re going to be friends!” She was making a declaration, and Jackson grinned right back at her. The rest of the group were quiet, and I spent a few minutes talking about how to use what we’d just done as a starting point, and not to think of it as a one-time event because there were undoubtedly lots of things everyone left out. We talked about starting a process of discovering one’s identity, and then we wrapped it up for that session.
On the way home I asked about Glee Club, and his comments were positive. I knew he already liked and admired the director, and they were now starting work on male chorus arrangements for a Seasonal concert in December. “How do you like it compared to singing in a choir with male and female voices?”
“It’s nice. I mean, it’s different, and since we don’t have altos and sopranos, and there aren’t very many counter tenors around”…and he did a wink, wink and nod, nod…”the songs have to be arranged differently. It makes the ranges in each voice more important too, like the difference between Will’s voice and mine, that could let me sing We Could Be Heroes, when he didn’t think he could hit the high notes as well.”
“Good points. I hadn’t thought about it that way. Is the December program finalized?”
“Not completely. We know there will be some older carols, like Lo How A Rose Ere Blooming, and probably a sacred song or two, and some other Christmas material. I think Mr. Atkins is getting comfortable with the new voices and how they sound and our ranges before he makes a final decision.”
“Any homework tonight?”
“Just some Biology and Sociology reading. First tests start next week.”
I wiggled my eyebrows and he grinned.
“You know, I think I need to do something I’ve been putting off.”
“Transfer my ordination out of the Presbyterian Church. Keeping it there makes no sense and sooner or later that Ministry Advocate guy is going to call and start hassling me about being Presbyterian but not involved in a Presbyterian Church.”
“I’ve wondered about that, but didn’t think it was my place to bring it up. It’s kind of all about you.”
“I know,” I said back, “I guess it’s feeling nervous about what’s next. But I didn’t want to do anything till after Gary and Lois were married, so there was no risk of problems having the service at the church in Newberg.”
“What are the options?”
“The obvious ones would be the United Church of Christ because they have a positive doctrinal position and condemned Anita Bryant’s anti-gay campaign last year, and another is Metropolitan Community Church because it is the homosexual-friendly church.”
“Either one sounds better than where you are now, which is kind of in limbo, isn’t it?”
I promised to make some calls in the next couple of days. When I spoke to Paul, he said making the move was overdue, and bet the UCC would be welcoming. He also was positive about the Metropolitan Community Church even though they were relatively new and a lot smaller. “You just may find they’re more accepting and it’s a better fit for the non-traditional ministry you’re now in. Remember what I told you, that I’m not out publicly even though I’m in the UCC. Not everyone is open minded.”
That evening I called Fred and had the same conversation, and he was excited and offered to call the minister of the Portland church and investigate. He called back the next day and the message was positive, and the senior pastor had asked me to call him. I did the following day, we met for lunch and he explained that there were two likely paths, either the more established Chaplain one, or the newer and more informal Ministry Outside Local Congregation pathway. He directly asked why I wanted to do this, and my answer was simple: I was tired of the hypocrisy, and if I was going to expand campus ministry to really support and encourage gay students, then I needed to be transparent about my own alignment. He said that’s what he hoped to hear. I explained how the campus ministry program was developing, and that if this came to pass it wouldn’t mean I was a new clergy member in his church or associated with his staff. He nodded in agreement and said the point was being in the right church, and having me on the team would be enough. He offered to have the Chaplain versus Outside of Congregation discussion on my behalf and would let me know.
Will called on Thursday evening and I answered the phone. We talked just briefly before he asked for Jackson, and I could tell he was in upset. I called Jackson, covered the phone and told him Will sounded like he was in a panic.
When he came in the study, he was rolling his eyes. “You’re not going to believe what happened. Kevin called Will a while ago and told him that he’d fallen and was a backslider and he doesn’t know what to do.”
“What? Where did that stuff come from?”
“Well, he got pressed by his family about being out of town again on a Saturday night and not going to Mass, meaning missing confession and communion, so he went to confession and he didn’t tell all but he confessed he has feelings for another boy and the priest told him that he has an intrinsic moral fault and he has to do penance. It’s just like Fred said!”
I was shocked. I mean this was 1978. I’d heard everything Fred said, but did it really happen this way?
“The priest gave him whatever to do for penance, and he tells Will that the priest also told him his eternal salvation is at risk if he doesn’t overcome it, and he’s really scared because he took the leather necklace off. He said it was called a scapular. Anyway, it’s not like Kevin’s bailed out or dropped him, but this can’t be good, right?”
I shook my head.
“Guess what else?”
“Geez, there’s more?”
“Yeah, it turns out he has a father confessor, whatever that is, up at the monastery, and his priest told him he had to go see his father confessor and go to confession with him to get straightened out.”
I rolled my eyes again. “We’re in new territory here. I don’t know anything about this kind of stuff. I’ll call Fred and see what I can find out about that scapular. Why is it such an important part of the equation? I just don’t get that.”
It was good to hear Fred’s voice, and he was happy I called, even if it was about an unpleasant subject. When I kind of updated him about the Will and Kevin situation, I told him I needed his help to understand what a scapular was and what it meant in this situation.
I heard him exhale deeply, and then he started, “Well, historically, it’s from the Latin word for shoulders, and originally it was a monastic garment suspended over the shoulders. It first appears back in the time of St. Benedict and the founding of the Benedictine order. I know you’ve seen them, long lengths of fabric that hang down to the knees in front and back. It was a sign of devotion and of membership in religious orders and became part of the habit for monks and nuns. It can be worn like that while in some orders it became the tunic and hood. Anyway, it’s a sign of the monastic life, of being part of an order. They’re usually placed on the candidate as part of taking vows, and they’re blessed by the abbot of the monastery.”
“What does that have to do with what Kevin’s wearing?”
“Hold on, David, I think you need the history to understand it all. What Kevin is wearing is a devotional scapular, not a monastic scapular. As the term denotes, it’s a sign of devotion, of piety, and it can be two rectangles of cloth or wood or leather a couple of inches in size. They can contain religious images or text, and the idea is that one is worn on the front of the chest and one on the back, and they can even be connected by other straps to hold them in place. Now, to the significance. Like monastic scapulars, they can be signs of a pledge to a confraternity – lay people associated with a religious order, or signs of devotion. Most times I’ve seen them, they carry the image of a saint, when the wearer is particularly devoted to that saint. Often, they’re not just associated with those two things, but also as a reminder of a promise of purity that the wearer makes. Now, you can say that objectively, for believers, that all sounds understandable. Maybe it’s not that different than Protestants wearing a cross, right?”
I said, “I told the same thing to Jackson. Somehow, though, this feels different. Am I missing something?”
“You are, in a way, and that is the fact that for many, and I hasten to say many, not all by a long shot, they become something else. I’ve had people wearing tell me that by wearing them they’re protected. I’ve heard people say that by wearing them, they’re assured of being saved and going to heaven, and that’s why they can’t remove them. It gets a little spooky that way, because in my book that begins to move from the devotional to the magical.”
“You’re not kidding about that. How do people explain that, or do they?”
“They don’t. In a way it’s no different than the belief that’s invested in relics. There are millions of people who believe in all kinds of relics, like the True Cross, and if they can touch it, they’ll be healed and stuff like that. In this case, the part of most concern to me isn’t the sign of a vow taken, it’s the idea that it confers special status or power, because when you think about what we discussed at your house over dinner, about guilt and absolution and penance, it’s a two edged sword. That status or power comes at a price…there’s a constant reminder around your neck. That can make the load heavier and harder to bear. Think about it. It’s one thing to hear all the teachings about sin and guilt, to comprehend it intellectually, but if you’ve got something like this around your neck, with the directives that come with it, like ‘you have to wear it at all times,’ which implies that if you don’t you won’t be saved, it can reinforce the guilt and fear. I’m not saying that’s where Kevin is, but I think it’s something you need to consider.”
“Why am I finding this hard to believe?”
“Because you were raised a Protestant, and this type of devotion is outside your experience. There was a period in the Middle Ages when there was Papal approval to issue indulgences associated with scapulars. So, affiliation and devotion become indulgences and promises. Then the promises begin to grow in size, so you end up, in some cases, where the promise made in exchange for the indulgence is salvation itself. It’s rather different than Solo Fide, don’t you think?”
I got his point about solely by faith, one of the Reformation mantras, but felt like I was starting to get a headache. “I’m having a hard time processing this, Fred. But I do thank you for the information. We just found out that Kevin wears a scapular and has some hang ups about it, and we’re trying to understand it to help Will understand it. Maybe he just wears it because his family is associated with that monastery, and it won’t go any deeper than that.”
We agreed to hope so and left it at that. I walked back into the living room and updated Jackson. He rolled his eyes, “Is it me, or does this seem totally crazy?”
“We’re back to people get to believe what they want. The most worrisome part for me isn’t the information about the scapular itself, it’s what Fred told us that night about how piling on all this guilt can make people neurotic, and the neurosis can be associated with an object, and they can become so neurotic that they obsess about it.”
“Is that something we really have to worry about?”
“It is if Fowler is right. While I was talking to Fred, I remembered something in one of those articles Carter gave me about how faith develops. Most Young Adults are at what Fowler calls Stage 3, and that is a pretty much an unexamined type of faith. You, Lover Boy, are an exception in that you examined your faith. But his point is that people at this stage can relate to sacred symbols in kind of strange ways, like believing they literally do something. Remember what he told you his father confessor said about never taking the scapular off and it guaranteeing salvation? Well, the flip side of that coin is that when a person stops participating in the ritual and its symbols, they empty out the sacred. After talking to Fred, I think that’s a real concern, especially given the family and church setting, the tribalism and belief system he was raised with. I’m really beginning to wonder if he can separate these things in his mind?”
It was mid-September and the weather was still good, so on Saturday we headed back up Mount Hood for a hike. It was pleasant just to get out of town for a while. I was still waiting for my new bike to be built, but somehow bicycling in my mind had come and gone with the seasons. We stopped on the drive home for dinner, and then had a quiet Saturday evening with a delightful love making session. Sunday, I spent more time on the worship service structure and started reading The Return of The King.
To my pleasant surprise, Monday evening after he’d done his homework, Jackson walked into the living room where I was reading and laid down on the couch with his head in my lap. I loved it when he did this, it was so romantic and peaceful, all rolled into one. “Got that homework under control?”
“Yeah, for today. I’ve got a biology test tomorrow, but I think I’m on top of it. We’re through the cell chemistry stuff and onto cell structures, so it’ll all be about the nucleus and ribosomes, and mitochondrion and Golgi complex. I bet you don’t know what that is!”
“Oh, really, I thought everyone knew that. It’s an organelle found in most eukaryotic cells.”
“Don’t be a brat!”
He grinned wickedly, like high school kids do when they’re talking down to middle schoolers. “Me, a brat? I just took it for granted that everyone knows that they package proteins into membrane-bound vehicles inside the cell, before the vesicles send them to their final destination.”
“You can stop anytime!”
“You know I’m only teasing you because I love you, right? I see you’re making progress on your book. I haven’t gotten back to Ordinary People, but I was thinking today with what’s going on with Kevin and Will, maybe I need to speed read the rest of it to see if there’s any insights that would help.”
He was quiet for a couple of minutes, musing, while I stroked his head. “I like that idea. I’ve started the third book in the trilogy, and maybe in a few days or a week we can discuss them. You know. No pressure, just what we’ve read when we get there.”
He smiled and nodded. “I like the no pressure approach. What’s the status on the worship service?”
“I’ve got a fairly solid first version laid out. I moved some pieces around, so I think it flows pretty well. I decided with the simple and early Christian approach to leave out the usual hymn singing, structure it around a long litany, some Psalms and the Beatitudes. I’m going to let it sit for a few days, then go back to it and see how it feels.”
He reached up and stroked the side of my face, saying, “Makes sense to me.”
I leaned down and kissed his forehead. He was quiet as we looked in each other’s eyes, then he said. “Tomorrow starts another hectic week. You know what else makes sense to me this evening?”
I grinned, running my hand under the waist of his Levi’s and into his pubes. “Does it have anything to do with this?”
“It has everything to do with that. That, and the hard on I can feel under my head.”
I was in my office Tuesday after classes, and I heard him come in and chat with Mona downstairs and then head upstairs. The stairs were uncarpeted, and I could tell his footsteps from the sound. I looked up as he stopped in the doorway, framed with the light behind him, looking again like Helios driving his chariot across the sky.
He smiled demurely, and said softly, “Hi, Babe. How was your day?”
I smiled back and extended a hand. He took it and sat on the corner of the desk. “How’d the biology test go?”
“Was there a question about the Golgi complex?”
“I’m not a total dotard yet, you know. And, yes, I do remember our little chat last night. And, for the record, I’m interested in anything you are, even when you are being bratty!”
He kissed the back of my hand and we just smiled at each other. How do other people get by, I thought to myself, not having the pleasure of seeing the one they love during the day.
“I’m going to read downstairs for a while, then get something to eat before choir practice. Want to join me for that, or are you going home?”
“I’d love to join you, then I can come back here and read while you’re at choir practice. Let me know when you’re ready to go.”
The third discussion group, the next night, was when I started discussing faith, and much of it was the basic intro material I’d used in class about faith being generic to all humans, and reminding them of the illustration that it could be thought of as a container everyone has that grows and is filled up with content over the span of their life. I added to that a personal dimension that Fowler described that I’d left out of the introductory discussion in the mythology class. “Here’s a striking point that really got my attention. Fowler contends that faith involves vision, so it’s both a mode of knowing and of acknowledgement. The content that goes in provides understanding, but there’s a kind of reciprocal relationship in that you have to accept it. You may accept it because you want to, or because you have to, but you accept it and it’s yours. So, that makes it personal, and that’s where the commitment part comes from.”
I paused, counting on Ruth to ask a question. “Are you saying that it’s commitment, like in church where you accept Jesus and commit your life to him and everything that goes along with that?”
I smiled at her, “No, Ruth, that’s not what I mean, and that’s not what Fowler is talking about either. Think of this as a much more basic kind of commitment. Let’s look at another example. I assume you all took civics in one form of another in high school. You all learned the pledge of allegiance early in your life too. So, thinking about a kind of governmental or civics faith, and I may be stretching the analogy here, but by saying the pledge of allegiance so many times in your life you internalize much of the content without even thinking about it. Your government faith, if there is such a thing includes concepts like allegiance, flag, United States, republic, one nation, God, liberty and justice. Even people that never took civics and studied those words and concepts and the role they played in American history and the development of democracy have internalized those concepts.”
They were all nodding, and Ruth said, “I got it when you said ‘internalized.’ It becomes part of me whether it’s conscious or not, right?”
I nodded, and pointed out that was also a good example of the formation of much of our personal identity and of our belief systems. Much, maybe all of the content gets absorbed and internalized without conscious thought, in the absence of personal reflection and personal decisions about it.
“So, to wrap this up, remember that for Fowler the stages of faith roughly correlate with the developmental phases of life. Do you remember the illustration?” One of the students who’d started the week before said she hadn’t seen it, so I handed it to her and asked her to pass it around. “There’s Childhood, Youth, Young Adult and then Adult, and you can assume that adult maturity includes three phases as well. Stage 1 is what Fowler calls Intuitive-Projective faith, and he defines that as the fantasy-filled, imitative phase that is principally and often permanently formed by the examples and actions and moods and stories provided by adults. That usually means parents and the family. This is the age when imagination develops, and there’s also the risk of permanent trauma in the face of terror or destruction. But the important thing besides being shaped by parents and family, that the transition to the next stage happens with the person begins to experience operational thinking, and we’ll discuss that next week. Questions?”
We talked about internalizing, what gets internalized and how, the trauma that small children exposed to war go through, as we all knew about via pictures from Vietnam. I said, “Remember, this is typically kids up to age seven or so, so if they are raised in a fairly safe and happy setting, where they’re clothed and fed, where the vibe is positive, their faith container doesn’t get warped, and it starts getting filled with good stuff…meaning they start forming a positive faith about life and the people around them.”
On the drive home, Jackson was reflective, and finally said, “Even though Bud was a bastard and Mom ended up an enabler, we basically started out fairly decent, didn’t we?”
“You mean as a family?”
“Yeah. That dawned on me while you were talking, which is why I didn’t say anything. I mean, as bad as it got those years in high school, I still had a positive frame of reference and had hope and stuff because I’d experienced positive things when I was a child. Is that right?”
“It seems so to me.”
“That’s probably why I didn’t off myself even though I thought about it and listened to Nazareth sing those songs about it all the time. Somehow I had faith things would get better.”
“I have to agree, and thankfully so. If all of that wasn’t true, you might not have been there as part of the moving crew to get that new pastor settled into the parsonage. And, that would have been a tragedy.”
We’d already pulled into the driveway, and I’d turned off the ignition and set the emergency brake. I leaned over and stroked his face and pulled him toward me for a kiss. It got a little passionate, and he had my face in his hands and pulled me toward him when I said, “Ouch! That fucking brake handle”
He released my face, smiling softly. “That’s the only thing you don’t like about this car, right?”
“Yes, because I’m not much on bruised kidneys. Let’s go inside and continue in a more comfortable setting.”
We finished out make-out session on the couch, and I asked him about the Glee Club program. He grinned and said, “We got the final song list for it tonight. Want to know what’s in it?”
I nodded. “Well, I think it’s cool. It’s got a mix of Olde English and European carols, a Negro Spiritual, a Jewish holiday song and the hip contemporary one is Feliz Navidad by Jose Feliciano. How about that?”
I grinned widely. “Pretty groovy.” What else was there to say?
Thursday after class, Jackson was reading in the lounge while Mona worked at her typewriter. I peeked in and was surprised to see Ruth studying there too. “Hi, you guys. Don’t let me bother you. Good to see you cracking the books.”
Ruth waved, and Jackson smiled, but they kept on reading. As I walked past Mona she said, “Ruth was here Tuesday too. She’s a serious student, just like Jackson.” I grinned and walked upstairs to my office. On the way home after choir practice he said, “First big test in Sociology tomorrow. We started reading about the origins of sociology, and the last two weeks has been reading about Marx on class conflict, and Weber on bureaucracy and the Protestant ethic, and Durkheim on the functions of religion.”
“Are you ready for the test?”
“Yeah, and you know why? Because I’ve been getting practical instruction on all that for the last fifteen months in ways that make it understandable and relevant. I know Carter’s lectures on mythology and belief systems and then our conversations about tribalism and belief and stuff made the religion material much more understandable.”
On Sunday I asked Jackson if he’d do me a big favor and attend church with me? He smiled that lovely, “tell me more, please” smile, with his eyes sparkling. I told him I’d spoken on the phone to the priest at the Russian Orthodox Church in Portland, and because a lot of their members were not native Russian speakers, their Divine Liturgy service was a mix of Russian and English, and yes, they sang The Beatitudes (he called it the Third Antiphon) in English…and we were welcome to attend. He was actually pleased a Protestant minister was interested in Orthodox services. He also offered to give me a copy of the musical arrangement they used.
So, there we were, wearing coat and tie in a much more formal and liturgical service than I remembered from two years ago in seminary. We arrived early and the priest was very kind and introduced us to the choir director, who gave us a copy of the musical arrangement, telling us it was an arrangement in what’s known as Obikhod or chapel chant, and was a quite simple chant form that was very appropriate for congregational singing. He asked Jackson a question or two about what he’d sung, and they pointed at the arrangement and said something or other, and the choir director smiled and said, “You will have no problem with this. The good thing is that you came to hear. That is important, because the life of the music is in the singing and hearing, it is not on the paper. You will feel it, you will have a sense of it from hearing it and singing with us.”
He pointed us to seats near the choir which it turned out we didn’t use much because the majority of the service was standing, not sitting. At the end we joined the congregation in their hall for coffee, and chatted with both the priest and the choir director. They were both sweet people.
On the drive home Jackson volunteered that it was worth going to see another completely different type of worship service, and that hearing it plus having the arrangement did the trick. Even though it was a quite simple arrangement, the feeling that went with it was important. “You don’t necessarily get the pacing on printed arrangements. I was really impressed with the feel, like there was a rise and swell to each line as it was sung. Subtle and strong, but also not overpowering. To me the message was that it was real. This wasn’t just singing a bunch of words; it was something real for them. It was spiritual.”
“I felt the same, and that’s pretty perceptive.”
He laid his left hand on my right, which was on the gear shift. “You know what else?”
I glanced his way, “No what?”
“You were talking about having a litany in your non-denominational service, right? I loved that part of the service, when the priest or deacon was singing it antiphonally with the congregation. It was beautiful, and more importantly it was participatory in a way that singing noisy hymns just isn’t.”
I smiled at him. “You probably don’t remember me telling you that outside of Protestantism the worship services are sung services, but that is an example. What we just witnessed was a classic liturgical celebration, where the celebrants and the congregation antiphonally sing the entire service, and the Litany in particular is a prime example. If it touched you that way, then you’ve just convinced me to include it.”
I was quiet then, thinking about service structure. We’d crossed the Sellwood Bridge and were near home, and he tapped his fingertips on the back of my hand. “What?”
“How do we do it?”
“There’s only two choices, we recite the Litany, or we sing it antiphonally like we heard today?”
“That’s a no brainer. We sing it. It’s so beautiful and spiritual and peaceful. It’s an easy melody.” He then proceeded to start singing it for a few phrases.
“Guess what, Love? I’m signing you up for a dry run, kind of like a rehearsal of the service when I get it all laid out. Are you up for that?”
“I told you that I’d help you if you were nice to me!”
“Can I tell you something about why you might like the Litany?”
He nodded. “Well, it kind of goes along with what we’ve talked about before, how in early Christianity, the church was thought of as a hospital where the hurt and injured could be healed. Remember?” He nodded again.
“Okay, so the prayers in the Litany are followed by everyone singing Kyrie, eleison which is Greek for ‘Lord, have mercy.’ But the word eleos that’s translated as mercy in English has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, actually olive oil. Do you remember what the Good Samaritan did? He arranged for the injured man to have his wounds dressed with what? With oil. Oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, soothing and comforting and making whole the injured part.”
I could see his eyes widen. “Now, add to that the fact that the Hebrew word that is translated as eleos, or mercy, is hesed, and it means steadfast love. You can then broadly translate Kyrie, eleison as ‘Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love and compassion.”
“Wow. That’s radical, and you’re right about making me like it. It’s so different from what we think.”
“Yeah, we come at it with a Western legal perspective, thinking about justice or acquittal, but the original meaning has to do with compassion and healing.”
“Maybe we should do the response in Greek, sing Kyrie, eleison instead of Lord, have mercy.
“Or, since very few people speak or know Greek, we could alternate them?”
“That would be cool, but you absolutely have to explain all this so people understand what the things mean and why they’re there and why we’re doing them.”
I grinned, and he glanced at me with an offended look, and said, “What?”
“I’m trying to figure out how I tell people that my beautiful boyfriend who’s also an atheist, helped me decide the best way to structure this worship service.”
He smiled demurely, then said, “That’s easy. It just goes to prove Campbell’s point about being raised in a specific mythology and that you can’t get rid of it all, and that’s where you’re most comfortable.”
With mid-term exams out of the way, Jackson was back to regular class work and reading, I felt close on the worship service structure, and was looking forward to the discussion groups. Mona had been right, and once we got a few weeks into the quarter students started calling with questions that frequently led to an appointment. Most of them actually turned out to be more guidance counseling types of matters, though for students raised in Christian households, reaching out to the campus minister probably seemed the best first step. I helped where I could and often recommended they continue the discussion in the Guidance Counseling office. We’d developed a good working relationship with them, and sometimes they sent students our way too. I let most of the students who came for spiritual or belief related matters know about the discussion group, and it had grown to ten students.
New students joining each week brought new perspectives, and it also meant I had to do a quick review of the previous material to get the new students up to speed. It seemed to help everyone. That week I moved on to the second stage of faith, and as I was doing the review of tribalism and faith at the outset, one of the new students asked why faith formation mattered at all. I tried to explain it as it not really being a thing, he had a choice about, since faith is generic, and we all have it. I used the container and content illustration, and it didn’t seem to be working.
From the side of the room I heard Jackson say, “Pastor Dave, can I say something about that?”
I nodded, and he turned to the student asking and said, “Can I share something with you that I only realized last week?”
The student nodded, and Jackson went on. “You need to understand first that when we were getting this discussion group going and doing identity charts I told everyone that part of the ‘be careful what you put on your chart’ thing for me last year in high school was that my step-father had been arrested for child abuse and was in jail and my Mom was dying of cancer, and that wasn’t public knowledge. Anyway, the point is just that my brother and I lived through three pretty miserable years and during part of it, it got so bad I was listening all the time to Nazareth sing Please Don’t Judas Me and thinking about offing myself.” The guy’s eyes were as big as saucers, and everyone was paying rapt attention.
“Anyway, you can see I didn’t, right, cause I’m here. But what I realized last week is that probably one of the main reasons I didn’t was that in spite of those bad years I still believed it could or would get better, that something would happen to improve the situation, or something like that. I had faith, and I don’t mean the faith they were talking about at church, all right? I just mean faith that it would get better somehow. So, the years when I was a kid weren’t so bad. I mean we had a house, we had clothes, we got fed, we were taken care of, we were loved…or at least loved enough, we felt good enough about ourselves. That’s what we’re talking about. The word last week was internalize. I internalized that good stuff, and so in the end it never got so bad I didn’t see any other way out. Does that help?”
The guy was quiet for a few seconds, acting a little embarrassed, then said, “Yeah, it does. I think I missed the point and was so hung up on faith, like what they drill into you at church, that I didn’t get the real point about a kind of basic faith. I like the container illustration now that you’ve helped explain it to me.”
Jackson smiled and sat back in his chair. I went on. “So, stage one faith is called Intuitive-Projective, and stage two Fowler calls Mythic-Literal faith. Does anyone remember what he said was required for a Child to transition as a Youth into Stage Two?”
I was betting on Ruth, and she was right there. “Yes, it was concrete operational thinking.”
“Right on again, Ruth! For those that aren’t familiar with the term, it means reaching the point of starting to think for yourself, of beginning to develop logical reasoning and also being able to deal with abstract and theoretical concepts. Is that too complicated for everyone?”
I looked about, and they were all like “We’ve got it, go on!”
“Okay, good. Now think about the implications of those things. The youth developing them is not yet at the point where they’re independent in their thinking. Rather, they begin to appropriate, you might say take on for themselves, the stories and beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to the community. Now, we’re talking about youth in the ages of seven to twelve. What would be some examples of ‘taking on’ stories and beliefs or observances at that age?”
One student said, “You’re going to Sunday School and getting all those Bible stories, so all that content is being put in there, in that container you talked about.”
Ruth then added, “I’m not Episcopalian or Catholic, but isn’t this the age where they go through confirmation?”
I nodded, and someone said, “There’s also first communion and catechism.”
“Those are all good examples. The point at this age is that the Youth is internalizing the content, through they’re not yet at the point to analytically assess it. One big point is that symbols are seen as one-dimensional and moral rules are taken literally. So, a risk here is that literalness can become a controlling perfectionism, or the opposite extreme of thinking themselves as bad. Let’s talk about that. Who remembers this stage in their life?”
Most of the comments were about going through the various church rituals and how much of the meaning from them stuck and what long term influence it had in their lives.
Marsh raised her hand and then asked, somewhat suspiciously, “Is that why there’s so much focus on Sunday School and Youth Fellowship and stuff, you know, to teach them while they’re young, when we’re no yet able to think for ourselves and analyze, and just let all that stuff be put in our container?”
I nodded, “I think it’s part of the program, but it’s understandable, just like the regular education system. The problem here is that we’re not talking about learning how to spell or learn rules of grammar or multiplication tables. These are fundamental concepts and content about our personal identity and beliefs and world view, and as far as I know, the church doesn’t circle back later in life and say, “Now, about that stuff we taught you when you were a kid, which we told you was absolutely true, we’re ready to do a serious analysis on it now and see if you still accept it that way.”
Ruth nodded in agreement, and I could see the pain on her face. I saw Jackson smile. He was looking my way.
“Jackson, something on your mind.”
“Yeah, your comment about how one extreme in all this can be forming the view that we’re bad. How does that correlate to total depravity? I remember you telling a story last year about a puppy that helped me understand it.”
Everyone should be so lucky to have a straight man in the audience! “Well, Jackson, I don’t think badness here is the same as total depravity. I think Fowler means that because of a literal view of things under negative circumstances the youth could form the opinion that they’re bad. But your point is well taken, because that leads right to total depravity. For those of you not familiar with it, it’s a theological concept that all humans are not only fallen, but fundamentally bad. A contrast is the eastern Christian view that humans are fallen but fundamentally good.”
That, of course, led to a short discussion of the contrast, and then I shared the puppy story. They all got it after that one, and we wrapped it up after that.
The next afternoon, Ruth came by the Center and asked if we could meet. Mona sent her upstairs to my office and after we sat, we started talking. To my query of what was on her mind, she said, “You and Jackson are pretty close, aren’t you?”
A part of my brain heard a warning siren go off, but the rest said “Chill out. She’s curious, and your relationship is legal.”
I looked at her, and her expression was mainly curious and innocent. “Are you here, Ruth, to talk about something on your mind, or to ask about Jackson and about me?”
She was immediately embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it the way it must have come off. I like you both a lot, I really do. I wasn’t trying to find out something that wasn’t any of my business. I’m just curious, I mean impressed, you two seem to understand each other in a way that is so unusual…I mean, in a good way, I…I mean it’s enviable. You seem to know each other’s minds. Like you can finish each other’s thoughts or something. I apologize. I didn’t mean to be offensive or nosy.”
I smiled at her. “No offense taken, Ruth, and I take what you said at face value and find it all very complimentary. Now, let’s talk about what’s on your mind, shall we?”
She was quiet, finally she said, “I don’t think I believe anymore, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“First, let me ask you why you think you have to do anything about it?”
“What? If I don’t believe anymore, then I’m not a believer, I’m not saved, I’m not what I was. I have to do something.”
“Can I take that burden off your shoulders? You don’t have ‘to do’ anything. You’re working through something for maybe the first time in your life. That’s good. Do it. Don’t rush it? Don’t second guess yourself. Be true to yourself. You are a bright and committed person. It will work out well in the end. Rushing it would put that at risk.”
She was quiet.
“It’s your parents, isn’t it? Especially your father?”
I could see the tears in her eyes. Finally, she said, “Yes, he’s a minister. How can I not tell him?”
“Ruth, you’re on a journey. This is a process. Are you at the end yet?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can pretty certainly tell you that you’re not. You’re only at the stage of seriously questioning what you were raised to believe. That’s the beginning not the end. “
She was quiet, so I said softly, “Would I scandalize you if I offered a model from Philosophy? You know that atheistic line of reasoning, that came straight from the pit of hell?”
She paused, surprised, then acted shocked, then started smiling and finally broke into a grin. “Okay, I’ve got it. I’ll chill out. Yes, maybe a little philosophy would help. Sock it to me!”
“Sock it to me! Wow! I haven’t heard that since the last time I watched Laugh In. Okay, the bit of philosophy is from Hegel, and it is simply the movement through three ideas or propositions to reach a conclusion. You’ve heard them all before, just maybe not where they came from and how it works. They’re Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis. The idea is that you start with a thesis that you have, or which you formulate. The you explore the antithesis, the second idea that illuminates or perhaps negates the first one. Then, with that resolution in hand, you can move on to formulating the synthesis, the outcome of the process.”
She was listening intently, and then began smiling. “So, you’re telling me I’m somewhere between thesis and antithesis, and a long way from synthesis.”
“That’s about it. I’m also here to help you along the way, but don’t short cut the process. Be patient. Work on it. It’ll be a struggle, but it’s supposed to be, like most of the good things in life.”
She was quiet again. “I’m feeling embarrassed now,” she finally said.
“Embarrassment and shame are not part of the process. You’re exploring who you are and what you believe and where you’re going in life. What’s to be embarrassed about that?”
“I’m sorry again for asking such a personal question when we started.”
Friday as we were driving home, Jackson reached over and put his hand on mine, over the gear shift. He quietly said, “Ruth was studying at the Center this afternoon too, and she asked me if we could talk and she apologized to me.”
“Yeah, she said she apologized to you yesterday and wanted to apologize to me too, for asking you such a personal question about us when it wasn’t any of her business.”
“That was thoughtful of her. Did she tell you what she asked me?”
He nodded. “Didn’t you think it was way personal?”
“Yes, but I wasn’t offended. I think it was innocent and pure curiosity. It never dawned on me that to some people we may appear to be so close, like we’re connected. She told me it seemed like sometimes we can finish each other’s thoughts.”
“I know. She told me that too. I think she was really sincere when she apologized. I think she’s lonely and also envious.”
“I can tell you she gave me a little more detail about what she said in discussion group the week before last, about going through a spiritual crisis. It’s easy to feel alone when something like that happens to you.”
“What do you think we should do?”
“Do? She asked me what she should do about her problem and I told her she didn’t have to ‘do’ anything, that it could be a problem for her if she did something too soon, before she knew where the process was going to end up.”
“I’m not surprised you told her something like that. That’s not what I mean though, I like her, she told me that time she was going to be my friend, remember. Now we know she’s struggling, and I want to be her friend. She knows I’m gay, what she doesn’t know is that I have a boyfriend. If I get closer to her, that will be hard to not come clean about.”
“I didn’t answer her question because I figured it should be our decision to tell her, if and when it got to that point, and like I said, I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I still think she was asking an innocent question without thinking about the implications.”
He was quiet. I glanced at him, and he glanced back at me, smiling.
“What do you want to do, Lover Boy?”
“We can’t hide it forever, like you said, we should decide when and how, and we both knew this would happen eventually.”
“Then let’s both talk to her when the opportunity presents. We’re not trying to hide anything. We’re just trying to be discreet and not flaunt anything on campus or at the Center.”
That weekend was pretty wet, and so we stayed close to home. I was in the study working on the service when Jackson came in and said, “Are you ready for a dry run?”
I looked up surprised, this was my self-declared atheist boyfriend, after all. “Yes, close enough for that, but help me understand your interest, besides helping me out which I appreciate and love you for even more.”
He paused. “Well, Babe, it starts with you. But after that, I guess I’m figuring out that I may not buy all the theology and doctrine, but I’m still spiritual in some ways. And I like the way it feels. I mean a lot of it probably because it’s musical, but I like it, and I want to help.”
He was so cute, smiling innocently, looking sincere but just a little bit coy, his eyes sparkling and everything about him saying he was part of the team. It was hard not to fall in love all over again.
“I’ve got it typed out. You know what we could do? We could go through the service together. Sing it, as in I’ll play celebrant and you play congregation, and we sing the Beatitudes together. What do you think?”
He nodded, so we did just that, singing the service to see how it felt. He remembered the simple and pleasant melody to “Lord, have mercy” in the Litany, and it only took me a few tries to pick up the melody and then end each line of the prayer on the starting note for the response. We tried reading the Psalms and quickly decided that shifting from antiphonally singing the Litany to a straight reading of Psalm 63 didn’t feel right, so we tried it in a simple plain chant approach, essentially the same note for the whole line but ending on a note that either rose or fell, depending on the emphasis. He was happier with that.
When we got to the Beatitudes, he pulled out the arrangement we’d been given and sang it straight through, and it sounded very nice. I needed him to do it a couple more times so I could sing along with him to get the melody down. That was followed by Psalm 146 before the Gospel. Chanting and singing like this was new to me. I knew liturgical churches often sang or chanted the Gospel lesson too, but decided that was probably too much, and settled for reading it before the Sermon.
We then had a little give and take about the remainder. I had Apostle’s Creed, being the earliest and simplest of the mainline Christian creeds, then Psalm 33 and then the Benediction to conclude.
“Can I ask two questions?”
“You can ask as many as you want, Love, you’re helping me, remember?”
“Why so many Psalms? Not that I have anything against Psalms, but I don’t understand.”
“That’s easy. Remember that the New Testament wasn’t written down until between 55AD and 100 AD, some scholars think later, so before that all the early Christians had was the Jewish scriptures, and the Psalms were a regular source of solace and thanksgiving. Some were written by David. So, they became the scripture sung on the way to church, in the doorway waiting for church to begin, and also part of the services. So, it’s just tradition that harkens way back. The other part of the answer is that they aren’t polemical. They’re mainly what I said, hymns of joy or hymns seeking solace or consolation. They were then and they are now”
“Got it. I understand that now. They’re used instead of, say, some more contemporary theologically or doctrinally heavy text, right?”
I nodded. “And, that goes for most of the traditional hymns too. A lot are actually denomination-specific and loaded with doctrine. For instance, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God was originally Lutheran but spread out to more general Protestant usage. It is a very theologically loaded hymn, though. Question number two?”
He smiled innocently. “Actually, there’s three question. What you just said made me think of one more. I agree with what you’re saying about most church hymns, and I can see how simpler Psalms make for a more non-denominational approach So, why’s the Apostle’s Creed in there and no Communion?”
“What do you mean?
“Well, you said no go on the traditional church hymns because they’re theologically loaded. Seems to me that the Apostle’s Creed is too. Maybe it’s too much for what you’re trying to do. Also, remember we talked about one of the big problems with Christianity was losing the concept of metaphorical and replacing it with the concrete and factual? The creed sure sounds concrete and factual to me. Same thing goes for communion.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I see your point. I know it was originally used as a declaration of faith in the baptismal liturgy and didn’t come into Sunday worship service usage until almost 400, so that’s kind of late for the early church, but a long time ago for us. I guess I was just working by default, that it’s so standard that it ought to be there. I need to think about that. If we’re trying to make this a more simple and inclusive Christian service, maybe even that’s too much. Food for thought, though, and it ties to why no communion. If we’re moving to the metaphorical, re-creating the Last Supper doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Now, the third question?”
“What’s wrong at the end? There’s something missing. It doesn’t feel right?”
“What do you mean. There’s the third Psalm, then the Benediction, which is the blessing of Aaron from Numbers, and that wraps it up.”
“Okay, I’ve got that part, but I’m telling you it doesn’t feel right. It feels like something’s missing. Like there needs to be something sung at the end, so the people can express their feelings or be part of a spiritual feeling, or something like that. Are you following me?”
I paused, struck by how sensitive and intuitive my so-called atheist boyfriend was sounding. “We’re back to the hymn thing. I think it would be a mistake to stick in a traditional church hymn like A Might Fortress Is Our God, or Be Thou My Vision, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do, but that’s not at all what I’m thinking about. After starting to sing the des Prez motet and the Brahms hymn for choir, it needs to be soft and subtle and spiritual, but easy to sing, you know what I mean.”
“I think I do. Nothing immediately comes to mind. I mean, it would be just as bad to sing Kumbaya, which is soft and comforting, but a completely different context.”
“Yeah, that wouldn’t fit any better than those other church camp or youth fellowship songs. What about Lord, Lettest Thou Thy Servant Depart in Peace? Didn’t you say in some other service it’s used at the ending?”
“Yeah,” I said, warming to the idea. “In the western liturgical churches, it’s called the Nunc Dimmitis, and is also called the Song of Simeon, and in the liturgical churches it’s often sung at the close of Vespers. The text has a specific place in the Gospel story, but it does also have a message that I’ve seen what I’ve been waiting for all my life, and now I’m ready to depart. That could be depart this life like Simeon, or depart this service. I think you’re onto something.”
“Do you think Susan would send you the arrangement?”
“Oh, sure. But her arrangement is for a choir with four voices. Maybe we could contact that Russian Orthodox priest and ask if he or his choir director have a simple chant arrangement, like the one they sang when we were there?”
We had a plan. I said I’d call on Monday
Sunday evening after supper we settled down in the living room on the couch to talk about the books, and Jackson wanted to know how far I’d gotten in Return of the King and what I was thinking.
“Believe it or not, I’m almost halfway through it. This one reads faster than the other two, and maybe that’s because we’re done with introducing most of the characters, at least the complicated ones, and we know it’s marching to a climax and then conclusion. Anyway, it doesn’t start out well, meaning Gandalf and Pippin ride to Minas Tirith knowing that Sauron will soon be attacking it, and Boromir’s brother Faramir is there. Their father Denethor wants the Ring, and when Faramir doesn’t have it, he’s sent back to the battlefield where the Nazgul kill him. So, two brothers down. Then on another front, the Riders of Rohan organize to ride to Minas Tirith to provide relief. You remember that the Fellowship got all separated, and Aragon realizes if he’s going to get to Minas Tirith in time he has to take the Paths of the Dead, which he does with Legolas and Gimli and a group of Rangers. It gets heavy and complicated, but they arrive in time to surprise the besieging army. Then Theoden’s niece carries Merry into the battle because Theoden told her she would be of no help on the battlefield, but she turns out to be a real warrior. How am I doing so far?”
He grinned. “Good. I’d forgotten it got so complicated before the big battle. All these characters and their challenges getting there. I remember that part was kind of hard to follow.”
“I’ll agree with that. Anyway, the Riders of Rohan arrive and there’s this massive cavalry charge and it looks like they’re going to save the day, but then the leader of the Nazgul kills Theoden, and then Theoden’s niece kills him! They all think they’re going to win, and suddenly a fleet of dark ships appears on the river and it looks like Sauron’s relief troops have arrived, but instead it’s Aragorn who’s used his authority as True King to call the Dead into battle and Sauron’s relief army is destroyed, and the good guys win!”
I was on a roll and grinned at Jackson, “But, wait, there’s more!” He grinned back.
“So, there’s a win on the battlefield, but in the castle inside Minas Tirith it’s another story. Denethor goes mad and is going to burn himself and Faramir on a funeral pyre, but Faramir’s not dead! Then Gandalf intervenes and saves Faramir, but can’t stop Denethor from committing suicide, and to wrap this part up, the wounded are taken to the House of Healing where Aragorn, as the True King enters the city and heals them.”
Jackson was quiet, then said, “Good summary on a complicated story. I’d forgotten there was a suicide, that Faramir’s father went mad and killed himself. How’d we end up with two books that include suicide?”
“I have no idea. This is my first read of Tolkien, so I didn’t know it was coming. How’s the speed reading of Ordinary People going?”
“Well, I’m glad I did it, and I’ll fill you in, but basically most of the rest of the story is all of the family members continuing to work through their stuff. Like the Mom is discovering she’s not really in love with her husband. The Dad is relating more and more to Conrad, but can’t get past his own hang ups. Conrad is trying to get back into synch with school and the swim team and dating and all that, but none of it’s really going well for him. Oh, guess what? He gets laid!”
Jackson paused for effect. “You mean to tell me,” I responded with a smile, “that getting laid didn’t solve all his problems?”
“No. Funny how that works, isn’t it? So, we saw that the Dad is detached and distant, the Mom is in denial and want to take vacations or play golf, and Conrad is basically lying to himself and others about all kinds of stuff and won’t open up about what’s really going on inside. But eventually there’s a kind of confrontation between Conrad and his Dad and they both realize they need to start trusting each other and being vulnerable if things are going to improve in their lives. Eventually the parents take a trip to Dallas to visit the Mom’s family and in the middle of that family and their kids and all the activity, and golf, the Dad realizes, or maybe accepts, that his wife is emotionally distant, and remembers that she and Conrad were the only family members who hadn’t cried at Buck’s funeral.”
“Sounds heavy, like there’s progress happening.”
“Well, the Dad has been going to the same psychiatrist as Conrad, so I guess that helped. Anyway, not long after that Conrad finds out that this girl he’d dated committed suicide, and he’s all wigged out because he might have done something to cause it, but it’s kind of a breakthrough too because he starts getting in touch with his feelings. What that means is that he starts to blame himself for not being there for his brother and friends, like he didn’t do something that prevented their deaths. That gets us to the central issue in the novel. He blames himself for killing his brother…because he let his brother drown. And the dad blames himself for the death of his son because he wasn’t there, and the mom blames herself too in her own way. The thing the shrink finally helps him understand is that no one’s to blame for Buck’s death because it was a sailing accident.”
I just raised my eyebrows and said, “Wow. Go on.”
He kind of winced. “Well, here’s what got my attention. Conrad says it’s too simple a solution! Can you believe that? He watches his brother drown when their sailboat gets blown over in a bad storm and he won’t accept it’s an accident and thinks he has something to do with it.”
“Trauma does strange things to how people perceive things.”
“Well, maybe, but the shrink challenges him that he’s always been trying to live up to his older brother’s abilities and standards and accomplishments and can’t fathom filling his brother’s shoes after he died. Meaning he had a kind of inferiority complex and ended up thinking suicide was the best way out. I mean I felt like shit, like worthless, because of how I was treated. I never felt inferior like that. And I had that generic faith you talked about, so I always expected it would get better somehow.”
“What do we know about Conrad’s faith?”
“Nothing really. The author doesn’t go there. But he grew up in a family, had a home, clothes, food and stuff. All the basics.”
“But didn’t you say he also always had to live up to being the younger brother of a star?” I suddenly have memories of just what that felt like in high school.
“Yeah, he did, so I guess that’s where the inferiority came from. Anyway, what the shrink confronts him with is the price he pays for stuffing his feelings…which is the same thing his dad does. Where it all ends up, though, and this is the message in the book for me, is that on top of all of the ‘ordinary’ problems in the family that they didn’t do a good job working on because they weren’t communicating, comes all this extra really bizarre stuff because they’re each blaming themselves in their own way for something they had no control over—an accidental death. And, the more they blame themselves, the more screwed up they get.”
“You’ve connected the dots to the source of the blame, haven’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, blame doesn’t just appear magically out of thin air. It is a feeling or a thing in our brain that comes into being as the result of something else. Often, it’s from what we talked to Fred about, guilt. If you’re taught to be guilty about all kinds of stuff, then you blame yourself for falling short. It can be a self-fulfilling cycle.”
“I hope you’re not thinking about Kevin when you say that.” His expression was somber now.
“I am, and I hope I’m not right. But if you think about all the things Fred told us about obedience and guilt, then it makes sense to greater or lesser degree. I sure hope it’s to lesser degree.”
Father Alexei answered the phone when I called, and was as sweet as before, said he’d speak to his choir director and by the end of the week we had the arrangement…which Jackson began practicing. When the priest called to let me know, we also spoke for a while and he wanted me to know that he liked the idea that we were pursuing Russian arrangements of early hymns. He was quite sympathetic, and I don’t know if he thought we were on our way to becoming Russian Orthodox or not, but he also said that his church had an old votive candle holder that he would be happy to give us to help set up the chapel, if we would like. I stammered, and he kindly said, “It can be used for two purposes. Either a candle is lit as a remembrance for someone, or it can be lit as a symbol. You recall the line in Psalm 141 about ‘let my prayer arise as incense?’ That’s the intent. A symbolic act to align your soul with the worship activity you are about to enter. In our church the faithful light them or individual tapers when they enter the church.”
I thought about it, and when I talked both to Mona and Jackson about it, they thought it was a nice idea. We’d hauled the folding chairs down from the second-floor room, and the dining room had sliding doors into the foyer, so it was possible to make it quite private and almost separate. Things were coming together.
Tuesday, I had lunch with Carter and told him about the non-denominational worship service I was working on, the challenges I’d run into, and last but not least, the challenge Jackson laid on me about using the Apostle’s Creed. We talked about a number of things, particularly that much of the early Church wasn’t Trinitarian, and he reminded me of all the competing forms of Christianity there were in the first centuries until orthodoxy got standardized in the late 4th century. I’d forgotten that most of them weren’t even Trinitarian, and commented how that mapped to the formation of the New Testament in the same time frame. He suggested a couple of texts he’d loan me on scriptures that didn’t make it into the New Testament that I might find valuable. When we got back to the service itself, he also reminded me that the earliest translations of The Lord’s Prayer was from 1st Century Aramaic and is strikingly different than common usage. He said he’d loan me a book with that, as well as the others when we got back to his office.
When I got back to the Center, I saw Jackson was in the lounge reading, and so was Ron from the discussion group. I waved at both of them, stopped to speak to Mona, and she told me Ron would like to meet with me. “Now, or does he want to schedule a time?”
“I think now, he seems a little concerned about something. He was talking to Jackson for a while and then came over and asked me if he could meet with you.”
“How about you give me ten minutes to get organized and send him up?”
When I heard his footsteps on the stairs, I opened the door as he approached. I extended my hand, and he somewhat tentatively took it, and I brought him into the office. It had two upholstered armchairs in front of the desk, and I sat him down in one and I took the other.
“Ron, Mona told me you wanted to meet, and you look a little uptight. Can I make a suggestion to start with?”
Momentarily he looked like a frightened rabbit, then the tension in his face visibly relaxed. “Is it that obvious.”
“I’ve gotten to know you from discussion group. You don’t say a lot, but I know what you look like when you’re relaxed, I’ve seen you laugh. You didn’t look like either of those things when you walked in here. So, the deal is everything we talk about is confidential. I’m your friend and part of my role as Campus Minister is to help students with their problems whatever they are. How can I help you today?”
“Well, I started out talking to Jackson and he helped me a little, but he said it would really be good for me to talk to you too.”
“Can I ask what the subject is?”
“It’s about homosexuality. I asked him about it because he told us that time in discussion group when we did the identity chart that he’s gay, and I thought like Ruth said, it was really brave. So, I asked him about how he figured it out and how he decided to let people know, and stuff like that. He told me some of his story, but also said I should talk to you and not be afraid.”
I looked at him and smiled. “Ron, sooner or later the question has to be asked. Are you gay? Is that what you’re struggling with? Are you trying to figure out how to go forward from here?”