The Saved Save Seats

I entered the doors of a Catholic church today and lightning did not strike, nor was anyone smited. Or is it smote? Myself included. I entered the doors of a Catholic church today for a funeral. I am Catholic, but I have not been to a house of worship for some time. I’m spiritually confused at present.

I’m a convert. I converted to Catholicism when my kids were born and I “raised them” in the Catholic faith. I converted from Christianity, but, silly me, I have always thought Catholic to be just another flavor of Christianity. It is. Catholics are Christians but Christians aren’t Catholics. Square pegs and round holes, I don’t know. For some reason, there are wars over this subtly. I’m blind to any difference of THAT magnitude. Or ignorant. Or both. So, smite me.

Why am I confused? I love religion, I fear the religious. I respect religion, I don’t respect many of the religious. I love religion and places of worship for many things; the tradition, the peace, the time to reflect, the solace, the connection to spirit. These qualities you can find in any house of worship, of any faith, of any denomination. And at yoga. And, to me, the stories that each flavor of religion are founded on are similar enough to be the same.  I believe in “God”, a supreme being of no specific form and that from which all was created. My God is the same as every other god, as EVERY other god. My God is, perhaps, more loosely defined than some sects, and that is on purpose. With age and wisdom, or perhaps ignorance, and that isn’t for any of “us” to decide, I have become more tolerant and more open-minded.

In my youthful intolerance and closed-mindedness, I used to sniff at the “Coexist” bumper stickers that adorned all those hippy cars, and usually on the same bumper was another bumper sticker that boldly stated that the inhabitants of said hippy car would be canceling out my vote in the next election. The only political bumper sticker I ever had on my car was a joke, it read, “Dole for Pineapple”. I’ve never had a religious bumper sticker of any sort on my car, though I’m considering making some up that say, simply, “So, smite me”. But in my mellower and somewhat more enlightened age, I agree with the “coexist” message. I don’t have a bumper sticker, nor will I, but I am in agreement. We should coexist. I think Jesus would have a “Coexist” bumper sticker on his car, I really do.

On the topic of religion and bumper stickers, how about the one that says “saved.” Really? Who are they to judge? How presumptuous, I thought that was “God’s” job. That’s what their guidebook says. Perhaps they should re-read it. Okay, so let’s talk about the Bible. What is it? A collection of stories that interpret purported historical happenings. These stories were handed down in the oral tradition for a very long time before anyone thought to write them down and make a collection of them. Okay, some were letters and started out written, but how do we know all the letters got mailed, or that all the pages of the letters are accounted for? We may only have part of the story. Most of the stories, though, were in the oral tradition and were more like bedtime stories. Have you ever played “telephone”? We used to play in Girl Scouts; we all sat in a circle and one person whispered something to the person next to them who then whispered it to the person next to them. The message traveled around the circle and when it got back to the origin, the message was spoken aloud. Never, not once, was the message at the end the same as at the beginning, and usually, it was nowhere close. Can you imagine what geographical distance, translation and the passage of centuries could do to a story? Once written down and compiled into a collection, the same interpretations have been translated, paraphrased, updated, abridged and then unabridged about as many times as years have passed since the birth of Christ. How is it that we can use this collection of stories to so literally guide us through life, death and salvation? They are all great stories and, like fables, all have a moral, a point, and a lesson. But to strictly apply every syllable, out of context, and decree that it is the only way to salvation is ludicrous. And small differences in the interpretation of these stories, after all this time, are the basis for the division or different denominations within the Christian church. You say “tom-a-to” I say “to-mah-to”. It’s still the same fruit. So, smite me.

Being only vaguely aware, and shame on me, of the stories of other major religions in this world, they seem eerily familiar. Some of the details and timeframes differ, but the stories are all similar enough and offer to serve the same purpose; to guide the listeners (followers) of the story to a righteous life and, hence, to salvation. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. I jest. So smite me.

I consider myself a good person. I consider myself quite spiritual. That I don’t currently worship within the confines of an organized religion certainly doesn’t negate the work of “God” that I perform on a daily basis. Does it? I do many good things. Catholics believe that you must attend mass weekly or you shall be damned. Dammit. It’s like falling of your diet after lunch on Monday, the whole week’s diet is shot, so pass the ice cream. I’ve missed a few (years worth) of mass, guess I can sin up a storm, now, ‘cause I’m damned. Seems kind of narrow. Oh, but the guidebook does say, literally, “the path is wide, but the gate is narrow.” There’s an occupancy limit in heaven? Like the church social room I just ate a buffet lunch in, 253 assembled, 110 dining. Or is it more like cheerleader tryouts? If you can’t do a cartwheel and the splits, you can’t be on the squad.

Why don’t I go to mass? Why don’t I go to any church? Why do I fear the religious? Why don’t I respect many of the religious? Because “the saved” fear me, or maybe they don’t respect me. Here is a tiny example and one of the straws that broke the camel’s back; I went to mass, I wanted to sit down, and like Joseph and Mary the night of Jesus’ birth, I was turned away from open seat after open seat. The “saved” were saving seats. This happened mass after mass, week after week, church after church. Will I be turned away from the pearly gates, too, because someone is saving spots for their friends and family. Will there not be room at the table for the rest of us? Were they so fearful of me that I shan’t be allowed to sit near them? I don’t take up that much room, couldn’t we just squeeze together a bit, we’re going to have to learn how, anyway, I hear the gate is, like, super narrow. If I was sitting in a pew and someone was looking for a seat, I moved over and put my purse on the floor, then smiled and patted the empty spot next to me, inviting them to sit.

It isn’t just me. They fear and disrespect everyone. I don’t mean every religious person behaves this abhorrently, but as a group, they do. Evidence; the consensus of the religious on gay marriage. True, homosexuality may contradict what they interpret God’s plan to be, but, hello, so does hate. Let’s not legislate interpretations of morality. The fact that two people of the same sex love each other and want the same rights under the STATE’S laws has zero impact on God’s law, and doesn’t impact, negatively, the perceived salvation of the “saved”.

While growing up I had some very religious friends. I went to the Presbyterian church as a little kid. My mom was raised Baptist, my dad was Catholic for a brief stint, and I went to the Presbyterian church. Why? Because my mom liked the old, yellow Victorian building that housed the Presbyterian church. My formative religious years were as a result of architectural infatuation and the historical landmark sign in front of a building. Perhaps that’s why I don’t see all this with the same degree of seriousness as others. My very religious friends went to a “non-denominational” church. My mom called them “holy rollers”. She feared them. I did, too, but only because they told me that if I were Baptist or Presbyterian or Episcopalian or Lutheran I’d, and I quote, “burn in hell for eternity”. And, if I were Catholic I’d burn even longer. If I stepped out of line in any way, shape or form, I’d burn. I have always been afraid of fire so eternally ablaze terrified me to the point of near hysterics. Then, there were the stories of the rapture and tribulation as translated and interpreted from the book of Revelations, which, if you’ve glanced at it, seems like it was written by Lewis Carroll and directed by Quentin Tarantino and Timothy Burton. On acid. Bad acid. I was given a pamphlet once that described tribulation, that period after the saved are enraptured and those who didn’t fit through that damned, narrow gate await the final judgment. Those of us who missed the first bus would suffer famine and plague and freakish weather and earthquakes and war and all sorts of horrible stuff that has happened regularly throughout the history of our world. It was further described, and I kid you not, that we would be eating bird poop out of milk cartons. No, I’m not kidding, there was even a picture. It was at this point that I first said, ever in my life, “WTF?” What kind of a con job was this? But really, the questions I had were more logical, like, what are the birds eating that there will so much bird shit because I’m quite certain I’d find their food source far more palatable. My next thought was, gee, how is food going to be so scarce and milk cartons so abundant? I never went to my friend’s church again. Smite me.

I did have the chance to accompany another friend in babysitting the consecrated youth of the pastor of the same church a couple of years later. He had a several thousand square foot home out at the country club. This was my first exposure to the amount of wealth generated by religion. This man’s church was on the poor side of town, he preached to the poor, passed the collection plate and lived at the country club. I did not comprehend. I get it now. It has to do with the church and the state. We won’t mention the “G” word, okay, we will, and greed. Religion generates a great deal of revenue, and much of that revenue is funneled into influencing legislation, after the mortgage payment for the home at the country club. Legislating morality, or an interpretation of an interpretation of morality, anyway. WWJD? Do you ever wonder?

Christian teachings use the analogy of sheep and shepherds in many of their examples. So, is it a sin that when I sit in a church and look around at all those people, glassy-eyed, palms outstretched to the ceiling, swaying back and forth, that I only see sheep? Have you ever spent time around sheep? Real sheep? They aren’t too bright and they certainly need shepherding because they can’t think on their own. I’ve owned sheep, I have observed their behavior at length and I am quite surprised they have persevered this long as a species. The shepherds are smart, though, and see to the safety of the sheep. The shepherd is the sheep’s only salvation. I have seen a sheep, unshepherded, when scared, run directly into a tree. I didn’t observe this just once, I observed the same sheep run into the same tree almost daily, out of fear, confusion and stupidity. This occurred at feeding time, I was simply tossing hay to the sheep for dinner. Eek! Wham! Sheep out cold. I have seen my little flock of sheep, when startled, run in separate directions. I guess that’s why they need shepherds, whether people or dogs, to keep them together. A sheep alone in the woods will get eaten. Mine did, by a mountain lion. So, in the religious analogy, are the religious, then, sheep? It is my belief that yes, they are. They are not thinking on their own, their thoughts and behaviors and even their political processes are being influenced by the shepherd, the church.

That, to me, says a lot about organized religion. The teachings, for all of time, have been a means to persuade a large group of people to behave and to perform in a specific manner, in response to fear-tactics and peer pressure. The roots of many religious beliefs have, at their heart, the general health and welfare of the constituents. Many of the religious dictates of forbidden foods came from the fact that eating food prepared or stored in a certain manner would prevent illness in a society before refrigeration, for example. Forbidding birth control is directly related to the “going forth and procreating” which facilitate the growth of the church and its continued popularity just guarantees the future of the church, the growth of the moral, religious army, and its related growing, influence over the political process.

I went to a funeral today. I went to the funeral of a very good woman who was described by many, and agreed to by all, a faithful servant of God. She has lived near my parents’ home for over three decades, now. In their later years, this neighbor, this very good woman, looked out for my parents, especially in my absence. After my dad passed away, she looked out for my mom daily. She visited daily, called often and was always on the lookout for her. And I am forever in her gratitude for her love, devotion and compassion. She did service of this type for many. In the eulogies and in the speeches of those in attendance at her service today, she was the best neighbor, the best friend and the best servant of God. I agree. But, like Christ himself, she was imperfect and a sinner, and while I wasn’t about to stand up and state any of these facts, they did exist. This very good, Irish born Catholic servant of God was a terrible gossip and was by far one of the most racially intolerant people I’ve ever met. Every conversation was laced with bigoted observations and under the breath racial slurs. And this, I hate to say, I have found quite consistent with many of my more religious friends of every race, color, ethnicity and national origin against the others. And in my church, they sit in pews next to each other and just seethe. Yet, with absolute certainty by all in attendance at the funeral service today, the honored deceased squeezed through that insanely narrow gate. And I agree, she did. Like Jesus and our modern religious leaders, the righteous have flaws, the self-righteous sheep are sinners and if the intolerant, haters in modern religion can squeeze through that God damned gate, then I think we all have a shot at “eternal salvation”. And, by the way, if I approach that blessed gate and can’t fit through, I’m hurdling the fence. See you there.

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