Relationships II

Last time, the topic of discussion was my dad. Today I want to continue that train of thought, but move on to how my understanding of family has changed my faith over the years.

Let it be noted at the onset that I don’t consider myself an especially religious person. I grew up in Catholic schools. My parents didn’t actively practice anything, but they were vaguely christian and we were in the bible belt, so I was marinated in judeo-christian values. In school, we had a daily religion class, where we learned all about God and the bible and things outlined in the catechism. We saw the priest twice a week in mass and once a month during the religion class. The priest and teachers always referred to God the same way: God the father, Jesus the son, and the Holy Spirit.

Because of that language, my understanding of God was tied to my relationship with my dad. When things were okay, then God must be okay. When life was stressful, or mom and dad were fighting a lot, I didn’t feel like God was very nice. Every time dad threatened to move out and started packing his clothes into bags, it felt like the world was going to be flooded or the city would be destroyed with fire. It wasn’t that I imagined my dad was God, of course. God had a beard and lived in the sky, everyone knows that. More that my dad was doing what God would do, because they were both my father.

As a teenager, I didn’t get along with my parents very well. Shocking. But as a result of that, and finding new friends in high school who also questioned the faith, I was starting to have some pretty serious doubts about God. Being the awkward, non-catholic nerd in a catholic elementary school full of future college athletes didn’t hurt matters, either. I still went to youth groups, especially if whichever girl I was chasing also went, and performed in both youth and liturgical choirs, but there wasn’t really any faith there. I was an atheist keeping up appearances for social reasons, and not really doing a very good job of it.

I went to college, continued associating with atheists, dated a number of people who were practitioners of various religious to varying degrees, and then met my wife. She’s what I’ve come to think of as a new-school Catholic, the people who are more into forgiveness and kindness than reminding people they’re sinners who are damned to hell if they smell bacon on a Friday. It’s quite a change from the atmosphere I knew in school, when God’s followers handed out demerits for tardiness, untucked shirts, forgotten belts, and long hair.

There are two major differences I’ve observed that I think correlate with whether or not people can be Christian. The first is the nature of their family. People who come from small or angry families seem to struggle more with Christian belief than people from larger or happier families. It might be a cause-and-effect relationship, or they both might be expressions of something else, but it seems like there is a correlation of some sort. The second difference is how happy they are with their lives. Again, I can’t speak to causation, but the people I know who identify as Christian seem to be generally happy with their lots. I mention both of those causes because there does seem to be a causal relationship between happy family and happy adulthood, which leads me to believe the nature of family is very strongly related with faith.

Agree with my observations, or disagree. None of those correlations are one-to-one, but I have observed them. For the record, my understanding of God is no longer affected by my relationship with my father, but it seems like my relationship with my father is affected by my faith. Given the stress and loss I’ve lived through in the last year, I don’t believe in Don Miller’s vending machine god anymore. I don’t see a bearded man in the sky who smells like cigarettes. I imagine a being filled with hope that all of his creatures will live in harmony, and learn how to enjoy the time they have on this earth. I imagine that hopefulness is there even in spite of the intense sadness that comes from our constant and continued failings, because there’s almost always a second chance. I don’t think God is interested in whether or not we wear belts or cover bra straps, and I can’t imagine there’s any anger when we have a burger on Fridays or a bagel before Mass.

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Relationships I

I started thinking about this set because two events happened to intersect in my life. The first was that I didn’t have wi-fi set up on my kindle at my Aunt and Uncle’s house, so I couldn’t download my loans from the library for a little while. To pass the time until I found the network password, I read the first chapter of Don Miller’s “Blue Like Jazz.” In the opening of the book, he talks about his conception of God the Father, and how it related to his memories of his own absent father. The language and imagery sparked my imagination.

The second event is that we just ended a week long trip to watch the house and dog for the Aunt and Uncle, and then visit my family in the Ozarks. This will be the first time I’ve seen my parents in almost a year, but I started a project in March to record some of dad’s stories for posterity. With the visit being so close, I wanted to mimic Miller’s idea and write about my own family.

My dad was a phone man for the first eighteen years of my life, first for AT&T, then in business for himself. As a kid, I remember thinking that whatever he did must have been very hard work. He was deeply tanned from years of working on telephone poles, and I was convinced all that sun must have burned most of his hair off. He carried a massive tool belt, and it seemed like all the things he carried around his waist had been made from missing material elsewhere on his outfit: the elbows of his striped, button-up shirts were always threadbare, his jeans never had both knees for long, and the steel that reinforced his boots’ toes always gleamed through. It never seemed like his clothes were shabby or in need of repair, but like he preferred them that way. His day-to-day attitude made him who he was in more than just clothes. As a kid, Dad’s adopted father had chickens, and the swagger of those bantam roosters rubbed off. As a scout leader he was always assured, whether we were splicing rope or stuck behind a trailer that jackknifed on an icy road. Even when he was in rehab from his stroke, he would strut around in his bright stocking cap, crowing and checking up on all the hens in the ward.

They say smells are the strongest sensory trigger for memory, and I think there’s some truth to that. The combination of coffee, sweat, and cigarette smoke leaking into my room meant Dad was home for the day, and it was usually followed by the smell of light beer when I wandered into the living room. If I could stand the flavor, I would probably keep Natural Light in the fridge for the memories it inspires.

He started the business when I was young, and the weird hours of phone technicians combined with the long hours a new business needs meant I don’t remember him being around too terribly much. When he was around, he was exhausted a lot of the time from ten hour days. There wasn’t much time for horseplay, but he made it count when he could. I remember playing with a little cocktail sword for hours one night, and he played “dead” for what felt like half an hour after I “stabbed” him. Once I was in the Boy Scouts, he found ways to get away from the business more often. He was at meetings most weeks, camp outs every month, and at least one summer camp every year.

That was when I really got to know Dad, not as a man who had to work long hours and came home frustrated that the house wasn’t clean enough, but as a man who was under too much stress while still trying his best. In late night talks around the campfire or on anchor watch, he told me about how he thought the world worked, and how our family fit into it. I don’t know if we’ll ever have a best friends kind of relationship, but I don’t think we need that. We’re father and son, and that seems to work pretty well for us.

Next time: how family relationships affect conceptions of God.