Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I die before I wake,
I pray for Lord my soul to take. Amen
Yep, that was my prayer with this picture looking down at me as I prayed it.
It was a great visual reinforcement. “Gary, did you say your prayers?” “Yes, grandma, I did.” “Jesus knows if you did.” “He saw me grandma.” “Good boy.”
I see now they don’t use that phrase about dying as much in the Children’s Prayer. They’ve softened it up a bit with something like…
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord, my soul to keep;
Guide me Jesus through the night
and wake me with the morning light
No wonder young adults won’t move away from home these days. They got all mamby pamby growing up. They are soft. When we were toddlers, we went to the darkness of sleep facing death; no emotional night lights for us!
Welcome to my religious journey.
It all started sometime right after my birth. My mother was 18 years old and fresh out of Yosemite National Park where she spent most of her childhood with her grandmother, who as a Miwok Indian was saved by the Catholics – but she still was widely known as a phenomenal fortune teller, even kind of famous in some people’s minds.
My father was a pragmatic man who I remembered enjoying beer a lot during my early years, along with apparently unprotected sex. I don’t believe my embryonic beginning was actually planned. It happens. My father’s mother, the single greatest female influence in my early childhood development seemed to have one foot in catholicism and the other foot in the protestantism, particularly a denomination called the American Baptist.
Was I baptized Catholic as a baby? I don’t know. But if not, I would make up for it later in life. I have faint memories of my mother’s grandmother being concerned about my religious upbringing. However, a very nasty divorce separated me from my mother while I was still in diapers and off I went to the American Baptists.
I was barely 3 years old, but I distantly remember enjoying the coloring books the American Baptists used for their Sunday School.
However, I was also introduced to that ghastly children’s prayer and I started making some early theological connections between death, God, Jesus, and fear and judgement. Still the coloring books were pretty awesome.
I had a big problem though. I didn’t know where my mother was. As part of the “agreement,” my father said he would raise me, but my mother could not have any part of my life. Yes, I know.
I emotionally attached myself to my grandmother, the Catholic-loving, American Baptist one, and several aunts as 5 adults and 2 babies all lived in a VERY small house after the divorce. (I guess one of my aunts also enjoyed unprotected sex too because I was only 2 months older than my cousin, and her daddy wasn’t around) I developed an uncommon love for my grandmother during that time and it has lasted even to this very moment.
One day my grandmother was crying. I asked her what was wrong and she told me a family friend had died. “Died? What is that?” “It is when you go to heaven and you’re no longer here.” “What?! Will you die grandma?” “Someday, yes, I will.” I cried. I cried hard. She explained to me that the friend who had died (She left out the part that he got drunk while fishing off the ocean cliffs and he slipped and drowned.) would spend 3 days wandering the earth before going to heaven. Naturally I didn’t curse at that time of my life, but my reaction was similar to, “Holy Fuck! What is that all about?”
My father soon remarried and I believe the time between that wedding and my baby brother’s birth was not the length of an entire human gestation period. Alcohol was not good for the new marriage as I can remember nights crying in bed saying, “Please don’t get divorced. I’ll be good,” as my new parents argued fiercely and threatened to call it quits. I was barely 4 years old and I have no idea how I even knew what divorce meant, but I guess kids pick up a lot along the way.
We then moved out of the House of Arguments to a new home that was smack between two churches. One was for the Latter Day Saints and the other was a Seventh Day Adventist church. Saturdays were for the Adventists and Sundays were for the Mormons. I remember my father saying, “I can just sit on my front porch, drink my beer, and watch ’em go to church.” However, one of those he ended up watching was my step-mother. She started attending the Mormon church. I don’t know if it was a spiritual calling or she just wanted some female companionship. Well, it didn’t seem right her attending by herself, so I started going with her and before you could say “holy undergarments” I was getting baptized a Mormon. Now I was learning that if I lived a really good life, I could someday become a god of my very own universe. “Wow! That is better than those coloring books.” Every so often it was my turn to go up front of the membership to share my historical knowledge about Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of the Latter Day Saints. I also knew my name was now written in some very important book back in a place called Salt Lake City.
With two non-drinking Mormons in the house, although I was only 8 years old, my father decided to investigate this Mormon religion and he concluded that we had just joined a cult. He began making a strong case each evening for his theological conclusions. A religious war was a brewin’.
However, the beginning of the war got interrupted by a late night phone call from the Nevada Highway Patrol. My step-mother’s younger sister, a fun loving woman if there ever was one, had just died in a car accident. She didn’t slow down and she rammed her car into a stopped truck carrying steel re-bar. I will never forget my stepmother’s stepfather answering the phone at our house and screaming, “Oh my God, Oh God no.” Then he told my step-mother’s mother, and then my step-mother. It was the shits. I remember holding my stepmother as she sobbed. She loved her younger sister very much. Still, I remember thinking how surprised I was when my stepmother’s stepfather said, “Oh my God, Oh God no.” He didn’t believe in God. Why would he call out to God?
With the death of his sister-in-law, who he liked very much, my father began searching for religious answers. While my mother was in Reno, Nevada preparing for the funeral service, my father attended a Wednesday night prayer meeting at a Southern Baptist church. He must have broken down there because he told my stepmother how kind everybody was to him and how concerned about my stepmother they all were. Goodbye mormonism. There will be no universe for me to god over.
The Southern Baptist church was indeed made up of some very kind people. People who I continue to love to this day. It was also made up of some crazy-ass people. Looking back, often it was a typical abusive relationship that was mixed with acceptance and rejection. When I say rejection, I mean, a straight path to Hell kind of rejection. The preaching was all about burning in Hell for eternity if you did not accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior. I had no problem with the savior part, I just wasn’t ready to let him also be my lord. Still I was conflicted. Down deep, I felt a longing for communion with God. I also felt like masturbating.
Like most teenagers, anyway the kind that end up being interesting people, I was developing a rebellious attitude. I resisted the weekly call to accept Christ into my life. I guess the Mormon baptism didn’t count with the Southern Baptist. I finally relented as I couldn’t stand to see the agony on my father’s face as his oldest child kept refusing to walk down the church isle and profess his belief in Jesus Christ. I got baptized… again, but this time I actually wanted to see if doves might come down from heaven and land on me while a deep voice said, “Well done Gary, Ya done me proud,” or something like that. It didn’t happen that way.
The way it’s suppose to work is that the moment I came out of the baptism water on that Sunday morning, all my sins were forgiven. I tried to keep the slate clean, but I don’t think I even made it until Sunday evening as I started glimpsing at the church girls’ legs in hope of seeing something more. I was sinnin’ again.
One day, as I was wearing some gunship sort of shoes my father bought me because I kept wearing the other ones out- they were wingtip, Florsheim’s with a leather sole, built to last a lifetime – I slipped on some ice that was brought in from the snowy night. I was at the top of a short flight of stairs, and I flew way up and then came crashing down on my back- laid out like a cartoon character. All I could say in my incredible pain was ,”Oh fuck.” As those words came out of my mouth, one of the old church ladies came around the corner and just stared at me. The game was up, she knew I was a phony. I too had my doubts.
By the time I was ready to graduate from high school I publicly declared my intention of becoming a preacher. I don’t think my father believed me. He was right. Along the way, I had developed a strong sense of the presence of God- but man was my head ever screwed up. I decided it was time to take a stand on this religious thing. I was either all in or all out. I knew nothing about God. I was still emotionally in the coloring book, but the hundreds of sermons did their job on me. I saw the world with a very dualistic mind. You were either in, or out. Yes, or no.
Life’s random events can sometimes make you shake your head. My mother, the non-stepmother one, also had remarried – to a Mormon fellow, as it turns out, who was raised in Salt Lake City. In an almost perfect emotional fuckedupness match with my own father, he had my mother keep my existence a secret from just about everyone, including the 3 children they were to have together. But, remember that book with my name in it? One day my mother’s daughter, who was about 16 years old at the time, was at school and she was asked by her teacher, “How is your brother doing out in California?” Although I have never met her, we do share some common dna. I am sure she thought, “Holy Fuck. What is this all about?”
What that did, however, was begin reconnecting me to my natural mother, who I finally got to know when I turned 19. My religious goals took a backseat to the excitement of being reunited with my mother. I found we shared the same sense of humor. There was a naturalness in our relationship that was different from other relationships. She was not religious, and I knew in my heart, neither was I. We were the grandchildren of a great fortune teller.
Soon after, I too began having unprotected sex and my wife and I started raising a family, but rarely did we go to church. Something had changed. The more I got away from all of it, the less sense it all made. I did not want my children making a prayer request in case they died before they woke up. “Who puts such crap in children’s minds?”
Yes, religion can be a tricky little bitch. Yet, through all this, I still believe in God’s presence. I still yearn for communion with God. I believe the story of Jesus is a story that is all about transformation and transcendence. I don’t believe Jesus had any intention on creating a new religion. I believe he wanted us to discard the old wine skins for new ones because that is what it takes to hold the new wine he wanted to pour in our lives – a new relationship with God, the Father. I believe God has been with me every step of the way, even when I ran away from God. I believe we all make mistakes and we won’t go to Hell because of it. I believe I can never be “good” enough for God, nor do I have to be. I don’t even think it is all that important that one believes in God. I think God’s belief in us is really all that counts. We just miss out on that communion for a bit. God wins in the end…with our death which brings us back in God’s presence…in communion.
Did religion help me develop these personal conclusions? Well, in a way, yes it did. You see, I have rejected nearly everything any religious person has ever taught me and I am left with a simple belief in the mystical, in the unknowable. A simple fallen leaf on an autumn day can make me aware of God. A posted photo on social media by a gifted photographer can bring me to a God moment. A poem, written by a friend, from a perspective of despair, awakens me to the source of all love. A simple song can put my body in rhythm with God’s harmonics. Did I turn out to be a preacher? I guess, I did… Just not the kind I thought I would be.
And now I lay me down to sleep….Amen.