17 October 2013

One Last Life Lesson

by Brian Thornton

 I believe in God.

I am deeply suspicious of organized religion.

I do not consider the two notions in any way contradictory.

I have always viewed my believer friends who participate regularly in religious services with admiration. I have also admired the principled stands of any number of nonbeliever friends. Their conviction is also a source of inspiration to me.

I find both of their brands of faith inspiring, if not contagious.

And although I've witnessed first-hand what a comfort both the ritual and the message of their particular creeds can be for them, I'm not sure that I've ever had much insight into the actuality of it. I've never found it particularly tangible, for lack of a better term.

I think this is in no small part due to the fact that I was born in 1965, and am in so many ways typical of my generation (Let's forgo the "x", okay? Doug Coupland never spoke either to or for me.)

I mean, I came of age when religion began to be a factor in the political life of the republic on a scale unseen since believers helped bring about Prohibition, or, on the other side of the coin, the Civil Rights Movement. Words like "Moral Majority" were bandied about during my adolescence, with both sides of any given social/moral issue increasingly intolerant of the views of their opposite numbers.

Is it any wonder folks like me just wanted to be left alone?

Couple the above background with a brief membership in a charismatic nondenominational Christian church (during my teen years) and a foray into the possibility of conversion while an undergrad at a Catholic university  (it ended badly- I was "strongly discouraged" from going through with it by the powers that were who ran the program. Apparently I asked too many questions.). To say that I from that point forward I have always looked askance at organized religion would be an understatement.

And yet there have been moments.

I'd like to lay out the most recent of them.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, a very dear friend of mine was recently diagnosed with inoperable cancer. I said at the time that she would be lucky if she lasted through the week.

She died that Sunday.

Last weekend I attended her funeral.

This wonderful lady, 79 when she passed away, was one of the people I was referencing above when I talked admiringly about belief. She was a decades-long parishioner of a little Episcopal church down in Tacoma's north end. In fact, she was a volunteer who traveled around to members of the church who were shut-ins because of health problems. She'd perform the service with them, pray with them, worship with them.

And when she spoke of the experience, she just glowed.

But my friend Pat did that a lot. She was easily one of the kindest folks I've ever met. She just loved people. And they loved her back.

And at bottom, the reason was her faith. At least that's what she told me.


When I went to her funeral I got one of those rare glimpses I mentioned above- a glimmer of what it must have felt like for Pat to be a member of that congregation. To worship in that tiny, freezing little stone church.

The place was packed. Pat had a lot of friends. All of her family were there.

Her daughter gave a moving eulogy. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. It was all the more poignant because she managed to invoke so many memories of her unforgettable mother. And she did so in the same way her mother had lived her life.

With grace, intelligence, and sly wit.

For a moment there, I wasn't on the outside, looking in. For a moment there, I understood what it felt like to belong.

We were, all of us, joined there in a communion of grief.

And for a flash, I saw how it worked. For a bit I got an inkling of what Pat got out of the whole deal.

And I am still gob-smacked by it.

As I said above, I'm deeply suspicious of organized religion.

But now, more than ever, I understand the impulse of so many in trying times and in good times, to seek it out.

And I have the memory of my dear, departed friend Pat, to thank for that.

Thanks for that last life lesson, Old Friend.


  1. Amen, Brian. Organized religion isn't for me, either, but that's a personal choice. And as such, it's not to be inflicted on anyone else. I've seen too many people find happiness and purpose in simple faith and tribal identity and comforting structure to denigrate it. I'm happy to know that Pat had a place to feel at home outside of her home, and a place for her purpose. That doesn't threaten me at all.

  2. I never had a problem with God. It's always been the rabid believers or even non-believers, the ones who don't really want you to share their beliefs. They just want to feel smarter and holier than you.

    At least with a militant atheist, I can always say, "Fine. You don't believe. But all I said was 'Did you catch the game last night?'"

  3. Brian, you mentioned Pat often in our conversations. I know you admired her as a strong person. Sorry that she's gone.
    As for organized religions, what bothers me is the way that some followers twist it to fit their own purposes, and of course they're always the only correct ones. Tends to sour that particular creed, whatever it is. Also produces martyrs across the centuries and strong personal emotions in the present to keep that brand of faith going.

  4. I'm with you, Brian. I am one of those who does go to church most Sundays, but I believe most divisions into religion, sect or denomination is basically a matter of personal style, and not about anything that really matters. (Other than the fact that most people are as scared of death and what comes/doesn't come next as a 2 year old of the dark, and will do almost anything to give themselves the equivalent of a nightlight.) Personally, I have no use for zealots of ANY stripe, religious, philosophical, political, atheist. To me, belief is like sexuality: yours is yours, and fine by me - as long as you keep it to yourself, do not try to impose it on me or anyone else, and stay away from the kids.

  5. Brian, "I'm sorry for your loss" seems so inadequate when the loss is someone who meant a lot to you. It sounded as though Pat was a very dear friend. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

  6. Brian, good piece, and all condolences.

    On the subject of religion and its purposes, here is a favorite story my wife tells:

    Teenage boy: "Dad, you say you're an atheist, but you go to synagogue. That means you're a hypocrite."

    Dad: "Not at all. The Cohens and Greenbergs go to synagogue to talk to God. I go to talk to the Cohens and the Greenbergs."


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