Monday 9 July 2007

Do Children Need Church? Depends What You Mean By Church

Dedicated to those who sometimes find themselves mouthing the words without really considering their meaning.

Church For the Family
There's no question that, for kids brought up in today's information-saturated, multicultural, media-deluged environment, there's plenty to consider out there about all the differing views on God, from all those different viewpoints. It's equally true that, for parents striving for a moral upbringing that makes kids into good adults, organized religion carries a powerful attraction, even for those parents that don't intellectually or spiritually embrace everything the particular religion chosen may entail. Those to whom I refer, more numerous in my view than is widely assumed, have never had that awakening of faith that true membership in a religious community might seem to require, but involve themselves in a religious community precisely for the perceived benefits that such membership will bring to the family.

The Pressure To Belong
Kids have a natural curiosity for everything, and when you combine that with the natural attraction to structured and simplified information that all kids have, you are left with an inquiring young mind that wonders how to process all of the religious information coming in through different cultural channels. Whether it be to answer questions as simple as what the Muslim kids do in the school's prayer room at recess, or as complex as why Jesus managed to come back from the dead but Grandma couldn't, there's a kind of instrinsic pressure on kids to fill the vacuum left by these questions and look for some kind of religious commitment. Add that to pressure consciously applied by those who feel, or are told to feel, the impulse to shine the Light at those dark shadows cast by the unconverted, and you have something almost impossible to resist. The penalty for a lack of commitment is a child's worst nightmare; not belonging.

Trusting the Messenger

There is also the consideration that presenting a child, or an adult for that matter, with the option not to believe something of a religious nature that s/he has been taught by someone close, is dangerously akin to asking that person not to trust the messenger. Multiply that by the number of people in the child's community, and it becomes foolish for the child not to believe what s/he is told. "What, you're trying to tell me that all of these central figures in my life are lying to me?!?" Our society of interdependent knowledge is based on believing in the knowledge given to us by authority. We can't so much as toast a piece of bread in the toaster without depending on all the knowledge of energy, electronics, thermodynamics and every other area of expertise that went into producing that item. What would happen if everyone started questioning every source of authority, let alone those closest at hand?

No Harm Done

Every parent knows that being trusted by your children as the most valuable source of information means that they will believe what you tell them, to an almost ridiculous extreme. But what if the message to be imparted may be at odds with your child's community, setting up either you or the community as a source of erroneous information? Neither outcome is particularly desirable, so what's the harm in couching your message in the language of the community? With all these paternal Gods to choose from, telling everyone what to do and how to live, there must surely be something that everyone else knows but I don't. Isn't it just a lot easier on everyone involved to just join a community that has already thought through all these things?

The Stuff of Life

Certainly, belonging in a church can be associated with belonging in a community, and important cultural events, which have incredible positive value to communities, families, and children, are often closely tied with religion. Religion is tied in many cultural communities to celebrations and rituals that give entire groups of people a perspective on all of the most important stuff of life. Examples are mirrored in almost all of the world's major religions and cultures, of prescribed points of reflection on birth, adulthood, marriage, and death. An example for my purposes here that illustrates this intermingling of the religious, the cultural, the traditional, and the moral, is the powerful combination of gravity, responsibility and sense of passage inherent in Bar Mitzvah, ceremonially inseparable from the Jewish religious tradition. It is hard to imagine a more positive, life-affirming set of principles than those which rest on faith, self-sufficiency, and personal responsibility. If my religious culture has these types of ceremonies, wouldn't it be irresponsible not hitch myself to that wagon, even if there isn't one with which I completely identify?

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Pop Songs As Hymns
I'm passionate about music, and I always found it fascinating that the two most poetically and intellectually musical but searingly cynical minds of the Sixties each turned to establishment Gods further on down the Path. Bob Dylan & Van Morrison. (Want to start a war with a true child of the Sixties -- say out loud that John Lennon would have been next). Was it resignation, or revelation, that brought these gigantic spirits to bow down to accepted religious metaphors? Whatever it was, I'm pretty sure it was something distinctly positive. I regularly get chills when I hear Dylan sing the final line of "Every Grain of Sand", his soul-searching glare deep into the heart of sprituality and religion, and the soul-baring piece of harmonica that follows. Click on the player below to hear it.

"I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man, like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand."

Being Thankful
Alas, some important and deeply human sentiments are exercised through religious language and imagery. Perhaps none is more noteworthy here than than the sentiment of Gratitude; not that of the simple thanks, but of the deeply humble variety. Gratitude, specifically, for the blessing of avoidance of disease, hunger, violence, intimidation, and all the things that make life for many solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Gratitude is a powerful force, that when channeled appropriately can create or relieve obligation, express profound sincerity, and even determine whether you are the type of person who people like or don't like. The official line, the story we have a need to believe, and the real truth for the truly humble, is that it helps us appreciate what we have and avoid taking it all for granted. Of course that's true, and critically important, but that's a tough one to hold on to, even though we we never doubt its truth. It's so hard to hold on to, in fact, that it bears regular reminding if we want it to be a guiding principle in our lives. With all the things in our lives that could be better, we seem to need constant reminders of all that could be worse. I think that this is one key to power of prayer; a disciplined, ritual way to remind ourselves that what we already have will always be greater than anything we could ever want.

The Challenge To Believe
My suspicion is that this noble sentiment is evenly matched by its irrational, evil twin, Existential Guilt. This guilt is only distantly related to the more poignant guilt that comes from having wronged another human being. This guilt is the irritating, creeping feeling of superstition that accompanies living well, and sometimes even living at all. It's the voice inside us anytime we are abruptly and unsympathetically reminded there is more pain and suffering on this earth than we could ever imagine. It is whispered in the eyes of the panhandler, and practically screams from the limbs of the crippled child. Its blank, unyielding gaze challenges us to meet it for more than a few moments, knowing that most of us do not possess the resolve and can only look away. And by showing us how much worse things really could be, it challenges us as well to believe that things could never be so bad for us. This challenge to believe can grow so strong as to become a command, which we follow by doing whatever we can in our power to find something to believe in that will stack the odds in our favour.

Why Not?
From the earnest to the downright ridiculous, our need to be on the correct side of that important eternal wager leads us to think up all kinds of ways to connect the dots into a picture of something that will actually protect us. What if crossing my fingers really does improve my luck? Why wouldn't I make the sign of the cross, or look to the heavens, before stepping outside my door? Is it really that foolish to try these things and believe they work? Don't I have more to lose by tempting Fate than I do if I just try a bunch of things and they don't somehow help me? Whether finger crossing and entreaties to the divine are about just hope, or they really are faith, and whether they are prayer or simply wishing, hardly seems to matter. Just as long as I don't lose what I have.

The Warm Blanket of Faith
A true understanding of the comfort that this type of faith could provide came to me one cold and snowy winter night some years ago. I was at the cottage of a friend, and we were out snowshoeing late at night, through a dense forest, in almost complete darkness. Only after we had gone a long way and were far from anywhere did my friend inform me that we had mistakenly wandered into the property of someone who was considered by the locals as extremely dangerous, anitsocial, and almost certainly armed. I shuddered with a fear deeper than the cold, that we were out in the middle of the night in such close proximity to someone so heinous who, my friend also confessed, was occasionally in the habit of exploring his property at unusual hours. Sensing my extensive discomfort, my friend did what I thought was a remarkable thing. In a loud voice, in the dead of night, he bellowed:

"Yay, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for Thou art with me."

I could tell immediately by looking at him that, in the wake of having uttered those words, he was not the least bit afraid.

If Not Church, Then What?
So, for a family that doesn't go to church, at least not in the traditional sense, does that mean missing out on the opportunity and enrichment that being part of a church community, of any creed, can offer? What can be done to substitute those important cultural, communal, or spiritual rituals and milestones if we do not find ourselves brought up in one of those cultures? Do all these unquestionably positive sentiments and experiences, like feeling thankful for what we have, sharing a sense of belonging with a close community, and feeling protected, really need to be religious in nature? Is it possible to experience them poignantly and embrace them willingly outside the religious establishment? In an attempt to answer that, I feel that I need to put my views on religion in context.

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Morality Over Religion
My early rearing was passively religious, but highly moral. In other words, church was something you did on special occasions like Easter and Christmas, but ethics was something you did every day, or at least tried to. There was no strong connection made between being religious and living a moral life. Children, of course, are effortlessly religious, with all that wonder and all those unanswerable questions, so this lightly religious morality was certainly sufficient for me up until I hit adolescence, at which point something that I still cannot define with any certainty compelled me, for a time, to become deeply religious.

Faith Confirmed
The first step was my confirmation in the Anglican church, which I undertook willingly and with great enthusiasm. I was an ambitious young disciple, and I did everthing I could to get to the stage where I would carry the cross to lead in the faithful, an activity which made me at the same time immensely proud (in the eyes of the obviously approving congregation) and a little awkward, always hoping as I did that, as we headed outside for the front doors of the church, none of my school friends were watching, lest they think me uncool.

Conversion Motivation
My second major religious step of adolescence was motivated by equally paradoxical impulses. With a real sense of commitment, I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal saviour and was re-baptised in an evangelical church, called Brethren in Christ. I did this both because I felt terribly guilty for my many sins, whatever they could have been for a fourteen-year-old, generally well-behaved suburban kid, and because I thought one of the girls in the church group was really hot.

No Longer Seeing The Light
By nineteen, having intellectually and spiritually examined what exactly it was that connected me to Jesus Christ and His teachings, and having also become significantly less well-behaved, I was cynical, at least about religion, and happily agnostic.

Following My Bliss
Then, some years later, after some inspired globetrotting, the Fates brought me Joseph Campbell, and everything changed. Something inside me had always known that God was about limitless wonder, mystery, and potential, but all of the religious training I had ever received, and any of the thoughts I had formed as a result of that training, had been more concerned with sin, guilt, and redemption. Listening to Joseph Campbell talk in The Power of Myth about the many manifestations of divinity across history and culture, and watching Bill Moyers' eyes light up in time with mine, sparked by the realizations that Campbell's words elicited, became my new favourite church experience, ever. I dove immediately into everything Campbell had written and wanted to talk about it with everyone I knew.

A Pagan Place
No wonder then, that it seemed fateful that I was sharing almost every step of this journey with a group of people unlike any I had ever known, in a strange and wonderful place called Lothlorien, so named after the haven for travellers in Lord of The Rings, for its mission to act as a place of refuge and refreshment for wandering souls. An entire post, indeed an entire site, is needed to explain the experience that was Lothlorien, but it was there, in a row house in one of London's worst neighbourhoods, where I started to refine my idea of what it meant to be in church.

The Circle As Church
For what is a church but a community of people gathering to think about and discuss important things that they have little opportunity to address elsewhere in their lives? Greek origins are generally ascribed to the word church, meaning of the Lord, but there is some evidence that it may have actually derived from Celtic dialects that preceded the Greeks. In this reading, the word church comes from circle, owing to the fact that places of worship in Germanic and Celtic early cultures were always circular. This is the definition I prefer, for it implies that anywhere or anytime people gather for the purpose of discussion of certain matters of the spirit can be considered a church.

More Pop Songs As Hymns
It's no secret that the profusion of this type of gathering, under whatever auspices, tells us that there is a deep need for whatever it is that the circle brings. Why would we feel this need? Well, it can be quite uncomfortable to speak about whom you have wronged, or bad habits you can't break, or unconditional love, within one's own family or community. The issue, of course, is that those you have wronged, or those affected by your bad habits, or those for whom you feel but cannot always properly express love, are usually within that family or community. So, whether it's forgiveness you're looking for, the understanding that precedes and allows forgiveness, or just a way to measure by comparison with others that you're not so bad after all, that objective third party, whether human or divine, is often the one who knows what you need. To quote another great singer-songwriter who can swing in a couplet from cynical to spiritual, Graham Parker sums this up nicely in It Shook Me:

"Some believe in a Heaven up above, with a God that forgives all with his great love,

Well, I'll forgive you if you forgive me, hey, and who needs a third party anyway?"

A Stripped-Down God?
So if there is any truth in this, and God doesn't have to be about gratitude, or guilt, or paternity, then just what is God about? And if God isn't about morality and forgiveness and protection and understanding, and above all Love, then what instills the heartbeat of our existence with its rhythm, and how can that rhythm run through our lives to ensure all the best for those most dear to us?

God Lives Here

God, of course, is about all these things and much more. But to know God is to know that the Sabbath isn't about Sunday, but rather about the time to consider all that our pragmatic lives prevent us from considering, within a group of people for whom those matters are of life-affirming importance. To be on the path to understanding, and to being understood, is to make a conscious effort to take time to address these questions whenever they arise, both for ourselves and for those around us. To impart gratitude is to act in ways that will remind those in our own gathered circles of the joy of simply being alive, actions which have more resonance than any whispered reminder repeated out of duty or habit. And to love and be loved, the most serene blanket of peace, protection and comfort in which we can ever be enfolded, is to leave oneself unashamedly open to the most mundane of circumstances, safe in the knowledge that some, but not all, will bring the most personal of shared moments.

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Monday 2 July 2007

The Truth About Illegal Substances - How Easy Is It To Just Say No?

This is dedicated to those of you damaged by a reality that you did not deserve.

Should I or Shouldn't I?
Anyone who has had any kind of an experimental life has wrestled with the question of what to tell your kids when they ask about all those experimental things and whether or not you did them. There's no question that you don't want your kids to make certain mistakes you made in your life, but a little reflection reveals that you're not sure that some of those experiments were even mistakes. Are some truths against their best interests, or should you be held to the same high standard of truth that you demand from them?

The Official Line
One's familiarity with altered states is a particularly tricky one. The official line is a pretty simple one to toe; not only is the use of many associated substances actually illegal but it also has left a trail of well-documented, discarded lives across our popular culture. This is an important argument, and it's a good thing that it is regularly and consisently presented to children in school and in the media, but it is not the whole story. It leaves out one very important fact, that is avoided by nearly every parent and educator hesitant to leave choices to those who will be most affected by them. That fact? Substance use can make people feel very good, and it can help them go remarkable places and do remarkable things.

Stoner TV
The example that comes foremost to mind is what I call Stoner TV, one of the best nights of storytelling through television that is currently available to the more heliotropic organisms that inhabit the media consumption spectrum. Anyone who has explored any kind of altered state of consciousness can squint easily through the numerous barely veiled references to the finer side of substance use. Stoner TV is clearly a set of productions strongly influenced by innumerable illegalities, but, in the current march of popular culture toward all that was once taboo to the masses, it is a trip that is now out there for everyone to scrutinize. Perhaps our first clue from HBO should have been Tony Soprano taking peyote in the Vegas desert in the run-up to the extraordinary finale, but if The Sopranos was the ultimate study of our visceral earthly relationships, the trio of John From Cincinnati, Entourage on the road in Colombia, and Flight of the Conchords must be the inevitable metaphysical extension.

Testing Positive
Depending on your history, this may or may not be news to you, but, for the uninitiated, let's look at some of the elements of just the season premieres of these shows for a moment. We have, in no particular order, Pablo Escobar, surfing, levitation, a child resurrected from brain death, a healing bird, an idiot savant, getting to plan a bunch of explosions, an argument against why the girl our boy scored at a party didn't get it on with our boy knowing his best friend and her ex was in the room, the world's most annoying, loyal, and yet strangely magnetic music groupie, reflections on celebrity, and, my personal favourite, the sights, smells, sounds, and social norms around the taking of dumps.

To Hell In a Handbasket
Decent people of the world, there is bad news in the wind. You know all those bad substances around and all those bad people who ingest them? Well, I hate to tell you this but, since pretty much the beginning of your time, you've been giving them an awful lot of your attention, letting them make your toys and put songs on your lips. Now, you are even giving them your hard-earned money by letting them pretty much dictate the flow of much of your leisure time, and, in the ultimate no-no for decent folks, you're letting them influence your children. The world, surely, has gone to pot. And the kicker, that has always protected one of the biggest little secrets of history? If you haven't been there, you'll never get it, and therefore, if knowledge really is power, you'll never be able to defeat it.

The User's Dilemma
Because these substances, for some, are the ultimate forbidden fruit, offered coyly but seductively by an almost irresistibly attractive Muse, who invites the perpetually smitten into herself for pleasures so memorable that they would consider giving up all of life's responsibilities just to experience, or even remember with any degree of accuracy, the sweetness and intensity of sensation wrought by those pleasures. Even if your physical life is being destroyed on one hand, when the high produces the most profound, impacted moments of creativity and clarity, and the most direct, visceral experience of all that makes up this world, what a dilemma it must be if, like some of our artists, troubadours, and storytellers, the effective communication of those points of insight enables you to live life in a way that only very few will ever know? What if, further, the quality of the lives of thousands or more, as dependents and employees, depend on your being able to taste that fruit, not only to bite into that original apple of temptation but to share its sweetness with those you want to reach?

Tempted By The Muse
Certainly, the bitten Apple we share with the Muse is, in many respects, the enemy of what we are taught to think is serious work, as we are led by the hand around a path that leads all the way back to our natural primitive selves, whose preferred state is to do just as we please. Imagine a world with everyone running around doing what they pleased! Could we have ever built the things we now enjoy so much we can hardly live without?

Timing is Everything
The happy accident of these individuals so smitten, and everyone with the potential to become like such individuals, against all the odds that govern the laws of probability and physics, is that, in this time of our collective development, the pool of inspiration runs bountifully deep. The ease of manufacturing and distributing psychotropic substances means more access than ever to the most captivating invitations of the Muse. Add to that tools wielded by idle hands but active minds, all the wonderful new gadgets and props that allow us to tell stories of where we have been taken and what we have been allowed to see, and it shouldn't surprise anyone that something very interesting is happening on our screens, speakers, and stages.

The John Conspiracy
John From Cincinnati is just an example, but it is a good one. For the initiated, each scene, each word spoken, each note played, practically drips with narcotics. The score alone (calling it a soundtrack would be like calling wisdom intelligence), is music university. Add to that storytelling that looks without flinching deep into the eyes of the human creature, and you have proof positive that the creators of this show understand something at once truly wonderful and very, very dangerous; how to spellbind, and therefore how to receive and then re-transmit the song of the Muse and instill into anyone lucky or unlucky enough to be really listening that precious feeling of being understood. John, the goofy, brilliant, childlike, idiot savant messiah of the show, is Jesus, the one who can see straight through the secrets and all the layers into the soul of the person and the heart of the matter. He is also the Muse, the one who can allow others to see the same things. What John sees there, what he allows us to see there, is The Truth. While The Truth may well set us free, those who bring it to us, who really let us understand it, who bring to us a program with such messages, can also use it to enslave us, whether they actually intend to or not. How's that for mind control, all you decent folks? What if John or one of his ilk ever took over from Jesus? Imagine all the decent folks now hot on Jesus' trail running after some bunch of stoners. A scary thought indeed.

The Magic Medicine
There is actually a reasonably good argument to be made that most illicit drugs are just an alternative form of medicine. The conspiracy theorists might even have us believe that it is because the drug is so good that those who understand the power of the medicine have made that it more difficult to get by making it illegal, thereby protecting the status who use it to excel. Like any conspiracy theory though, this line of thought assumes that someone else can actually control my mortal soul, just by controlling what I consume. I don't know about you, but I like to think that I control my own mortal soul.

Mind the Dosage
That said, I do agree that we have to be cognizant about who we let medicate us. If there really were an omnipotent illuminati bent on controlling our minds and destinies, running a major pharmaceutical conglomerate would be a pretty good place to start. Medication affects our judgement, makes us feel not only better but differently. But, on some level, we are all medicated, by what is in what we eat, what we drink, what we breathe, the sounds that penetrate us, the light whose full spectrum our senses glimpse, and the countless sub-atomic particles that crash through us without any awareness on our part. With all this medication that is beyond our control, as individuals if not as a species, it's quite a natural tendency to want to focus on a kind we can control. If you have been sick and believe that medication helps, you also know that there is a right way and a wrong way to take it. If we accept that good medication, be it herbal, spiritual, or pharmaceutical, can positively affect our health, and we accept that a prescription is nothing more than an informed opinion on the dosage, are we not compelled to accept also that the power to heal is not within the exclusive realm of the medical profession?

Winning The Love of the Muse
The good news, from one who knows, is that no matter how powerful the substance, the most one can ever hope to accomplish under its influence is to ignite a spark of creativity. It takes much more to actually sustain the flame. To invite a girl out on a date bears no guarantee whatsoever that she will give you her heart. That takes work, time, and real understanding, and, even though your success may be partially measured in moments, it is not only the sparkling moments of chemistry that will determine the quality of the relationship. The same is true with using illegal means to court the Muse. You may be able to get her to appear, agree to take you places, and perhaps even sleep with you, but she won't stay with you if you've turned into a beast by morning.

Fundamental Change
Equally, the use of such substances cannot change the fundamental person, although they can certainly change the way the affected person appears to others. The person may behave differently, perhaps even foolishly, and may seem focused on a different set of goals, but the chances are pretty good that what might be affecting them is that they have no way to meet those goals, and all the drugs have done was to help them realize that. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, often times, these substances don't make you less of yourself, they make you more of yourself. Every time you take drugs, your world changes because your perspective changes, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Standard wisdom says that a change is as good as a rest, and I suspect that for this is true for many recreational drug users. Whether it goes beyond recreation may very well depend on how well adapted the person is to change.

Recognizing the Matrix
I'm no doctor, but in my view, this is important to remember in trying to help those lost souls who have ventured so far that their lives have changed for the worse. To find the real person, the most stripped down, original version of the person, inside the damaged shell, is to see the real problem, which almost certainly has nothing to do with the drugs. Only then can one truly put oneself in a position to help. As it stands now, the common conception among people who don't or have never used drugs of people who have or who do, is that the whole enterprise is undertaken in order to escape from reality. In fact, like a scene from The Matrix, I'd venture to say that many people who have dabbled might actually see themselves more as the movie's children of Zion, grinning knowingly from their own actual reality at all those who live in The Matrix but don't know it. If that reality is one that has harmed the damaged, then it is that reality in which they must be healed.

Altered States, Natural World
All this then to say that, for some, just saying no is not going to be quite as simple as memorizing by rote a personal three-word mantra. There are some very provocative ideas, interesting places, and powerful subjects that altered states allow people to explore. I've heard the odd stoner say that the great thing about being a kid is that you are stoned all that time, you just don't know it, and you don't need chemicals for it. What any stoner wouldn't give to feel like s/he did when s/he was stoned all the time and not know anything about it or need anything to bring it on! That elusive high is really just about feeling things deeply, feeling the world deeply. If our children, and the weaker among us, are not encouraged to explore with feeling and enthusiam every corner of this unmedicated reality, this wonderful land of the make-believe, the deliciously bizarre, and the impossibly mysterious that already exists within our daily reality, and encouraged further to bring to bear their natural, playful curiosity and creativity -- which preclude the need for and even the want of artificially altered states -- then won't they be at least somewhat justified in doing what they can to find secret peepholes into that other world, just to see what it's like? I think that world through the peephole, outside The Matrix, is a lot like the world in which our children live, a world the same as the one we live in but altered by perception. Instead of using altered states to understand a natural world, the point really is to use a natural state of understanding to alter our world.

After all, it's quite a world.

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