If you could choose the time and manner of your death, exactly how would you meet the closing sentences in the story of your life? I don’t mean by suicide. That notion would disqualify you from this thought experiment. But if you could suggest to the angel of death how you would like to pass from this life, how would you ask her to manage it?
I myself was born in a blizzard in middle November. As Mark Twain came in and went out with Halley’s Comet, I would prefer to leave during the falling of snow. I believe it will be caused by a health crisis, probably heart related. It might happen in a hospital, but in the dream I believe to be prophetic, the angel enters by the front door of the house and simply announces, “Michael, it is over. You must come with me.” In the dream it was in the front room of Grandma Beyer’s house. But I have noticed over time how much the dream also resembles the front room of the house we live in now. No struggle, no violence, no more pain than I experience daily now.
I know it is weird to think about my own death like this. But I find it comforting to imagine I could write the final sentences in the book of my life. I am feeling ill today, and there are some reasons why I have been thinking about dying by heart problems. Yet, the last time I had my heart checked, it wasn’t that, and the expense of that emergency hospitalization helped tip me into bankruptcy. So, if the angel comes calling now, I will not try to avoid her. And is there snow in the forecast? Who knows for sure? And now I have told her what is in my heart about this matter, so the fact that I am a Christian agnostic should have no bearing on her decision.
Yesterday I posted one of my patented conspiracy-theory posts which was intended primarily to give my three kids more practice at using their Eye-fu skills. You know, that ancient Chinese martial art of using the dramatic eye-roll to combat the embarrassing way elderly parents have of saying what they actually think for the sole purpose of humiliating their much-more sensible offspring. So, today I need to humbly contemplate the many reasons I will not get any Christmas presents this year and begin to generate some holiday spirit to lighten the mood of what is likely to be a rather lonely Christmas season.
So, here’s a selfie from old Grumpy Klaus, wearing the aggravated countenance of the Jolly One looking at the Naughty List to determine who gets the bricks and who gets the lumps of coal… and who gets referred to Old Krampus.
Ho ho ho… kinda…
Having married a Jehovah’s Witness twenty-six years ago, I have gotten mostly out of the habit of celebrating Christmas. The Witnesses believe that holidays with pagan origins are from Satan, and bad for you. But it has been almost seven years now since they decided I was from Satan too, and so I stopped believing in knocking on doors and trying to get homeowners to reject their own form of Christianity because we are somehow more right than they are, and if they don’t swear off celebrating Christmas they are doomed. Among the many other things you have to swear off of for that religion. Like swearing.
Don’t get me wrong… Jehovah’s Witnesses are wonderful, loving people who care about others and whose religious teachings are more helpful than harmful over all… just like all other Christians who aren’t ISIS-level radicals. (The Westboro Baptists leap to mind for some reason.) If you really need religion, it is a good one to have. But even though my wife still needs to be one, I have begun to feel like I do not.
I personally cherish the holiday traditions I grew up with, and I really wish I could have shared those with my children. (This is another point for practicing Eye-fu right here.) I fear however. that like most devoutly religious parents, we managed to raise three devout agnostics and atheists. I have trained them in the last four years to like the tradition of making and eating gingerbread houses and gingerbread men. That’s probably of pagan origin too, but it’s too late now to save my sorry old soul from gingerbread.
Anyway, I am trying to look forward to the season of Peace on Earth once again. And though I will be celebrating mostly alone and ill and condemned by gingerbread, I do have pleasant memories. I can still reach my sisters and my mother by phone. They share some of those memories. And my kids will be around enough to eat the gingerbread castle I bought for this year.
Yes, I have reached a snag in the novel-writing process. I am definitely at the end of the story. The crisis point is past. The characters who have to die to resolve the central conflict are dead. The characters who needed to be rescued are already rescued. I have probably less than a thousand words left to write. But I still have to tie the knot in the end of the plot to keep all the main ideas and themes from pouring out and floating away with the wind. I need the final scene and a memorable end line.
And, I am ill. My chest hurts. My head hurts. And I have needed to sleep every time I have settled down to write it. What happens if the old Grim Reaper shows up again with a sharper scythe than he had on his last visit?
I don’t know
what comes after the last chapter. I don’t know it for the book I am writing, nor for the life I am living.
I freely admit that I have no confidence whatsoever that after I die I will wake up in Heaven. Baptists have told me I will go to Hell for not believing what they believe. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have assured me that there is no Hell for me to wake up in and be eternally tortured in. But they also tell me I get no Paradise forever because I stopped believing what they believe. I have repeatedly said in writing and conversations that I am a Christian Existentialist. And I have explained that I think that makes me an atheist who believes in God. That leaves me, more or less, as an agnostic, not knowing anything until it’s proven to me, and realizing that nobody can prove it besides the God that I believe in but who doesn’t exist.
Our lives are like a book.
Things happen before the book is opened and you begin to read, but they are not technically something that the book contains within it. And when the book is finished and you close it, the story is complete. But the book still exists even when it’s closed.
I am not concerned about the fact that my story will end. But with both the book I am working on and the life I am living still unfinished… well, I hope both stories will be finished.
I had originally thought to call this post “A Walk with God.” But that would probably offend my Christian friends and alienate my Jehovah’s Witness wife. It would bother my intellectual atheist friends too. Because they know I claim to be a Christian Existentialist, in other words, “an atheist who believes in God.” Agnostics are agnostics because they literally know they don’t know what is true and what is merely made up by men. And not knowing offends most people in the Western world.
But Debussy’s Reverie is a quiet walk in the sacred woods, the forest of as-yet-uncovered truths.
And that is what I need today. A quiet walk in the woods… when no literal woods are available.
This pandemic has been hard on me. I am a prisoner in my room at home most days. My soul is in darkness, knowing that the end could be right around the corner. I am susceptible to the disease. It didn’t slay me on its first visit to the house, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get me on the second or third visit. Health experts are expecting a resurgence of up to 3,000 deaths per day before the end of the year. If I am relying on luck to avoid it, luck will run out.
I am not afraid to die. I have no regrets. But I have been in a reverie about what has been in the past, what might have been, and what yet may be… if only I am granted the time.
And, as always, I feel like I have writing yet to do. I am about to finish The Wizard in his Keep. And I have stories beyond that to complete if I may.
But the most important thing right now is having time to think. Time for Reverie. And reflections upon the great symphony of life as it continues to play on… with or without me.
It is a Biblical question. After Cain killed Abel, God came asking for Abel’s whereabouts. And Cain stupidly answered, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Stupid Cain! Did he not know that God already knew the answer?
And stupid God. Why did he ask a question to which he already knew the answer? And why did he ask stupid Cain whom he must’ve already known was stupid?
But the answer to the question in this bit of Biblical moral mythology is supposed to be, “Yes, Cain. You are your brother’s keeper.”
So, why am I, a confirmed Christian Existentialist (an atheist who believes in God), trying to tell you something from a Biblical story?
Well, the matter is simple. As I will very likely die soon from Coronavirus (which I am not yet infected with, but, you know, the kindness of fate…), I am trying like heck to impart what little wisdom I have gathered in my life so that I may leave something behind me that has worth.
This current pandemic is itself a demonstration of the truth behind the claim that I am my brother’s keeper.
I wear a mask everywhere I go now because a mask protects not only me but it also protects others from me. After all, I have no access to testing. I may have the virus and just not know it. Then my exhalations would contain droplets of water that have viruses swimming in it. The mask, combined with six feet of distance, keeps my exhalations from reaching the lungs of uninfected others, and potentially slaying them as Cain did to Abel.
It is because of Texan prejudices against mask-wearing and social distancing that I know I will probably be infected before this pandemic is over. And my diabetes, blood pressure problems, and previous difficulty with bronchitis and COPD insure that I am not part of the 80 percent of people who will survive the virus. I will get pneumonia and die.
When I suggest, however, that we should each take on the responsibility for the safety and well-being of others, I do not mean that we should become a zoo-keeper, and keep them all safely in cages (the Senator Cruz method of keeping Mexican immigrants safe). You cannot presume to control the thoughts and behaviors of others. You must only adopt the way of love and brotherhood. You put the interests and needs of others before your own. You lead by example, not by decree.
Before you start complaining in the comments about how stupid I am in this essay because I blaspheme against God, and at the same time don’t see people for how they really are, remember that I used to be a school teacher. You don’t do that job because you want to be rich and powerful. You do that job for love of others… specifically, other people’s children. And it is true that everybody has their bad points. Everybody is thoughtless, or wicked, or deeply troubled at times. But everyone also has qualities about them that make them beautiful, or kind, or noble, or selfless, or… well, the list of good things I have seen and nurtured in other people’s children is far longer and more profound than the bad things. No matter who they are, no matter what color or culture or religion they are, my brothers and sisters and their children have worth.
So, here I am, declaring that I am, most definitely, my brother’s keeper. (And unlike Cain, I did not kill him. He and his wife live along the Texas coast, near Houston. And they are not in a cage.)
And here is the question most critical to my survival…
Today’s sermon is a further attempt by Mickey to say something coherent about religion. I am trying to be a humor writer, and religion is a difficult topic to commit acts of humor against. People do not take it well when you put the heat of thoughtful questions to the personal mythology that they adhere to. They are afraid it might all burn away and leave them with nothing. It is the main reason nobody plays George Carlin’s comedy albums in church. And my atheist friends and acquaintances always get upset when I slip and make a statement like, “Atheism is a religion too. After all, it is a difficult act of sincere faith to believe in nothing.”
But religion is important enough to being human that it merits some daily and, at the minimum, weekly attendance to the fundamental ideas of it. After all, what is the reason we always have had and still have some form of religion?
Religion serves an important function in the lives of human beings. It is the guiding principal that keeps us from wigging out, being self-destructive, or going on a killing spree. Religion sniffs out the borders of our behavior. It gives us a sense of where the lines are that you should not cross. Of course, by itself, religion is not enough to save us from ourselves. It only provides the warning. The girl who hears the admonition from the pastor to not have sex before getting married can still go ahead and have four children before reaching the age of eighteen. Religion does not (or rather, it should not) provide the punishment for crossing the line. It just gives us the warning about the consequences.
I like the metaphor that Joseph Campbell always used in his insightful books about mythology. He suggests that if our lives are the hardware, our shared myths are like the software that makes it operate properly.
Our religious software has to be used with caution, however. Because, just as George Carlin so often used to gleefully shout, “Religion can be stupid enough to really hurt you.” It is hard to deny the truth of that statement with things like the Westboro Baptist Church, the Spanish Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials, and the Methodist Church Ladies who saw your kid running around naked in the yard.
But there is a reason that some religious extremes are dangerous and counter to the basic purposes of religion. There is reason why more atheists are generated by the Catholics, Baptists, and other fundamentalist religions than by more tolerant sects like the Midwestern Methodists and the New-Age Crystal-wavers. Intolerance. If you are too insistent that your religious way is the only path, and all others burn in Hell, then you have taken religion too far into its own dark corners and scary, deep crevices.
There are many acceptable forms of religion that have many good things to offer. I have never been bullied by a true believer of the Buddhist faith. Christians, if they are tolerant, believe in a religion founded on love and forgiveness. Nudists are sun-worshipers who believe in positive body images, communion with nature, and freedom of self-expression. Quackatoons believe in the power of Donald-Duck cartoons to make you wise and capable of laughing at anything. Okay, I haven’t actually established that last religion in the real world. But it could happen, in the very near future. We are going to need it if Donald Trump (not Donald Duck) gets reelected in November.
But the simple point of all this is simply that… we need religion. There is a spiritual aspect to all human thinking, and especially when interacting with others. We need to keep it simple enough for even the most simple people among us to guide their lives and their children’s lives with it. And yet, we need to also be tolerant enough to suffer fools like me to think they are atheists who believe in God.
So, to put it in simple terms, “Here endeth the lesson.”
Yesterday I was walking the dog when I was approached by a man and two women in the park. They were Jesus pushers. As a nominal Jehovah’s Witness, I am not supposed to have anything at all to do with such folks. They admired the little four-legged poop factory that I was walking. They listened patiently to the story of how we rescued her as a puppy in the middle of the street as cars zoomed past. They wanted to know what breed she was, and how we came to own her and love her. And then, they wanted to pray for me.
Jesus pushers! Just like the door-to-door work the Witnesses do, they want you to learn to pray their way and believe their truths.
I shared with them that I was a Christian Existentialist, and that could easily be interpreted as saying that I was an atheist who believes in God. And I admitted to them that I have a personal relationship with God and talk to him constantly. I admitted that in hard times I don’t merely rely on science for comfort. I do know what grace really means. “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me,” says the Psalmist David. (The shepherd uses the rod to guide the flock and the shepherd’s crook to rescue the stranded and endangered one.)
It is not in me to turn away true believers, even if I cannot accept the tenets of their faith. I let the Witnesses down. But I am no more a Witness anymore than I am one of whatever flavor of fundamentalist Christian they are.
So, they prayed for me… my poor health, my financial difficulties, and my little dog too. Their prayers touched me. Though I believe they needed the prayers more than I did. They were proving their faith to their God after all.
My own faith, my own spirituality is fundamentally simpler than theirs.
I am a part of the universe, and the universe is all that is relevant, all that there is. The universe is God. And I know my place in the universe. It is as simple as that. When I die, I will still be a part of the universe. I don’t need to live forever. Death is not the end. But it is not the end because when you finish reading and close a book, the book does not cease to exist. Past, present, and future are all one. The book can be opened again.
I appreciate that they wanted to offer me “the good news” and give me comfort. But I don’t need the forgiveness of sins they offer. I have forgiven myself, just as I have forgiven all who have ever sinned against me. I am at peace. Life is good while I have it. I thanked them and wished them well.
There are definitely tendencies in those of us who are really atheists and non-believers in our heads to look back fondly at a time when God and religion filled our childish hearts every Sunday Morning. I have been told that idiots like me with a penchant for writing humor ought not to indulge in making fun of religion and politics. But I look at modern humorists making fun of both those things with impunity and too often end up admiring their success. Because, not only does the the subject of religion provide an easy target for satire and mockery, but we can’t really keep something sacred in our porcelain and breakable human hearts for very long without making sure it is fire-tested. That’s why I intend to take a flame-thrower to it in today’s Sunday Sermon. And I don’t mean I will only make fun of belief in God, but making fun of belief in atheism as well.
Here is a piece of music that gives your heart peace that you might need to play in the background if you really plan to read this purple-paisley-prose post. It is Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, a very spiritual piece to play for peace of personhood and a pinch of paradise.
Now, of course, the first thing to acknowledge in this idiot’s Sunday sermon is the idea of God Himself.
Is there a God?
Remember, I pass the test for believing what atheists normally believe. That should disqualify me from making the following statement. But remember too, I also identified myself in this essay as an idiot. So, I will say it anyway.
There is a God, not in Heaven, but in us. There has to be. I talk to Him all the time, and He answers me. And I keep asking Him, “If you don’t exist, then how can you be answering me?”
“Well, Michael, you are an idiot. And things don’t have to make sense for you to believe them. But also, I am the part of you that never gives up on you even when you have given up on yourself.”
And I try to look as intelligent as I can as I say, “What…?”
“People, Mickey, my son, have a secret power inside of themselves that, when they are in troubled times and dire dangers, they can reach deep into their souls for it and pull it out to save themselves from the situation in the best way possible.”
“So, if people use this power correctly, say the right words and everything, they can save their lives in any situation and even live on after death?”
“I know you are an idiot, my child, but try not to be quite so idiotic all the time.”
“But people who are very religious believe in eternal life of some kind, don’t they?”
“You are not the only idiot out there, my beloved.”
“So, we don’t get eternal life for praying the right things and doing the right things and fulfilling all the elements of the Live Forever Spell?”
“There is no such thing as eternal life nor eternal torment. But you exist. And existence is eternal. There was no life before you are born, and there is no life after you die. But once you exist, you always exist, even outside of the time-frame of your mortal life.”
“That’s why I call myself a Christian Existentialist, right?”
“You are, indeed, that flavor of idiot, yes. But the Christian part means you have to adhere to Christian values. And not the ones Christian Fundamentalist idiots interpret from the Old Testament. The real ones based on choosing love over hate.”
“So, is that all I need to bring this sermon to an end?”
“Well, you should probably thank William Bouguereau for providing most of the internet images you illustrated this thing with. He died before you were born, but he still exists.”
“Thanks, Billy B. You paint lovely naked angels.”
“And you should recognize that this idiotic thing you have written is not a sermon, but, rather, a fantasy dialogue. And then stop adding more to it like a good little idiot.”
As I wake up every morning feeling more and more foggy-headed and lethargic, more like I barely managed to survive the night, I am aware I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I even passed out for a few minutes as I wrote this intro. I don’t know how long I actually have left. I no longer have the funds to get tested by the cardiologist, the urologist, or the endocrinologist every time a pain or a lightheadedness concerns me. I may not still be here when morning comes around again. But I fear no evil. When I finish reading the last page of a good book and close the book, I don’t mourn that the reading experience has ended. I exult in the wonderful story I have read or marvel at the lessons and learning the book has taught me. The end of my life will be like that. My life is not one that must be regretted.
The thing about having a shadow hanging over you is that it can be totally defeated by adding a little sunshine. I have never been a better writer than I am now. I am nearing the end of what seems to me to be the best novel I have ever written. I felt that same way as Catch a Falling Star was being written, and it proved to be true. I won the Rising Star Award and the Editor’s Choice Award from I-Universe publishing which has them on the phone with me again trying to find ways to fund the marketing they think it deserves in spite of my total lack of money. I also thought Snow Babies was the best thing I had ever written, even better than Catch a Falling Star. And the publisher I found for that one thought so too, right up to the moment when my curse as an unknown writer killed their little publishing company. I feel really good about Sing Sad Songs as it continues to basically write itself. So what if I never live to see any of my books yield success? The fact that I have caused them to exist is enough to fulfill me. It is enough to satisfy me. Of course, I do have more stories in me that need to be told. That is motivation enough to stay alive and keep writing.
Francois singing a sad song.
It is the valley of the shadow of death, however. A novel character I love is about to die. It seems there are a lot of my novels that end with a death even though they are all basically comic novels, full of things that at least make me laugh. But I fear no evil. Thy rod and thy staff, the stick that whacks me when I misstep and the shepherd’s crook that rescues me from dark crevices, they comfort me. I will continue to pass through.
It is a difficult thing to be an atheist who believes in God. Sometimes it takes an oxymoron to find the Truth. And you often have to go heavily on the “moron” portion of the word.
The thing I find most distressing about faith is the fact that those who have it are absolutely convinced that if you don’t agree with them and whatever book of fairy tales they believe in and interpret for you, then you are not a True Believer and you do not have real Faith.
I remember being told by a Mormon girl in one of my classes that I was her all-time favorite teacher, but she was deeply distressed that, because of my religion (I professed to be a Jehovah’s Witness at the time) I was doomed to burn in Hell forever.
Hey, I was raised in Iowa. I have experienced minus 100 degree Fahrenheit windchill. I am among those who think a nice warm afterlife wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
But I am no longer actually a Jehovah’s Witness. So I guess that helps with the whole Hell-burning thing. The Witnesses are a religion that claims to understand the Bible is full of metaphorical truth, and yet insist that it is literally true. They don’t believe in Hell, which, honestly, is not actually mentioned or explained in the Bible as we have it now. But they do believe your prospects for eternal life on a paradise Earth are totally contingent on knocking on doors and telling other people that they must believe what you believe or experience eternal destruction. I have stopped being an active Witness and knocking on doors because I got old and sick, and all the caring brothers and sisters in the congregation stopped coming around to visit because number one son joined the Marines, and the military is somehow evil hoodoo that cancels out any good you have done in the past. Being a Jehovah’s Witness was really hard work with all the meetings (5 per week), Bible reading (I have read the entire Bible two and a half times), door-knocking, and praying, and you apparently can lose it all for saying, thinking, or doing one wrong thing.
According to the Baptist preachers, Jehovah’s Witness elders, religious zealots, and other opinionated religious people I have known and dealt with in my life, if I do not believe what they believe and agree with them in every detail, then I do not know God and am therefore an atheist. So, okay, I guess I am. If I have to be an atheist to believe whole-heartedly that everyone is entitled to sincerely believe whatever the hell they want to believe, then I’ll wear that label.
On a personal note, my favorite verse of the Bible has always been 1 John 4:8, “He that does not love has not come to know God, because God is love.” That is why I claim to be an atheist who believes in God. I know love. I love all men, women, children, animals, sunrises, artwork, paintings of angels by Bouguereau… everything that is. And I even love you if you exercise your freedom to tell me, “Your ideas are totally wrong, and you are going to burn in Hell, Mickey, you bad guy, you!” Mark Twain always said, “I would choose Heaven for climate, but I would prefer Hell for company.” I am not going to worry about it. I will be in good company. Some things are just bigger than me. And trying to control things like that is nonsense. Sorta like this post.