Bumbling and Stumbling

I have tried many times to cast off the yoke of belief.  I have challenged myself to prove to myself that God exists.  I have come very close to convincing myself, more than once, that, in the end, science and God are incompatible and I should simply abandon the whole idea of faith. I would be happier, I told myself.  But something or someone (God) kept denying me any satisfaction from that model.  Like a boomerang, the yoke kept coming back to me.  And so eventually I pushed all my chips to the center of the table and never looked back.  I was all in.  God exists.

I cannot produce the empirical evidence to persuade a skeptic of God’s existence.  I cannot create a PowerPoint presentation with sufficient bullet points to convince a convocation of atheist neuroscientists that my imaginary sky daddy is real.  I just know it to be so.  Whatever he is, wherever he is, whether he conforms to the particulars of one faith tradition or another, I know God is there.  While it may sound like clichéd churchspeak, I see him in the faces of my children.  I feel his presence in rough times when I pray for peace and strength.  I feel the power of his forgiveness when I have been unable to forgive myself.  I don’t necessarily believe that I believe in God because I was indoctrinated at a young age, or because my parents believed in God (although it certainly helped).  I believe in God because I have experienced God, and because the alternative to belief is too damn depressing.  Christianity teaches that salvation is a gift for which we as sinners are forever unworthy.  If my own life is the example, then God must surely exist.  The blessings I have received in this life, far too many to count, have been unearned.   These blessings – including a wonderful wife, three amazing children, a decent career (wherein I have seemingly bumbled and stumbled from one opportunity to the next), and some small amount of natural talent – defy any rational explanation.

God has saved me from myself time after time, bringing me back from the precipice of self destruction.  Perhaps it is all just luck, the byproduct of being raised the right way by good parents, of white male privilege, of more hard work than I am willing to acknowledge. But I doubt it.  There is no amount of dumb luck in the universe to explain how I ended up in this spot.  Surely there must be some purpose to my life of which I am not yet fully aware.   I figure if I bumble and stumble around long enough, I might run into it.

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Thanks for listening.

Thanks to those of you who listened to my interview with Gus Lloyd on Monday, April 27, and for the feedback. I enjoyed talking with Gus about my conversion experience, although I will admit to being a little nervous.

Sometimes it is difficult for me to walk the line between endorsing the Catholic Church and being respectful of the church I left behind. I tried to do that, and I hope no one took offense. I have nothing but good memories wrapped up in my life as a Baptist. There are aspects of it that I miss from time to time. But I am where I am supposed to be.

Ruminations on my home state.

I have studied Louisiana from both ends.  I grew up in Shreveport, but have now been in New Orleans for almost a quarter century.

Louisiana is an odd, diverse place.  North Louisiana has always existed in both geographic and cultural isolation vis-à-vis the southern part of the state.  The state did not even have a complete north-south interstate highway until the early 1990’s, and there was quite a bit of mutual suspicion across the divide.  South Louisiana had most of the people and got most of the money and notoriety.  Northerners always had a bit of an unspoken inferiority complex which, in my opinion, inspired its people to find reasons to look down upon the south.  Much of this was based in religion.  North Louisiana had always been Protestant, mainly Baptist, and culturally had much more in common with places like East Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and the rest of the deep south.  South Louisiana was Catholic, and Cajun, and Creole (whatever that meant – most folks had no clue) and was therefore “other.”  People had funny sounding French names, and weird music.  They drank — a LOT.  Alcohol was easily accessible in places like Lafayette, whereas God-fearing communities like Shreveport imposed blue laws which for the longest time prevented people from purchasing even beer and wine on Sunday.

While many of my fellow Shreveporters had a strong appreciation for New Orleans, there were some who dismissively condemned it as a city full of drunks and prostitutes.  I remember being told as a child that the city was filthy and that the streets smelled of urine.  While at times this may have been (and occasionally still is) true, there was quite a bit of exaggeration coming from people who never spent any time there.  It was into this divided world that I was born, grew up, and ultimately assimilated.  I am happy to report that these divisions have begun to dissolve over the last two decades, due in part to a loosening of the strict moralistic culture in the north (heck, they now have Mardi Gras parades in Shreveport, although none on Fat Tuesday).

Demographics aside, Louisiana is a state with many problems, including poverty, environmental degradation, corruption, and a lack of quality public education.  But we sure know how to throw a party.  And that’s a good thing.

Be Brave.

Today is the first Sunday of Lent.  It is traditionally the day that the church welcomes those people who are nearing the end of their journey of converstion to the Catholic faith, culminating in their confirmation at Easter.  This morning our pastor welcomed seven new catachumens and one candidate (a person who has already been baptized in another Christian tradition), along with their godparents, in what is called the First Scrutiny.  Their godparents attested to their readiness to complete the process.  Over the next six weeks, these folks (male, female, young, old) will be baptized, make their first confession, and receive the Easter sacraments of confirmation and th Eucharist.  That was me twenty years ago.   Time flies.

At the end of Mass, Father implored these newcomers to live their faith, not just to practice it and go through the motions.  It takes real bravery to voluntarily proclaim the Christian faith in the modern world.   We are caught up in a time when many of the fundamental pillars of Western civilization, those rooted in the faith, are under attack. 

The Enlightenment brought science into the forefront of human understanding.  Although it initially struggled for oxygen against organized religion, including the Roman Catholic Church, the human quest for knowledge ultimately prevailed and the world was changed forever.   It survived the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, Calvinist Fundamentalism, and the great rise of American Evangelicalism.  God and science lived in harmony for five hundred years, with only occasional dustups.  Most of the artists, scientists and mathematicians who wrote the source code for the scientific revolution of the last two centuries were Christians.   Some of the greatest artistic and engineering marvels (e.g., the cathedrals of Europe) ever created by man were dedicated to Christ.   But, ironically, the Enlightenment gave birth to the process whereby religion itself would one day become expendable.  We have now come full circle.  In a breathtakingly short period of time, almost during the lifetimes of my children, the burden of proof has been shifted from those who reject the Christian faith to those who advocate it to establish the merit of their position.  While the religious still outnumber the irreligious in North America, the Judeo-Christian foundations of our society are crumbling.  Public hostility toward religious expression is no longer scandalous.  To the contrary, it is normal.  Public expressions of religiosity now draw smirks of derision.  Many fundamental tenets of Christian morality, unchanged for 2000 years, are now viewed as the ravings of haters, oppressors and bigots.

It is in this social context that the faithful must find their way.  New Catholic converts (like me in 1994) were once primarily concerned with overcoming the Protestant sensibilities and prejudices of their families.  Today, that hurdle seems almost minuscule compared to the struggle against a world that tells them that the very belief in God is outdated and foolish.  Catholics and Protestants alike are caught up in this struggle.  For those of us who believe that evil is real, we can only despair at the sight of a world that seems to be rushing to embrace it. 

I am proud of the bravery displayed by eight people this morning.  I pray that there are many more to come.

Seven Quick Takes

A shout-out to Jennifer Fulwiler, whose blog, Conversion Diary, I read regularly. Here are 7 quick takes.

1.

I live in New Orleans. We know how to eat, drink, and have fun better than anybody else on the planet. It is the most genuinely Catholic place in the United States. While I did not grow up here, and did not grow up Catholic, both the city and the faith called to me at a young age. You can say that I found the Mother Church in the Big Easy.

2.

I enjoy certain distilled spirits of the aged variety, especially a fine Kentucky Bourbon or a nice Highland Scotch Whisky. I am absolutely devastated by the news that a Japanese firm has purchased the iconic Jim Beam, including my beloved Makers Mark. WHAT ON EARTH DO THE JAPANESE KNOW ABOUT BOURBON??? Nothing.

3.

My wife and I both graduated from a certain well-known university in the South. My son is currently a sophomore at another well-known university in the South that just happens to be a major rival of my alma mater. I will admit that this has been very, very difficult for me. I have pondered disowning him, but the wife won’t let me.

4.

Spent the last couple of days in Chicago. On Friday, my phone told me it was 14 degrees. The best part? “Feels like 6.” I don’t even own clothes for that kind of thing, people. I’m pretty sure my organs shut down while walking 10 blocks from a restaurant to my hotel. I can’t believe people voluntarily live that far north.

5.

One day I’m going to write a book about why I dislike lawyers. (Note: I am a lawyer.)

6.

I am an unapologetic old-earth person. I think the earth is 4.5 billion years old, as science demonstrates. I believe life evolved over millions of years. I am sure God had something (everything) to do with it, but I don’t really care how He did it. I’m just happy that the Catholic Church allows me to follow my conscience and believe this, and still follow Christ.

7.

This is my dog.
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