My Faith

by Michael Channing

Brainy Smurf does not approve.

I don't talk much about my faith. Because it's mine. Plus it's a little hard to explain. It's something I hobbled together from books and poems and moments that fell upon my life. There's a little of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman and Ray Bradbury in there, residue left over from what was taught in the Christian churches my mom dragged me to. The River runs wild and serene through my faith, and the grass grows thick, and there often come soft rains.

Let me tell you how I met the River. But first let me tell you how I left the church and put a middle finger to the face of god.

I first began to doubt the church when the preacher condemned the Smurfs. I mean, come on. They're three apples high, what harm can they do? Then of course came the backlash against Dungeons & Dragons. Which was just my friends and me hanging out and telling stories, but the preacher deemed that to be evil.

What finally drove me away was the church's insistence that my mom not divorce my father but rather endure his beatings as god intended.

So I scrapped religion. I didn't declare myself an atheist. I wanted there to be a god so I could curse him.

That changed when I watched the river flood. The water rose and rolled over the banks. Then a clotted mass of garbage floated by. There was no one else around, and the river needed me. I gathered up as much trash as I could, pulling plastic bags and bottles from the water and tossing them ashore, happy to be useful for something. I didn't do much. More garbage floated past than I managed to skim from the surface. But I did something. I was called, and I answered. It would have just been a strange incident, and I would have walked away unchanged if the bird hadn't appeared.

It was a tall, white crane, wading through the water that was beginning to recede. It moved slowly, deliberately, as if it meant for me to notice it. It wasn't just a bird. It was the River, manifest in feathers and bone. It was thanking me for trying to help, for caring. I walked away with the River in my shoes, in the cuffs of my jeans, soaked into my soul.

But again, I can't explain what any of it really means. My faith doesn't have a set of rules or hierarchy of celestial beings. But it gets me through. It helps me push through depression and the lean times. It doesn't light the darkness, it makes the darkness magic.

I don't like to talk about my faith because it won't work for everyone. I made it just for me. Or maybe the universe created that small portion of itself to suit my needs. You see, the more I try to explain, the weirder and dumber it sounds.

It's easier to attend the church your parents take you to, listen to the preacher, and say, "Ditto." But some go searching for other explanations to life, the universe and everything. What they find is exciting and meaningful to them, but they're scared or ashamed to share it.

I taught tenth grade English once, and as an offshoot of a class discussion, the students shared their biggest fears. They were surprisingly candid, but one student said his biggest fear was that the world would actually turn out the way he thought it was. I asked him to expound on that vague declaration, but he said he'd rather not. I didn't push. But after school that day, he came back and told me what he meant. He told me he didn't believe in god. And his biggest fear was that he was right. I could tell his true fear was that he would be found out. He couldn't announce his belief, the one he had found on his own, because his classmates would belittle him, or worse.

It's common, especially here in the South, to ask strangers what church they go to. There's a big assumption in that question. First, that it's any of their business, and second, that you go to a church a lot like theirs. If you answer with anything other than what they expect and want to hear, they condemn you as evil. If you're an adult, maybe you can shrug that off. But when you're a kid, and other kids tell you you're going to hell, it hurts. It leaves you isolated and lonely.

Just as no two witnesses to an event will relate the same story, I don't think any two people share the same faith. So there's no need to compare belief systems. It'll only lead to confusion between us.

"Are we talking about the same invisible man in the sky? 'Cause mine has a son but no wife. How can yours be three women?"

Your faith is your faith. If it works for you, it works for you. And my faith, to you, is as harmless as the Smurfs.

More Struggles with the Divine

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Chokes and Warbles
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Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing