“Religion is sitting in church thinking about a Kayak. Spirituality is sitting in a Kayak thinking about God”
I identified as an atheist for most of my adult life. I went through the motions through my late teen years. I went to the local Baptist church with my mom and dad. We dressed nice and walked into the church wearing our most “pious” faces. I stood during hymns without singing, I tried to close my eyes during prayer but I was more interested in seeing who else had their eyes open. I was people watching, a habit I have never outgrown.
I dreaded going to church, it didn’t interest me and I got nothing out of it. With the exception of a few genuinely nice people, I saw a lot of contemptible people. There was the rich guy that held up the 100 dollar bill for all to see before he put it in the collection plate. Then there was the “Deacon”, father of my friend Jeff, who beat Jeff every Sunday after church. Then there was the endless string of parasites that milked the congregation for all of the charity they could and then disappeared. The list goes on.
And then there was “the incident” in which I told the pompous ass of a Southern Baptist minister, who cheated on his wife, where to go and how to get there when he refused to marry my widowed aunt because her fiancé was divorced. I became famous and an outcast overnight. I was asked not to return to the church for the egregious offense of defending a beloved family member from his puritanical bullshit. I was happy to oblige. I would not enter another church, with the exception of weddings and funerals, for over twenty years.
My mother would insist that my refusal to go to church was because of that incident. I could never convince her that it wasn’t just that. Sure, that minister was an ass. He was run out himself 2 years later when his affair was revealed. But I knew that was only one church. The truth, I tried to convince my dear mother, was that I just didn’t feel it. Whatever it is, the feeling you are supposed to have in the church, I didn’t have it. And I had questions. How can the kindly old man with the flowing white robe give babies cancer, let bad things happen to good people and let assholes thrive and reproduce? I respected that other people believed in it but it wasn’t for me.
Because of my tendency (past tense) to be “black and white,” it naturally followed that if I wasn’t possessed by the holy spirit then I must be an atheist. Agnosticism had no appeal, it just screamed of “indecisive”. I wasn’t militant like most atheists. I didn’t want to convert anyone (they won’t admit it but they are their own church). I would hear anyone out who wanted to talk about it, it just didn’t stick. And even when on my deathbed due to a severe staph infection, when I “went down” for four minutes before a routine bed check saved my life, I never prayed. I didn’t even think to.
As the saying goes “there are no atheists in foxholes” and in my late forties, I was in a foxhole. My family, finances, marriage, and health were in the tank and I was opening myself up to all possibilities. I began to entertain the notion of spirituality. That maybe God didn’t exist within a building. It wasn’t God or the idea of a higher power I was rejecting it was organized religion. Also, I found it arrogant of atheists to be “sure” that God didn’t exist, no one can be certain of that. If you can’t prove it’s not there then it could be there. I needed something else in my life. For a short while, I did feel selfish, like the people I had before rejected because they used God to serve their selfish needs. A hypocrite I am not.
Then my father died.
My father had Parkinson’s disease. He suffered terribly for a lot of years. His death crushed me. Among the many emotions I was experiencing, I felt so bad that a man who worked so hard all of his life never caught a break. He worked, he got sick and he died. I opened myself up to a God and an afterlife because I wanted it for him, to get him the peace he deserved and had prayed for. It wasn’t for me and it still isn’t. I soon became the guy that visits cemeteries and talk to headstones. But it’s not so bad because, unlike any church I’ve been in, I felt God at the cemetery. I see God in a lot of places now.
It isn’t that my mind is open, it is my paradigm that has changed. God doesn’t have to look like the artists have drawn him. Prayer doesn’t have to be in a building. Blessings don’t necessarily have to be readily apparent to us. And the reasons things happen don’t necessarily have to make sense to us. To me, God has shown up in the form of a beautiful fall day, an amazing conversation with a stranger, a pleasant breeze on a fall day, in the laugh of a child, or in the crystal clear water of the lake as I sit in my Kayak.
I go to church once in a while now. I sit in the back. I stand when the hymns are sung but I don’t sing. I try to close my eyes during prayer but I’m not convinced that I need to in order to talk to God. I go for the sermons hoping for something I can use. Some people probably don’t like how I don’t take communion because I still don’t believe in rituals. It’s their problem, not mine, it’s not as if I’m trying to offend them. My relationship with my version of God is uniquely mine. If I don’t talk to him right now I will probably see him next time I am out in my Kayak. I believe that you find things the moment you stop looking for them. Maybe it was right there in front of me all along.