Monday, January 10, 2011

Better Than a Hallelujah

I was raised Catholic. I went to a Catholic school. Between 1st and 8th grade I went to mass six times a week during the school year. I had some great experiences with this school, made some wonderful friends. My next-door-neighbors went to Saints Peter and Paul School and we walked to school for all eight years of our elementary school and two years of high school (The public school kids went to Junior High in those days. The Catholics went from first through eighth in the same buildings). I had some mean teachers, some crazy times, but overall – no complaints. It was what it was.

One thing about the way I was taught to pray, and we prayed a LOT, is that the prayers were all pretty much rote. There is the rosary with all of its Hail Marys and Our Fathers. There was the Act of Contrition and the Apostles Creed. All fine prayers. All duly memorized and recited at the right times. It was a way of life. I can still say them all. I still do from time to time. Of course we still say the Our Father at church at special occasions.

I know it’s me, but I ended up saying all of those prayers kind of like most of us say the Pledge of Allegiance, on autopilot. If I was given a heavy penance after going to confession, I said those prayers all right. I’d even say extras for extra forgiveness. I could say the Hail Mary in about seven seconds. So, if I was given 5 Hail Marys and an Act of Contrition, I could say 10 in just over a minute. Why not double up on the Hail Marys? That way if I sinned a little bit before my next confession I’d have a little insurance, a little in the bank so to speak.

I am NOT putting down Catholicism. When I looked the other way it was my fault for not getting as much as I could have from all of that teaching, all of those devout people, all of those hours in mass and prayer.

As a kid, when I broke out of the mold and said real prayers from my heart, they were always asking for stuff… Please God, let me find my library books or my folks will kill me… I know I haven’t studied enough for this social studies test, I promise to next time if you’ll only… I really like this girl, if you will only let her look at me a little differently… That kind of stuff. Shallow. I know.

I was quite content not going to church for a LONG TIME. Years. Oh, I went when I had to and almost always enjoyed it. I went at the in-law-days-of-obligation. There was a little time when we lived in Michigan when we found a church that was really to our liking. But mostly I was on cruise control. Mostly I was happy with no real thoughts toward creation and things outside of my sphere.

Then, when the boys were little, we decided to actively seek out a church home. I was pretty open. I wasn’t planning on investing much anyway. I am, by nature, an early riser so getting up on Sunday morning was no big thing to me. It was going to be good for the boys and Heidi was a little restless not having a regular church so, sure, I was on board.

We shopped around for a while visiting several different kinds of churches all over Columbia. Finally we visited a small Methodist church about three miles from our home. We lucked into the contemporary service and I fell in love. It was purely the music at first. There were people so into worship. With eyes closed they would often raise their hands, clap along with the music, and sing. Really sing. And the music was cool. There was a modern folk/rock quality to the band. They were worshipping and leading worship with harmonies and guitars and drums and keyboards. They were so sincere and humble and sweet.

I frankly admit that I was happy to go back to church the next week and the next week and the next week – for the music. The preacher, he was OK too. But that music and those people leading worship, they were magnetic and energized and they helped me to feel so good about being there. After a couple of weeks I had to introduce myself to the band and tell them how great the sound was and how cool the songs were.

Daniel, the lead singer and rhythm guitarist, was so modest. But he looked me in the eye and joked and was grateful for my encouragement. He asked if I played and I said that I did. He introduced me to George the bass player, Ben on electric, Barney on drums and Suzanne on keyboards and harmonies. I was infatuated with these guys.

In a few weeks they asked me to sit in and then I never left. I was never inducted, I just kept coming back. There was no pay involved so I didn’t feel like I was imposing.

This was something so different for me. For one thing, I didn’t know how a Christian was supposed to act. I mean, I did know – but I wasn’t sure of the protocol. Could we joke around, tease, mock and otherwise be irreverent? Would we talk politics, current events, social justice? Could we be honest, even if we disagreed? The answer to all of these was, of course! And we did. While I never technically belonged to a “small group”, the praise band was my small group.

The most important thing I think I learned from this wonderful group of people was how to pray. Beyond the Our Father. When we met together to practice and before actually playing in the church services, someone would pray. Out loud. It was personal and comfortable. I had never prayed that way. So many of these spontaneous prayers were of thanks. For the day, for the ability to make music, for the people coming to the services, for our children and families and for each other. They were simple prayers but elegant in their simplicity. There were asking prayers too, of course (prayers of petition I was to learn), but what I loved and what truly stuck with me was how to say thank you.

It made me aware of just how much I have to be grateful for. And it is a LOT. Even when times were tough, my prayers were thankfulness. When I had a cancer scare last spring, I was thankful for all of the years I have been healthy, and for the time I have been able to spend with Heidi and my boys. It was life changing, this praying my thankfulness.

Once, when I was out in the world (after a church gig) with my friend George, and a new friend Stan who joined us with his wonderful lead guitar, we were at a restaurant together. I was already to dig in – maybe I even had begun to eat- when George closed his eyes and reached out a hand to Stan and me. And he prayed over our food. It was simple and beautiful, the way a prayer should be I suppose. He prayed out loud. In public. He wasn’t the least self-conscious. I was humbled and a little awed by his faith. It seems like a little thing, blessing your food. But it was big to me then.

Our paths have parted. Heidi and the boys and I have been going to a new church for the last year and a half. I play in the praise band over there now. But I have been missing my old band friends. And I owe them so much. After all, they taught me to pray. What could be bigger than that?

Prayer : Memorial candles burning inside dark temple Nepal

A few weeks ago, tragedy struck the family of one of my old bandies. It was devastating. This is not the place for the details, but it was one of the saddest things imaginable. I did not know how to help, what to do. I can’t even begin to think how I would be in the same position. It is the kind of sadness that will never go away, the kind of memory that will never fade.

So, I pray. I am not sure that the power of my thoughts and prayers will make a difference for my friend or her family. I don’t know how God works. I don’t pretend to know the mind of God. But I think it helps. If I could make a difference with anything material I would. I have left messages. I went to the funeral home. I have written a letter. Maybe they helped too.

So I pray for her the way she taught me to pray. My prayers are for her comfort, her healing, for her memories to become happy ones and for the tragic memories to fade. My prayers are for her to know what a good parent she is and what a difference she makes in this world.

I am thankful too. For the years she got to spend with her son, for the laughs and the tears they shared, for the meals and the vacations and the family times. I am grateful for his birth, his learning to walk, to ride a bike, to read, to hunt and lift weights. For the times he teased his sister and his love of nature. For his love of sports and cars and girls. I am grateful for his life and the happy memories he leaves with his family.

To my mind God doesn’t care so much about being Hallelujahed as a lot of people think. I think God mainly just wants the communication, the relationship. My friend has the relationship and the ability to keep looking ahead to better times.


Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. O! I know what your talking about with the whole Hail Mary memorization/auto pilot. In our Social Studies class my group chose to do confession as a topic. My catholic friend, Sanjay, knew the Hail Marys by heart, and could say them in a second. (We got a 100 on the project)

P.S Thought you'd like to know that I wrote a new post.

Chris Hass said...

Wouldn't it be a funny book if you could somehow print those pleading prayers that all children make? What we ask for probably says a lot about who we are in this world and as kids we were selfish. Really, really selfish. I dare say that most of what I asked for in prayers were things that I could have attained on my own with some effort.

I'm not a church-goer, as you know, but I will make it out to see you play sometime. I have a couple of ties now so I might even wear a button-up shirt. If that doesn't make you feel special then nothing will!

What terrible news, indeed. You dealt with it so well, though. Better than I would have. I'm not one to think that prayers help but I would imagine that just knowing others are praying for you does because it lifts your spirit a bit to know that it's sincere.

When I was little, and in church, there was prayer chain. People would come away with a grocery list of people to pray for - some of which they didn't even know. This seems impersonal and less than genuine. It's been said that "You can't petition the Lord with prayer." However, this was from a womanizing, drug addict who never attended church so he probably doesn't have much credibility.

Off topic, these snow days are KILLING me. I'm going crazy. Maybe I'll pray for some sunshine!

Jennifer Barnes said...

Wow, Tim. What a touching entry! My heart goes out to your friend and her family - and to you. I know that your prayers make a difference. And I imagine your friend has read and reread the meaningful words you wrote her. Being a Christian (Southern Baptist, too) since childhood and feeling like I've sort of always had a relationship with God, I have to admit that my relationship with Him has changed immensely through the years. Praying has certainly changed in my life as I've changed - as the experiences affecting my family have changed me. I know that I'm a different person, a different mom, a different Christian because of the things we have gone through. (Maybe not always improved, you know - but always learning and growing! :)And, I know that all the prayers - the cries for help, the aching ones, the "wants", the praise and thanksgiving ones as well as the questions and disbelief -- they all are heart-felt and heard.