I used to tell this joke. It wasn’t funny because I was too serious. I said it with anger. People laughed. Maybe I sounded funny, but I seethed secretly.
Anyway, here’s the joke: If I die early, don’t play “Amazing Grace.” I heard that song too many times at my parents’ funerals. I wanted a new song at my funeral.
See. I told you it wasn’t funny.
I was a teenager, 15 to be exact. All I thought about was death and the dead. Died died a week before Christmas in 1988. Mom died a few weeks before my 15th birthday.
I wrote a will when I was in elementary school. When a favorite teacher died of leukemia in fourth grade, I tried to join her in heaven by holding my breath until I died.
I didn’t learn until high school that a person just passed out and the autonomic brain restarts your breathing. You can’t faint yourself into heaven, apparently.
Death and life made me angry. My parents’ lives were sad for most of the time I knew them. Dad was sick. Mom was addled by addiction and undiagnosed mental illness. That’s how I see it. Others may disagree. This is life.
I didn’t want to hear “Amazing Grace” anymore. I hated the song. I hated the lyrics. I didn’t believe the lyrics. I didn’t believe in God.
I didn’t believe for all the usual reasons. Why did God allow such cruelty? Why did God take my dad away from me?
I didn’t believe in God because many of the people I knew who practiced their faith used their piety as a way to put others down rather than lift everyone up.
If this was faith, I wanted no part of it.
I got older. My denials of God got more sophisticated, or, at least I thought they made more sense. The creation story didn’t make sense with how we understand science.
Humans are afraid to accept mortality, so they invented a myth that allowed them to not go crazy thinking about how they would one day die.
That’s a thought I had.
I dismissed the Bible as, at best, moral fables and poetry. I thought it was filled with rules that were necessary when humans were still crawling out of the primordial ooze, but weren’t necessarily needed today.
Finally, I tried watered-down atheism: agnosticism. Maybe there was a God. Maybe there wasn’t. Who can know? Why bother worrying about it?
I was admonished by some about my absence of faith, but this kind of talk came from the kind of pious people that convinced me to turn away from God.
As long as I can remember, I’ve felt a yawning emptiness inside me. An absence of love, an unworthiness of love, a self-loathing.
Science explains some of this. I had a traumatic childhood. My brain developed differently. I have survival strategies that worked to help me get through childhood minefields, but as an adult I don’t know how to turn off the sirens and flashing lights in my brain.
So anxiety claws at my thoughts. Depression weighs on my soul.
I have handled this in ways both poor and smart. I’ve spent myself into bankruptcy and debts beyond that.
I frittered away tens of thousands of dollars on baubles that provided short-term salve, but when tallied, take more toll than joy provided.
I have eaten myself to morbid obesity, pre-diabetes and a body that reflects just how much pain it feels like in my soul.
I’ve done smart things. I have a great behavioral therapists. My regular visits with him have made me stronger and helped me develop new ways of thinking that don’t end with suicidal thoughts.
I have an excellent psychiatrist who prescribed medicine and other treatments to help alter the chemistry in my brain to help me better cope with the symptoms of my mood disorders.
These are good, important changes that have made my life immeasurably better.
And still the great yawning emptiness plagued me.
I started to think about God again some time ago. I was raised United Methodist. I found the troubles that led to the schism in my church affected me despite me not having attended church regularly since my dad died.
I attributed these feelings to the same kind of thinking that I would have if the Yankees decided to split into two teams. The Methodists were my team and it was struggling.
But I started to notice the devout people in my life. They were not cruel with their piety. My friend Tyler is Lutheran. I’ve known him for 29 years. Not once did he ever try to convert me or change my mind. Yet he lived his faith. And I saw the peace it brought him.
My friend Todd is a devout Catholic. He is deeply conservative. We disagree on many things.
But on the day I had to write the obituaries for the best teacher I ever had and the best writer I ever knew, I called Todd. I asked him to pray with me. I needed something extra. Todd believed. Maybe if I could be close enough to his truth, maybe I could, too.
I don’t remember a word of what Todd said. I only remember that I had tears in my eyes, but the enormity of the task before me — to write the last stories about two of the best men I ever knew — seemed possible.
Still, I doubted. I tried to relegate the moment just to a peaceful pause that helped me gather before a hard day’s work. I knew I was lying to myself.
Then there was the matter of my friend Ken, the writer who died. He was a compulsive gambler. The addiction devastated his life even as he wrote some of the most beautiful stories of his career.
But once in a phone call, he told me the day he stopped hating himself and the day he stopped wanting to gamble came when he got on his knees and prayed to God for forgiveness and relief. He encouraged me to try it.
My friend John, who was Ken’s best friend, spoke of the power of faith and church in Ken’s life. John is a serious man, smart and a bit of a hard case. His writing is gentle and humane, but not sentimental. I respected John in ways I have few other colleagues.
To hear him talk about the relief faith brought Ken struck me like a sledgehammer.
This relief was what I sought for so long. All I needed was to pray for it. My friend Randy encouraged me to call Ken’s pastor, the Rev. Mike Householder at Hope Lutheran Church in West Des Moines.
The Tuesday after my friends’ funerals — which I did not attend because I hated myself so much that I couldn’t bear the thought of being seen in public — I called Rev. Householder’s office.
He called me. We talked for a while. I was in the newsroom. People buzzed about before the Democratic debate. Pastor Mike asked me some questions. He asked me what was bothering me. I told him about the yawning emptiness. I needed help to feel that the gift of life was not wasted on me.
And so we prayed. I closed my eyes and held the phone to my ear. I listened as hard as I could. Again, I don’t remember what he said. I remember him saying this wasn’t magic. There was a long road to walk.
I remember saying “Amen.” Again there were tears. Pastor Mike and I agreed to meet next week. I hung up the phone and took a deep breath.
And I swear this to be true: I felt peace. All my problems are still there. I still leave too much money behind at the comic book store and take in too many carbs at the barbecue restaurant.
I still take my medication. I have to exercise more and eat less. I’m treating medical conditions.
What I was not doing was treating my spiritual condition.
The old me cringes at that sentence. I would have dismissed it as marketing or gobbledygook.
But here is what I know: In the days since Pastor Mike and I prayed, I have a sense that I am going to be OK. I am OK. I am worthy.
I am not rushing out to convert everyone. I do some Bible readings here and there. But I am in no position to be pious. I am perhaps for the first time learning to understand “Amazing Grace.”
“Amazing Grace, so sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.”
You can play that song whenever you want. I’m not worried about my funeral, though. I am think about life.
With love and hope, dpf