by Bruce Stambaugh, guest contributor
Forty years ago, the very first sermon I heard preached in a Mennonite church was on non-resistance. It was exactly what I was looking for spiritually, and I embraced it. My father, a World War II veteran, was skeptical, but eventually accepted my decision.
Four decades later, I accompanied my 89-year-old father on a special excursion called Honor Flight for World War II vets. Dad was dying of cancer, and he had long wanted to make this trip to Washington, D.C. Regardless of their physical condition, each of the 117 vets on the plane was required to have a guardian for the all-day roundtrip. In his situation, Dad needed extra care.
Given my non-resistance stance on war, I was reluctant to go. I likely would be the only conscientious objector on the packed plane. But this trip wasn’t about me. It was about my father fulfilling one of his dreams. I needed to go with him, regardless of my personal convictions.
As anticipated, the vets received their patriotic just due. Upon landing at Reagan National Airport, fire trucks sprayed arches of water across our arriving jetliner — a ritual usually reserved for dignitaries. As we exited the plane and entered the terminal, a concert band played the patriotic music of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and “God Bless America.” Dozens of bouquets of red, white, and blue balloons tied to posts and chairs bobbed in the air. Hundreds of volunteers young and old vigorously greeted us.
The entourage visited several war monuments in the U.S. capital that day. At the circular, granite National World War II Memorial, strangers approached the vets with reverence and emotionally shared their gratefulness. They shook the vets’ hands and thanked them for their service. I quietly took it all in, tears streaming, emotions and thoughts mentally whirling. Still, I tried to focus my attention on caring for my elderly father.
Returning to the airport later that same day, the vets received a similar patriotic welcome home. Dad said his experience ranked right behind his marriage of 67 years. With that comment, I was glad that I had the chance to experience that day with my father. I felt honored and glad he was able to go. Dad died three months later.
Despite all the hoopla of the day — or perhaps because of it — the futility of war became all the more obvious to me. The events reinforced my non-resistance stance. In listening to the vets on the plane and buses that transported us throughout the day, I heard them all say that they hated what they had to do. I also remembered the words of Jesus, who said to turn the other cheek and go the second mile and beyond for your enemy.
For a day, I had one foot on the foundation of God and country and the other on the teachings of Jesus. The trip with my father was an inspirational reminder of the commitment I made as a young man to a different way of making peace in a hostile world. Because of this experience, I bonded with my father in his time of need, and I greatly respected what my father and the other veterans on the flight had done. Yet, I knew I could not have done what they had — not because of cowardice, but out of conviction.
I had participated in the Honor Flight out of love and respect for my earthly father. I had held fast to my peace convictions out of love and devotion to my Father in heaven. In that paradox, I found no conflict whatsoever.
Bruce Stambaugh is a retired educator and a freelance writer living in Millersburg, Ohio. You can read more of his writing on his blog at Roadkill Crossing, and Other Tales from Amish Country.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Anon, although we are mere journalists and not spiritual counselors, perhaps I could offer some words of wisdom from a former guest, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, who offers this advice in "The Spirituality of Parenting":
"Don’t let the people who gave you a bad impression of your religious tradition be the only ones to define it. You, too, are a part of that tradition, and you’re not just a descendent, you are also an ancestor, and you helped to create the future of that tradition. So give it a second chance. Many times we have bad experiences with particular religious tradition, but that is not the best of the tradition. We need to look to the best of the tradition, because there are wonderful things within religious traditions, and they give us this language that allows us to speak."
If this advice is not helpful, perhaps I can echo the suggestions of several wise elders I’ve heard over the years: simply put, “try on” a religion for a while and see how it feels and fits. Perhaps it’s doctrine or ritual that’s important to you or maybe it’s the individuals within a community that matter most.
I’d like to solicit our readers for their guidance and experience; please share your wisdom for this individual in the comments section.
~answered by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
by Jan Phillips, guest contributor
Young girls dressed in white symbolizing purity shower flowers and rose petals before the passing of the Holy Host carried in solemnity by the parish priest. (photo: Peter Grima/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)
At an early age, I learned that God was a being who dwelled in a place far from where I ever stood. I learned to commune with the transcendent God of the above, not the immanent divine within. But over the years, as I let go of childish thinking and took responsibility for my spiritual life, my perception of God changed dramatically. I am guided now not so much by teachings that were handed down to me, but by ideas that have risen up from within — a shift that began 30 years ago when I was a young postulant nun in a religious order taking my first theology class.
The Jesuit priest stood in front of the room and asked us what we believed about God. One postulant raised her hand, stood up, and said, “God made me to show His goodness and to share His everlasting life with me in heaven.” I nodded my head in agreement, having memorized this years ago just like everyone else in the room.
The priest looked dismayed. “That’s it?” he asked.
“Sit down,” he barked, looking around for the next hand.
Up it went, and the next brave soul stood up saying, “In God there are three divine persons, really distinct, and equal in all things — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
I nodded again, and the priest frowned. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Next,” he yelled, as she took her seat, looking around in wonder.
By now, we’re all confused, but one more raised her hand.
“God can do all things, and nothing is hard or impossible to Him.”
“Sit down,” he said.
He rolled his eyes, crossed his arms, and surveyed the whole group of us with a kind of silent disdain. By now, I’m feeling anxious and blood is rushing up my neck. I feel hot and sweaty. My first anxiety attack.
“How could he do this?” It seemed so mean. He asked for our ideas about God and yet, when we said them, it felt like he took a sledge hammer and smashed our beliefs into a thousand pieces. A tear rolled down my cheek.
It was a moment of devastating loss, incomprehensible sadness. I felt as if everything I believed in, everything on which I had based my life, was now being challenged. We sat there, 30 of us, for what seemed an eternity, reckoning with the obliteration of God as we had known Him. What if everything we believed wasn’t true? Did Father Grabys know something we didn’t know?
Finally the priest spoke. “You should be ashamed for having nothing more than catechism answers to this question. Are you just a bunch of parrots, repeating everything you’ve been taught? Hasn’t anyone here gone beyond the Baltimore Catechism in your thinking?”
The air was thick with silence. Hands were folded, eyes cast down. Tears cascaded down my face. I prayed he wouldn’t call on me.
“You must come to know what is true about God from your own experience,” said the priest. “If you are to be a nun worth your salt, you have to arrive at a faith that is deeper than your learning, one that is rooted in your ultimate concerns and rises up from the nature of who you are.”
I looked up at him, wondering how in the world to build a faith from my human nature. Wasn’t faith something I was born into — something I inherited from the outside?
I was a Catholic by default. They told me everything I was supposed to believe. That was the point, wasn’t it? I was just lucky to be born into the one true faith. I certainly didn’t have anything to say about it. That’s what infallible popes were for.
I raised my hand and asked him how someone could create a faith from the inside out, and why we even needed to since we knew what we needed to know from the catechism.
“What you believe, that is religion,” he said. “Who you are, what you live for — that is faith. And that is what we are here to explore, to create, and to declare — our faith and spirituality. You can let go of your beliefs for awhile as you learn how to create a faith that will see you through everything.”
I didn’t want to let go of any beliefs. They were all I had. And they were enough. I didn’t need anything more, or so I thought. As we continued on in the class, the biblical paradox that says we must lose our lives in order to find them suddenly began to make sense. Taking responsibility for our own spirituality was a painstaking process that lasted the entire semester as we worked to find and define our own commitments and ultimate concerns — a task that was supremely challenging for young women who had been taught all their lives what to think, but not how to think.
We never looked at another catechism, never recited another memorized belief, but step by step we built a new spirituality for ourselves that was deeply personal and rooted in our ultimate concerns. And every day during meditation there was something new and profoundly elegant to contemplate: myself as the creator of my own spiritual path.
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