Friday, September 22, 2017

A quiet voice

Last week, I went to West Virginia for the unhappy duty of attending a family funeral. My family on both sides are Baptists and have been for generations. They have attended mostly smaller, more fundamental and evangelical Baptist churches. I was raised in a larger but still pretty fundamental Baptist church, so I'm steeped in it from birth.

I will also note that I stopped going to church regularly as a teenager. It isn't that I don't believe, but that version of church simply didn't speak to me then. It doesn't exactly speak to me now, but it does come a lot closer than it did. I've seen a lot more of life and I question a lot of things I once was sure of.

At any rate, the funeral was for a cousin's wife, so this was family by marriage. Still, this is West Virginia and her family is much like mine. Also, in West Virginia, things like funerals are often done differently than they are in more...metropolitan areas. Often, especially when one is "up in years", the visitation, funeral and burial are held together on the same day. My cousin's wife was at the low end of the up in years scale, but her family is old WV, and they work for a living. No life on public handouts and no pills and booze in this bunch. So for the sake of frugality in both cost and time, her services were set for one day. Family visitation at 10, friends from 11 to 1, funeral at 1 and burial to follow at the family cemetery in the next county over. (We'll talk about the burial another time, because it's a story in itself.)

She was from a family of 7 brothers and sisters, and they had followed the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. I'm not sure how many of their kids there were. There was no way to count grandkids, because they moved too fast. She also had plenty of friends, including those who had cared for her in the final months when her health declined. They all showed up for the service. I should draw such a crowd at my funeral.

The preacher (that's what we call them) was about her age, and had known all of them since they had all grown up as kids. He had been pastor to many of them over the years. I could tell he took this hard. This funeral was as rough on him as it was on any of us, and rougher than it was for many. But he was going to do his duty to a member of his flock.

Now, at any sort of a Baptist event, there is going to be an altar call--you never miss an opportunity to save a soul. Even at a funeral, you're going to have one. I remember the first family funeral Mrs. Freeholder, who was raised as a proper Methodist, attended. Shocked is a bit of an understatement.

She would have passed out cold at this one. The preacher was obviously moved in a way that you rarely see in a minister at a funeral. Rather than speak of the dearly departed's life, which he knew we all knew in detail, he decided to speak about hope, and how one found hope in a situation like this. He spoke of the Word and the Promise of God and how the departed was surely in Heaven, and that we could find our hope by being saved and knowing that we would join our family and friends there in due course.

I'm not sure, but it may have been the longest alter call at a funeral in history. It was definitely the longest one I've ever experienced. It didn't seem in the least out of place.

One thing he said, though, has been resonating in my head. I've always said that I have the "soul of an engineer", and that I have a difficult time believing in things I can't see, can't quantify, can't measure. Some years back, someone heard me say that, and asked if I believed in mathematics. Well obviously that's a "yes". So they hit me with set theory. Right down there to the left is what he nailed me with.

Pretty simplistic, but also damn hard to argue with. Enough to turn someone who thought of himself as "agnostic leaning atheist" into "What just happened to my world view?" I've always held that there were many things that we couldn't explain simply because we didn't know enough to understand them. Asimov said that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic," which is, in its on way, another version of the same sentiment. He didn't know this about me. He simply drew this on a napkin and laid it in front of me.

I can remember hearing, Sunday after Sunday, that you had to take the existence of God on faith. You couldn't prove it. You had to make that leap. I just never was able to make it.

After seeing that diagram, I always hoped that God was going to give me some sort of unmistakable sign, some sort of flashing billboard on the highway of my life that even someone as dense as I can be couldn't miss or misinterpret. I still had to have my proof. "Lord, send me a sign!"

But that thing the preacher said is resonating in my head. "God's not going to shout it to you. You have to be quiet, be still, like you're out hunting. At night, after you go to bed but before you go to sleep, you need to be still, and listen for that quiet voice in the silence. Because God doesn't shout."

"He whispers."

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