Crossroads

crossroads

I find myself at another crossroad in my life. I used to think there was only one crossroad where the pivotal choice would make or break a life. While I see the gravity of that choice, I no longer think there is only one point on the path—I think there are several. I am at such a place in my life as I write this and my brain is completely rattled because of the stress and anxiety slicing my veins with their claws and pressing my head to pop like a bubble. I have been laid off from my previous position, and the loss of my employment had nothing to do with my attitude or how I conducted myself in the office; but I’m “not a good fit.” If any phrase could become a motto in my life due to frequency, “not a good fit” would be it; and it’s something I have heard since high school before I am directed to a menial task beneath my abilities and intelligence. After years of living like this, I became sick to my stomach by those incessant syllables. The implication is I am not to be more than assumed due to my stature because people who are 6”8 are not well read or academics. No, people who are 6”8 should play sports like basketball or football depending on their girth, and if they do nothing athletic then they have wasted their lives. They are fit for warehouse work or manual labor. I am not implying anything negative about warehouse work or manual labor, but telling me I am nothing more than a laborer because of my size—regardless of education—is an insult. I’ve been facing that insult when I’ve gone into interviews or rejected by temp agencies. I found myself at a low point when Spherion told me I needed all my work experience from high school. To them all the hard work I put in to earn my humanities degree in literature and religion were irrelevant.

I don’t know what Spherion is like in the rest of the country, but in Indianapolis, Spherion is the bottom of the barrel—an agency to go to when you have exhausted all other options and you need to have fancy things like shelter and food. When they rejected me and told me I was a “hard sell,” the weight pulled my head to the ground and everything went dark. What do you do when all your efforts are pushed aside and ignored? I returned to school because life had been on a constant negative cycle of one meaningless job after another, and I needed a change. The wake-up call came when my father died, and I watched him die as he lived: on his terms. His life was a hard life, but it was a life of his own choosing, and his departure alerted me to the patterns of my own life. My life went lower as my fiancé slandered me and cheated on me, convincing our church that I should be shown the door. As I went lower, I decided the best way to change the direction of my life revolved around finishing my education; and I enrolled in a local community college. After two years of the community college, I transferred to a private liberal arts college in central Illinois where I spent three years under the tutelage of three great scholars in literature, religion, and philosophy. I spent many pots of coffee and late hours researching for my academic projects while meeting with my academic adviser and meeting deadlines. I had been expected to do well under my workload, and I did by ending my academic career with a GPA of 3.415—almost a full point of being on the Dean’s List for the third time in that institution.

I met my wife while at school, and we were married a week after graduation. A week after our wedding we packed up our things into a rental and drove across the country to Portland, OR where my wife had friends–one of whom said we would quickly find work and an apartment . An arrangement had been made where we would stay at one of the friend’s house while we hustled for a place of our own and the income to pay the bills. Portland’s transit system is exceptional with buses and modern street cars running every fifteen minutes making a car unnecessary to get around town. Things began to dissipate in a little over a week when the three roommates of my wife’s friend were behaving with passive aggression towards us. To our knowledge we had done nothing to them, respected their space, and stayed out of their way while we took care of our errands. We asked one of the roommates, who was friendly towards us, if we had unknowingly slighted them. She shook her head and told us we had done nothing, but my wife’s friend did not tell them we were coming. Not only did she not tell them, but she had a habit of never communicating to her roommates, dropping things on them at the last minute, and expected them to be on board. That made sense to us, and I had empathy for the roommates’ situation because I would be just as hostile if I had a roommate who let people I didn’t know into my space for an indefinite period. Within a few days, my wife’s friend behaved the same way towards us, and kicked us out of the house. Fortunately, my father in law had bought us a used 2000 Dodge Minivan so we were able to pack our things, and go across the river into Vancouver, WA and stay at a motel for a week to figure out what to do next.

We decided to venture out of Portland to Eugene, and try our luck in a different town; but nothing happened there as it did in Portland. I became flummoxed, but my wife reminded me that we didn’t have to stay in Oregon. We had a little money from our wedding gift so we went back to Vancouver, packed up our things, returned the key, and left Oregon. We decided to go east with no destination in mind other than putting down roots in an area complementing our personalities. We drove through Northern California into Reno, NV because my wife had an uncle there who helped us on our trip by letting us use his points for hotels. We decided to stop by his place and thank him as we passed through, but he became belligerent, accusing us of looking for another handout. We were both dejected, and as we sat in a Del Taco looking up good deals on hotel rooms—which we found for $27—we decided to go to Lincoln, NE because the city advertised plentiful employment and affordable housing.

We stayed there for a year because of our lease, but I was fed up with Lincoln after three months. There are good jobs if you have a medical or financial background, but otherwise it’s NelNet lead by a Tea Party CEO who demonizes the poor as he chokes them out of their homes to expand his little pond. Most of the people there are bullies who are not used to people standing up to them. I come from a tougher background than many of these people, and in my neighborhood when somebody picks a fight you push back and prepare for anything. When I pushed back in Lincoln, the agitators were horrified and ran. The complacency of the culture infuriated me when people would complain but do nothing. Shrugged shoulders and a “what can you do?” attitude followed by more complaints. There were some good parts of Lincoln, though, like The Coffee House two blocks south of the University of Nebraska campus, Cultiva Coffee & Espresso, Meadowlark Coffeehouse, A Novel Idea Used Bookstore, and The Co-op; but these were not enough to stay, and when our lease expired we were on our way to Indianapolis. My wife’s job allowed her to transfer to the Indianapolis office, and a friend helped me find a position at his company in the help desk department. My employment lasted six months before I had been let go.

The patterns were repeating, but this time I have a person in my life who is directly affected by whatever I choose or by whatever happens. Needless to say, I was dejected, but she suggested I find an alternate means to make income. I had been trying the mainstream way of securing work and a paycheck, and I would have the job for a short amount of time before being terminated. I had to sit down and think about the strengths I had and how I needed to capitalize on them. I am a writer, and I am also well read. I’ve had blogs before, but I would write about wherever I happened to be, on religion, or on literature; but, the theme was never consistent. Blogs are a good tool to network and get noticed when used properly, and I decided to take the first few steps to have my writing noticed while I work on one novel and one piece of creative nonfiction. This blog will be used for my discussions of literature and reviewing books—current or past. Maintaining a professional blog such as this requires work and dedication—some sites I’ve researched called for posting three to five times a week with fifteen hundred to two thousand words at a time. The work sounds daunting, but, if you made it this far, you can see I will have no trouble keeping up on my site. Maybe this will turn into something, maybe not, but what I do know is that I need to own who I am and what I do–come what may.

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J’accuse!

anne lamott

Two days ago, the daughter of one of the pastors I’ve written about contacted me, and told me my description of her father—while true—devastated her. She told me I was bitter, used her baby sister reading these words as a guilt trip, and told me I knew nothing. Perhaps, but the time I wrote about was a time she was carried around in diapers. While her story is different than mine because of her experience, my experience of him has been a common place thing across the board from churches of various denominations—his example is a drop in a deep chasm.

She then went after a friend who published my story on his website—and gave me a chance to tell my story on his podcast—and threatened a lawsuit. My friend had his lawyers looking into the matter, and I sat back waiting for her to make good on her threat. If she thinks my story aired dirty laundry, I can only imagine what would happen if lawyers got involved—that invasive microscope into character goes both ways. And while I’ve done terrible things in my past and owned them, I have a list of names of people who have been affected by her father who would be more than happy to give their testimony and validate my story.

I’ve been writing and telling my story for a few years naming names and churches, and I looked up libel and defamation laws just in case something like this happened. The only way she could make a case is if I knowingly put up something false about her father’s character. And I have a screen shot of her message telling me my story about her father isn’t “new news.” What I’ve written is how I viewed the people in those painful moments. While others could come forward and contradict my point of view with their experiences, I am not putting anything out there that is false—I’m being honest. But my telling of the story is not motivated with any kind of vendetta, but to shed light on  churches in America and how these churches refuse to take responsibility for their actions, leaders, and people.

The threat of lawsuit—weak as it was—was the last straw with my connection to Christianity. Instead of addressing my issue and reading my story, another Christian used ad hominem attacks and hid behind lawyers to threaten a friend’s livelihood. I get we are broken, I get we are imperfect, and I get we all do terrible things to each other when we’re hurt, but what I don’t get is people like this are not held accountable. Teachings of grace and brokenness without taking responsibility is a breeding ground for sociopathic monsters, and regardless of your views of Jesus, this is the culture of the church.

atheist bashing

My problem with her father, I will call B—or any Christian/Christian leader who wounded me—isn’t their inconsistency. We all do it. Inconsistency is part of being human because we need to know our failings so we can own them, learn from them, and put in the effort to grow from them. B and all these other Christians/ Christian leaders in my life get a free pass to do whatever they want to do without facing any consequences for their actions. I specify Christianity in this post because it’s not only my context, but the religion where I have seen a long string of abuses permitted with the added insult of blaming the wounded for the audacity to bleed. The issue goes beyond personal because my story is one of a myriad of stories the Christian religion dismisses and will continue to dismiss rather than take responsibility. The Christian religion has done a fine job creating apostates and atheists. The religion is like early Taylor Swift songs about failed relationships. She sings about all these guys who use her and discard her but she is too blind to see she is the common denominator—maybe it isn’t the people she chooses but her consistent bad choices she didn’t own when she wrote the songs. Maybe it’s a bad analogy, but I trust you get the comparison.

Whether I am accused of bitterness or told that it’s God’s grace on these people and God will take care of the issue there is an issue of accountability—or the lack thereof. When people such as myself are told to sit down and be quiet or dismissed as bitter there is a deflection from the issue. The pattern I’ve noticed in my own experience is these Christian people in leadership—or their supporters—do not deny what has happened. Though, I think they know their actions aren’t right and deviate from the example of Jesus. The issue isn’t about being Jesus or following the example of people in scripture by applying the teachings in a modern context. The issue is about money and the things money can buy—and that is found in any church on any point on the economic spectrum—if a person earns a paycheck from a church position, no matter how meager, the motivation will be about paying rent or the mortgage that month.

HCF where I went to when B was one of the pastors is a money church. There is also College Park on Indy’s North side where Mike Pence attended before he moved to D.C., The Dwelling Place where many affluent people from College Park attended for the trendy association, East 91st St. Christian Church, Eastern Star Baptist Church, etc. The list goes on, and though they are different in liturgy, doctrine, and theology they are the same when it comes to money.

I know I can be an ass in my presentations, and I know when I become passionate about the truth and looking for answers I can come off as insulting. But my presentation and passion are not the issue. What I seek and what I question challenges the control these church leaders have over people, and, let’s face it, the people I have come across in my church experience never had an original thought or cracked open a bible for themselves. These people are easy to manipulate, and they also have a considerable amount of wealth. I’ve seen the multimillion dollar buildings at these churches, I’ve seen the pastors’ multimillion dollar homes, the cars they drive, and the things their kids have. If they worked at a corporate job that is one thing, but their sole position is a pastor, and in those churches the pastor’s income is from the tithe. Anything that threatens these pastors’ wallet and lifestyle must be removed—even if it’s a person asking volatile questions—even if a leader’s behavior willingly disobeys God. These pastors’ god is their wallet, and they pay occasional lip service to Jesus so they won’t go to Hell—as if Jesus is blind to their behavior.

Using guilt and ad hominem attacks on me or anyone else who voices their contention does not change the fact these leaders and people in their respective churches did terrible things and will not be held accountable. The fact of the matter is the same bible B’s daughter—and people like her—use against me for airing things swept under the rug  is the same book that also has a thing or two to say about the behavior of leaders in the church such as her father:

The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way—for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.
Deacons likewise must be serious, not double tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested ; then if they prove themselves blameless , let them serve as deacons. (1 Timothy 3:1-10, NRSV)

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. (James 3:1-5, NRSV)

The pastors, elders, and deacons in my life have failed across the board with impunity and without care to whomever they damage. Then the church exacerbates the problem by ignoring the criteria they use in their ordination ceremonies. Adding to that the church does nothing to hold their people accountable as stated in 1 Corinthians:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons—not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral, or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, NRSV)

Obviously, if this passage were applied in a pass/fail approach none of us would be in any church. What I think is happening can be found in the words of Jesus when he taught people on how to handle folk who are out of line when they meet together: You go one on one, take a couple people when that person doesn’t listen, take them before the church if they refuse to listen, and if the person is still stubborn put them out of the church until they learn how to live in the community (Matthew 18-15-17, NRSV). People like B were exonerated rather than held accountable, and his continuing position as pastor permitted him to continue in his slander and alienation of people in HCF. But it’s not just B is it? No. He is one of many pastors in one of many churches I’ve been to who openly violates the bible from which he preaches when it suits his agenda.

I no longer have an issue with him personally—it’s been almost twenty years. My issue is with the culture in the American church that permits people like him who are unfit for any kind of leadership in the church but holds the position because it’s financially expedient. The American church cares more about its money and material comfort than justice, and if you want to find God and justice in its walls you had better bring God and justice with you when you go to church.

 

We are Heathcliff. We are Earnshaws. We are Lintons.

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This morning, I finished reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and I started the book late Tuesday evening. There are few books in my life where the thoughts of the writer were so compelling that I had to sit and read the book in one setting. Only two stand out in memory. The first is Corliss Lamont’s The Illusion of Immortality and Peter Rollins’ Divine Magician. Both are philosophy books discussing the nonexistence of God, but Rollins’ philosophy comes from a death of God theology started by Thomas Altizer in the 1960s. Emily Bronte is by no means a philosopher, but I found in Wuthering Heights religious and social criticism involving social responsibility for the suffering and injustice we see in our world. I also found in her book someone who knew intimately my own sufferings and injustice.

My reasons for connecting religious criticism in Wuthering Heights had to do with Joseph who was an austere religious man and quite hateful—a reflection of Heathcliff’s home. Bronte describes Joseph as “the wearisome self-righteous Pharisee that ever ransacked a bible to rake the promises to himself and fling the curses to his neighbors.” Not only did Joseph define the culture of Wuthering Heights, but also the culture of the neighboring home Thrushcross Grange four miles away. The The Earnshaws and Lintons were awful people who hid behind the politeness of status while mistreating people they thought beneath them with sarcasm and mockery. This behavior has been the general norm of the Christian Church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—today, and just as deplorable in The Church of England in the nineteenth century when Emily Bronte wrote this novel.

The story is parabolic in its imagery. Nelly, the housemaid, recounts how the father brought home a gypsy orphan whom everyone, including Nelly, despised. The father was gracious and loved the boy whom he named Heathcliff, but everyone kept their distance. When the father died the Earnshaws degraded Heathcliff to a servant and were completely cruel to him. Before the father died, Heathcliff was a kind, gentle boy who had befriended Catherine, and the two were loving towards each other. After the father died, Catherine is expected to grow into a refined status and later introduced to Edgar Linton—her future husband who also treated Heathcliff horribly. Heathcliff could not take the abuse anymore, and ran away to  make something of himself and plan his revenge.

Upon his return, Heatcliff sets his revenge upon Catherine and Edgar by using legal means to make them suffer, but the two of them–along with Nelly–do not see where their treatment of Heathcliff created the monster who stood before them dignified and menacing. Obviously, they are not to be completely blamed for Heathcliff’s choice, but he was a boy and had to find a way to survive. Heathcliff made a choice, but he does not handle alone the responsibility of his corruption. From a religious standpoint this is what I think of people like me who loath the church for its treatment of them, and the vengeance they seek. When I listened to others such as myself who possess a similar vehemence, or read such works as God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, I see us in good company with Heathcliff looking upon a society refusing  see their own misdeeds while condemning the victims they create.

This ties in to the social criticism because of our interconnection with all living beings and with the condition of our homes—be it our home, neighborhood, city/town, state, country, planet, and universe. I started reading this book two days after the shooting in Las Vegas. Immediately, people came out to demand a change in our gun laws while condemning the Republicans who do nothing but offer “Thoughts and Prayers” as the NRA line their pockets. To counter this outcry many on the right pointed to the second amendment and the possibility of a tyrannical government coming to take away their rights—starting with the right to defend themselves.  While I am on the side of changing our gun laws to make it difficult for just anyone to have guns, I do see the apprehension on the right, but I think both sides can agree that violence in the United States is way out of hand—and has been since the country’s inception. But I don’t think laws are going to change anything unless people are willing to change themselves. The first step is to acknowledge our responsibility for the suffering and injustice we see. We may not be the perpetrators, but in our thoughts and words, what we do, and what we fail to do creates the world we live. We may not pull the trigger in this mass shooting, but all our attitudes and actions—across the political spectrum—created a culture where that violence is possible. Not to mention the racism and the deaths of people of color at the hands of police officers, or the abuse and deaths of Muslims, LGBTQAI+, and women. I did this, you did this, we all did this, and nothing will change until we change how we think and relate to one another. Unless we change our hearts and minds the injustice and suffering we have created will consume us. It is of no small matter that Emily Bronte made some of the people who mistreated Heathcliff die of consumption.

On a personal level, I found myself understood by someone across time and an ocean. My mother often referred to me as a gypsy to people outside our family. She would also raise seven kinds of hell if anyone besides her marginalized me because of my personality and choices. I pointed out the double standard, but she informed me that was her right as my mother. Often times I had been treated differently and terribly by her and the rest of her extended family while treating my brother humanely. I thought it something to do with their personality. But six months ago on a cold, January day, my mother told me I was to blame for her miserable life with my father. I was a mistake, and she felt trapped. She treated my brother differently because she had planned for him. At that point, I stopped talking to her and let her be. I don’t want to live that life of bitterness or be around it, and she can be with the son she wants.

This sudden bit of honesty gave me a slight shock, but I am an adult and her words did not have the same impact on me as they would have if she had told me when I was fifteen. What the information did for me, though, was explain my life with my mother and the rest of her family, and why they felt so compelled to marginalize me and mistreat me. I felt a certain freedom and peace as I walked away from my family, but I have no desire to return and exact any kind of vengeance as Heathcliff. Vengeance had destroyed Heathcliff as hatred destroyed the Linton family. What is the point of wasting my life on payback on people who acted out of fear and misery? As vile as the treatment they gave me it was not personal, but I was a convenient target just like Heathcliff. And like Heathcliff, I shut myself down and became as cold as my family to survive their malevolence.But that bitterness is difficult to unlearn especially when I observed that the world outside my home had lines it won’t cross. But I started the process anyway.  I don’t want their kind of life. I want to be happy and fulfilled. Remaining in the choices of Heathcliff is to cultivate an existence short lived and brutish. In Emily Bronte, I found compassion to my suffering and encouragement to continue on in my unlearning and re-education.  Not only me, but for everyone, and for all our benefit.

A Vision of Monday

Daryl Davis

 

I watched a video yesterday about a group of people who went to D.C. to hold a Trump Support rally. There was a woman from Chicago who talked about her reasons for attending the rally. She was afraid for losing her freedom of speech. She spoke of people who—after finding out she voted for Trump—did everything they could to take business away from her, and how she can’t speak openly for her support without any kind of backlash from her community. I don’t know the woman’s full story, and I have only heard her side. Without the full story it is easy for anyone to be sympathetic. After all who wants their constitutionally granted freedom of speech taken away from them? I know I don’t. I’m liberal, and as much as I loathe the rhetoric of the conservative side of politics, I do respect their right to speak. However, I draw the line when that speech incites hatred, marginalization, injuring, or killing a group of people based upon the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, and sexual orientation.

I am also filtering her sentiments through my own experiences as a bisexual male living in central Indiana—specifically, Indianapolis. Living downtown, and frequenting my old neighborhood in Irvington, and Broad Ripple, I do not risk any danger for being out and flamboyant. But outside of Irvington, Broad Ripple, and downtown I become susceptible to any form of bigotry.

While running an errand at Walmart off US 31 on Indianapolis’ south side, I was almost lynched by a group of white men in Jesus shirts. We got out quickly, and Ronnie took my hand to be my beard—to meet their arbitrary, and meaningless, criteria of masculinity.

While working at a cigar bar in Avon—a west side suburb—I was fired for being too flamboyant and too out. The customers did not like me because of who I am, and the manager was compelled, by popular opinion, to fire me.

What can be done about these two examples? Legally, nothing. Why? Because in Indiana any kind of discrimination or violence towards the LGBTQIA community is permitted. When Mike Pence was governor of Indiana he signed in the Religious Liberty Act permitting businesses to legally discriminate against anyone who wasn’t straight or cis-gender. Many businesses revolted against this hateful action, and placed signs in their windows telling any passerby that all are welcome. Because of public outrage, Mike Pence withdrew the act, but discrimination and violence still happens. Many Christians in Indy—some who I know personally—consider this persecution because Mike Pence, a professing Evangelical Christian, was not allowed to legislate his particular expression of faith.

That’s what I think of when I hear people like this Chicago business owner. I don’t hear someone’s freedom of speech being taken away. What I hear is bemoaning the response to her free speech. She doesn’t want to face the consequences for her right to speak freely.

With freedom and rights there comes a responsibility in exercise. You don’t get to go into a crowded theater, and yell “Fire!” causing mass panic and injury, and escape jail time. The consequences of arrest and imprisonment for putting people in danger are not a cessation of the right to speak freely. The same can be said for the speech inciting violence against those who are different than you.

In the United States we have the right to freely assemble, and we have the right to protest and rally over issues affecting us and our community. What we don’t have the right to do—regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum—is to kill and maim those on the other side. From what I have seen and read the people on the right are the ones maiming and killing those who disagree with them. Not everyone on the right is homophobic, racist, xenophobic, etc., but the ones who are violent have ties to the right.

I have compassion for this woman because she should be allowed to express her beliefs and political sentiments without being blackballed in her community. But I don’t know the full story, and dare not treat her pain unfairly because I, too, know what it’s like to be shut down for declaring an unpopular opinion in my immediate community. My assumption is, as a business owner, she targets people who are transgendered, have a different sexual orientation, and, quite frankly, are not white Christians. I might be correct, but I might not be, and I could be withholding compassion and lovingkindness from a decent human being who is acting out of fear. Who among us has done despicable things to another person because we were completely saturated by fear? I know I have. Without the fear, hatred has no life to distort our vision and decency.

I can say that I have genuine compassion for the woman in the video, but I won’t be disingenuous and say I did not feel any apprehension about her choice of words or the images or the images a group of people standing and worshipping the American flag. She’s afraid, I’m afraid, we’re all afraid, and our combined fear has created a powder keg in our culture with a short fuse. One little spark, and the right to speak freely will be the least of our worries.

The problem is not in the assumed differences in our political parties—there aren’t any—, the problem isn’t in our religious views, nor is our problem found in Trump. All these are symptoms of something greater that I—at the present moment—do not know. What I do know is pigeon holing people with our constrictive labels allows us to escape the work we have to do to improve the conditions of our world. If you have the courage to face another human being different than you, talk with them, get to know them, and find out you both want to be free from suffering and the root of all suffering and that you both want to be happy, would you be so willing to maim or kill them? I know I border on idealism with that question, but, based on my limited experience, I have met very few legitimately evil people. The rest are people doing evil things in an attempt to alleviate their own suffering and achieve their own happiness. I think the first step is to look outside ourselves in service to others ranging from a simple smile to standing with people of color at a Black Lives Matter Rally in St. Louis to protest injustice. The change begins when we hold our hands out to one another.

On the Road to Redemption

 

Yesterday, I gave my religious story before the congregation of Lynhurst Baptist Church. I have been going there consistently since late June, but off and on since my return to Indy in August 2016. A few days after my story performance at Pull Up a Chair Indy, I told Bobby that my story would be posted on YouTube. He saw it, and enjoyed it, and then told me, “You need to talk to Ben and tell your story to the church.” I approached Ben before service, and told him what Bobby had said, and Ben was excited to get me behind the pulpit. We set up the date for September 17, and I went to work on my story.

Ben wants any story to be around twenty minutes—give or take a couple minutes—so the service does not exceed an hour. I thought this to be a challenge because my history with the church is not a pleasant one, nor is that history brief.

I don’t come from a stereotypically religious home, and that reason had to do with the cultures of my mother’s family and my father’s family, and their own conclusion on religious matters. I wrote out my mother’s family arrival from Scotland, Wales, and Germany to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century, and how they stayed within their respective cultures though my great-great grandparents had been dead since the 1940s. I grew up with snippets of German and Scots Gaelic—sometimes sworn at me—in a gravelly Highland accent my youngest great aunt maintained. These people had their fill of America by the early teens because of the ethnic backlash from World War I, and wanted to be left alone thank you very much. And if they were not left alone this part of my family had no qualms delivering an explanation on the matter, and go sing hymns to Jesus the following Sunday with a bounce in their step.

My father’s family was quite different. Most of his family arrived from County Cork, Ireland in the 1880s, and, Hoosier Hospitality being the same then as it is today, were told in no uncertain terms they could be Catholic or they could eat. On the surface they complied and didn’t go to Mass. Behind closed doors, though, they remained staunchly Irish Catholic. This cultural religion was passed down to the succeeding generations, and my father, though, hateful towards God for the hand he had been dealt, maintained that religious culture in his ethics that became my foundation for morality long before our shadows hit the church doors.

My mother is cynical towards organized religion because of the hypocrisy she observed in her family, but she’s cool with Jesus and God is alright. Their followers, on the other hand, had better stay away from her if they know what’s good for them. She thought the black and white points of view childish and beneath her, and did not shelter my brother or myself. In fact, she was the one who drove me to a hole in the wall Punk Rock record store in the Irvington neighborhood so I could buy Agnostic Front’s “Liberty and Justice For…” album along with The Crucified’s self-titled release. Pop didn’t care about the music per se. He was into Surf music, Johnny Cash, and other Outlaw Country. He hated the sound and would yell, “Goddamn it, boy! Turn that shit down!” But he never stooped so low as to equate morality or spirituality with a music style. For Pop, morality and spirituality were internal.

But those examples were too much for the story with regards to time. I also had other examples from different churches from all over Indianapolis. While these things are good for a written story such as a memoir, they exceeded the time constraints by twenty-five minutes. My first attempt at brevity was an eighteen page first draft.

I kept Ben and Eric in the loop with each step of writing and revision. Most of my story blew away Eric. Even though he has known me for twenty years he never knew the depths of my hellish religious background. I never brought them up because my story of religious abuse and walking away from God is an all too common story in the United States. The experience felt common, and I’ve also been told to be quiet about it. After all I’m bitter and ignoring the grace of God. God’s grace is true and keeps people close to God, but grace does not mean any kind of bad behavior is without consequence. As much as God is gracious, God is also about justice—restoration and balance—something that much of the church has forgotten as it wielded its heavy handed judgments.

When Ben and I met for coffee in the middle of August, I felt the need to address my concern towards telling my story. “You do realize my story is an indictment against the Christian religion and The Church?” He gulps his coffee and shakes his head, “Yes, but you need to tell it because The Church needs to hear it.” I shrugged my shoulders and continued on with the editing. I reduced the family and religious examples to one or two instances and focused on my particular journey from 2010-2017—my wandering years after my father died.

After a brief introduction from Eric, I got up behind the pulpit with my quart mug of green tea and honey, and began my story. There was some laughter here and there, but mostly dead silence. I was feeling a bit nervous myself. Not from speaking in front of people, but telling this particular story to people in a church. I don’t have the pleasant church experiences where there was a constant stream of love and safety. What has been consistent in my story is abuse, cover up, victim shaming, and dismissal from the church. Another reason for the apprehension I felt had to with this being the first time in my religious experience where church leadership wanted to hear my story and have the congregation hear my story.

I don’t know what I was expecting to happen after the end. I sat down in the pew, and Ben got up to speak. He told the congregation that The Church does not like to hear stories like mine because it makes every Christian uncomfortable, but my story is one of thousands—people walking away from God because they want to be free from of the violence people have done to them in God’s name. Ben admonished the church to take seriously stories like mine and to put in the effort to be Jesus outside the church walls. Not that Lynhurst Baptist needs much admonishing. The only reason I go there is I feel the reality of Jesus from the people I meet, and that is not something I have ever felt in a church. I also want to be like Jesus, and for me, Lynhurst Baptist is a place where Jesus lives next door—he goes to the bar with you.

Ben’s response caught me off guard, though. When he spoke, the reality of me telling my story in a church set in, and there was a leader who didn’t tell me to keep quiet and let the grace of God handle it. He never blamed me for what had happened. In fact, Ben validated me and my story before the congregation and to those who were watching the service online. My wounds had come full circle, and I could finally lay them to rest. A church and its pastor, my pastor, acknowledged my story without any defensiveness. The pain I had carried had been redeemed, and could be released. So I let go of the pain.

After service few came up and told me they enjoyed my story. However, I did not spend any time discussing my story or my church experience. There were two people who wanted to talk to me about Jack Kerouac and his book On the Road. I mention Kerouac as a stalwart companion, and both people told me the effect he has had on their lives and the lives of their kids. I spent an hour in the sanctuary discussing Kerouac and Buddhism, and when I left, Ben told me a couple people, inspired by my story, came up to him expressing their desire to tell their story.

Grace had come to me because of my telling, and when I spoke the last word, the final burden had been removed. I could sit around and discuss common joys with people I just met. Grace had also touched those two people sparking in them the courage and the desire to share also. Redemption and all things beautiful had manifested that Sunday morning, but that happens every week at Lynhurst Baptist, and I observed that manifestation from a different perspective.

 

A Story Maid Rite

I have roamed the continental United States –sometimes with nothing but a rucksack strapped across my shoulders. Like St. Paul, I know what it is to go hungry and what it is to be well fed. Those times I have been well fed were at the Mom and Pop diners off dusty highways in sleepy rural towns. The people who run these diners know how to feed a body to contentment with food that is sometimes from farm to table. And the further west you go the thicker the food and the generous the portions. If you chat up people and tell them a good story sometimes you might be fed. Like the wandering Druids of ancient Scotland, Ireland, and Wales who played music while singing their poetry, the quality of their food and board were determined by the quality of their storytelling.


This weekend, I went to Galesburg, IL with Ronnie to visit her parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles. Galesburg is forty miles west of Peoria on I-74, and is the last exit before I-74 becomes I-80 and takes you to Davenport, IA. The town is small and, from what I’m told by my father in law who grew up there, is slowly dying. Galesburg was a booming town due to the brick factory. However, like all businesses after economic globalization, the brick factory was moved to a different location where cheaper wages could be paid. Without this primary source of income the economy of Galesburg was wrecked. But the people of Galesburg are not going gentle into the night. The culture and history still lives at Maid Rite Diner.

Maid Rite is owned and operated by two ladies who have been there from the beginning. The diner is on the side of Highway 150, and the parking lot consists of loose gravel kicked up by the cars and trucks turning off the road. Ronnie has been going here since she was a child. Though they live in Bolingbrook, IL, her parents go to the Spoon River Drive Festival held every year in early October. Ronnie’s dad grew up eating here, and Maid Rite was the first stop on the way to the festival. Ronnie wanted me to try the diner, but worried I would hate it because of my aversion to rural areas due to who I am and how I dress. I had no such apprehension. I’m going to a diner I’ve never been too, and I was excited.


The area was small, but every inch was utilized to make the most out of the tiny space. The first third of the perimeter was outlined with tables for two, the second third was a counter with circular red stools bolted to the floor, and the final area was an island where the meat is steamed and sandwiches prepared. Before we sat down, Ronnie and I went up to one of the ladies to place our order.


On the walls are black and white photos from the late 19th century telling the story of Galesburg’s beginnings. In the corner on the far right is a bookshelf with yearbooks from Galesburg High School going as far back as 1923. Ronnie and I went through the yearbooks from the late 1940s to the early 1950s looking for her grandparents who were just as sassy and attractive in their late teens as they are in their eighties.

I noticed most of the patrons who pulled themselves up to the counter had thin, white hair whose words were wound in the rhythm of the constant turns off Highway 150. They kept mostly to themselves, and sometimes they would talk to the young guys who sat across from them.

Like any other place where people meet they spoke of what is happeing in their lives, and how they see the world compared to the stories their parents and grandparents told them. Ronnie told me this is what everyone in Galesburg does when they go to Maid Rite. I took in the conversations, the pictures on the wall, and the yearbook collection ranging ninety-four years. I looked at Ronnie, “So if I really want to know about Galesburg, I need to come here to talk to people and listen to their stories.” She shook her head, “Yes.”

But isn’t that anywhere, though? Sure, you can read books by historians or snippets from old newspapers, and you can get as close to the objective facts as you can. That objectivity is important, but the story is only half spoken. To feel the emotion of history you will have to ask people who were there. Their story is not the truth with a capital T, but it is their truth as they experience the changes in their community. Maid Rite isn’t a diner. It’s a piece of holy writ preserving the story of a community so future generations can understand their modern story in a historic context.

Christian Dialogue

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(School of Athens, Plato and Aristotle in the center)

 

A few weeks ago after church, Eric and I sat in his office talking. A few days before—while on my early morning walk—I felt this pull to seminary, and I wanted his insight on the matter because I didn’t know if I had been “called” into some type of ministry. He leaned back in his chair, “Do you want the short answer or the long answer?”
“Go ahead and give me the short answer.”
“Yes.”
“Ok. What’s the long answer?” He went on to tell me how he has seen me grow in the last twenty years—especially the last year. Though we have different ideas on faith, I respect Eric’s opinion and friendship.

Religiously speaking, Eric and I disagree down the middle as he takes a more conservative view of Christian practice and the scriptures while I hold a liberal view. But over the years we figured out our disagreements are peripheral because at the core of our issues there is agreement.

One example is Eric is pro-life and I am pro-choice.

We talked about those differing views and he told me he holds to a quality of life view beginning at conception and ending at death. It’s not enough that someone is born, but they also deserve to eat consistently and healthy, a quality education, decent health care, etc. Eric isn’t pro-birth—which is what many pro-life people are—but he is consistently pro-life. As he told me his stance, Eric cited philosophical arguments to support his point of view. I was impressed. “God! Thank you for supporting your pro-life position with a philosophical argument rather than mindlessly quoting Jeremiah and Psalm 139.”
“I do see a place for these ideas in how I read the bible.”
“Right! But you didn’t behave like a lazy parrot, and I appreciate that.”

Where Eric and I disagree is when life begins. I do not think life begins at conception, but there are philosophical and scientific grounds to argue for the beginning of life six days after conception. I also think the longer a pregnancy goes there needs to be stronger arguments made by both pro-life and pro-choice. I also disagree with the Right’s willingness to control women and their reproductive rights, and, as far as I am concerned, if you don’t have a uterus you don’t have a say.

I have friends who have had abortions and from what they have told me, and what I have observed is abortion is the last resort. There is no support system because family and/or a particular religious community shunned these women, and they are put in a desperate position. These women do not have the resources to provide for themselves let alone a baby, and they have to face angry protesters who hold signs and shout rather than adopt her baby. It’s not enough the baby is born, but what kind of life can it have? This is where Eric and I agree. A quality of life is of the upmost importance.

Granted abortion is a hot button issue, and has been since the Moral Majority created the platform to galvanize Conservative Evangelicals in the early 1980s, but abortion is one of many topics where Eric and I fundamentally disagree. How we handle disagreement over the issue serves as an example to the Conservative Evangelicals who go on social media and start imposing their particular doctrine on other people, and use poor argumentation and logical fallacies in the process. When Eric and I debate we do not force the other into a particular narrative so there can be a win. That’s not a debate. That’s a quarrel. We also ask questions and answer honestly.

I think the art of dialogue is lost among modern American Christians—particularly Conservative Evangelical Christians. This group offers nothing but shouting, condescension, and dismissal of those who disagree with their point of view including other Christians. I am of the opinion Conservative Evangelicals, generally speaking, are still at the adolescent stage of development where everything is black and white, and their point of view—though limited in perspective and experience—is the correct view. I also think Conservative Evangelicals are scared children who are insecure about their beliefs.

I understand how what I said can come off pompous, but that is far from the truth. When life is overwhelming and unstable a black and white view of the world grants the illusion of stability. I completely empathize with that because I was the same way in my late adolescence and early twenties. I come from a violent background where “God” was treated like a blunt instrument that bruised me and broke my bones and where my great aunts and great grandmother dehumanized me for not being masculine enough to their liking. They knew my orientation before I did, and hated me for it. This black and white faith I held to granted me something solid in an otherwise chaotic world. But as I wandered across the continental United States, I broke my teeth on the territory and realized the black and white paradigm is a delusion of safety for people too scared to live.

I saw this fear unfold as I watched friends having kids, going through divorce, and watching their fathers die. Life became too real too quick, and they regressed into their adolescent faith. I don’t blame them, and I have nothing but compassion for them, but there is no more relationship because what they espouse and state communicates to me they don’t think I am fit to live. To be fair, though, if I confronted them about their views towards me they would deny any hate, and I would believe them. They’re not contradicting themselves, but trying to find some sense in a life that went from zero to absurd at a break neck speed. This dichotomy, I think is what fuels their insecurity.

I think, on a rational level, my Conservative Evangelical friends understand how their paradigm is immature and cruel in its expectations. These friends are unable to measure up to what their doctrine demands, and lead a life full of guilt, self-loathing, and sometimes hate. Hatred for God is out of the question, but they also think God has a low opinion of them so they fortify with outward appearances and slogans. That’s why the Christians who have the worst behavior are the ones with the Christian bumper stickers, the ones who decorate their desk at work with bible verses and Christian kitsch, and vocally proclaim themselves a person of God. They’re not hypocrites in the strictest sense of the word, but I do think they are dishonest. These friends want a world a certain way, but the world as it is does not coincide with their safe doctrines, and blame themselves instead of their doctrines—and won’t even dare to wrestle with God.

In a sense Conservative Evangelicals need to grow up and face the world as it is, and accepting the world as it is without any judgment. Instead of dismissing people who don’t fit in their narrow view, I think Conservative Evangelicals would do well to put aside their opinions, realize at best they have a good idea like everyone else, and listen to people who do not believe as they do. They don’t have to change their beliefs, but they do need to approach their faith with humility. They also need to approach others with humility. The savage and childish behavior of Conservative Evangelicals—historically and recently—keeps a few of my Atheist friends at bay. They can tell you why they are an Atheist, but they will also go into great detail why they reject the Christianity preached by Conservative Evangelicals. They don’t hate God, but they are angry at arrogant theists who presume their opinions as facts and fiercely impose these presumptions on non-Christians and Christians alike. Jesus was humble and approached people in humility. Conservative Christians would do well if they listened to Jesus instead of their fears.

Reparation of Church and Hate

I wear around my neck a wooden rosary hand made in Palestine, and I bought it at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Batavia, IL.  In June of 2016 Ronnie and I were there attending her friend’s wedding, and I absolutely adore her friend—I refer to her as my patron saint of happiness. It was a beautiful Catholic wedding, but what impressed me was the inclusiveness of the priest officiating the wedding. He knew there were many non-Catholic and non-Christians in the sanctuary, and took the time to explain parts of the liturgy.

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At the time of the Eucharist, the priest described the meaning behind the hosts, and told the congregation they could come up during the procession, but only Catholics could receive the host. He went on to say all are welcomed before the altar, and those who are unable to receive the Eucharist could receive a blessing. Many people went up and before I received the host—and after—I saw quite a few people take up the priest on his offer to bless them. After the wedding, I went up to the priest and thanked him for being so hospitable during the Mass. I gave him a brief history of my negative religious experiences. He was sympathetic, and before we parted, he told me, “If you find yourself in Batavia again, you are more than welcomed here.” I smiled, shook his hand, and wished him wished him well. Next to one of the doors, I saw the  rosaries. They were seven dollars so I dropped the money into the coffer, took the rosary, and wore it. I consider myself—in many ways—to be Post-Catholic, but this rosary reminds me there are some churches and church leaders who really do care about being Jesus in their community.

This past Sunday, Ben gave one of the best sermons I have ever heard or read from a pastor because he wanted to engage the racism and violence in Charlottesville, VA. We had a conversation earlier that week on the matter as I expressed my disgust with Nazis, White Supremacists, White Nationalists, and the Christians who make excuses for them. I told him people have been outing these racists on the internet, and many have lost their jobs or been kicked out of school. While he understands we are never free from the consequences of our free speech, Ben does not believe in redemptive violence—whether that violence is physical, verbal, written, or from social media—he doesn’t believe in the Just War Theory. I agree with him that responding with violence is not going to solve the issue except providing a momentary catharsis for the oppressed, but something has to be done to counteract the violent actions and rhetoric of these hate groups.

I asked him, “How would Jesus engage the systemic racism, homophobia, violence, and prejudice in our culture? What is the Christian response?” He shook his head, “That is the question I am struggling with because at the moment, I don’t know.” This past Sunday, however, he decided to unpack the question.

Ben pointed out the cause of this violence is sin, but he did not limit himself to such a cliché statement. He pointed out that everyone one of us—human beings—have contributed to or have been complicit to the hate we see in this world. He went further to say that sin begins with fear, fear leads to anger, and anger leads to hatred—he went full on Buddhist and George Lucas in his presentation. Ben then went beyond people and addressed The Church’s responsibility for the tragedies such as Charlottesville. Granted, not every Christian or Clergy condones the violence because there were Christians and Clergy protesting these racists groups, but, generally speaking, The Church in America has been a willing participant in the genocide of Native Americans, Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, oppressing and marginalizing the poor, excluding the LGBTQ community while excusing their actions with scripture. He concluded that The Church needs to quit pointing the finger at the other and start pointing the finger at itself. We as The Church are to blame, and we as The Church are responsible. So how can we as The Church make reparations?

Ben put it simply: Love. Love of God and love of neighbor made in the image of God—the neighbor of color, the homosexual neighbor, the transgender neighbor, the immigrant neighbor, the poor neighbor, and even the racist neighbor. Love sounds easy enough, but in practice is quite difficult.

Ben pointed to the example of Darryl Davis who, as a black man, went to the KKK and befriended them. Because of his friendship and grace many people have left the KKK. His premise is, “How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?” Davis’ example put me in my place for hateful feelings I have expressed—or kept to myself—concerning much of Christianity, Trump supporters, and the racists who are emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric. But Davis went to people who hated him for his color and communicated genuine friendship and grace. People don’t stop believing in their hate when they are thrashed about, but will reconsider when they are shown love and understanding. As I’ve written earlier in this post, this violence comes out of fear. Fear makes everyone do hateful things, but are they truly hateful people? I think there are very few people who are legitimately evil, but the rest of us are just scared children who feel their security and existence threatened. This does not excuse the hateful actions and people will have to face the consequences of their brash choices, but they’re not as vile as they are made out to be. Context is the first step to understanding why people do what they do

Daryl Davis.

I took in everything, but the day was not over after service.

The following evening Ronnie and I decided to get pizza at Bazbeaux’s in Broadripple. A large group of White Evangelicals were seated next to us. How did we know they were Evangelicals? They said it repeatedly. They were carrying on about Coney Island hot dogs being better than Chicago hot dogs. Much like their faith, they have no idea what they are talking about because Chicago dogs are where it’s at—anything else comes from the evil one. Then they went on to talk about California and the Northwest coast referring to those places as liberal as if being liberal were a bad thing. I’ve lived there, and while the West coast and Northwest coast has some unfriendly elements, I found the people to be friendly, compassionate, and hospitable—my own native Indiana could learn a thing or twenty in hospitality from Washington, Oregon, and California. But then it became offensive concerning immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ—of which I belong to the latter. The breaking point came when one of the people said for everyone to hear, “If you eat the chicken there [California] you’ll turn gay. ” We asked our server if we could move because they were so vulgar. As we walked away from those hateful asses, I made sure they got a good look at my bag.

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After we moved we told our server what happened, and what type of people they were. I even threw a little shade, “Unfortunately, they may live up to the stereotype and tip poorly.” She shook her head and told us that was fine. She wasn’t a fan already because of how they were treating her and resolved to do bare minimum to get them out as soon as possible.

The point of being a Christian is to become more like Jesus, and those of us who call ourselves Christians live, move, and have our being in him, and go out in his name. When Christians are willfully reprehensible in their behavior and speech they commit blasphemy and use the Lord’s name in vain. Also they add to the work of those us who are trying to be like Jesus by cleaning up their mess—especially with apologetic introductions, “Ok, that’s them, but that’s not me.”

This sentiment I have is why my struggle with hatred was towards that particular group and not with all of Christianity. I learned this sentiment by being around Ben and Eric who are both pastors of the church I attend, and the spiritual community who have accepted me as part of their spiritual family. I watch how both my friends preach the gospel and apply the gospel in their neighborhood. I also watch how real people get in our Sunday School class and how they give me the space to be just as real. They resemble the Jesus in the gospels. I like that Jesus. That’s the Jesus I want to follow and know. Instead of broad brushing all of Christianity, I held my rosary, and I remembered my church and how grateful I am that—while they will slip—they care about being Jesus inside and outside the church.