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.

 

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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.

Surrender

dharma bum

As I write this, I am sitting in the pastor’s office of my church while he leads a chapel service. The office is quite comforting to me with its dark green carpeting, cushy chairs and a love seat that are a darker shade of green than the floor, wooden table where this computer sits, the pastor’s wooden desk, and the soft, ambient glow of lamps surrounding the rows of bookshelves like halos. Before the pastor left for chapel, he put on some Coltrane for me and offered me some pleasantly strong coffee made by one of the gentlemen who works in the office next to the pastor. If I were a pastor this is how I would be keep an office—a little sanctuary where there would be nothing but Coltrane, Davis, Parker, and Sun Ra pointing me to God’s resting place.

Given my previous entries on this post why am I sitting in a church let alone in the pastor’s office writing and drinking coffee?

It’s been a rough couple weeks for me since I was approached to tell my story to the church. Being a writer who sits at the feet of Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, and Ann Lamott and takes their advice to write so honestly the reader can see my bare bones, I will—on many occasions—wake up those sleeping demons. Writing, editing, and rehearsing my story, I had to face the honest truth about my hatred of Christianity, The Church, and my father. Those demons put me in a right state, and I became unbearable to everyone around me as I relived everything. Once everything was out on paper, I could look over my journey and decide where I am. One of the truths I came across is that I am burned out with Christianity, and have been for many years. I didn’t go to church or read the bible because Christianity felt true, I went to church and read the bible because Christianity felt expected. Conditioned might be a better word. Jesus wasn’t salvation, he was a force of habit.

But that doesn’t answer the question why I’m sitting here in a church does it? No.

I had been going to this church off and on because I’ve a friend of twenty something years who is an associate pastor of the church. I respect the work he does in the church’s neighborhood and bringing a real healing from Jesus without the pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. Not saying the latter isn’t a thing in the message, but people who are suffering want to know about their pound on the ground in the here and now. I also listened to some of the stories people in the church would get up and tell, and I began to notice there were people like me.

Yeah, they’re from the hood, but they’re also burned out with the Christianity that had been put upon them and the Jesus they were shown was a clean cut, affluent jerk who suffered and died so wealthy suburbanites could have a new Bentley. The Jesus I see at this church is the Jesus I read in the Gospels. He eats with the poor, he brings wine to a party after people have already had too much to drink, and he doesn’t dismiss marginalized groups of people like women and Samaritans. To understand Jesus as God in the flesh is to see a god who sits and blesses the lowest of us.

I’ve also been going to the Sunday School class lead by one of the people in the church who lived a rough life before coming to Jesus, and he makes it clear that his class is about being real in how we feel, in how we talk, and how we can hope. It’s not uncommon to hear it said, “Man, this week really fucking sucked. I don’t see how God is working in this shit.” We also read scripture, give each other support, and pray for each other before we head off to service. I don’t know about you, but I’ve only been to one other church in the continental United States with that same level of authenticity, and that is Federated Church in Carlinville, IL.  The spiritual path isn’t about perfection, but about authenticity. The doctrines and dogmas are irrelevant, but it’s authenticity that draws people in to listen.

What turned me around to returning to following Jesus is how the pastor addressed the violence in Charlotteville, VA that claimed the life of a young teacher who was there to protest the rally of Nazis and White Nationalists. Before the congregation and to any who would listen online, he said:

In Charlottesville, Virginia a crowd gathered with torches in response to the city taking down a Confederate monument. 
Hoods and hats of KKK, Alt Right, White Supremacy and other terror groups claimed their American right to assemble. A crowd with torches that were lit aflame, ignited with the hate that burns in their rhetoric, ideology, and their hearts. This hate is not a misunderstanding. This crowd was not remembering history, or fighting for rights. This crowd operated out of fear which gave birth to hate. This hate is not a limited source found in a few, but it has delved into the heart of our nation. It is a spirit that is grounded in fear, rooted is darkness, watered with lies. It is a hate that seethes from the teeth like a rabid dog overtaken by a sickness that will claim its life.
It is not new. This hate has been growing and spreading like a weed. It has been in our words, in our policies, and in our justice systems, in our elections, in our leaders, in our orthodoxy, and our prayers. We thought these words meant very little, but it turns out they gave birth to a world in which hate is claimed a right. Over a half century ago we changed some laws but we never changed ourselves. And true to hate it has blinded us so that we don’t even see it until it picks up a torch. By any other faith, by any other race, by any other countryman this would be claimed an act of terror. Terror that is not bred from oversees in foreign lands and foreign faiths, but a terror that is bred in our own hearts.
It is a Spirit that has a name that echoes back from ancient times, it a spirit labeled within the scriptures so clearly, it is the Spirit of evil. This spirit of evil opposes community, opposes justice, opposes good, opposes hope, opposes forgiveness, opposes love, it opposes the God that made us and loves us.
This act of evil is nothing but a broken branch destined to burn. There is no life in it, no hope, no fruit. The people here on the west side must oppose such hate. We must not let a word, a thought, or a bias enter our own hearts. We must silence it, overcome it, and rise above it.
And yet we do not respond with hate, for that only gives the evil what evil wants. We don’t clench our fist, we don’t shake our head, we don’t scream at politicians or blame political parties. We also don’t look to more laws, or more policies. We now look to God, we now pray, we n
ow confess, and we now ask forgiveness.
God help us recognize and overcome such evil.
God forgive us our hate, our racism, and our willingness to wear the spirit of evil and hate.
Forgive us when we have acted with hate.
Heal us of hate, and pull us closer to each other in unity and diversity.

 

When I heard this from the pulpit, I was shocked. Never in my dealings with churches have I ever seen a pastor speak against the racism that is systemic and blatant in our culture. After he spoke, he told everyone to greet each other. I went up to him, “You are my friend who is a pastor, but after you said that you have become my pastor.” He hugged me, and after service, I spent an hour talking to a mother and daughter who were just as burned out as me with faith because of their background in The Catholic Church, but found their souls revived coming to this church. The expression of an authentic faith bringing a tangible message to the people in the neighborhood. When I found others in the community with a similar background and weariness, I listened to them

The following Monday, the pastor was faced with a person who comes to the church who has assaulted him before because the pastor believes in radical hospitality and will show the same love and acceptance to the Muslim as he would to an unbeliever. That was a few months ago. Monday he came into the church under false pretenses and told the pastor how it’s a scientific fact that white people are superior to any race. He told him to leave the church and to never return unless he had truly repented of his hatred. I messaged him and told him that while I’m not saying he should be happy doing that to the guy, I was happy that the right people are getting excommunicated from the church. Some 1 Corinthians 5. Then my friend, the associate pastor, went live on facebook condemning racism and hatred in The Church and how tired he was of hateful people hijacking his faith. Many of the people in the church who have been quiet started to speak up and share the same sentiments as the senior pastor and the associate pastor.

I have been around too many negative examples of Christian practice and because of that consistent negative exposure I developed the opinion that Christianity was a hateful religion. However, based on the criteria of what a Christian is, I was correct to reject those hateful examples. Where I erred, though, was broad brushing all of Christianity into the hateful box I had been given. I had been overwhelmed in the last few days with several examples of authentic Christianity that I could not ignore or brush under the rug with my cynicism. I was seeing real faith. I was seeing a faith worth listening to and a faith worth living. That’s the kind of person I want to be. The kind of person who is honest about their own brokenness, doubts, and hang ups, but still clinging to the grace of Jesus who heals others as he is healing me. This is why I surrendered myself, and this is why I have returned to following Jesus. I don’t know where this will take me, but I know I am in a good place.

Living “What if?”

Bodhidharma

I met with a writer friend this past Friday to discuss my story idea I have based upon my negative experiences with Christianity. There is a church I attend where the pastor wants the congregation to hear what I have to say, and to put it online. I thought it a good idea, but I told the pastor that what I have to say is an indictment against Christianity and The Church. He agreed, but the story needs to be heard anyway because he wants to see The Church start behaving like The Church.

I sat down to write out the story, but looking at distinct points in my religious journey and religious experience and keeping the story brief. That brevity turned into eighteen pages. If I were to include every detail of the events, I could have a short non-fiction piece resembling the structure of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I think this a worthy piece, and I think this piece needs to be read by Christians and others from different faith expressions because negative religious experiences are not limited to Christianity. Unfortunately, where there are people there exists the potential of violence. Religion is not the cause, but it becomes a deadly tool in the wrong hands.

My friend is established in the local writing community enjoying  some well-earned success after twenty years of paying his dues. We were friends before I took seriously my ability to write, and the fact that he wants to help me improve my craft is something for which I am grateful.

We met for coffee on the Northwest side, and I told him my idea. He is privy to my last painful experience because he knows the people involved and he could speak into where I am. He told me about his writing which deals with his own experiences with race as a black man in Indianapolis, IN and in all of the United States. He has two types of stories that he writes. The one type is magical realism like Toni Morrison’s Beloved where he writes about violence from gangs and cops, poverty, and racism and how he navigates through all that social chaos. The other type is in his science fiction where he writes in his hopes for what society could be without the color distinction.

The color distinction he speaks of is found in the language when he refers to himself as a “black man” or a “person of color.” Both these descriptions are based off a white context where anything different is defined by the dominant group. When he writes his science fiction there is no dominant culture defining another culture. The people have distinct features that are not confined to race.  As he finished describing his stories, he leans over at me, eyeball to eyeball, “That’s how you define yourself. You define yourself based upon the abuse and oppression you have received from Christianity and The Church. I want to see something different in your writing. I’m going to ask you a question, but I don’t want you to answer it here. I want you to answer it in your writing. What would Ron look like today had he not be exposed to churches? What would he look like if Christianity had not been forced upon him?”

I’ve been answering that question in my head since Friday, but I’ve also added another question to the mix. What kind of person would Ron be had his parents stayed in Irvington and not moved in with his great grandmother and youngest great aunt?

I know my additional question creates a two part exploration into the nature of my personality and my outlook on my life, but they are worth considering. Had I not been exposed to The Church or been immersed into Christianity, I would still believe in God and would be a wandering mystic. Why is that? I had an intense mystical experience when I was four I still carry with me to this day.

I was in the backyard playing near the little swing set my father had put together. It was a late fall day with the brown leaves shaking and clapping with the emptying trees, and I was spinning and dancing with my arms out like wings catching the wind. Against the brick of the house, I “saw” God, and I sang with a beat set to laughter, “I love God. I love God.” God had stepped in and played with a little boy while his parents were inside relaxing in the living room.

I would have wandered the continental United States living out of my rucksack and whatever vehicle I had while praying and living simply. I think I would have eventually believed in Jesus because I like the Jesus I read in the Gospels. Jesus as God in the flesh came down the same way God came down to me as a small boy, and played with others as God played with me. It’s a fanciful idea, but it’s an idea rooted in love instead of fear because a certain point on the checklist had been forgotten. Wherever I would go I would speak of that love in my actions and smiles. There is no anxiety with people, and I can be free with my kind acts and kind words.

As I thought about all these possible things, I started to live my present life accordingly. I began to relax and there was no anger. I did not realize how much anger and resentment had spilled into other areas of my psyche, and how much hatred and judgment came out of me towards other people. I certainly do not blame Christianity or The Church for that struggle. I had years of abuse heaped upon me, and my body has stored those hateful memories. By releasing my attachment to that old life, and embracing a life that could be and can be, I could feel those destructive memories wash away from my body.

I’m going to explore these ways further. This piece is a bit of an introduction to start my journey into actual healing and a different direction in my writing. I think I am a decent person overall who enjoys people and wants the best for everyone. Because of the abuses I’ve experienced, I put on a protective angry shell with the appearance of thickness. My compassion is filtered through my desire for justice and vengeance. When I see a religious bully come at me or people near me, I slip on my intellectual brass knuckles  with each point emphasizing a different piece of scholarship. Remove the defenses, and what do I have? A person who cares about others and wants to work towards a better world for everyone. That’s the Ron, I’m going to explore and become with each new decision.

Deus Volt

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I have not posted on this blog in the last couple weeks partly because I had been working on a story that I would be presenting at a local storytelling group. It was a blast. Ronnie said I killed it, and a new friend who is also a writer told me I did so well. I’ve posted a link below should you want to watch and listen. The length of time is thirteen minutes and some change.

 

The morning after I told this story, I told Bobby—the leader of our Sunday School class—and he said I needed to talk to the pastor about telling my story to the church. Not the story posted above, but my religious story. The pastor encourages all the people in the congregation to get up and tell their stories because he believes that God works and speaks differently to each individual while remaining the same. He also views the bible as a collection of individual stories and how God moved upon these people, and while we look to their example, we do not confine our life story to that ancient story. It’s like some modern religious Jews. The Hebrew Canon is still open because times and locations change, and the prevailing question is “How is this ancient story expressed in my modern story?” Good question, and one many Christians foolishly ignored when they closed the canon in the mid fourth century.

In between the class and service, I went up to the pastor and told him what Bobby had suggested, and he was for telling my story. The next day, I sat down and started to write beginning with my first exposure to church at the age of nine. I had told this story several times, but I decided to write with unflinching honesty, and when I did that I awoke the hive of demons that laid dormant in my brain. The shrieks and howls, and the clouded perception became maddening. I kept writing until every last scream was exhausted by a lacerated throat, but a realization occurred.

In my writings and in my conversations, I have foul words for my experiences with the church of various denominational branches, and I also have foul words for Christianity and the church. What I discovered is the church had become a scapegoat. The hatred I have for the church and for Christianity is really a hatred I have for my father. Something was unresolved. I thought I had all the hard conversations with my father and we had come to a moment of complete reconciliation and forgiveness on both sides. I even went so far as to tell him, “Because of you I associate violence and brutality with Christianity.” It killed me inside to tell him this because the man who received those words was no longer the man who bruised me and broke my bones in the name of God and St. Paul. But I needed to say it. I didn’t want him to die without my having a chance to be completely honest with him.

That’s why I never addressed the hatred I’ve had since I was a boy. As I became older, I went out on the road to wander, and I met various kinds of people. I met fathers who did not care one whit about the moral integrity and personal development of their children, but ran around on their wives and drinking their paychecks. I started to see my father as a man, and, because I knew a little of the abuse he endured as a child and how he worked on his anger, I felt my hatred was misguided and therefore unnecessary. I didn’t put it aside or repress it, but I let the anger dissipate. I thought I was finished with hatred, but my body and my brain were not. As I felt my brain rattle and my shoulders tighten, I decided to pursue my hatred for the church with complete transparency. I would not pull any punches with myself, and I would let whatever happen, happen.

I blamed the church for my father. Before we went my father was a peaceable man who liked to spend time with work friends at a local bar or with my godparents during camping trips. After church happened, I saw my father transform into a snarling monster. While raging and spitting he would beat me with his bible(figuratively) while citing chapter and verse justifying the bruises on my body and crooked fingers. The people at church knew what was happening at home. They even witnessed my beatings and told me, like my father, I had it coming because I was such a bad kid. Jesus was on their side condoning my treatment. It wasn’t until my mid-thirties when my pop got all confessional about the rape and beatings he experienced from his uncle and father in Jesus’ name that I realized I wasn’t a bad kid. The church wasn’t to blame for my dad, though they did exacerbate the situation, but the monster had been created by my father’s father doing unspeakable things to him in Jesus’ name. That kind of religious exposure leaves a mark. My father believed and came to faith on his own, but I am cold and indifferent to the idea God and Jesus.

After writing about my father and becoming honest about my hatred towards him, I realized I didn’t have that much anger towards Christianity or the church. Granted, I still have my points of contention, and I still think Christianity, as a religion is bullshit, but the hatred is no longer there. Without those distracting unresolved emotions, I can look at God and Jesus with improved objectivity. At the moment of this writing, I am still indifferent to Jesus. If he were sit down next to me at this table in my apartment and ask me, “Who do you say that I am?” I would shrug, “The fuck, if I know.” It’s not that I don’t want to believe, but my negative experiences of Christianity and the church have been rather consistent with the few exceptions I have met and befriended on my way. But those exceptions are not enough for me to even desire to believe. Those exceptions, however, are enough for me to listen to what they have to say. That’s why I go to this church. That’s why I have a friendship with the associate pastor, and beginning a new friendship with the Senior Pastor and Bobby. They practice and own their faith, and I will listen to Christians like that.

I finished the rough draft, and I sent it to the pastor. I asked him if he could meet for coffee the next day because I needed to talk to him about my story. He agreed to it and we met at Thirsty Scholar downtown. I told him that I was brief in my sketches, but that brevity produced eighteen pages and if I went into more detail, I would have enough for a short book. I also told him the story he wants me to tell, and the story I am writing, is an indictment against Christianity and the church. He agreed, but he still wants me to tell it. “Your story will make people uncomfortable, but your story needs to be heard.” This caught me off guard. Every other pastor I have met would dismiss me as bitter and patronize me with, “Well no one is perfect. That’s why we have grace.” Right, but understanding your own imperfections and using grace is not a license to behave like an entitled asshole. Will my story inspire a change? I hope so, but that is not my goal. Neither do I want people to come up to me and make apologies on behalf of the church. The whole point of my story is if you’re a Christian and you skillfully apply 1 Corinthians 5:11-13, “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’ (NRSV).”  I presume that Christians holding other Christians accountable there will be fewer people like me who are burned out with hostility, or, worse yet, indifference  The point of my story is to inspire Christians to own their faith and take their faith seriously.

St. Catherine

Proverbs 22: 6 reads, “Train children in the right way, and when old they will not stray (NRSV).” I often heard this proverb used to raise children in a particular brand of Christianity. While I agree there is a solid argument in raising children to be a specific kind of religious person, I think the interpretation too narrow. I think if you raise a child in a specific manner—for good or for ill—they will have difficulty parting from the teaching as adults.

This is why my brother and I have such irreverence and criticism when it comes to religion. Growing up, our father had religion forced down his throat by his boor of a sperm donor, Horace Eugene Smith. I won’t say “father,” though. The way my dad described Horace, and the way my great grandmother and mother described him, Horace procreated for the sole purpose of producing a farmhand he was not obligated to pay or treat humanely. Horace had no paternal love towards my father. When my father was fourteen, Horace broke his back with a steel toed boots, he would beat my father with planks of wood or barbed wire, and turned a willfully blind eye to his brother sexually abusing his son. Nothing was said or done by anyone in the community, and they knew what was happening. What I was told by my mother and her family is in those days people didn’t interfere with another family’s child rearing no matter how vicious. Even if the times were different, nobody would have stepped up out of fear of Horace. In the 1950’s, Horace stood at 6”4 with broad shoulders and a barrel chest, and overwhelmingly strong. While his wife would drive the tractor to pull the trailer for hay, Horace would toss—with one arm—150 lb. bales on to the trailer one after another like you and I would toss a succession of paper wads into the trash can.  Horace was also mean spirited and had no qualms whatsoever about throwing the first swing at whoever crossed him. He played the part of the amicable, good Christian elder at church, but the people saw through the farce. At home, he would choke my father with his narrow religion that created a vengeful God who was deaf to his son’s cries and did not hold him accountable for his many abuses. The only person who wasn’t afraid of Horace was my great grandmother Hansing–my mother’s grandmother. Over the phone she told Horace he was an awful man who had no right to beat my father as he did, and said my father would be better off with her. Horace threatened to come after her and put her in her place. My great grandmother told him to bring it. He knew where she lived, and she would wait. Horace never followed through with his threat. You know what’s more fierce than a giant, foul tempered, Irishman? A stubborn Scots-Irish woman with a mean streak a mile wide.

Horace died when my father was twenty-one. After the funeral, Pop made a vow to himself that he could read and think on his own, and no one was going to tell him what to believe without question. So when his ten year old son defends his argument with “Pastor said…” you can imagine the amount of rage and fury going towards the boy that was meant for the sperm donor. He was doing his damnedest to not have the home he endured. He struggled the break the cycle of anger, he read and thought on his own, and, by God, that’s what his sons would do. From where did that desire come? How did my father know there was a better way, and it was worth all the struggle and scraped knees to break that cycle. Pop didn’t speak up about his sexual abuse until the last year he was alive. He carried that pain for fifty-five years—almost fifty-eight. After I was told about the sexual abuse, I understood why my father was so full of rage when I or my brother would get out of line, and by rights, his behavior should have been worse. Statistically speaking, people who go through the years of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse my father went through they struggle with fits of rage, and are strung out from various substances. The only substances my father would abuse was nicotine and caffeine smoking five packs of Kool Filter Kings with six pots of coffee a day. He quit smoking when I was thirteen, and cut back his coffee consumption to two pots a day until he was diagnosed with cancer. In truth, he should have ended up as a transient dependent on alcohol and heroin, but he wasn’t. The anger was there when we were kids, but in an attempt to have a different home, he would make us read the book of Proverbs. After we finished the entire reading, we would tell him what we learned, and if there were reparations to be made like a face to face apology or some kind of manual labor, we would do it. Friends, later, would ask what it was like to be punished by the bible. I’d laugh. That wasn’t punishment. Punishment was a right cross on the jaw that knocked you to the floor. Over and done with in two seconds. With the reading of proverbs we were disciplined, and the quickest I have seen this discipline last was three days. Both my brother and I agree, we would rather take the hits and move on with life than spend hours or days in our own private furnace of Purgatory. How did my father receive such grace into his life that he was able to make alterations in his mind to be different than his father? Two words: his grandmother.

Catherine Williams was born in Lebanon, IN in 1885 to parents who came from County Cork, Ireland a generation after the potato famine, and died in Lebanon in 1983. She once quipped that the reason she had such a long life is because the Lord had a lot of work to do, and was gracious enough to grant her the time to do it. She married Horace’s father, Roy who was a womanizer, a drunk, a gambler, and would beat the shit out of his wife and Horace. He walked out on them when Horace was twelve for a woman of ill repute, or so says my family. Catherine never sought a divorce and neither did Roy. Horace never forgave the man, nor did he forget. The only good thing Horace did was resolve to never touch alcohol—a vow he kept till the day he died. Roy came around in the 1930s when my great grandmother Catherine was in her late forties, and that resulted in her having twins. Today, women becoming pregnant in their late forties is simultaneously risky for the mother and the child because of the high risk for birth defects. Catherine’s twins were no exception. One twin was diagnosed with schizophrenia and the other, who molested my father, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. During her tough times she read her bible constantly. When there was trouble, of which she had many, she turned to the bible. She became a mystic who had tremendous compassion for  my father, and favored him more than the other grandchildren because my father needed it. I saw a picture of her at a Smith family reunion. I was only two months old, but everyone, including my father, averaged out to be 6”3, broad shouldered and well-muscled surrounding their matriarch, Catherine. She sat in a peaceful pose with a strong jaw and a cleft chin. Her eyes smiled, and you would never know the years of sadness she carried. My brother and I owe a great deal to her. Without her influence, our father would have been a monster twice the son of Hell Horace was.

Our father struggled and stumbled constantly trying to free himself from the violence given to him by Horace and Roy. He died believing he failed, but I disagree. My brother and I still wrestle with our minute to minute existential crises. We read and think about belief and faith, and daily, we strive to be a little better than we were yesterday.

One night, I sat at the foot of my father’s bed as he rested. The chemo took away all of his energy, and he spent most days asleep—one week he was awake for a total of twelve hours, and they were not twelve continuous hours. When he was awake, his mind was sharp, and he was social. While my mom and girlfriend sat in the dining room to talk, I approached my father as a penitent coming to a priest for confession. “Pop, I mean no disrespect, but I want to succeed as a man where you failed.” I heard him inhale as he took in my words. The directness of the words is something common in our family. Delivery style is irrelevant. As my mother put it to one of my girlfriends whose passive-aggression annoyed her to no end, “We spit it out, we duke it out, we work it out, and then we move on.” Still, though, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. Pop has always been too familiar with his temper, and he constantly failed in being better only to get up and try again. He never made excuses, but went back to the work of improvement. He could either get pissed and tell me to get the fuck out of the room, or we could have a discussion. Those few seconds in between breaths were stretched out and pressed by lead weights to the point of suffocation, and the light streaming through the cracked door was the distant echo of a star that died long ago and far away. At last he exhaled, “I don’t take it as disrespect, I take it as you paying attention.” That’s our father’s success. That’s the grace of our great grandmother Catherine who is the patron saint of the Smiths and intercedes for us when we don’t know what to pray. We keep going forward with the grace that is stronger than a potato blight and solid enough to weather the deepest betrayal. We are broken, but we are not shattered, and we can still walk even with a limp.

Good Enough

Pop

I read the daily Catholic bible readings to keep myself mindful of the bible. I’ve been reading the book since I was nine years old when it was thrown into my lap, “Here, boy! Figure it out!” After the age of ten my bible reading intensified when I made the mistake responding to my father with, “Well, Pastor said…” to support what I thought of the pastor’s sermon. My father bellowed as he pounded the table and the walls shook with each howling vowel, “Goddamn it, boy! God gave you a fuckin’ brain! You take that fuckin’ bible and read it for your goddamned self because no man in a suit with a title behind the pulpit is going to tell you how to fucking think!” To avoid another ear breaking rebuke, I read the bible—I read everything—to be ready to defend myself in a debate with my father. He never cared when I disagreed with him, but he did care if I read books, chewed on the ideas, and made my own conclusions. I am unable to recall how many times I have read the bible cover to cover between the ages of ten and twenty-two, but I know between twenty-two and now (forty-three), I have read the bible fourteen times, different translations,  and different versions such as NASB, KJV, NKJV, NIV, NRSV, NLT, ESV, and CEB. I also devoured church history, read the Church Fathers and Doctors, and Protestant theologians and thinkers. This list isn’t to impress anyone but to illustrate how much effort I put in to my intellectual survival at home. My father did not suffer fools kindly. Especially in his own home.

Two of my father’s favorite verses were Acts 17:11,”These Jews were more receptive than those in Thessalonica for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures everyday to see whether these things were so (NRSV),” and 1 Peter 3:15, “[B]ut in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you (NRSV).” For my father faith wasn’t an emotional longing resembling a child’s longing for a blanket—though, faith can have that beginning—but faith also had an intellectual component to the practice. Faith wasn’t to be accepted blindly and without question, but to be constantly challenged and critiqued. My father was never afraid where his questions and criticisms took him, but would approach his faith from a different perspective when life took him to unfamiliar territory. He faced the theological struggles with the racism of his hometown and his family, homosexuality within the church, and the goodness of God in light of his own cancer.

My father, Delman Earl Smith, was born and raised in Cambridge City, IN about an hour east of Indianapolis off I-70, and close to the Ohio state line. It’s a quaint town with old style brick buildings on the strip, and has a coffee shop, Main Street Sweets Café. The café has real hard wood floors, homemade candy and pastries, and an eclectic coffee and tea selection. For the most part, people are friendly, but there is an undercurrent of tension. Pull away the cover, and Cambridge City is unwelcoming to people who are different in their skin color, sexuality, or religion. That difference of religion can be outside Christianity or that difference can be a Christianity outside of Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity. Ronnie and I would go to Cambridge City because that was the closest location of US Bank. Before the election, Trump signs and Confederate Flags decorated the lawns and houses around town. Driving through there I would be slightly apprehensive because my Buddhist Prayer Flags were visible in the rear window. This was Autumn of 2016, and not much has changed since my father grew up there in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I don’t think he adopted the culture. After he married my mother in the 70s they moved to the Irvington neighborhood on Indy’s East side because that is where my mother’s family lived. My father adapted quickly to the culture, and if you talked to him you would never know he had a rural background.

In the first few months of living in Indy, my father experienced culture shock because he had never been around so many people of color. The only people of color he saw were the migrant workers who came from Mexico and worked near his farm. He would tell me he never got a chance to know the migrant workers because they kept to themselves. How my father described his family and the people in Cambridge City, I think the workers kept to themselves for safety. My father’s family had low, but firm, opinions about any person who wasn’t white and didn’t speak English. Such a vulgar irony because, in the 1880s, my father’s great grandparents came to Lebanon, IN from County Cork, Ireland, and they were told they could be Catholic or they could eat—Hoosier hospitality at its finest.

One Sunday afternoon, after church, my father and I sat in his truck waiting for my mother and brother. On the side of the building a door opened, and out came an interracial couple—a black man holding the hand of his very pregnant, white wife. My father knew his family’s opinions on such relationships, but he never met, let alone saw, an interracial couple. He nudged me, and nodded in their direction, “Hey, boy what do you think of that?” I looked over, and I remembered the story I read in Genesis about Abraham looking for a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham didn’t want his son to marry any of the women in the land they occupied because they did not follow YHWH so he went to the people of his home country. My ten year old mind reasoned, “They’re both Christians so it’s ok.” My father, satisfied with my answer, nodded, “That’s good enough for me.”

In the early 2000s a new church was started near Broad Ripple on 56th & Keystone called Jesus Metropolitan Church. This was not only affirming, but it was a church for the LGBT community. They welcomed everyone. Nowadays they are called Life Journey. When the church first appeared they advertised in signs and flyers, “Would Jesus Discriminate?” The church also rented billboards throughout the city citing verses depicting homosexuality in the bible. The signs briefly unpacked the cultural idioms to support their claim, and also cited scholarship countering the stringent interpretations of Leviticus, the epistles of Paul, and the epistles written in the name of Paul. Jesus Metropolitan was met with hate, and there were people who made the effort to paint slurs on the billboards. The billboards near our home on 30th & Franklin and near my father’s work at 54th & Keystone were no exception. Both the signs and the slurs bothered my father. One Saturday afternoon, I was visiting with him, and he asked me what I thought of the signs. I told him that if the church had done its job loving and accepting people as Jesus did there wouldn’t be a need for a church such as Jesus Metropolitan. “Alright, that’s good enough for me.”

With all his flaws and issues, my father wanted to be like Jesus. For him, Jesus was the end of the disputes over doctrine and interpretation. That being said, how would he have responded to me coming out as a bisexual who favored men over women? I know it wouldn’t be easy for him concerning the love he had for his son and the love he had for scripture. It’s one thing for him to accept Jesus Metropolitan Church as brothers and sisters in the faith, but the issue would be at his table eyeball to eyeball when I visited. I think the process would be similar to the debates we had when I started getting tattoos. He and I would debate the bible, we would swear and roar our scholarship because that is our thing, we would take a break, he would research my position and I would research his position, and we would finally come to an agreement. But I chose to get tattoos. In the end, it’s all about Jesus. If Jesus would never reject me, then neither would he.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer it was too late. The cancer began in the prostate and went to the bones. When the doctors caught it, the cancer was already at stage four and metastasized in his legs, lower back, ribs, and the back of his skull. His belief and faith had been knocked to the flow now that he faced a painful death. He began to question if he ever truly believed or if God was simply an accessory to make life a little tolerable. My father decided he needed to time to think. He put away his bibles and stopped going to church. He wanted to make sure what believed was real, and if he gave my brother and I something real—and he didn’t want any distractions. He didn’t set any time limit. He knew his time was extremely short, but, if necessary, he would go to the grave questioning. He knew if he saw God or if there were nothing, he would have his answer. This period lasted three months, and he walked away from that period with a faith that had substance and was his alone. I thought there was something commendable in what he did. During a crisis such as cancer people will run to religious belief because of the fear of death, the fear of annihilation. There is nothing lesser or greater in running to something out of fear. It’s human. We all do that. My father wrestled with the idea of never again existing, but the thought never discouraged him. Regardless, if he saw God or ceased to be, my father would leave this life honest.

During his final months we had some real discussions that would start with my questions. One particular question I had pulled no punches. I sat on his side of the bed while he put away his clothes in the closet. “Hey, Pop. Are you afraid to die?” I heard the click of the hanger as it rested on the bar. My father exhaled, “Well, I don’t want to leave you kids behind.” I chuckled. We’re in our thirties, and he still called us kids. “I get that, but I want to know if you’re afraid to die.”
“Ah, well, no, I’m not.” He went back to hanging up his clothes, and I wondered when my time comes if I would have the same level of courage.

I have been on and off the road since I was nineteen, and I met many different people all over the United States, but I have not met anyone who comes close to the same level of integrity, faith, and resolution as my father—and I’ve met some good people. We had a rocky relationship most of my life, but reparation began in my late twenties when I began to see my father as a person full of complexities and nuances, and the last three years of his life our relationship was good. Talking to so many people all over the country, I realized how lucky I was to have Delman Earl Smith as a father, and on December 9, 2009 the world felt the loss I still carry.