Going North

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In the ninth episode of the third season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, “Kimmy Goes to Church,” Kimmy had been burned by the new church she went to with Titus, and vented about the manipulation and control within religion. Kimmy had hoped for something different other than the religious abuse she endured from her days confined to a bunker. She decides to go to the church, and interrupts the service to call out the church for its hypocrisy. I have often dreamed of doing this at any church I’ve been to, but never had the reaction she received. The people took in her words and saw Kimmy as a prophet from the Old Testament calling for the repentance of God’s people. The congregation understood that moment as a time of confession. One man stood up and confessed he was cheating on his wife, the pastor says that from time to time she smoked “the devil’s weed,” and the person doing the scripture reading confessed she was a gossip and a scold but trying every day. The pastor concluded the thought that “when we know better we do better.” Kimmy gets it, and understands that religion had to do with realizing we are all flawed and we come together to learn from each other to become better. I nodded my head in agreement, but Ronnie vocalized what I thought, “Yeah, but that don’t happen in real life.” Wouldn’t it be great, though, if that were the case. My anger with the church doesn’t have to do with the character flaws of the individuals who meet under the stable, but the denial. Instead of taking responsibility for negative actions that harm people in the church or outside the church, the perpetrators claim righteousness because of grace. To make it worse, people in the community and the leadership reinforce that notion of grace and blame the victims. Yes, there is grace, and, according to what is written in the Old Testament by the author of Ezra, we are not punished as our sins deserve, but we do not escape the consequences of our choices. We all fuck up, but, before we know better to do better, we need to own what we do. I’m not angry with Christianity, but at the Christians who refuse to accept the responsibility of their faith or the responsibility of holding other Christians accountable as is set down St. Paul 1 Corinthians 5. I am angry at the injustice that could be so easily rectified.

I have had several conversations with Christians concerning  what I observed, and the response centered around no one being perfect as if I spent my adult life in a naive bubble. I grew up with the bible and the doctrines surrounding that book shoved down my throat to justify anything they did to me. These people, who were often leaders, cited the bible to justify what they said, and how they acted. There were verses I used to counter their justifications, and they responded with the back of their hand across my jaw. I think I can speak for others outside of myself who have been on the business end of Christian righteousness when I say we are tired of the excuses. I took the chance at a church in Romeoville, IL.

Ronnie and I drove from Lincoln, NE for her sister’s wedding. The wedding was being held at the church where Ronnie grew up, Bible Baptist Church in Romeoville, IL. Her parents still go there, and say it’s a good church, but Ronnie’s experience differs. For her, the people, including the pastor, are vile, manipulative, and judgmental. As we drove down there she told me not to let her opinions shape mine. I resolved not to, but I was having a hard enough time keeping my cynicism out of the way because of all the negative things I experienced in various churches. On top of that, we were going into an affluent church where the parking lot is full of the latest SUVs and white people. I walked into the school side of the church wearing my rope sandals, shirt, and chinos to deal with the heat. Ronnie’s sister and her mom were in the fellowship area. All I could see were white linoleum on the floors, white tables, white walls, and white ceiling. The space felt sterile, and the only nonwhite fixture of the room were the brown doors with long rectangular windows. As the people came in, they gave me sneers, but I wasn’t here for them. Ronnie’s mom wanted me to meet everyone, and started with the school’s principal. He looked me up and down while dismissing me until he found out I’m a writer with a B.A. in Literature and Religion. After that, he touched my shoulder laughing and talking to me like we were equals.

When I get annoyed, I slip into one of  my two accents: hood or Scottish Highlands, and the one I use determines my level annoyance. When I’m irate, my words rise up and down with the waves crashing against the boulders of the northwestern Scottish coast where my mom’s side of the family hails. I grew up hearing that while living with my great aunt who would break our ears with her anger. The hood accent, though, is something I picked up living on the Eastside, and comes out when I’m mildly annoyed. I found the principal annoying. I stopped him in mid-sentence, “You talkin’ like we equal. Nah, man, we ain’t equal.” I walked away to find some coffee, and sit with my mother in law and sister in law. I sat down and breathed out the painful conversation I just had, and went on about similar and worse experiences with church leaders. My mother in law and sister in law took turns saying that no one is perfect and I shouldn’t look to imperfect people. “Yeah, yeah. I know people aren’t perfect. I’ve been hearing that from every church I went to where I received the left hand of rejection. Your own bible tells you to hold your own fellow Christians accountable. What you’re telling me does not address the real problem that is in the church. When you, and others, tell me about grace and the imperfection of people, you make yourself culpable—you share in the responsibility.” Ronnie’s sister stopped with her mouth open. She did not expect such an encounter. This is what happens when a naïve Christian comes face to face with the hard truth of responsibility in their professed faith, and realized they live a professed blasphemy.

This is where the anger has to stop. This is where I take responsibility how I feel now, and how I want to feel in the future. I want a happy life. I want to heal, and walk into life with new eyes. What’s standing in my way isn’t the church, or the attitudes of several Christians, but me. I thought about this yesterday as I laid in bed. One of my favorite American writers from the 19th century, Frederick Douglas, who wrote about his life as a slave in his autobiography, captured they hypocrisy of the Christianity of his masters. I would not dare imply any connection with Frederick Douglas, but how he wrote about his masters is how I want to address my Christian experience. Douglas could have stopped his narrative and offered a thing or two about what it means to be a Christian, and explode into well deserved judgment upon his masters. But he didn’t. Douglas wrote his biography describing his life in great detail, and left it to the reader to make their own judgment. What I went through comes nowhere close to what Douglas went through, and he was able to move on into a life of service and love. That’s what I want. Douglas escaped his masters and escaped the South in to a new life as a writer and speaker for the Abolitionist movement. Douglas didn’t stay in hate, but channeled his energy into justice. I’ve no reason to stay in hate, and I’ve no reason to stay where I am. Constantly engaging Christianity keeps me stuck in this self-destructive cycle, and I constantly confront Christianity because, like Ahab, I need to kill that whale, and look how he ended. To save myself, I need to head north and leave that ship behind.

Consolation of Shifting Perspectives

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Sunday morning was slow and muddled as my mother in law showered and dressed, Ronnie putting on her clothes and eating her toast, and me looking for my misplaced wallet and keys. Church started at 10:30, and I liked to leave early so I can say hi to Eric and Ben before everything starts. The drive itself takes twenty minutes so leaving at 10:00 is no big deal, but I don’t like being late to anything. Yes, there was a ten minute cushion, but I might as well be ten minutes late. Welcome to my mess of clowns and candy wrappers cluttering my brain. The sky was bright with little clouds, and crisp air grazed across my chin like a razor calming me as we got into the van and drove to church. We got there in enough time, and I spent a few minutes talking to Eric and Veronica while Ronnie and Mom talked to each other. The sermon that Ben gave came out of Philemon, and he centered his hermeneutic on social justice and how to follow Jesus in the face of oppression. He hints at the Anti-Christian rhetoric and behavior of the Republican party and many Christians who join in with their inhumane practices, but never says anything blatant. The church is a poor church, but there are many across the political, social, and religious spectrum. Making blatant political statements would divide and alienate, and Ben wants people to come together as brothers and sisters in Christ to talk about their differences to realize their shared spiritual goals.

Ben doesn’t really preach anything new, per se, but he does not offer the usual diatribe I have often heard from the pulpit which is complete compliance to the Republican Party. I would often hear how revolutionary the message of Jesus was, but the pastor would make following Jesus and being a “good” American citizen synonymous. Jesus’ message turned the religious, national, and economic systems on their head. He said nothing about going with the flow of the state or organized religion. Ben’s message transcends party affiliation, and looks to the example of Jesus in the gospels. His message, though, put him in danger when an ultraconservative Trump disciple physically assaulted him in his office. Both Ben and Eric believe the best way to preach Jesus to everyone isn’t through words but radical hospitality. Everyone from different faiths, social backgrounds, skin colors, and philosophies are welcome by them. The point of this hospitality isn’t to sell their version of Jesus or get people to convert to their brand of Christianity, but to be an icon of God’s love to everyone. “Everywhere you go preach the gospel, and if necessary use words” as is attributed to St. Francis. This guy did not abide by that, but gave into fear and hatred. Eric and Ben stood their ground, and through Veronica’s calm demeanor the man left. Ben still preaches that Jesus from the pulpit, and while it’s something I agree with because of my own studies, I’ve never heard that Jesus from the pulpit.

What moved me to the point of agitation was Eric’s final hymn, the hymn that is sung before Ben gives the congregation a blessing and everyone leaves. The song was a prayer calling for Jesus to return quickly. Eric prefaced this song with three kids from our alma mater, Warren Central, who were shot the night before on West 38th St over shoes, and one died. Nothing has changed in that area. When I graduated in 1992, I knew of people in the school who were shooting or being shot over the original Air Jordans, coats with a sports team a particular gang called their own, or cocking their ball cap certain way that affiliated with a gang. Same story, different day. Indianapolis is a violent city, and many of us are weary of it, and Eric poured out his weariness in the hymn. It was a desperate psalm calling for God to come down, otherwise we’re going to kill ourselves, and there will be nothing that can be saved. I feel the same, but things are still getting worse. After Ben gave the blessing, and everyone went downstairs to eat, I went up to Eric.

What I like about going to this church is Ben and Eric make room for me to engage them with real questions and real language, and don’t flinch when my questions cut to the bone and drain the marrow. They understand my contentiousness with Christianity are a mixture of academic and personal issues, and the barriers I face because of my personal issues. I wouldn’t call myself a Christian, but Christian-ish to borrow from Anne Lamott. I’m not really anything, but when I sit down to the table, I’m with Buddha and Jesus. I like both teachers, and the teachings of the Buddha aided me with my academic career to make sense of the Christianity that had been forced down my throat, and the Jesus that motivated such abuses. Something can strike me during the week, or like Sunday, a word or a song will get under my skin, and I need to discuss it in that moment. Both Eric and Ben accommodate my urgency, and I’m grateful for it because, as an elder’s kid, I understand the scattered brained busyness inherent in church leadership.

I was exasperated with Eric saying, “Lord Jesus, come quickly.” People have been speaking of Jesus’ return since the time of the apostles, and those same apostles had to tweak some of their teaching because Jesus was not returning as quickly as they assumed. Instead of returning and restoring, Jesus is absent and many of his followers are set to destroy the rest of us and the world for a quick buck. “I’m not like the people mentioned in 2 Peter ridiculing the followers of Jesus by dismissing the return saying the world has been going, and will continue to keep going. If his return is literal then where the fuck is he? It seems to me that all he did at his first coming was to give us a different flavor of opiate.” To Eric’s credit he knows when I’m antagonistic and picking a theological or philosophical quarrel, and when I’m speaking out of disillusionment. Eric offered his insight on the matter. He believes in a literal second coming of Jesus, but he also believes that the church is the body of Christ on earth—a preface to the actual return. In his own life, he becomes a second coming in his neighborhood, the people he meets when he’s out running errands, when he has dinner with his wife, or when he’s talking to friends such as myself. He’s presenting Jesus until Jesus presents himself.

I took in his words, and I came to the conclusion that I have approached the idea of Jesus returning from an immature perspective. I was looking for a deity to come in and solve the problems I created–like the pampered pet mentioned by Boethius in his “Consolation of Philosophy” instead of an adult owning the consequences of their choices and how those consequences affect the world around them. I’m not taking responsibility for being the second coming in my own home, in my own community, or when I’m behind the wheel raging at other drivers. How can I be the shadow of restoration that is to come? How can God establish salvation when I hinder the process with my arrogance, condescension, and broad brushing? I’m speaking for myself, but there are other people who also thwart the process. The reason this world continues to get worse is because of you and because of me, and it gets better when you and I take the little moments given to us to love. I am reminded of something G.K. Chesterton wrote in response to a question in a newspaper. The writer asked, “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton wrote his response, “Dear, Sir. I am.” When we love, God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as it is in Heaven, and God’s justice flows like a river. The author of Psalm 8 says human beings are a little lower than God, and our divinity shines when we own our world and become the answers to our prayers.

Yoga

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I do yoga every now and again to help out with my shoulder and knee issues. I enjoy working out and keeping in shape, but I’m now at the age where being 6”8 is catching up with me in my knees, shoulders, and blood pressure. Instead of ceasing all manner of working out, I changed my routine to adapt to my current situation. Before I made the transition, I had already incorporated a few yogic poses in my work out with planks, Hindu push-ups, and Hindu squats. After I experience painful issues, I ended the push-ups and squats, and focused on planks and cardio. Planks are a wonderful exercise targeting every muscle of the body especially when I turn my palms down on the floor. I rarely did yoga because I couldn’t do the poses correctly and my inflexibility made my sessions unpleasant. I never went to an instructor, but, through watching youtube on my tv, I was able to pull up basic yoga poses from generous instructors. Before I did yoga, I dismissed it as a soft exercise that could not help me achieve my workout goals. When I did the basic approach, I sweated buckets and my heart rate broke my chest with 150 beats per minute after fifteen minutes. I bowed my head in deference, and recanted my disrespect.

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Before I sat down at a desk in Dr. Meyer’s Asian Religions class, I only knew of yoga as an Eastern exercise practiced by white women in $800 lululemon yoga pants. One of the books we used for this class was Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. This book is a book worth having in your library and read until the pages fall off the binding. Smith was a devout Methodist who saw the validity of different religious traditions, and incorporated what he learned into his own Christian practice. Smith’s chapter on Hinduism opened my eyes to a different perspective on ontology, and various spiritual paths through Yoga. Yoga involves physical positions such as downward dog into upward dog, but is not limited to the physical. Yoga, to put it glibly, is a spiritual tool to go beyond yourself and experience the divine according to your individual needs. One form of yoga centers around logic and rational thinking, and another form include physical poses, but one is not better than the other. Think of Brahmin or, God, if you will, as sugar. You can either examine the sugar, you can taste the sugar, or you can become the sugar. There is no incorrect way to your approach of sugar, but there are specific tools to specific approaches.

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Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism speak to me in a way that Christianity does not speak to me, but that has to do with my baggage with the latter. That does not mean one is right and the other is wrong, but I’m not going to listen to someone speaking the truth after they have beat me to the ground. The other reason for my affinity for Eastern religions is they speak to my inner mystic. That’s how I relate to my spirituality. I “see” the divine moving in and out like breath moving in and out of lungs. There is a pulse to life that I can feel when I sit still, close my eyes, and focus on my breath. Mysticism exists in Christianity, but, what I’ve observed, is treated with suspicion, disregarded, or buried. I’ve read extensively on Christian history and the writings from those spiritual heroes such as Meister Eckhart in the 14th century. Meister Eckhart once prayed, “I pray God, I would be quit of God that I may see God.” What he’s saying is he wants to experience God without his own preconceptions and religious boxes getting in his way. That’s some Zen lunacy Eckhart is laying down for those who have plucked up the courage to leave the buildings and hear God’s voice unencumbered by the dead weight of a priest’s droning chant.

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At the time I was at school, I took advantage of the free counseling on campus, and discovered a friend in my sessions. My counselor incorporated Buddhism and Buddhist teaching into our talks, and his eyes lit up when I brought up yoga. He’s very much into martial arts and body weight resistance for his exercising, and told me what he learned from one of his teachers, “Without meditation, yoga is simply stretching.” I took those words to heart, and they gave me a different way to relate to my own exercises. Exercise is good for the body, but if the act is limited to just the body that will eventually die and decompose, then the fruits will be shallow and limited. But when spiritual practice is integrated with the physical then the body becomes a tool to dissolve the ego, and lose yourself in the divine. There is nothing right or wrong with treating yoga as a physical exercise. There are many health benefits to practicing yoga, but treating yoga only as a physical exercise you will also miss out on the spiritual benefits.

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Tonight, while I did my basic yoga to the throat chants of Tibetan monks, I focused on my body and my breath. The inflexibility is still there, and my joints are quite stiff. Instead of becoming frustrated, I looked upon my limitations as echoes of my heart’s condition. I have become stiff and inflexible with my hatred and fear I learned from my family and my Christian experience. Do not misunderstand, I do not blame my family or the Christian religion for how I am today, or hold either responsible for my struggles. During those early years, I was alone, and made a choice to survive by retreating into my head while disconnecting from my heart. For a time that disconnect helped me get through some bone shattering trauma, but eventually, I left that environment. Adapting to the outside world has been difficult, and I’ve much to unlearn. Hiding is easy, but facing your past and your rotting broken heart so you can heal is difficult and takes a warrior’s courage. I listened to my heart speaking through my clumsy transitions and sharp pains in my shoulder and knees. I said nothing, but embraced the supplications with my breath.

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My yoga practice takes between ten and fifteen minutes, but after I finish, I am able to get into a half-lotus position to do a brief meditation. According to teachers, lotus or half-lotus is a comfortable sitting position, and more so when I’m sitting on my linoleum floor. The hardness bites into my ankles and I am incapable of being inside my breath. Where I am in my spiritual practice it takes me at least fifty breaths to go into full concentration so who I am can be liquid flowing between myself and God, whom I refer to in the feminine rather than the accepted masculine approach. Neither one is the “right” way to address the divine, but the use of the masculine is a reflection of the patriarchal hegemony and misogyny in our culture. Where I am with my sexuality, I am uncomfortable in addressing God with such oppressive language, and is a constant reminder of the violence I received. Changing the language and my relationship to pain, I can do the healing work allowing my heart and body to flow like a gentle stream.

Satiated Thirst

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This morning is crisp with a sliver of ice in the air, and a bright sun unlike yesterday with a gray sky and gusts of wind knocking about my van on I-465. How my little van made it through the mountains of Northern California and Northeastern Utah without being knocked off still amazes me. No mountains in central Indiana to speak of, save for a few slight hills and smaller inclines. I am sitting at The Thirsty Scholar Coffee Bar at 16th & Pennsylvania, and I managed to get one of the bigger tables resembling a German setting. According to my late, great aunt Barbara who lived in Germany for a few years, German restaurants are designed with big tables, and people who don’t know each other are often seated together. The way she described the setting there is a real sense of community. But the functions of these two settings are only similar in appearance. There is a dark haired woman sitting diagonally from me, and the table next to me are two people poring over a computer. Diagonal to them sat an agitated man who left after slamming down the screen of his computer. During the day, students, corporate movers and shakers, hipsters, and regular folk off the street come in to discuss the day, write, and research over coffee, specialty coffee drinks, tea, wine, and beer. After 6:00, The Thirsty Scholar becomes like a restaurant where you have to make reservations, and waitstaff.

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Sometimes there is street parking along Delaware next to historic houses and the Greek Orthodox Church, Joy of All Who Sorrow, or Redeemer Presbyterian Church depending on which side of Delaware you park. Today, though, Delaware was packed, and when I went to the little parking lot behind Thirsty Scholar there was no parking available. Lucky for me, though, there was an available space one hundred feet away from the parking lot. I didn’t see a sign that said I could be towed, nor a yellow paint so I took the space. Because of the weather today, I decided to wear socks and my chuck taylors with my baggy black, chef pants. I tend not to wear my chucks if I’m walking for an extended period of time. I have flat feet. Flat feet and shoes with no arch support wrecks the ankles causing me to limp and shuffle. Walking half a block is of no consequence to my feet, and not to mention, chuck taylors go well with this outfit. I appreciate my chuck taylors in the same way I appreciate my rope sandals I bought at a mall in Joliet, Il. I can feel the concrete with each step, and I feel connected to the city where I walk. There is the added ambiance of walking downtown that I enjoy. No matter what city I am in, downtown has its own rhythm I like to feel with each step.

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The amount of cars on the street led me to believe there would be no place to sit in The Thirsty Scholar, but as I mentioned above, I found one of the tables that Ronnie I always wanted to get. Those tables are popular, and seem to be constantly occupied. The bell rang as I pushed open the old black door, and I saw people at my usual table. Before I looked towards the back, I saw the bar stools and bench facing Pennsylvania, and I sighed. Those chairs are ascetically pleasing but they kill my back, and I was not interested in spending hours of writing or talking on those Nazi torture devices. I was relieved when I looked over and saw only one person at the back table, and she was at the far end. Whew! I won’t have to worry about any discomfort from sharing my personal space with someone I don’t know, and likewise her. I’m clumsy in my social interactions, but I try to treat them as I want to be treated, and in cases such as these, I prefer unknown people to keep their distance. It’s an anxiety thing for me, somewhat, but mostly it’s about safety. Consciously, I understand I am in a gentrified area during the day and nothing is going to happen. In fact, people in this area are more intimidated by me because of my 6”8 frame. The best example I can use is muscle memory from old experiences in my neighborhood. I’ve improved in these situations by taking people case by case, but I have the occasional twinges.

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Today, I’m meeting with Ben who is the senior pastor of Lynhurst Baptist Church so we have a chance to talk more. We talk here and there after service, but between talking to all the people leaving the sanctuary, and herding his kids with his wife there isn’t much time—nor do I demand it. He offered to meet up sometime this week, and, through facebook, we agreed to meet at Thirsty Scholar around 11:00. I got here at 10 because Ronnie didn’t have to be at work until 9:45, and I thought it would be a waste of time to go home for twenty minutes only to leave for downtown. I had something brewing in my head, and I knew I would have a good introduction before I saved the piece and turned off the computer. An hour is not really enough time to write, but I wanted to see where my thoughts were going. Normally, two hours is a good time to sit around typing, inhaling coffee, dancing to avoid the distracting power of urination, and produce a first draft. I thought about saying the first draft would be strong, but when I finish it and go into editing mode, I cringe. The thoughts feel strong, and I feel like I’m writing in the rhythm of Sun Ra and His Arkestra. I’m part of the musical genius typing with the piano and saxophone keys blowing beyond all dimensions. Oh yeah, I snap, and say to myself, “Dig it, man,” and “Eat your heart out, Kerouac,” but mistake the cacophony of clanging trash cans rolling down the road for the drums guiding me to the face of God. As I read through the preceding paragraphs, my omission was a wise approach.

As I get up to get a refill, Ben walks in the door. I get my refill, he orders his coffee, and we sit at my part of the table while I save my introduction and shut off the computer. As we talk, I found myself vomiting all my hang ups with religion that began with and continued with abuse until I stopped attending church altogether. I had not meant to go into such digging, but the basis had to do with my existential dissonance believing while simultaneously desiring to no longer believe. For this, I am envious of my atheist and agnostic friends who are at peace with their point of view and are at the end of their internal struggle. There may or may not be a god, and even if there was, life still continues. My issue is the faith I was presented with as a child was the same faith I encountered as an adult with the same flavor of violence. When I returned to school, I majored in Literature and Religion, studied the evolution of Christianity in America from Plymouth Rock to Donald Trump, and learned I had been correct to dismiss such an infantile savagery. I had intellectual and academic grounds to turn back to my abusers, and dub their faith as worthless. Also, I could face current religious bullies and intellectually pants them with scholarship and credible sources.

The depth of my passion caused many people in my life to assume I was an atheist. I wanted to be, though, but in my heart, I am not. Before I had religion crammed down my throat, I did have mystical experiences, and assumed there was a god before I had been forced through church doors. My early experiences notwithstanding, I knew there was something better to Christianity than what had been presented. I’ve read the bible several times, and I pored over the writings of the early church fathers and Christian thinkers. For me, those leaders and thinkers had something I found absent in my own church experience. I didn’t know what was absent, but I knew I was fed up with the abuse I received in Jesus’ name. I didn’t want to believe because I didn’t want to associate with brutes in any form, nor was I altogether certain about my own level of faith.

Ben addressed the abuse with the story shared by one of the people in the congregation this past Sunday. This guy spoke of the abuse he experienced at the hands of his father, and how he sees his father differently as an adult. The abuse he experienced from his father was a shadow of the violence his own father endured. The man was trying to break his own cycle and embrace the truth, but his filter distorted everything. Looking upon those who have hurt me, I realized how glib I had become in dismissing them as hypocrites. There are legitimate hypocrites in the world, but understanding the truth and expressing that truth are two different things. People who are hurting, and come to something good in their lives, distort that good in their practice because of how they understand the world. Sometimes that distortion is harmful, but that distortion in no way nullifies the quality of the good. The people in my life who have done hateful things to me have gone through some traumatic experiences, but they found hope in Christianity. They really do believe that God is love and Jesus is the icon of God, but their limited understanding from the trauma gives way to a malevolent inconsistency. If I am to be completely honest, I have done the same thing to people in my life—even going so far as to flip off cops and truck drivers when they cut me off and put my life in jeopardy. Hurting people hurt people, and everyone does it to some degree. This approach changed how I related to myself and to religious people in my past and present. This approach helped me understand grace from a different perspective.

At 1:30, Ben had to leave because his water heater broke down this morning, and he had to return home to meet with a repairman. He mentioned he had KLOVE on the radio. I shook my head, “Why? What did you do wrong?” If you’re not aware, KLOVE is a Christian station watering down Christianity with the positive, corporate schmoozing of Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale. It’s god awful and enough to make Jesus do naked cartwheels out of the church. From what I’ve listened to, I think the demographic is complacent suburbanites who need an easy faith to swallow. The kind of language that will satisfy a five year old, but will insult adult sensibilities. Ben echoed a similar sentiment, “’Jesus loves me’ is good enough for my six year old daughter, but that is not enough for me.” Ben said that is why he became a pastor. All the studying, writing, and speaking in seminary gave his faith a depth that is simultaneously intellectual and mature. I slammed my hand on the table, “That is exactly my problem!” The tension I have with the current expression of faith is that it does not address my issues with poverty, dignity, or theodicy. The old answers don’t satisfy, nor did they ever. Faith is not a one size fits all, and neither is there one suited for all terrain. For shorter periods of easy walking, chuck taylors are suitable, but when I’m going through some gnarly hills, I need runner’s shoes with good arches that won’t wreck my feet.

Heat is Still Heat

When Ronnie and I lived in Portland, OR we walked everywhere and used the bus or street cars. We quickly discovered we didn’t need a car to get around Portland. Most bus routes have buses that come every fifteen minutes, and there is an app to track your bus, or a number you can text to figure out your bus’ eta. We lived off of Caesar Chavez and Francis–a couple blocks south of Powell–on Portland’s Southeast Side. In the morning we would pack our rucksacks with our laptops, notepads, and books and walk across Powell to catch the bus that would take us to Southeast Grind. Southeast Grind is a twenty-four hour coffee house with tables, chairs, couches, tables, bar stools, walls decorated with flyers of upcoming music or art events, and is always packed. Ronnie and I would go in, order a coffee, and send out resumes while looking for apartments. We stayed with a friend of Ronnie’s, but we needed a place of our own asap.

Portland-Oregon

We arrived to Portland in early June, and could feel the shadowy heat of summer approaching us, but the heat never became unbearable. While we were taking the bus to a local car dealership to pick up  a van Ronnie’s dad bought for us as a wedding gift we chatted with a lady to pass the time. The temperature that morning was ninety degrees, but it was ninety degrees without any humidity because the Pacific Ocean–which was less than an hour away–knocked out the humidity allowing for a tolerable summer. She told us how hot it was that day, and so far the hottest day Portland had seen in a long time. I chuckled and circled my right hand, “Oh, honey, I’m from Indianapolis. This is quite pleasant compared to central Indiana. Over there it would be ninety degrees plus an extra twenty degrees that feels like you’re covered in a towel soaked with hot water.”  We laughed, got on the bus, and made our way to our respective destinations.

Eventually, Ronnie and I had to leave Portland because nobody would hire us, and the housing market was not as high as her friend led us to believe. At the time, Portland’s housing was maybe 6%, but only to single people. Renting companies and people who sublet turned away couples. I do not know why that was, but Ronnie and I found out we were not the only couple who bad luck in securing a place of their own. We had a little bit of money we could use to risk homelessness in Portland, or leave Oregon altogether before our money was exhausted. We opted for the latter. We drove south on I-5, and stopped at a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Multnomah to buy a large tent and grab a quick dinner at a Panera, and head to California.

One thing to note about Oregon outside of Portland is there are absolutely no lights from any of the small towns, nor any billboards. The only lights would come from other drivers who whipped by us without any care in the world that elk roamed these areas at night. I was petrified and crawling at 40 mph with white knuckles glued to the steering wheel. We found a Denny’s so we could use their wi-fi, and look for a motel that night. As I pulled in there was a field across the street from Denny’s, and there was a herd of elk grazing. One looked up right at me as if to say, “Oh, you in the wrong neighborhood, boy.” Thankfully, we were able to find a place, but, unfortunately, it was twenty-four miles away, and took us thirty minutes to get there. The next morning, we left for California, and eventually to Reno, NV.

When we arrived to Reno, Ronnie and I sat down at a Del Taco to eat and use their wi-fi. Our immediate concern was finding a room to sleep that evening which Ronnie did exercising her talent in finding the best deals on a room. We got a room on the eighth floor of a hotel a block north of the glittering Reno sign.

RENO

The lobby of the hotel was also a casino full of bright, flashing lights, clicks from buttons and slots, alcohol, and stale cigarette smoke. Our window faced the east, and we could see mountains in the distance. Below us we could also see people swarming to and fro to the next bar or the next casino. As much fun as it looked to roam around Reno at night, Ronnie and I had been on the road for seven hours driving from Crescent City, CA, and we were exhausted. Not to mention the Del Taco was ripping up our insides–I regret nothing. After the bathroom, the showers, brushing teeth, and me shaving, we crashed into a dreamless sleep. We woke up at eight the next morning. I opened the curtains to see a different Reno in the sunlight breaking over tall buildings and distant mountains. The street below us were like any other street of a city’s downtown: slightly packed as people made their way to work. Ronnie and I did some yoga, planned the next leg of our trip to Salt Lake City, UT, packed up our things, and left the hotel.

Before we left Reno at ten in the morning we stopped by a McDonald’s to pick up some oatmeal and coffee that we ate and drank in the parking lot. We were next to I-80, and after we threw out our trash, we were on the interstate. Outside of Reno is a vast desert, and in between Reno and Salt Lake City is seven hours of sand and salt with little gas stations and fast food places sprinkled along the way. This was our first time driving through the desert so we stopped by every gas station along the way filling up our tank and buying 24-packs of water. I didn’t know if our little van would make it, but just in case, I wanted to make sure we at least had water.

Northern Nevada is hot like any desert. I have been told by family who have traveled about the United States that the southwest was compatible to our sinuses, and the heat out there was dry. The way they put it, dry heat was preferable to the soggy heat of central Indiana. I believed them, until I went through Nevada. The difference between the dry heat of the desert and the humid heat of central Indiana caking your nostrils is the difference between being fried and boiled–it’s still FUCKING hot! Ronnie and I were miserable, but our air conditioning didn’t die on us, and we met a woman who worked at the Subway in Elko, NV who was a fresh breath of encouragement.

Elko, NV

Crossing into Utah from Nevada is like night and day, mud and snow. The salt flats are arid, and when we stopped at a welcome center there was a little watchtower we climbed to take pictures of the scenery. There was nothing there, but the amount of salt on the terrain resembled a fresh layer of snow. I could feel the air cracking my hands and hollowing out my nasal cavity mixing with my apprehension of the remaining few hours to Salt Lake City. I thought there was nothing in Northern Nevada after Reno, but Utah, from the Nevada border, makes Northern Nevada seem a booming metropolis until you come to Salt Lake City.

Salt Flats

On the way to Salt Lake City we saw signs warning drivers to watch out for deer, and we thought this odd because there were no plants and bodies of water. But what if there were deer in that part of the country? We shuddered to think. “I don’t want to meet the deer who can survive in the salt flats. That’s the kind of deer who swings at cops and laughs about it.” We drove on, and as the sun set we were outside of Salt Lake City. The sky was purple and cast its reflection on Great Salt Lake and the mountain, dark with shadows, was an open hand welcoming us with food and drink to comfort our road weary souls. As we drove to the house where we were staying for the night, I did not see any semblance of a desert or a salt flat, but a downtown area filled with coffee shops and bars under the shadow of the Mormon Tabernacle.

salt-lake-city-skyline-brian-jannsen

This past week, I was reminded of the differences of summer heat in Portland and across the desert. As I wrote about Donald Trump and Mike Pence, I found myself lost in a whirlwind of anger, bitterness, and resentment towards Christianity and churches. My one time of betrayal at The Dwelling Place was not the first time, but a long list of examples of the various abuses I experienced in many churches beginning with my father beating me into submission with his iron fists citing 1 Timothy 3:4-5 as he spat and cursed at me. He was an elder, and his family had to reflect his position. As I grew older, I wanted Christianity to feel true because I liked Jesus, but I’ve had a difficult time with the religion. A friend once noted that I had been trying to convert myself unsuccessfully for the last fifteen years. I’ve tried other churches leaving with different or similar bruises, but only figuratively because my size was intimidating. I’ve never been a bully, nor do I give any thought to my stature, but I have noticed that aggressive people tend not to be as brave towards me at 6″8 as they are to my shorter friends. I had already been scarred by the sexual and physical abuse of my youth with regards to faith and family, and the church in my adult life added another spectrum of rejection.

Seven months after my ex cheated on me and slandered me, The Dwelling Place siding against me as the worship leader made phone call after phone call threatening physical violence, and a year after my father died, I was on the phone with an old friend. He went through similar painful experiences, and he was in counseling while working on his Phd. in History. I vomited all the pain and grief I had been feeling that year, and when I finished he asked me, “Ok. For the sake of argument, let’s say she comes to you and apologizes, and wants to get back together with you, would you take her back?” Without missing a beat, I said, “Absolutely not.”

If I would never take back my ex who treated me with infidelity, slander, and violence why do I keep taking back the church who has treated me far worse than her? I view my relationship with the church–if I may be so bold–as comparable to a battered wife who finally got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and left for god knows what. Yesterday, the inside of my head became a festering maelstrom making me unbearable to Ronnie and myself. To get things settled, I walked two laps around the canal–7.2 miles–listening to some hardcore that roared about pma (positive mental attitude) or digging deep for a hidden strength to face current adversity. After the walk, I went up to a bench facing Indiana and Vermont, pulled out my earbuds, closed my eyes, and focused on my breath while surrounded by the morning cars and birds of downtown Indianapolis.

I returned home to relax more with the shades covering the windows while I played a game on the computer and listened to dharma talks by Noah Levine before I went to my orientation for future volunteer work. In his talk on “Understanding Samsara,” Noah spoke of the present religious and political climate, and the call to forgiveness towards our enemies. Forgiveness isn’t a one time thing, nor is it condoning what another has done. In my case, forgiveness came about when I decided the best thing I can do for my own healing is to completely disassociate myself from Christianity and churches. Who they are and what they do no longer concerns me because it’s no longer my circus. I took in the message, and thought about where to go from there. A couple hours later, a friend messaged me a link to the Tibetan Mongolian Cultural Center in Bloomington, and I saw it as an answer to a question already brewing inside my heart. I thanked her, and she told me she thought of my struggles with people in Indy. She thought the center would be a good place for me. She also told me the center reminded her of Buddhist Centers in Portland and Tampa Bay. I had a good experience with Shambhala Center in Portland, and made plans to go to Bloomington this weekend.

I had a chance to practice this forgiveness yesterday as I left my orientation on Mass Ave. At the corner of  Alabama and Mass Ave stood two people handing out pamphlets on the bible and the message of Jesus. At a quick glance, I noticed they were Evangelical Christians, and I bristled. Because of my manner of dress and tattoos, I’ve been a target for such people who want me to convert so they can say, “Look how diverse we are! We have one of these!” It was a struggle to keep telling myself, “These people have done nothing to me. What they are doing no longer affects me. This works for them, and they are not imposing on anyone.” In my head, I had already built my argument with scholarship cited, but I saw one of the Parking Monitors talking to them with friendly body language, and I moved on thankful the bristling had washed over me.

The following evening, my friend who is a pastor at Lynhurst Baptist Church, messaged me to check in on me. I told him what happened, and the conclusions I had come to concerning Christianity, churches, and healing. He told me that Lynhurst Baptist had not been negative towards me. From his point of view, he thought I was back to broad brushing every Christian and every church, and that wasn’t the case. Lynhurst is a good church, and I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for an authentic Christian experience, but it’s still a church–it’s a still a trigger. Like the difference between a dry heat and a humid heat, so it is for me concerning the differences between a bad church and a good church: it’s still a hot and miserable ordeal. I need to heal, and in that healing process, I may never be ready to set foot in a church without a rush of bad feelings and bad memories crashing against me, but I won’t put my past on anyone else anymore. There are people like my friend who have experienced joy, healing, and love in their Christian tradition, and they live out their faith/belief in a way that is tangible to others. They do good work. I’ve got to find my own tradition for that healing so I can be healthy for myself and others while participating in a good work to benefit people. We’re all on  a path trying to get home, and we need different kinds of shoes to fit our different shapes of feet for support and comfort for the journey.

 

 

Accountability, what’s that?

pence
(Mike Pence signing the Religious Freedom Act)

Yesterday, I sat down to write a piece on how the lack of accountability within the church has allowed such professing Christians like Donald Trump and Mike Pence to assume leadership and put the world in danger. Mike Pence served as my main example because I went to the church he and his family went to while Pence was governor; but not at the same time. The name of the church is College Park, and I went there when Kimber Kaufman, the founder of the church and senior pastor, lead the church. Kaufman was removed from his position because of his addiction to pain killers, but the addiction had to do with pain. While in college, Kimber played basketball, and his team did a tour of Viet Nam where he contracted a virus from a mosquito causing pain in his scrotum. He told a friend of mine that on a good day the pain felt like pliers crushing his testicles, and the pain killers were a necessity. From the church grapevine the addiction made his behavior erratic and unfit to lead. I do not know if that is true, or if that was said to assuage the conscience of the elders who wanted control of College Park; but what I do know is Mike Pence moved about the sanctuary unchallenged.

College Park did very little to hide their party affiliation when they permitted local and state Republican politicians to speak from the pulpit because they professed Christianity and imposed Evangelical doctrine on a pluralistic populace. College Park, as a whole, is quite conservative in their theology, and they do not see a contradiction with following Jesus while promoting gay conversion therapy, ending food stamps, protesting abortion, protesting sex ed., siding against Muslims and other near eastern immigrants, and legalizing bigotry through Christian exceptionalism in Jesus’ name. Jesus ridiculed and rebuked the religious leaders of his day for the abuse towards women, the poor, and outcasts resembling today’s American Evangelical treatment of those same groups. When Mike Pence created the Religious Freedom Act to let Christian business owners discriminate against the LGBT community none of the leadership at College Park called out Mike Pence, but there were plenty of business owners in the community who did by making public statements that told everyone “ALL are welcome.” Some put up signs with rainbows to let LGBT people know they were accepted and their business appreciated.

Of course, I have been told that what other Christians/churches do are inconsequential because all we can do is worry about ourselves and our walk with God. I have to throw out a flag, and challenge the call. The Christians who have told me that we can’t worry about other Christians/churches also hold to sola scriptura and claim to live their life by every word in the bible. Their complete disregard for the cultural nuances of the bible aside, I do not think they were honest with me. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul is rebuking the Corinthian Church for allowing a son to take his father’s wife, and condoning the action with praise when they should have expelled the son until such a time he repented of his actions. He writes:

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people–not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people (5:9-11).”

Donald Trump fits most of this criteria, but he professed to be a Christian and claimed pro-life, and many Evangelicals did not care that his behavior was and is unbecoming of a Christian. Mike Pence fits the “greedy, slanderer, and swindler” points because he allowed himself to be bought by the Koch Brothers. Pence also illegally tampered with the election process when Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, had been elected as the State Superintendent. She opposed charter schools, state vouchers, and state money used for private schools that only educated 2.9% of Indiana students. He put in how own council to have her removed, and she was dismissed as “just a librarian.” Pence was greedy and unethical, and the elders at College Park did nothing.

This is what a lack of accountability in the church produces, but the core of my anger has little to do with Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and their supporters putting us on the verge of destruction. I went to a church that was an offshoot of College Park called The Dwelling Place located in the Broadripple Village, and the pastor is Shane Fuller who was one of the associate pastors of College Park. His theology was in the process of changing into something that contradicted the theology of College Park as he read books written by Emergent Christian and Radical Authors such as Rob Bell, Shane Clairborne, Brian McLaren, and Tony Jones while throwing in the trendy mix of Celtic spirituality. We were friends until my fiance at the time started cheating on me with the worship leader who was also a mutual friend of Shane’s.

Before he and my fiance consummated their affair, he had been allowed a voice in our relationship. My fiance was a willing party to this and lied to our friends and the church that I was physically abusive. This friend threatened to call the cops and lie about me abusing her. I never did anything like that, and I asked him, “Scott, with all the Christianity you preach at me doesn’t lying go against what the bible teaches?”
“You are a filthy, worthless sinner. How dare you quote the scripture at me?” After that he kept calling me, but I let his calls go to voicemail where he left message after message promising all manner of violence in Jesus’ name—he even had his brother coming after me. I called Shane to tell him what happened and do something about his wayward worship leader. He told me, “Slow work of God, Ron. Grace of God, Ron. You did bring this on yourself because you frustrated him with how you live and the questions you ask. Until Scott calms down, you need to stay away from the church.”
“Why is that? I did nothing wrong. You should kick Scott out of the church.”
“Just stay away, Ron.” Then he hangs up on me, and I find out later he lied to the church that he did not kick me out, but I made the choice to leave.

Obviously, from reading this, I still feel the wounds, and I am not as over it as I would like it to be–this particular pain though comes from the betrayal of friends. That was clear yesterday as I wrote about College Park in great detail, and all those memories saturated my brain while transforming me into a soggy, irrational heap testing Ronnie’s patience. Thankfully, she is trained in psychology and is quite patient with me as I become overwhelmed with old stories. I didn’t think that would happen because I looked at how my mind was in a tense state over global affairs, and I like to locate the origin of the tension so I don’t take it out on people around me. Writing my story for all to read and to possibly glean some helpful insight has been a tremendous help to me, but sometimes–times like yesterday–I find myself dipped into the mix and become a little ball of psycho dipped in chocolate and sprinkles. Getting past those cuts has been a slow and steady process, and, rationally, I do understand that not all Christians/churches are like this. I started attending the church a friend pastors because the church is different, and he is different as well as the senior pastor; but, I think my attendance keeps me in a constant state of anger. Yeah, that’s from years of consistent abuse from various churches, and reading the bible cover to cover fourteen times along with biblical scholarship and criticism. I see so much wrong in my experience and in those I talk to, and I see the solution in what I’ve studied, but the excuses in leadership are rooted in the misappropriation of grace. Grace doesn’t mean people can do what they want and treat people however without consequences.

I know I am drawn to Christianity because I like Jesus and what I read in the gospels, but I stand aloof. Christianity does not feel true to me, and that could be my own disconnect from my heart so I can safely hide in my intellect. While that is a possible thing, I’ve also been around too many Christians/churches who prefer to apply grace rather than confront the issues because the issues don’t affect them directly. This behavior could be something rooted in centuries of traditions going back to the Corinthian Church, and what I’m railing against are issues similar to my intellectual predecessors. The madness is perpetual, and I think the energy I use in fighting against a negative expression of Christianity could be used in drinking tea and healing myself. I would not call myself a Christian, but, to borrow from Anne Lamott, I am Christian-ish. There are days like yesterday where I want nothing to do with the religion or its trappings, and prefer to debunk it with bitterness mixed with a Socratic method of questioning; but that covers a desire to find out what it means to be Christ-like in my own narrative.

Because I feel no truth in Christianity does not mean I do not think the faith false, or people who believe are deluded. I take that into account when I sit down to write pieces such as this so I don’t accidentally insult any person who feels Jesus is true and burns the lean tissue to be more like him. There are genuine Christians out there, I am friends with a few of them, and the last thing I want to do is group them in with those who sexually, physically, emotionally, and mentally abused me in Jesus’ name. What I would like to see are the good ones use their voice to implement 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 so people can live in peace regardless of their beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, or color and not worry about a third world war and nuclear winter.

 

Leaping with Kierkegaard

God

Today’s post will be a short one. I met up with my brother last night to discuss the relevance of faith and belief over coffee. It was a good discussion, and his contention is similar to my own: the old answers are no longer good enough. He’s an adult with adult issues, and the childish answers insult his intelligence. Not that he dismisses faith outright, but he’s trying to figure out if the God we were raised with, the supposed God of the bible, is indeed the one true God. I told him the bible is a collection of stories on how a particular culture experienced God, and while people can use those stories as a starting point, they commit an error when those ancient, personal experiences are treated as something current–God must work like this. The same thing is found in the Gospels. The authors believed that Jesus was the messiah, and had come from God, but as the telling increased by the end of the first century, the author of John’s gospel realized that Jesus could have been God in the flesh; and made a strong, mystical argument to support that claim. By the time these writers sat down to pen Jesus’ message to their respective communities they had to translate Jesus into something their audience could understand. Jesus came from a remote part of Judea and made use of rural imagery to tell people about God and the Kingdom of Heaven. The gospels’ audience, however were urban Jews and Greeks, and would not know how to relate to Jesus’ rural imagery. It would be like Jesus coming out of the hills of Kentucky, and explaining his good news to somebody living on 30th & Wells on Chicago’s South Side using rural, Kentucky imagery.

My brother’s current annoyance, though is coming from Norman Geisler, a Christian apologist with a Evangelical bent.  I don’t care too much for Evangelical Christianity generally speaking because I find the thinking quite lazy. That is not my opinion of individual Evangelical Christians–people vary, and I’ve met some Evangelical Christians who care enough about their faith to do some real struggle with the things they don’t understand. My opinion comes out of my study of Evangelical Christianity in America and how the movement evolved from its inception on the American Frontier in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening. Out of that form of Christianity came a suspicion of scholarship, highly emotional, and completely anti-intellectual. To be fair, these Evangelical leaders felt that Christianity had become too sterile and lost in the ivory tower. Jesus said he came that we might have life and have it more abundantly, and these Evangelicals thought the erudite leaders depleted the fullness Jesus offered. A valid argument, but this group exchanged one extreme for another, and watered down a rich faith–they became just as imbalanced as their intellectual counterparts. Unfortunately, this imbalance did not produce the deep faith Evangelical Christianity desired, but something akin to an adult shaking a rattle at an infant while doing baby talk. My brother wanted to know if God is real, and Norman Geisler said God is real because the bible is real–the very text he is questioning. Shake. Shake. Ga Ga. Goo Goo.

My brother is asking the questions I ask, you ask, or anyone asks who is looking for real answers on faith, and how that faith is expressed in individual lives. He is in a real existential crisis because he fears where his questioning will take him. If this God is nothing more than a mere fairy tale then this familiar story needs to be dropped. Easier said than done. For him, he has tied his identity to this particular expression of faith–it’s his “normal”. He equated this struggle with me coming out as bisexual because I had to be honest with who I am and come to peace with that even though that honesty put me in unknown territory as I navigated through a faith that speaks love to me with words but hate me in their actions. That honesty is a come to Jesus moment. Coming to Jesus without the doctrines, without the preconceived notions, and experiences of other people. In the 14th century, Meister Eckhart prayed, “God, I pray that I am quit of God that I may see God.” He wanted to experience God without the distractions of opinions. The author of the Gospel of John told his audience to “come and see.” A person’s experience is not a good substitute for your own, God is revealed according to an individuals personality, experiences, and paradigm. If what is seen is not liked, or it doesn’t feel true, then it’s ok to move on to something else that does feel true. My understanding from the books I have studied and the papers I have written with regard to what I have gleaned from many readings of the bible, I think God prefers honesty in a person’s path. I don’t think my brother will lose his identity, but find his real identity, and a God that is his and not our father’s.

I bought him a copy of a book that has been beneficial to me when I took Philosophy of Religion at Ivy Tech and Blackburn College. God, edited by Timothy Robinson, and is a collection of excerpts from Agnostics, Atheists, and Christians concerning the existence of God supported by their arguments instead of the bible. My brother’s initial question is philosophical in nature, and these writings could point him in the “right” direction–meaning he may find a perspective that will give him some new insight on matters of God and faith. There is no correct answer, per se, but what feels true. That’s what William James referred to when he wrote about the various kinds of religious experience. He argued that no one comes to any kind of belief based on rational arguments, but believes in something because it feels true. After the person has decided then they make the rational arguments to support their choice. My brother may come out on the other side of his path with a relationship to God that is his own, but he could also come out as an Agnostic or an Atheist. The point is that the faith imposed upon us as children was never our faith but an act of compliance to survive a volatile home life. The wilderness my brother is venturing into is horrifying because it is unknown, but, speaking as one who is currently wandering in the wilderness, the terrain is honest. Regardless of the outcome, my brother will have something that belongs to him.