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.

 

Sunday Story

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This past Sunday I attended Lynhurst Baptist Church on the near west side of Indianapolis. I go there off and on because a friend of mine is an associate pastor and a worship leader, but he is not the usual type of pastor I meet, nor is the head pastor—they like to get their hands dirty by being part of the neighborhood. The church’s location is a poor neighborhood, and like any poor neighborhood, families struggle with gangs, violence, alcoholism, drugs, single parent homes, and desperation. My friend and head pastor do not come in preaching the gospel of the affluent, middle class, white SUV Jesus who rewards new believers with six figure incomes and a nice house upon reciting a prayer of acceptance. There are plenty of churches who come from the suburbs and preach that Jesus downtown, and those are the churches who share in the responsibility for gentrification and displacement of the poor. The pastors of Lynhurst Baptist Church live in the neighborhood and face similar struggles as the residents, and have earned the right to speak into the life of their community. For my friend, he came up on the Indy’s east side like I have, and we grew up in similar neighborhoods as his church’s neighborhood. We are all too familiar with gang violence, violence in general, racism, but we never got caught up in that. The gospel my friend and pastor teach is a Jesus who is part of the family, lives next door, and wants to find people who have lost their way; and he does it without toeing the doctrinal line—Lynhurst Baptist Church is Baptist in name only.

The focus is on the stories of the individual people who walk in the door and their context in the ancient story of the cross. The mission of the church is not about conforming people into the image of a Bronze Age Hebrew or a second century Roman Christian, but in the image of a God who meets people at their level. Sure God worked a certain way with the people who contributed to the Bible, but many churches have made the mistake of presuming that is how God works. The same God who said, “Behold!  I am doing a new thing.” did not stop doing new things in people’s lives after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. This is what the pastor thinks, and has put aside his preaching on some Sundays so the people in the congregation can share their stories on what their lives were like before they came to Jesus, and what their life is like after choosing to follow Jesus. Because of the language, the content, and the lack of a “positive” spin, these would offend the masses of the hip, polished downtown churches as well as the WASP nests in the suburbs. I find this strangely odd because the people whom God called in the Old Testament as well as the people Jesus called to follow him were not the upper crust of society. Political and religious extremists, murderers, adulterers, brawlers, thieves, ill-tempered, and swore just a little too much for the comfort of religious people. Granted, these people did not remain as they were after God called them, but those are the people God wants. They know they are lost, but they have no clue how to find themselves again; and they know they need help.

I think churches, in general, have done a disservice to God by only catering to the privileged while ignoring and victimizing those whose lives have become a disaster through bad choices or circumstances out of their control.  Not until I talked with the head pastor after the Sunday Service did I understand the role of the church in the middle class. He and I discussed different books and authors and their impact on the culture. I brought up my disgust with books by the likes of Rob Bell and Brian McLaren because what they said resonated with me, and when I went to the churches influenced by these authors, I was still ostracized. I’m not a fan of Rob Bell’s books anyway because I’ve noticed a sort of theological plagiarism, but that is for another conversation. When I brought up my contentions with these particular churches, and the treatment I received, the pastor told me those books are written for the middle class because that’s where the money is. This Jesus belongs to them, but the people who would benefit from this Jesus—the ones who need him the most—do not have the money to purchase these books; and once again the poor are dismissed so nice, white people can bring a quasi-mysticism to lives dulled by complacency. From a business standpoint this what you do to make money off of fluffy, evangelical jargon that pushes against theological views taken for granted; but those outside the target demographic are dismissed. Giving space to those who would otherwise be forgotten, and permitting them to tell their stories allows for the change in the dynamic surrounding the gospel. The poor may not be academics or even have a high school diploma, but they know they were lost, who found them, and how their lives have changed.

Sunday’s service did not have the pastor preaching, instead one of the members had the opportunity to get behind the pulpit and tell his story. He grew up in Mars Hill, a poor, white ghetto on Indianapolis’ southwest side, and lived the life of a gangbanger just to survive. He drank, he did drugs, and he was also the muscle when someone owed money. He did not put a delicious spin to entice the congregation, but talked openly of how he hurt people, and how he hurt himself—all the while noting how God kept him from dying or making a deadly mistake. I resonated with the story because I had friends who lived a similar life, and some of them did not make it, but his story stood out to me nonetheless. He did not censor his language, but he did not go out of his way to swear incessantly. He used a couple “damns” and when talking about the time he first met his wife referred to her as “a piece of ass.” He said that only to communicate his mentality at the moment he first saw her. He was comfortable as he said these words, and when I looked around at the congregation, I did not see anyone wince.  The people in the church accepted this person, and, because of their acceptance, he felt comfortable to be authentic. If I could give a title to this sermon, and it was a sermon, I would say “Here’s How Jesus Saved Me.”

The most simple and soul opening stories I have heard have come out of a heart that has been broken by tragedy praying to a God whose existence is uncertain. Theology and apologetics dissipate with the opening: “Here’s how it happened to me”. It’s the story that draws our attention, and connects us with our hopes that our lives can also be found and redeemed. That’s the Bible: a book full of stories from people and how they experienced God in their lives, and how that God was expressed in that culture. That’s also the gospel. The four gospels were written thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection because his followers went out and preached Jesus’ message to whomever. After a few decades the followers of Jesus consisted of urban Jews and Greeks who could not relate to the rural imagery of Jesus’ parables so the authors took the message of Jesus and translated it into language of the growing church. The original message was never lost but evolved and adapted to the different people meeting Jesus for the first time. The gospel was never intended to be limited to a book in a specific time, but ever changing because God is always changing to meet people where they are. The gospels were never written on paper but on the heart of the speaker. The point of the church is to go out and tell people about Jesus and allow them to experience Jesus in their own way, and Lynhurst Baptist Church lives up to that point.