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.

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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.

 

Going North

unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-season-3-review-spoilers

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.

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.

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.

A Misfit Review

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I have been listening to the Drunk Ex-Pastors Podcast since episode #70 after Jay Bakker posted on his Facebook page he would be a guest on their show. I enjoyed the episode, I enjoyed listening to Christian Kingery and Jason Stellman talk, and, after listening to all their podcasts from episodes 1-69 to the current (at the time of this writing) #141, I enjoyed their friendship. The conversation style of the podcast is the same style Jason Stellman brings to his new book, Misfit Faith: Confessions of a Drunk Ex-Pastor. The book is religious, but is not written for religious people exclusively; in fact, the only religious aspect of this book is the author’s own spiritual journey from Evangelical Christian to Calvinism to a Presbyterian minister to a Catholic with a healthy dose of Agnosticism and demonized by some of his Protestant friends. Stellman’s book is for the people who believe, but have doubts and continue to falter in their spiritual practice; and the book is also for Agnostics and Atheists who have left behind the figure of the Judeo-Christian God to seek out what it means to be a decent human being. The book is not either/or, but both/and, and when people are honest about where they are, regardless of their religious or philosophical leanings, a both/and approach is a mature outlook allowing for the wiggle room to continue growing. Misfit Faith: Confessions of a Drunk Ex-Pastor is a both/and book with Jason Stellman as both Catholic and Agnostic, and makes room for the wayward Christian, the Agnostic, and the Atheist to join him in the conversation while enjoying a few drinks.

 

“As long as we understand our relationship with God in terms of lists and do’s and don’ts, we will be stuck in a place of childish suspended animation, frozen in prepubescence, when God wants us free from such shackles and impediments to mature to full-grown spirituality (90).”

 

Good and bad, black and white, right and wrong appear to be grounded in absolute truth, but they are vague titles that are as arbitrary as those who use them and presume a common standard that does not exist. Stellman illustrates how God relates to human beings and how human beings relate to God in his relationship with his kids, unpacking Star Wars. “Is Darth Vader a bad guy? Is Jabba the Hutt a bad guy?” In a child’s mind, these characters are bad because they do bad things and look terrifying, but fictional characters, as with people, are more complicated with varying nuances. Darth Vader was not completely evil. There was always good in his character, but that goodness was distorted by loss, grief, and self-preservation—Darth Vader did evil things, but was not evil. Children put everything in black and white boxes as well as grown-ups, because the world is filled with uncertainty, and stability—even an illusion of stability is preferable to feeling lost and alone. God is not so easily confined to concepts, but it is people who believe—or don’t believe—in God who are like that. If others do not conform to the image of doctrine, then the illusion is questioned and rendered irrelevant. Religion, in a sense, is immaterial for a mature mind, or, for instance, a mind that as grown to the point the inseam is too short. Stellman makes the case for a God who does not operate in such narrow definitions when he cites Colossians 2:16-17. The author of Colossians writes against man-made religion formed by people creating a check list to appease a God who cares more about people treating each other with kindness instead of keeping track of how many apples they’ve polished. Meeting the demands of insecure people pales in comparison to how we treat each other; and people do not need a religion “to do justice, and love mercy.” (Micah 6:8)

 

“Think about it. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Oh man, that Jesus! With the whole ‘love your neighbor,’ ‘feed the poor,’ turn the other cheek’ nonsense? I hate that guy!” No, no one hates that Jesus. If they hate anyone, it’s the fictional, flag-waving Jesus who bequeathed the Constitution to our Founding Fathers on tablets of stone from Mount Rushmore and then left to torture scientists, blow up abortion clinics, and found the NRA. That’s the Jesus they hate. And you know what? I hate him too, and the sooner my hostile classmate knows that, the better. After all, it’s often idols that create atheists (106).”

 

The simple categorizations created by a fundamentalist religion have constructed a thick wall dividing the anger and hatred to both sides equally. It’s easy to point at the fundamentalists, and say they are terrible for society. Their words, behavior, and legislation are soaked with the blood of those whom they oppress. Their sins are comparable to the elitism expressed by a progressive side who labels the fundamentalists as deplorable and refuses to see what motivates people to turn to a political candidate or a religious leader as a scared child turns to a blankey; likewise, the fundamentalist side refuses to listen to anyone who questions their worldview, dismissing well-earned critiques with ad hominem attacks and a refusal to critically think about their position. There are people from both camps, who do seek reconciliation and commonality by looking for things they have in common, but that is absurd due to the values on both sides; however, Stellman takes a different approach. Instead of looking for something in common with the other, he states, “I am something in common with everyone.” What he means is the common human experience we all have. God or no God, if people on the right cry out they are ignored, that should raise concern on the left. Likewise, when religious leaders and conservatives are mocked by the people they exclude, it is the religious leaders and conservatives who need to listen—privilege is no excuse to look the other way. People ignored are people marginalized, and where marginalized people exist so does injustice regardless of skin color, beliefs, or orientation.

 

“Rather than getting all butthurt and defensive whenever some imaginary Jesus gets mocked in the culture or the classroom, we would do better to relax, unclench, and join in the laughter (107).”

 

The division Stellman points out is perpetuated by a certain idea or image of Jesus—instead of the historical Jesus, or the Jesus of the Bible, there is the meat eating, environment destroying, misogynistic, racist, white American Jesus. That’s the Jesus people either reject or accept. People are too wounded to look beyond to the unknown Jesus—the God having a human experience. The Jesus who looked kindly upon society’s outcasts, but made time for the religious leaders like Nicodemus who sought him out with their questions is the Jesus most often ignored. The American Jesus is authoritarian, abusive, and, ironically, loathes anything worldly—he is the God who is weakened by questions from those whose faith sways with doubt, those who are unsure, and those who reject him outright. The God displayed by the Christ of faith is the God who has room for any questions and criticisms—unoffended by both. This God is wrapped in a static mystery and definition is impossible to the point that God can only be assumed, but never known. Atheism and theism have the potential to be two extremes of a fear based certainty while agnosticism is intellectual honesty; and I would go so far as to submit agnosticism is spiritual honesty. This is the strength of Stellman’s book: Atheism or theism, faith or doubt, belief or unbelief is rooted in an adolescent paradigm. In the Drunk Ex-Pastors, as well as this book, he says he is both Catholic and agnostic instead of taking a particular side.  This both/and argument is not an act of intellectual cowardice, but an authentic expression of where the author is in regards to his faith. Being a misfit is admitting you don’t know everything, and are ok with not knowing, ok with having a heart open to the mysteries of existence. This authenticity makes room at the table for anyone to sit down and have an honest conversation about religion, culture, and Bieber. Not a one of us has it all figured out, but our interactions with different perspectives can give us the necessary insight about who we are and where we are going. Misfit Faith is an invitation to take part in the same dialogue that Christian and Jason have every week on their podcast, and a reminder that we are not alone in our search for truth—whatever that may be.

Be sure to check out the Podcast at www.drunkexpastors.com/