A Vision of Monday

Daryl Davis

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Christian Dialogue

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reparation of Church and Hate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daryl Davis.

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

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

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

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

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

Surrender

dharma bum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Living “What if?”

Bodhidharma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caffeine and Coltrane

Sunday morning. 6:00. Why am I up at this hour? I closed the bar and left five hours earlier, and didn’t get home until 1:30. I couldn’t get to sleep until 2:30. Two hours before I closed the bar, I bought a Rocky Patel cigar aged five years for a new friend at a church I go to on Indy’s west side. He had a little girl last month, and I missed it, but I wanted to make it up by getting him a quality cigar. This particular cigar is sold for $7.99, but with my 30% discount, I got it for $5.65. I cut the closed end of the cigar with a V-clip, put it in a bag with some matches, and a little humidor pack that would keep the cigar fresh for days. When the bar closed, I poured myself a 16 yr Lagavulin Islay single malt Scotch on the rocks, put on Miles Davis’ “The Complete Birth of the Cool” album, counted out the money, did an end of night batch on the credit card machine and the cash register, did some last minute dishes, and swept.

I was in a hurry to get out of the bar because I wanted to get up at 7:00 so I could go to the 8:00 mass at St. John’s downtown and say a prayer for a friend who was in the hospital recovering from heart attack, and I wanted to pray for his wife and daughters also. After I set the alarm, I realized I forgot my water bottle. I had sixty seconds to lock the door so I ran to the counter and grabbed the water bottle. The cigars was next to the bottle, and I forgot it. When I got on I-465, I remembered the cigar.

It was too late to go back so I decided I would come back to the bar and grab the cigar in the morning before mass. This meant I would have to get out of bed at 6:00 because the bar was in Avon—a west side suburb, and a forty minute drive one way from my apartment. Avon is also a pain in the ass to drive to because no matter what time of day or night there are people on Rockville Rd/US 36 who will drive five to ten miles an hour below the 45 mph speed limit. I’ve a friend who works at a church in Avon, but lives on the North East side in the Castleton area, and he told me he takes Morris—that turns into county road 100 after you pass Raceway Dr into Hendricks County. There are still a few people on this road but not as many as 36 where everyone is at a slow crawl. Even though it is early in the morning, I went on Morris anyway. The sun was coming up, but the moon was still visible and full, floating over the clouds made pink by the rising sun.

Like most cities when you leave them there is no subtle transition to a rural setting. House, house, house, then, BAM!!! Corn and barley fields, and the possibility of a deer leaping out in front of an unexpected driver. There is a slight warning in the roundabout at Raceway, but after you go west there is nothing but fields.

Coltrane

To keep myself awake and alert, I put on my Coltrane Extravaganza playlist. The playlist consists of six albums beginning with “A Love Supreme” and ending with a compilation “Six Original Albums.” The first song to play off “A Love Supreme” was “Part 1 – Acknowledgment”, and the intro feels like a sunrise with the crashing cymbals and winding saxophone. Coltrane doesn’t simply announce the sun coming over the horizon, but he is in the chariot with Apollo pulling out the sun with his sax as Apollo races across the sky. Coltrane sought God in his music, but he joined the pantheon of gods blessing all of us from his lofty height. The music shakes me from my borderline slumber, and gives me the necessary alertness to pass a driver on a double lined road who is going 30 mph on a 40 mph road, and there is no one else driving. He could be tired, or he could think Jesus gives a shit about how fast he drives. Either way I have much to accomplish this morning, and I don’t want to pause for a second lest I drift away and drive my little van off the side of the road.

Once I get to the bar and grab the cigar, I see Apple Bagels, two doors down, is open and the time is only 6:50—I have enough time to get a little something. Apple Bagels, I think, try too hard to be Einstein Bagels, and I can taste the maximum effort. The food is close, but nowhere near to Einstein’s level. If there were one close by, I would go to that because the bagels are better and the coffee doesn’t taste like it has been set out for a day, but I’m outside of Indy where something with a Jewish name would annoy the WASPs. At the moment, I need something in my stomach and I need some coffee. I get a cinnamon raisin bagel, and a chocolate flavored coffee. To take out the sting of bad taste, I pour in six creams and six raw sugars. The coffee isn’t much improved, but it’s still better than if I had left it black.

On my way downtown to mass, I’m listening to Coltrane’s “Blue Train” album while pouring the coffee down my throat. When I arrived to St. John’s the time is 7:35. I take out a few dollars to stuff down the collection bank to pay for the candles I am about to light, and say a prayer for my adopted family.

I consider myself very much a Catholic—albeit a liberal one, but a Catholic nonetheless—, but after the election, I rarely go to mass because most—not all—Catholic churches I have been to in Indy care more about toeing the line of the Republican Party than being an example of Jesus in the community. I also know that a conservative interpretation of Catholic teaching suggests missing mass is a mortal sin, and I understand that according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2168-2185. I also understand the statement from 2181, “Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” This is where I differ. In the section on defining sins and its varying degrees, 1850 points out a willful rejection of God’s will by anyone as sin, “[A] revolt against God through the will to become ‘like gods.’” My refusal to attend mass as nothing to do with determining my own will in life, but a desire to have an encounter with Jesus. I think many churches—and not just the Catholic Church—in Indy, Jesus has left the building, or the people kicked him out because loving their neighbor became too much when he demanded the love of their Muslim neighbor. Nonetheless, I went because I wanted to light candles, and I know there are people who join in praying for whomever the candles are lit. I knelt in front of the statue of Mary taking in the artist’s depiction of her as the compassionate adopted mother to all who follow Jesus. I prayed and asked God to look out for my adopted family, and I asked The Blessed Mother to pray for all of us involved.

After mass there were coffee, orange juice, and doughnuts on the tables in the narthex. I needed to leave for a friend’s church, and I didn’t have time to wait in line for coffee. I grabbed an orange juice, slammed it, got into my van, and left. I only drove west on the interstate for a few minutes before I got off the exit at Holt Rd. There was a McDonald’s at the corner, and I pulled in to get a large coffee to take with me to the church. I pull into the church parking lot with Coltrane’s “Black Pearls” album blaring and walk in with bloodshot eyes and coffee breath. The reason I’m at the church is not just to drop off a cigar, but also to attend a new Sunday School class that my new friend just started and leading. His approach isn’t to have a set curriculum nor is his class about pulling from the bible and parroting specific doctrinal interpretations. The bible is a collection of stories of people and how they experienced God—that’s their story. Our story will vary. The point is to share what life has been like the previous week, good or bad, and look for what Jesus is doing. My new friend comes from a hard life. He was a gangbanger in Mars Hill, a white ghetto on Indy’s southwest side, and I come from the east side. Though, I have never been involved in gangs or been approached by gangs, my neighborhood was a mixture of gangbangers and retired cops. Nothing terrible ever went down in the neighborhood, but I would hear about gang activity from my neighborhood friends. We discussed racism and the difference in how racial slurs are used in an urban setting versus a rural setting.

As we talked one of the ladies got up and left the classroom saying she needed some sugar and caffeine from Mt. Dew to stay awake, but that was dishonest, and I think this lady was dishonest because she was afraid to say something to us. My new friend’s wife passed her in the hallway and was told, “I came here to listen to the bible, and not to any of this gang shit. I’m going out to smoke a cigarette.” While were talking about how our past lives still affect us today, and how we’re seeking Jesus even when we fall, another lady comes in to the classroom. She shares about her life and her frustrations with her son. Her son is twelve and stealing. He always steals, has been arrested, released, and repeats. She’s at her wits end because she has tried everything with her son to get him to stop stealing. We all agreed something is going on, the boy doesn’t know how to process all the negative things in his life and acts out, but his mom and her husband give him a safe place—and a stable place. We’re not about the clean and fair life, though that would be nice, but that isn’t our world. That’s not where we live. We speak to each other in prayers and continue to pray for one another while doing something tangible in the moment to offer a slight reprieve.

The class ended at 10:15, but I had to cut out to go pick up Ronnie and go to the hospital to see one of the members of our adopted family who had a heart attack on Friday. He was being released that day, and would go home to recover. As I pull in to my apartment complex, my playlist is at a close. The coffee cup is empty. The prayers are not resolved nor does Coltrane conclude his thought. There is no conclusion to Coltrane’s music. What some would call an ending he calls a pause in thought. Thankfully, I found a pause in mass and a pause in the Sunday School class, and we all had a comforting pause when we saw our guy come out of his room all smiles and walking like he never had a heart attack. Somewhere in the swirling harmony of my coffee, prayers, and Coltrane, God blew in some grace. God seemed to have granted our guy’s wife and daughters a little more time with him. In between breaths and gasps, the time between a tear forming in the eye and falling into the ground there is mercy. There is a reminder we are not alone even when we sit solitary in a waiting room. There in that frozen second split in two there is a song that will never quite finish as Coltrane decides on the next chord taking the sun to different horizons.

Forgiveness on the Horizon

Blue Like Jazz Book

Last night, I watched “Blue Like Jazz”—a film adaptation of Donald Miller’s book with the same name directed by Steve Taylor. I’ve read Blue Like Jazz quite a few times, and I can say it’s nothing like the book, but in a good way. “Blue Like Jazz” tells the story of Donald Miller’s move from his home in Texas to Reed College in Portland, OR, and the journey of faith he found himself taking. The movie focuses on the Miller’s external journey while the book is the internal process of unpacking an anxiety ridden, inconsistent belief in Jesus. I think the movie well done. The difference between the book and the movie is explained in Donald Miller’s other book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Steve Taylor brought in Miller to consult. When Miller told Taylor there were some events in his movie that didn’t happen, Taylor told him, “I know, but I want to get to the heart of your book and tell your story.” The first time I saw this film, I immediately connected it with my own journey—especially in the Donald Miller character’s confession of spending his first year at Reed College trying to ditch God. He had a traumatic experience at his church, and wanted nothing to do with the people in his church, Christianity in general, and God. I also saw the constant theme of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” album through the character of Miller’s father who says “Life is like jazz—it never resolves.” His father passes on Coltrane to him, and then Miller finds “A Love Supreme” in the vinyl collection of his friend, Penny.

Blue Like Jazz Film

In the first few scenes, Donald Miller realizes the youth pastor at his church is cheating on his wife with Miller’s mom. Miller is enraged, vandalizes the youth pastor’s car before he speeds off to Portland. Miller’s anger is stirred again when his mother calls him to say she’s pregnant with the youth pastor’s baby. When the youth pastor gets on the phone, Miller shouts at the youth pastor calling him an asshole and a hypocrite. The youth pastor’s arrogance is unfazed as he tells Miller that Reed has improved his vocabulary. At this point, Miller hangs up, gather’s his church things, and goes to the church across the street. His phone is ringing on his way to the church. His mother is calling back, but Miller is done. In the middle of the sermon, before the pastor and the congregation, Miller dumps the church objects on the floor and tells everyone he is finished with Christianity. On his way out, Miller throws his ringing phone into the holy water. I probably would have done the same thing, but I would have said a few choice words to the youth pastor for his comment on my vocabulary, “Fuck you! You cheated on your wife and got my mom pregnant, and you’re going to judge me?! Look to the fucking plank in your own goddamned eye, asshole!” There is some anger and hurt still in me, but this particular scene hit home because I dealt with a pastor in a similar manner at Horizon Christian Fellowship.

Horizon Christian Fellowship

Horizon Christian Fellowship is a church that came out of Calvary Chapel started by the late Chuck Smith in Costa Mesa California during the Jesus movement of the 1970s. The church holds to the cult of personality where the word of the pastor, in this case Bill Goodrich, is the word of God, and the other pastors repeat the same litany of submission pointing the people to the head of the church. The church loathes culture and holds to a mixed hermeneutic that takes the bible literally, but with the literalism that came out of the American frontier in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening. Calvary Chapel caters to the affluent middle class, and Horizon is no different. The church resembles a compound on the northeast tip of Indianapolis and borders on the wealthy suburb, Geist. That is most of the demographic of the church with some people coming from the North and East side. The church is predominantly white, and what I observed, willfully unread and ignorant. During one service, I sat behind a woman who said to her husband who said she hoped the rapture came before the tribulation because she didn’t want to go through torture and beheading. I rolled my eyes. For her and much of the church, they don’t want a faith that will cost them anything, but a faith that will get them all the cool toys if they say the right words to daddy.

I went to Horizon Christian Fellowship between 1996 and 1998 because I had many friends who went there—friends from my old punk rock crew. I found the church fun at first. I liked that the pastor went verse by verse, and explained how the bible “interprets itself.” But the church had a dark side to it that I saw first-hand and experienced myself. If people didn’t put the right toe on the right doctrinal line they were ostracized, and if they were in any kind of sin they were barred with gossip. For the most part this was true, but if a person were in Bill Goodrich’s good graces they could do whatever they wanted to whomever they wanted without any consequences.

Billy Brandle was one such individual. He was an associate pastor at Horizon Christian Fellowship who liked to go to different places with a maxi mouse speaking to passers-by “If you were to die tonight where would you go?” I found him to be condescending, judgmental, and a horse’s ass to people, including myself, who were struggling with their faith or questioning it—he was also an adulterer, and an unapologetic one, I might add. Brandle had been caught cheating on his wife four times. Not only did his wife keep taking him back, but Bill Goodrich never told him to step down from his position as pastor. The adultery part never bothered me per se. Cheating happens because there is an issue in the relationship that has not been dealt with, and it sucks when it happens regardless of the reason. There were clearly issues within his marriage, but what bothered me is that he could cheat on his wife knowing it was wrong, but still have enough temerity to pass judgment on me and others in the church. Brandle lived in a glass house constantly throwing rocks because he believed Goodrich’s word protected him from any blowback.

One Tuesday evening, I attended a weekly service put on by the worship leader, John David Webster. He called it Koinonia from the Greek meaning “communion.” The meeting was in a small room, maybe 750 sq feet, filled with people who wanted to worship John David Webster, er, I mean, Jesus. He had to have a PA system so the whole room would turn into a concert hall, and, as one who dated and eventually married, Bill Goodrich’s daughter, Webster could do whatever he pleased. The worship was highly emotional with voices and hands raised till shoulders were popped out of their sockets, and words were broken by sobs. I’ve never been one to express my emotions, and being in the same room flooded with tears and whimpers makes me uncomfortable—I don’t know how to relate to that. I have always had a capacity for the intellectual, and I found the expression of faith too flimsy and too capricious. I found myself going into Reformed Christianity because the Calvinists employed rational thought and faith simultaneously. At the time I needed something that was concrete, and I thought Reformed Christianity was the way to go.

People talk, and because I lived with a few guys from the church including John David Webster, people whispered about my new found Calvinism. I didn’t help the situation any. Two of my roommates were going in a similar theological direction, and we browbeat our other roommates with our superior intellect and high end words written by dead white guys from England and Germany. The leadership in particular did not like this at all. Reformed Christianity is dialectally opposed to the Christianity expressed by Calvary Chapel, and is met with hostility. During such events the church’s leadership would make a surprise visit, and this particular evening it was Billy Brandle. During the hour long session of repeating a chorus with sways and moans, I stood there with a couple friends talking. Billy decided to interrupt us, and told me, “You’re not worshipping God enough.” I looked at him in the eye as I cocked my head, “Really? You want to judge me? You want to go down that road with me?” Billy’s eyes widened and his mouth was slightly parted. I looked him up and down with a smirk and returned to my conversation as he walked away dumbfounded.

This is why I loathe religious bullies of any stripe, and this is why I often slip on my informal and formal education like brass knuckles to crack the proverbial jaw of bullies. Yes, I agree, to an extent, they have it coming, but there are better, loving ways to offer a rebuke. My behavior and attitude reveals an old bitterness from an old wound festering instead of healing. As I write this, I still feel the pangs of those painful experiences at Horizon Christian Fellowship, and the memories are almost twenty years old. That’s a long time to be holding on to a wound, and the memory may not even be that accurate. These memories are based on my interpretation of events, and over time, different spins and embellishments are added to keep the bitterness nice and juicy. The bitterness has no place and infects my future relationships, and the first step of healing begins with a willingness to forgive, and to move away from that old anger that keeps me and Billy Brandle limited to a specific period of time.

John Coltrane

The  1998 Billy Brandle should have paid more attention keeping his dick in his pants and remembering his vows to his wife—who is still with him—instead of what level of emotion I should be expressing to Jesus in public worship. The 2017 Billy Brandle? I don’t know. I’ve a friend who is still friends with him, and tells me that Billy is a different person who takes his walk with God seriously nowadays. I don’t know about that either, but I do know it’s unfair for me to confine him to my past experience. We never stay the same. We’re either getting better or we’re getting worse, but we are by no means stagnant. This impermanence makes forgiveness simultaneously possible and difficult. Forgiveness frees us from the past, and frees us from living our past versions of ourselves. Forgiveness also frees the people in our lives to grow as we grow, and to have the faith that something larger than ourselves is at work in us constantly reshaping us and healing our wounds. We are all in process, and for me to condemn a man and a church who hurt me and insulted me twenty years ago is to deny the grace of God in their lives as well as my own. There is no resolution, only note changes, and if we follow the improvisations of the spirit the song will rise with Coltrane as we touch the face of God.