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.

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Deus Volt

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going to Church

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These last two weeks have been a tiring blur. I started my new job at a cigar bar, and I had to work every day except for Sunday. I had no time to recoup and reboot my brain. The last two Sundays were packed with busy activity as Ronnie and I went out looking for more things for the new apartment, or she had to work on a Sunday which meant, I had only three hours of sleep. Wednesdays, I didn’t work at the cigar bar because of my volunteer work at a fair trade store downtown. The reason for the workload was for training. There may be a time when I have to run a shift myself, and I will need to know how to make food on our tiny grill, or make different cocktails. Our grill is small because we are not that kind of a bar where people can fill up on fried food and beer, but, by list of priorities of our customers, we sell a large variety of quality cigars in various sizes, beer, whisky, gin, and rum. When you walk in twenty feet to your left there is a room, a humidor, that takes up half the space of the bar displaying all our cigars. At the back of the bar is a small selection of scotch, bourbon, rye whiskey, Japanese made whiskey, gin, rum, five levers for locally brewed draft beer, and behind the counter there is an assortment of canned and bottle beers that include domestics. The regulars that come in mostly get cigars, but they will also get a beer, a whiskey, a cocktail, coffee, or tea if they’re staying for a while.

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This past Saturday we were slow. All our regulars mentioned they would be at a friend’s home grilling and drinking beer to remember another friend of theirs, who was also a regular, who died three weeks ago from alcohol related issues. There were a few people coming in throughout the night to pick up cigars. Aside from those people we had two who were new to our bar come in for a beer and some pizza, and one regular. Around 6:30 two new guys walked in, and the most vocal of the two asked me for help finding a specific cigar. He couldn’t remember the name of the brand, but the style. The cigar was a Churchill, and had a small green wrapper. That sounded like an Arturo Fuente, and I took him to the Arturo’s, but we were out of the Churchills—the only cigars we had close to that length and gauge was a Hemingway. He thanked me for my help, and said he would look around some more. I went out and sat by the register to be ready for a sale.

He and his friend found a few cigars he liked, and he decided on the Hemingway style cigar. He noticed a tray on our counter with three different sized holes and a lever on the side. “What is that?”
“That’s a cutter for cigars.”
“Really?! I could cut one of these cigars, and sit at one of the tables and smoke.”
“You can. That’s what a lot of our regulars do. They come in, find their cigar, have a drink, save their cigar wrapper, smoke, and cash out when they’re ready to leave.” He looked over the room filled with wine red chairs and couches, but stopped at the large round table surrounded by tall rolling chairs—the kind you see in a CEO’s office. That’s the table many of our regulars will go to, and it’s also the table where people will make new friends—at least a friend for the night. Everyone is welcomed at the table. Most of the topics revolve around home life and work, but will occasionally shift to politics. Most of the time their conversations are about fishing and camping and how they have to sweat and work away the day before they can get some time away in nature. People new to the bar will ask if they can sit at one of the empty chairs, and the regulars will pause their conversation and insist the new people to join. That night one regular sat at the table who was there the night before. After I clocked out, I joined him and two of my friends for an after work cigar and scotch. The cigar I had was a Rocky Patel which paired quite well with a Highland single malt.

When the night is slow, my coworker and I will sit near the customers so if they need a drink we are able to immediately fill their glasses—sometimes we’re included in their conversations while other times I scribble away in my notebook. The new customers decided to include us into their conversation when one of them asked about a nearby church, Kingsway Christian Church. “Do you know what kind of church it is? Are they a cult? That’s what I heard.”
“Nah, they’re Evangelical.” Across the table his friend asked, “Oh, Evangelical like Jimmy Swaggart?”
“No. One of my roomates’ mom worked as a secretary for their school. They’re non-denominational and their ‘theology,’” I did air quotes with my hands, “Came out of the American frontier in the 1830s during the Second Great Awakening. They’re quite conservative.”
“You seem to know a lot about religion.”
“I had to because of my father wouldn’t permit us to blindly accept what came from the pulpit. Informally I’ve spent the last twenty years reading the bible something like fourteen times, that I can remember, reading the church fathers, studying church history, learning Hebrew and Greek so I could be prepared to defend myself in a debate with my father. I went back to school and earned my degree in Literature and Religion where I studied the evolution of Christianity in America from the 1600s til now. I know what I said sounds over the top, but that is the length I went to intellectually defend myself at home.” After I finished, I lit up a small cigar I had just bought, and after I blew out a large puff of smoke, one of the guys looked at me, “So, is there a book that can simplify everything there is about the bible?” I puffed again, and as the smoke drifted towards the ceiling and the whirring ventilator, I answered, “There are couple verses in the bible summarizing everything.” I paraphrased Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the words of Jesus, “Love God and love other people. Kindness is the only thing that matters. That’s why I don’t care what people believe in just so long as their belief doesn’t make them dicks. Being kind to one another is difficult enough without the added expectations of dogma.”

We talked more throughout the night. They were professional truck drivers who had been all over the country, and we exchanged terrifying road stories. After three and half hours and four Scotches, the two men cashed out so they could go home. They bought more cigars and some empty boxes for the road, and we talked more. They really liked this bar, and they loved the atmosphere. The cigar bar is not a bar where people go to listen to live or loud music and overstimulated with flashing lights and a cacophony of different conversations. Comparatively speaking, we’re low key, and, I would argue, high class. There is a reverent ambiance, and people take their seats as if they were at church. Instead of being preached at, the customers can pull up a chair by themselves or sit with others while puffing away at their cigars until they regain their center. There is real community and friendship here, and Saturday night there was a real sense of church as we all talked about our different religious experiences, and how we have applied what we have learned to be good people—or, at the very least to be better than we were they day before. We’re all walking down similar paths, and when those paths cross we can get a glimpse of God in the other when they speak of grace in their own journey. By any other name, that’s church.

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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.

American Jesus

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I’ve been going to the Broadripple Village since 1989 before MTV told all the jocks that Doc Martens and flannel shirts were “cool.” I also lived in the village in the late 90s. In those days the village was truly alternative and punk rock, and catered to many artists. Since then there has been an influx of the bourgeois from the North Side and the northern suburbs. Despite this current trend there are still pockets of artists and musicians, and people with good vibes. There is no direct route to Broadripple from an interstate or intrastate, and involves a lot of in town driving on the narrow road of College Ave. When I live on the East Side the quickest route was a brief stint on I-465 to East 56th St., to Kessler Blvd., to Keystone, and finally East 62nd St. Now that I live on the South Side–at least for the next six weeks, my direct route is I-65 North to Washington St., turn right on College, turn right on Kessler, and turn right on Guilford. That’s the route I took today to meet Eric at Monon Coffee Company in the heart of Broadripple Village.

Today is a chilly sixty-five degrees with damp air and looming, overcast skies. The weather forecast calls for on again off again showers with temperatures ranging from the sixties to lower seventies, but a high of eighty-two on Sunday. That’s Central Indiana for you. During the spring season you have the chance of experiencing all four seasons in the span of a few days. There is a scientific explanation for this, but I do not know at present, and my suspicion is this wide of range on the weather spectrum is normal for the Ohio Valley region in the United States. The present weather is to my liking, though–it’s neither too hot or too cold, and perfect for chinos, sandals, and cardigans. It’s also ideal weather for opening the patio door to listen to the birds singing their greeting to you, me, and the sky, and my cats to engage with the sparrows who taunt them from the fence. I also have to monitor my cats who are of a mind to tear through the screen door to teach the sparrows some manners. They’re barn cats from outside of Omaha, NE, and they’ve seen a thing or twenty living through summer tornadoes and harsh winters.

Driving north on College Ave from Washington St is smooth until East 16th St due to gentrification, and a car rattling, tire damaging mess from East 16th St. to East 42nd St., and the roads are narrow. God help you if you get stuck behind a car waiting to turn left. You have to merge quickly and carefully because the average speed is 45 mph (the posted speed limit is 35 mph), and there is street parking. The only time College is a traffic nightmare is  during morning rush hour, from 7-9ish, and the evening rush hour, from 4-6ish; but the evening traffic can be extended if it’s Friday, and an all day event on Saturday. I drove to Broadripple after the morning rush hour and had little difficulty.

In the last ten years, parking has become an issue. If you park in the strip mall across from the McDonalds, or the Kroger on Guilford, you can get fined by the traffic monitors, or they will tow your car. In the 90s, nobody really cared, but now the rich dollar was coming in and businesses don’t need people like me parking where ever, and walking around with no money. From a business standpoint, I understand the complaint, but from a social point of view, I think they’re being assholes placating rich assholes who are in the village because they were told by their companies and social media that Broadripple is trendy. Pause for a moment to feel the dull throb of my eyes rolling on the computer screen. To avoid any hassle, and paying to park, I park on one of the side streets. Walking or riding a bike is preferable in Broadripple because the strip is a narrow clusterfuck, and a pain in the ass to drive through any time of day. Today, I went over the bridge and parked on the same street as Good Earth, and walked the two blocks to meet Eric.

Eric is the associate pastor at Lynhurst Baptist Church, and is one of very few people I can engage with on matters of philosophy and religion–that’s his academic background. He comes from the same rough area of the East Side as I do, and he went to the same high school graduating two years before me. He also ministers to a similar rough area on the West Side. He speaks my language in both hood and academic. Our friendship is not based on religion, nor is he threatened by my bare knuckled questions on matterss of faith and Christian behavior. In fact, Eric is just as hard hitting in his answers and is a good sparring partner. Eric’s degree is in philosophy with an emphasis on the classics whereas my degree is in literature and religion covering some of the classics, but focusing on the historically recent existential philosophers–my favorite being Jean Paul Sartre. Like me he moves in and out of the street and ivory tower, adapting to the company he keeps, but does not stay isolated in one area. He enjoys philosophy, but he also is around people broken by poverty, despair, and drug addiction who care more about when they’re going to eat next and very little of Aristotle’s different approaches to argument; however, Eric will put on his academic brass knuckles when engaging with the local government who want to displace those in his church. I do not share in his religious tradition, but I respect his expression of faith. He makes it real, and, by default makes Jesus real instead of the blankey many Christians have created. Eric’s practice reminds me of the statement made by the author of James’ epistle in the New Testament, “You say you have faith, but I will show you my faith by what I do.” Respect.

Eric had just returned from a week long trip to Seattle. His wife had to go for work, and he went with her to take in the people and some of the sites. I joked with him, “Motherfucker, better hook me up with some coffee from Pike Market.” Mostly, I suggested he get out to see the ocean and mountains when he got the chance. Seeing the Pacific was easy. Where they stayed downtown, Eric and his wife were in walking distance to the ocean, but could only see the mountains in the distance. I was a bit homesick. I lived three hours south in Portland, and I hated moving, but I had to because of money. I miss the ocean, I miss Mt. Hood, I miss the creativity, and I miss the coffee. So when Eric returned, I listened  to his stories, living vicariously through his impressions.  Later, I tasted his experience. He brought me back coffee from Pike Market. I did not expect this, but overjoyed just the same. Before I went home, I went over to Good Earth to pick up some coconut water, and they were cool with me grinding my beans in their store. When I returned home, I brewed the coffee to drink while I did some writing. The taste brought me back to the northwest as the Pacific tide rock back and forth on my tongue. I was in Seattle. I was on Cannon Beach in Northwestern Oregon soaking my feet in the ocean while burying my hand in the oncoming tide. I felt the comfort of home. I felt the divine connection reminding me of a quiet stability  at the core of constant change. Outside, gentrification emerges, infects, and decays, but inside I am content. Always at peace. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus said that if “anyone gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, truly I tell you, he will never lose his reward.” True, Eric gave me the coffee because he is my friend, but I can’t help but think, according to his faith, that his friendship is fueled by his desire to be a disciple of Jesus. As I have written before, I had to disassociate from Christianity and church because of consistent poor examples; but I know Jesus when I see him.

I’m Just Waiting for Godot, man

 

Yesterday and today, Ronnie went in early because her work offered overtime, and I drove her because she would have to leave at six in the morning. She can barely function getting out of bed at six to leave at seven let alone do that an hour earlier. I am not a morning person, but once I wake up, I hit the floor running because there are things I need to do to start my day’s work. My morning routine includes preparing breakfast, lunch, and tea for Ronnie, and after I pack up everything, I make my food. During the time of waiting for the microwave and electric kettle, I will do six sets of planks—three sets of forty seconds a piece, followed by three sets of twenty second planks. After she leaves, I immediately go to the fitness center to spend forty-five minutes on the bike, come home, shower, and sit down to write for three to four hours. Because Ronnie had to wake up at 5:30, I offered to take her to work so she would have some time to collect herself during the commute. The way to work, I drive I-465 West on the south end of the intrastate, and the return home, I take I-70 East to I-65 South. Going home I pass through downtown, and decided to take the opportunity to park at MoJoe’s at Michigan & Senate, get a tea, and walk along the canal. I enjoy walking the canal whenever I get the chance, but I enjoy the walk more so in the mornings before Indy is clogged with rush hour traffic.

The air is quiet and cool with the buildings softly sleeping until the sun and students from IUPUI stir them to a blissful action. There are many entrances to the canal along Senate and the intersecting streets south of Michigan, but I walk one block south where Indiana and Vermont cross at a forty-five degree angle. There are little condos along the path to the canal resembling monastic cells waiting in the calm of their morning red brick prayers. When I go down the stairs I make a left to go south on the canal passing the entrances of The Indiana State Museum and the Eiteljorg Museum, and finally the NCAA building where there are stairs to the White River State Park. The path of The White River State Park goes over The White River to other paths and an entrance to The Indianapolis Zoo. Depending on the weather, The White River is a surge of wild energy or serene on the verge of enlightenment. This morning the river was the latter, and I took pictures while drinking tea, and centering myself. Rivers and Oceans calm me, though, and there is a physiological answer to such an effect I do not know, but I know my bouncing thoughts can find rest when listen to The White River, or dip my feet in the gray Pacific on Cannon Beach in Northwestern Oregon.

This last week, I have needed the calming effect from The White River’s song and art murals along the canal. Trump has ordered what he calls an armada to North Korea who is threatening to strike the United States with its nuclear weapons. I, along with many people in this country, am under tremendous pressure at the threat of a nuclear war. Speaking for myself, the reality of my own annihilation has twisted my stomach causing all the energy to build up in my head crushing like a vice with its overwhelming pressure pushing against my temples. On top of that, I am still getting over a cold with sinus, throat, and chest issues, but that came at a good time because I imbibe whiskey mixed with hot tea, lemon juice, and honey—something my family has done for generations going back to the highlands of Scotland. I only do two shots of whiskey. Exceeding two shots only exacerbates the illness, and increases my misery. While drinking last night, I decided to read “Waiting for Godot” and the Old Testament book, Ecclesiastes and message one friend who is a pastor at the church I go to, and another friend who is a Buddhist monk. I vomited all my terror and anxiety on them, and they responded in real language without any religious pandering. My friend, the monk, pointed out that our  imminent destruction was the punchline of the human joke, and asked me what it is I truly feared. I told him that I recently began my spiritual practice, and made real changes in my life. I still had so much more work to accomplish, and was afraid that I started late in the game only to leave this life is such a mess—I felt like I wasted my life. “Shit, man, not even Bodhisattvas finish all their work.” He and the pastor friend reminded there is nothing to be changed with the worrying, and, regardless of what happens, kindness and growth still matter—even in the face of Armageddon.

“Waiting for Godot” is an absurdist play first produced in 1952 and written by Samuel Beckett. The name Godot is a French nickname for God like Billy is to William—Goddy, if you will. Estragon and Vladimir are waiting for the God who twice promises he will meet them, but never comes. While they wait they get into discussion over activity to pass a brief moment with Pozzo who whips his servant Lucky to spout theological gibberish. Seven years after Nagasaki and Hiroshima were obliterated by atomic bombs, the world changed, and writers like Beckett saw the illusions of culture, religion, and politics. Take away the veil and there is nothing but an empty void we cover with philosophy and ideas of God so we don’t have to face the pointlessness of living. The play is worth reading and watching, and is relevant now sixty-five years after its debut; and the play can be viewed on YouTube. The play brings comfort to me because of the familiar language and sentiments I also hold—especially with religion. 82% of Evangelical Christians and 52% of Catholics in America put Trump and his administration in power. Trump professes Christianity, and his puppeteer, Steve Bannon is an alt-right Catholic who wants Pope Francis out of the way because the inclusive language of the pope exposes Bannon’s and Ryan’s ideology as a dangerous heresy. Yes, these men and their supporters have mutilated the message of Jesus, but this is the Christian religion evolved from the faith the Puritans brought to the North American coast in the early seventeenth century. Religion distorted Islam and brought down the Twin Towers, and religion has distorted Christianity that will choke out our cries under a mushroom cloud. Christianity in America, generally speaking, has proved itself useless, whatever the outcome this religion has lost all credibility. It’s enough to make the city of Rome quake from all the Church Fathers and martyrs rolling in their graves over the bad joke their successors have created.

After finishing “Waiting for Godot”, I read the book of Ecclesiastes which, I think, is the original absurdist piece. Scholarship has proven this Old Testament book was written in the sixth century B.C.E in ancient Syria, and the original book ended at 12:8, “’Vanity of vanites!’ Says The Teacher, ‘all is vanity!’” The additional verses came later because the rabbis thought the ending too bleak to include in their religious canon. While these factoids tickle me and touch upon the modern conflict and devastation in Syria, the original narrative remains intact. The ancient Hebrews did not believe in an afterlife, and once you’re dead, you’re dead. The concept of an afterlife did not come about until the time of the Maccabees in the second century B.C.E. when people who died with idolatrous medallions around their neck were prayed over to spare their souls. Even with an afterlife, life is absurd. We enter this world with a loud smack on our ass as we deflate our little lungs with trumpeting wails announcing our arrival to this world, and quietly struggle against slipping into an unknown realm or nothingness—everything in between is a boisterous denial of death. Ecclesiastes isn’t doom and gloom, but takes a realistic approach to our existence and nonexistence, and concludes that while we are here we should enjoy our families and the fruits of our labors; and life with all its loud, inane activity is still good—“a live dog is better than a dead lion.” Ecclesiastes remains my favorite biblical book, and The Teacher encouraged me with his lessons to take life as it is, and enjoy it while I still breathe.

I woke up this morning at peace, and posted on social media my acceptance of the absurdity. I worked out, made food for Ronnie and myself, dropped her off at work, and went to the canal. I looked upon the murals on both sides of the overpasses from a different point of view, and I saw this paper floating in the water.

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I know this artist because we had mutual friends, and I went to the church where he was an elder. I saw this paper as the whole of truth. Long after Kyle and I are ashes blowing in the wind across oceans our words and portraits will be a cacophony of litter inspected and dismissed by future generations with a condescending wave of an anachronistic hand. What is the point of me sitting here writing these words as I eat bagels and sip coffee from Chicago at the Thirsty Scholar in downtown Indianapolis? What is the point of Kyle spending hours decorating the city with portraits or teaching art to kids? Rationally speaking, there is no point to our respective creations and serves no purpose in human evolution—they are voices that will soon go silent, replaced by new voices, and forgotten. There is a deeper meaning though, and what we, and other creative people, do matters. Essays, books, poetry, paintings, sculptures, music, etc. remind us that people are more than mobile sacks of chemicals motivated by sex and food. What that “more” is, I do not know, and the threat of nuclear war by Donald Trump has left me speechless, and without any knowledge. I’m with Vladimir and Estragon waiting on Ol’ Goddy to show his face to give our activities and hopes some meaning, but what if Goddy doesn’t exist, or worse yet, he dangles his presence in front of us like a carrot by sending his boys to reschedule? The energy we use in sitting, kneeling, and chanting could be better spent improving this world around us instead of waiting for a parent figure to solve our problems. Whether or not God exists, the weight of our responsibility cracks our legs as it rests in our lap, and we created this world in our image. We could improve our situation, and we could transform this world into a paradise for succeeding generations, but our current choices say we desire hell. We’re still alive. We’re still breathing. I do not think we are too late in turning away from burning down our home.

Going All the Way

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I’m re-reading Dan Wakefield’s Going All the Way because I’m loaning it to the pastor of a church I now attend. Given the content and the assumed stereotypes of pastors, my loaning of this book seems odd. I’ve seen this pastor’s personal library, and he has religiously subversive books like N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, and books by Paul Tillich and the Niebuhr brothers. Suffice it to say, Going All the Way is in his area of interest. He is not a native of Indianapolis, but moved here seven years ago to one of the poorer communities on Indy’s near west side. He wanted to bring a gospel to the poor and struggling instead of a gospel that has been marketed as a brand for bored, complacent, middle class white people. Wakefield’s book came out in 1970, and is set in 1954 Indianapolis; but the culture had not changed in those sixteen years of civil rights, counter culture, and Viet Nam; and Indianapolis culture has not change much in the last forty-seven years—save for a mild interest in the arts. Going All the Way does not focus solely on the criticisms of Indianapolis’ religious, social, and political culture, but also draws attention on a growing counter culture. There is much more to Indianapolis than The Colts, The 500, or giant American flags on both sides of pick-up trucks roaring around I-465. There also exists the voices of the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised—the least of these who are ignored in the name of the Republican Party’s image of Jesus.

There are people in Indianapolis who now pride themselves as a blue city in a red state, but the city is Midwestern blue. That kind of blue means the city is as conservative as their rural counterparts, but they’re ok with LGBT people, people of color, social justice, and the plight of the poor; however, they’re comfortable only with the idea of these groups—when these groups start sitting in their pews it’s a different story. The behavior I have observed in the local conservative and liberal people is what Wakefield observed through his character, Gunner after meeting up with an old friend from high school. Gunner had just returned from being overseas during the Korean War and the friend, whom he and Sonny called Shins, told him he had to go out and get a job—any job. Gunner is thinking about returning to school to get his Masters in philosophy, but Shins dismisses a philosophy degree because it cannot be used outside of the lawyer’s office. Throughout the night Shins tells Gunner he has to settle down, get married, have kids, and so on and so forth, but is quickly irritated with Gunner’s response: “Why?” That’s a question Shins is unable to answer outside of what is expected. Gunner wants more to life than a wife with the two point five kids and a picket fence in the suburbs. When I returned to my old neighborhood at 30th & Shortridge to spend time with some of the people who lived there when I was a boy, I was insulted. I had returned to school two years earlier, and when I went to visit them in June of 2012, I was preparing to transfer to Blackburn College in central Illinois. I had a full beard, and someone decided to tell me I was unemployable and looked like a bum. What does that even mean? Should I be like him and most of the residents of my old neighborhood who are unskilled cogs who think they have it made because they own a house and a truck? They could lose their things at any moment because they are disposable, and can be replaced by someone who is just as unskilled, uneducated, and deluded as them.

Sonny, though, deals with a different set of conflicts from his mother and her religious friends. Sonny is an atheist, and liberal in how he views people. He finds racism absurd, and people should be allowed the freedom to live and be, regardless of their skin color. Upon his arrival to Indianapolis, Sonny’s parents, along with her mother’s friend pick him up in a station wagon owned by his mother’s church where she also works—the company car if you will. Sonny is told that his alma mater, Shortridge High School has become “darker inside” because many African Americans were moving in to the north side and sending their kids to Shortridge. I went through something similar with my aunt in the early 2000s when I told her about going into Broadripple to spend some time with friends and catch an art show. I had been going there for years before the village became a trendy brand, and there are still some good spots for art. “Be careful. It’s gotten dark over there.” I knew exactly what she meant, and told her she was ridiculous—the color of a neighborhood is not a gauge for safety—, and she was a racist for speaking such stupidity. Of course she was offended, and said she wasn’t a racist because who wants to admit they’re a despicable person? Sonny’s mother and friend react the same way as my aunt when he hinted at their racism. They’re good Christian people and good Christian people don’t hate, but their actions say otherwise.

Sonny’s mother overwhelms him with religion in an attempt to bring Sonny back to a belief in God and a follower of Jesus; but not just any follower. Sonny’s mother belongs to a group called MRA which is a right wing, nondenominational Evangelical Christian group who have bought into the doctrine of conformity by the military industrial complex. In this culture, Jesus is white, a capitalist, American, and hates those who disagree with conservative American policies. The liberals are the enemy, and many of them are educators in the universities such as Indiana University where Sonny attended and graduated. What his mother, or her group, fails to see is they are why people are opting for atheism—or at the very least not affiliated with any religion—because their religious practice oppresses people who are not straight, white, or Protestant. Why would anyone, who desires to be a decent person, want to be a part of that kind of religion? Brennan Manning said the single cause for atheism is Christians who profess Jesus with their mouth, but deny him with their actions when they walk out the door. Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys talked about such people in “Moral Majority” as he yelled out, “God is dead if you’re such a fool!” Sonny’s education had nothing to do with his beliefs changing, but rather what he experienced in his own life. The religion his mother practiced was myopic and only good for dealing with surface issues, but does nothing for the deeper rumblings of existence. Atheism was the logical conclusion for Sonny.

The first time I read Going All the Way, I resonated with the portrayal of the political and religious culture of Indianapolis in the 1950s because not much had changed; and up to this point, I still have these views; but the point of the book, for me, is not the criticisms. Regardless of your hometown, you can never go home again once you leave. You can return to the same location, but your high school, friends, and family look different. They haven’t changed, but you have. Sonny lived across the country working behind a desk for the army, and Gunner was wounded in Korea and experienced Zen Buddhism while stationed in Japan. When they both returned their perceptions had changed. Sonny didn’t know what he wanted when he returned home, but he knew he didn’t want the religion and politics of his family. Gunner shared a similar sentiment, but wanted to explore life instead of doing what he was “supposed” to do. For me, I have traveled and lived in various places across the country, and, recently, I lived in Portland, OR surrounded by trees, mountains, and laid back people. Things did not work out according to what I wanted, and I made the long trek east with a year stop in Lincoln, NE. When I arrived to Indianapolis in August of last year, I saw the people in a different light. Most of the people I knew in high school had become dull witted facsimiles of their parents with more kids they can afford, and/or they have become increasingly right wing and attend God’s favorite, wealthy, white Evangelical church. I also noticed the hatred my mother and the rest of my family have towards me—that hatred had always been there, but I didn’t notice the subtlety. Did they change? I don’t think so. I think I outgrew whoever these people were, and found their paradigms asphyxiating. Is that true for all of Indy? No. I still associate with the artistic community while becoming a part of it through my writing. Like Sonny and Gunner, I can either choose to find that other community ignored or demonized by The Indianapolis Star, or I can leave town and never return. At this point, I am opting to stay. There is such artistic potential that has yet to be tapped, and I think the counter cultural community here is vibrant. I haven’t returned home, but I have to make a home in the place where I was born. That’s the message I get from this second reading of Going All the Way.