FearMeneutics

Wasn’t it their Jesus who didn’t care much for this life? Wasn’t it their Jesus who said to love our enemies? Wasn’t it their Jesus who said to give the tunic off your back? What the hell was the parable of the Good Samaritan all about if not endangering one’s own self to help another?

– Ruth (Out from Under the Umbrella)

My good friend Russell, of Russell & Pascal, sent me this YouTube clip last night. As some of you may know, in a previous life I occupied pulpits for a living myself. Before I realized what was required of those, not to mention what was spewing out of those, who stand in that spot.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, Baron Lord Acton told us, and the authority ascribed to evangelical mega-church (and even mini-church) pastors is about as close to absolute power as clergy can get, short of being the Pope. It is also an extended exercise in electioneering: evangelical clergy are hired, not assigned, to fill their pulpits, which means they can also be fired. Which means they get very good at telling congregations exactly what they want to hear, to the point that it becomes difficult to distinguish between sermons and sound bites.

But even more disturbing than what the pastor himself says in this video is the wild applause in the background. My friends, I give you The Lynch Mob, otherwise known as Sunday morning worship. It is emotion running on pure instinct: this is how the same group can applaud Jesus’ admonition to “love your enemies” and their pastor’s support for killing those same enemies dead, all within six minutes’ worth of a YouTube clip.

This is not love, in any sense of the word; it is hate, fueled by fear, encouraged by clerical authority. And it is why I got out when I did–from flag waving to male chauvinism to homophobia, all disguised as God’s love and all justified by way of Scripture, I just couldn’t be That Guy anymore.

But let’s be clear–That Guy isn’t what Christianity is about, not completely. There are many Christians–including many pastors–who believe Ruth’s words, quoted above, and live according to them both in and outside of the church. Lest we forget that, and treat them as the above congregation wants to treat our Islamic brethren, here’s a few quotes that I found yesterday in posts about the Paris attacks, and our national response to them:

Before I knew it I felt the emotions move from my stomach to falling out of my eyes as I prayed for the leaders of this country, our current President, the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces, for the prejudice in my heart, and the hate in my words-the words that I have only spoken to myself.

I prayed for the children sleeping in tents and on the road to safety, I prayed for the families that were destroyed and separated, both in Paris and Syria. I opened that prayer to every family, worldwide, that has been touched by terrorism.

The emotion made me pause as I began to pray for every mother or father boarding or placing a child on a boat in an act of love, making hard decisions, trusting the life of their child to both faith and chance; my pause provoked by both empathy and reality.

— — — — —

Act Justly: when faces of weary, worn and haggard refugees stream across my Facebook feed, I am reminded again and again that these are people. They have needs and desires. They require air to breathe, the same as do I. They have families and loved ones. They have felt love- feel love. Have been loved. Have known love. In justice, I must show love as well, offering what I have. Even though what I have might be small. It might be as small as a prayer. It might be even as faint as a fleeting thought or as fragile as the whisper of an image striking my mind in quiet, speaking to my soul. But to do justice, I must seek for the best for all human beings across this globe.

Acting justly starts small. If I cannot act justly to those I know and care for, how can I act justly for others in far-flung regions? It starts here. It starts now. It starts with me.

Love Mercy: I must cleave to compassion, strive to be kind, urgently aim toward benevolence. If I have, I must give. If I can share, I must allocate. If I can offer, so I must do. In considering others better than myself, I am showing that I love mercy. In placing others needs above my own, I am showing that I love mercy. In offering my life for the betterment of another life, I am showing mercy.

Our lives are not our own. Do we not believe that we have a Father that protects us? Is He not bigger than terror? Are we not held in the hollow of His hand? Whom shall I fear?

Walk Humbly: when we refrain from extending ourselves, there can be issues of pride involved. But so can they become intertwined in our motives when we give. We must continuously contend for humility in all aspects of our life. If we have been chastened, accept and move forward. If we have been convicted, act on our convictions. If we feel strongly, question the motive that has brought about the feeling. If we do not feel strongly, we can then ask ourselves: why not? In humility, we are made more in His image. We are more of what we could be. More of what we should be.

I ask each of us—myself included—when considering what our role is in the unfolding story of world history (whether that be a story told close to home or farther abroad: what would Jesus do?

Let it be what I would do too.

— — — — —

Dare I grieve for the misguided, angry and evil young men who convinced themselves that this was for God’s glory? Dare I grieve for the mothers of these men and wonder if this was their aspiration? Dare I grieve for those who hold their faith as preciously as I hold mine and see themselves disdainfully numbered amongst the criminally insane? I dare.

— — — — —

To be Christian is not, willy-nilly, to embrace hatred and xenophobia, as some who view the above video might want you to believe. That video is one expression (albeit unpleasant) of a wonderfully kaleidoscopic faith that takes in a multiplicity of views and beliefs, many of which are built upon the very teachings of loving action that Pastor Jeffress’ words so effectively undermine. Not all Christians respond to the hermeneutics of fear.

I no longer think of myself as a Christian, but I would be remiss if I failed to defend the many men and women in my acquaintance who still are, and who would be just as horrified as I am to hear Pastor Jeffress’ message of violence and hate. In the hearts of many, God actually is love, and to be a Christian actually means living that love in a way that transcends the legalistic and the literal.

So, before you judge too harshly the whole based upon the part, remember what we’re talking about this week: if it is unfair to turn our backs on the Syrian refugees because of what the very few among them may believe or desire, then it is equally unfair to reject all Christians because of what this congregation has done to the Christian message.

Hatred is a mirror:
the only person you ever see in it is yourself.

Articles of Faith

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We are our own prisoners. We defeat ourselves, believing in defeatism, which is itself our own creation.

– D.T. Suzuki

Just because the vision blurs, this does not mean the eyes cannot see.

If you read my previous post, you know that I consider myself (to an extent) an atheist. Which creates certain difficulties when it comes to the idea of “faith.” There is a widely-held misconception that a turn to atheism is a turn away from “beliefs” in general; in fact, some atheist writers themselves insist that this must be the case, especially in terms of having faith, which to these thinkers denotes an acceptance of something intangible, something that cannot be seen.

Fair enough. But wrong.

I’ve always been a humanist, even in my most committed Christian moments (although it’s not really something you’re allowed to talk about as a Christian, since it is assumed that humans stand no chance on their own, without divine assistance). Having set aside the Christian identity, I’m free to embrace the humanist in me openly, without qualifiers. The moment that did it for me came at a roadside rest stop in West Texas, reading Malcolm Murray’s definition of atheism: the rejection of supernatural (metaphysical) agency. I’ve always waffled on the atheism concept because I refuse to reject the idea of the human spirit, which I believe firmly is very real. But I also believe that it comes from us, and not the other way around. We can call it “God” if we want, and it may be metaphysical (in the sense that it’s not “physical”), but it is most definitely not supernatural, and it definitely has no agency independent of the humanity from which it springs.

That in which I have “faith” is people, you and me, and particularly Us, and the things we could do if we could find a way to set aside all the details that separate us and really take up the humanity that brings us together. I have faith in human potential; I have faith that, somehow, somewhen, we will rise above and show the universe what we, as a species, can do.

Some might say that faith in the human spirit is as insubstantial as faith in an Absolute Being. I will admit that at times it feels as if this is truly the case. We often struggle to see the underlying goodness in people, hidden as it is beneath the layers and layers of distraction and deception time has piled on top of us. This is where Zen offers the most beautiful of insights: our nature, the Buddha-nature, simply is–beyond the categories of good or evil, above human constructions of beauty and ugliness. It IS. But as it is, it has become lost in the accretions of a species trapped in history and tethered to philosophy and intellect, driven by a need to analyze and categorize. It is our quest for understanding, expressed in the only way we know how, that has brought us to a place of self-dejection, self-repudiation. We live; we die; the cycle goes on over and around us, in spite of us, and the only way as semi-finite creatures to conceive of ourselves is to freeze ourselves in place, and confuse a mere snapshot for the whole of reality.

We see ourselves in our failures, and assume that failure is who we are. We see our hands about evil deeds, and assume they can perform nothing else. We stare into the darkness and decide there is no light.

In the end, as D.T. Suzuki wrote, we are the victims of our own creation: having convinced ourselves we cannot win, we set out to codify our perpetual defeat. We devise philosophical and religious systems to explain why we must decline, and those systems in turn become the boulder chasing us down the slope. Zen calls our attention to the homemade chains we wear, reminds us whose handiwork they really are, and that if we wish we may choose to cast them aside. Not that it is easy: seeing into the nature we’ve forgotten demands patience and determination, persistence in the face of a seemingly hopeless task, and the willingness to see past momentary failure to the everpresent promise of subsequent success.

The potential of human goodness lies in the recognition of human Being. If we are twisted, it is because we have so long insisted that it must be so. If our logic is flawed, it is because we believe it can be otherwise. If our system is broken, it is because we believe it must be fixed. To recognize the truth is to build upon it; to create that which is good is to embrace our nature as it is, to fill it with emptiness and watch it overflow.

In the words of John Daishin Buksbazen, “Remember who you are, and keep on going.”

With or Without You

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

– Emily Dickinson

They always told me: If you have faith “the size of a mustard seed,” you can move mountains. Problem is, mountains don’t move. And when you’re told that they can, and you aren’t able to do it…well, then, what does that say about your faith?

It’s not you, God; it’s me.

It’s July, 2011. I’m standing alone on a trail off of Cataloochee in the Great Smoky Mountains. It is quiet, and I am in turmoil. I’m still clinging to the tatters of my Christian identity, to what little is left of whatever divine dependency I might once have had. I speak into the stillness: “If you’re there, give me a sign.”

This scene has played out in my heart and in my mind a multitude of times over the previous two years, I the honest supplicant, God the (supposedly) loving auditor. Words run amok in my mind: “Whatever ye ask of me believing, ye shall receive.” And I believed, desperately. I had faith, if only the size of a mustard seed. I had doubts, but up until that day I also had faith. And there I was again, on my inner knees, begging for just one tiny proof of life.

Nothing. Silence. Complete and utter silence. Except for a rustling in the trees off to my left–a fisherman who, I realize, must have heard what I just said and is now convinced I’m insane.

But God? Zilch.

In that moment, a moment of absolute despair, the straw fell, the back broke, and I was done. The God who made a donkey speak couldn’t be bothered to speak to me. I had given up a whole life for him to climb into a pulpit and talk him up on a weekly basis, and when I needed him, he was not there. He was nowhere to be found.

As I stumbled back down the trail, fighting the tears and resisting the urge to scream profanities at the sky, I knew. I just knew. I’ve been called a doubter recently, with the best of intentions, but that’s really not an accurate description of my stance. In that moment, I didn’t doubt. I knew, in the pit of my stomach. I was alone.

At first, and for a long time, I was angry. That has faded, for the most part. In its place, there is now determination. I will not be a pawn in anyone’s game, no matter how monumental their cosmic powers.

Since that moment, my true moment of deconversion (to use the popular term), I’ve had my share of life’s well-timed insults. But I had my share of those before that moment, as well. Things have gone wrong; things have gone well. I have been sick; I’ve gotten better. Income has dropped; income has gone back up. I’ve had good days as well as bad. There is virtually no difference between my day to day existence now and my day to day existence before, except that now I sleep later on Sundays.

You might respond with the old story (and an old, old, old story it is): it’s not about this life; it’s about the next. Okay. Prove it. Prove to me that I ought to live this life in fear of what might happen after it ends. And then think about this: there’s a name for this sort of thing. When someone powerful tells someone less so that if he obeys, he’ll have a home and be taken care of, and if he doesn’t, he’ll suffer and die–we call that slavery. Read a history book. We call it slavery…unless we’re talking about God, in which case we call it love.

I. Will. Not. Be. Owned.

Don’t test the Lord, you say. Fine. As soon as it stops being okay for him to allow people to go through hell in this life just so they can sit it out in the next, and call it A Test. Then we can talk.

It’s not the desperate anecdotal efforts to prove that God works miracles that bother me. It’s that these anecdotal efforts serve only to underline the extent to which he does not. No self-respecting zoologist would accept the absence of the unicorn for proof of its existence, but millions of Christians throughout the ages have been taught to accept a chronic lack of action as proof of power (or at least not a denial of it). Like he didn’t act that day in the national park, or on any of the days prior to it, as I, the guy he knit together in my mother’s womb, slowly came apart at the seams.

I’ve somewhat accepted the “atheist” label now, for convenience’s sake, but again, not a strictly accurate description of my position. It isn’t that I believe there is no God. It’s that, even if there is, I have no faith in him. I have no use for him. Because, if he exists, he has not been faithful to me. He hasn’t been faithful to a lot of people. And a God who doesn’t act might as well not exist.

If my wife tells me she loves me every day, if she sacrifices for me, bends over backwards to show me how special I am to her, and in return I toss her in a puddle of crap and leave her there to drown; what’s more, if I tell her it’s her own fault she’s in the puddle, and unless she pulls herself out of it by way of proving her love, I’ll leave her there for good; and if I tell her no matter how much she tries to live up to my love, it’ll never be good enough for me; that she needs me in order to have value, and without me she’s nothing; that the only thing she can do is beg me for acceptance every day of her life and hope that I’m telling the truth, that in the end, I’ll make up for the abuse by giving her a great big hug and “wiping the tears from her eyes”; not only would that be an abusive relationship, but it would be fairly clear that she isn’t the problem.

So, God, if you’re listening: I was wrong. It’s not me; it’s you.

(Be)Li(e)ving Together

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There are many people who in the name of faith or love persecute countless people around them. If I believe that my notion about God, about happiness, about nirvana is perfect, I want very much to impose that notion on you. I will say that if you don’t believe as I do, you will not be happy. I will do everything I can to impose my notions on you, and therefore I will destroy you. I will make you unhappy for the whole of your life. We will destroy each other in the name of faith, in the name of love, just because of the fact that the objects of our faith and of our love are not true insight, are not direct experience of suffering and of happiness; they are just notions and ideas.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Let’s talk experience:

1) On Christmas morning of 2012, I found myself standing in a gas station in Bernalillo, New Mexico. The attendant, a Muslim man, reached across the counter to take my money and, smiling broadly, exclaimed “Merry Christmas to you!”

2) April 2003, Jackson Square, New Orleans: The Final Four is in full swing, and I am wandering through the French Quarter with an armload of little New Testaments and not the foggiest clue what I’m doing (that last part being completely in retrospect; at the time, of course, I thought I knew exactly what I was on about). As I walked through the park, I was hailed by a gaggle of transients deep in discussion, a comparison and contrast between the Bhagavad Gita and the Memoirs of Kurt Cobain. Why did they call me over? They saw my point of view in the bundle under my arm, and wanted to add my voice to the chorus. They weren’t afraid of the authoritarianism of the Bible; they just wanted to play with it a bit, and see how it might inform their way of seeing and interpreting the world.

3) May 2013 (roughly): I meet the Muggle. Up to this point, while I had encountered a number of atheists of the straw man variety, I had never interacted (at least not seriously) with one made of flesh and blood. And brains, it turns out. I was raised to fear these people: if God was the glue holding the world together, atheism was the turpentine dissolving his adhesive. In the Muggle I discovered, to my surprise, an extremely open individual willing not only to put up with respectful and well-considered disagreement, but even to entertain the potential validity of opinions other than her own. Color me surprised (and somewhat sheepish)…

None of this jives with the lines I was fed during the first several decades of my life. Everyone knows Christians and Muslims can’t mix, especially post-9/11, and in any case, one faith tradition cannot encourage another without descending precipitately into relativism and doubt. I thought about telling the guy he wasn’t supposed to do things like that, that as a Muslim he was supposed to hate Christians and everything they stand for, including and especially one of their chief holidays. (One wonders if anyone has ever bothered to ask him how Ramadan is going.) I thought about reminding him that, as a soldier in the ongoing culture wars, he ought to be burning manger scenes right and left, and doing all he could to take the “Christ” out of Christmas. But I just didn’t have the heart…

As for my gypsy friends in the Big Easy, I’d always been led to believe that non-Christians can have one of two reactions to the Bible: conversion or cardiac arrest. Furthermore, anyone who even considers the truths of any extra-biblical scriptures must be a non-Christian, an assumption which itself reveals the mental space I was in at the time. I have since had the great pleasure of meeting many Christians who are far more open than that in their approach to Truth, but it is a fact that many, many more refuse to look outside their own tradition for wisdom based simply on the fact that it comes from outside their tradition. I consider that one encounter to be a pivotal moment in my personal journey: there is always another perspective to be added to our understanding of the Absolute.

Finally, the atheists among me: simply put, atheists hate not only God, but anyone who believes in God as well. Or so I’d been led to believe. Then I met Madalyn (that’s street speak for the Muggle), and I realized how easily we allow preconceptions to cloud our ability to relate to people who don’t fall exactly in line with our own view of the world. I have learned a great deal from my Muggle friend, and I don’t mean just facts (although that, too). I have learned to be a better listener; I have grown in my courage to say the things I need to say, and not just the things others will like to hear. Most importantly, my faith in the possibility of civil, productive, respectful conversation and debate has been given a shot in the metaphorical arm. I am astounded once again at the fact that so many Christians, the “God’s love” folks, are less inclined to act in a loving manner than the evil, EVIL atheists I was taught to fear, who supposedly peddle only in a particularly nasty brand of nihilistic hatred.

Thich Nhat Hanh, quoted above, taught that the sound of a bell is equally clear whether it comes from Buddhist temple, Catholic cathedral, or Protestant church. In other words, we know the Truth when we hear it, and if we truly know how to listen, we will hear it (or at least the bits and pieces of it we’re capable of understanding in our finite, human Being) everywhere and in everything.

This life, as I see it, boils down to an ongoing search for meaning, and at the end of the day, everything means something. And no one can see everything. Which means we need each other’s eyes, each other’s perspectives. We need the seed of wisdom we each cultivate on our individual paths in order to glimpse the Garden in which we grow.

We need each other, not to become like each other, but because in our difference we complete each other.

What matters is not whether you agree with my religious views, or I with yours. What matters is what we each make of our views…and what they make of us.

Cabbages. And Kings. And Stuff.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

– Lewis Carroll

Allow me to introduce you to the Big Three.

The Big Three are the three moments, crystallized in my memory, that define my life as a minister. They are not good moments; they are not happy memories. They are a reproach, constant and unflagging, a chip I cannot dislodge from my shoulder, however hard I try. In many ways, they have brought me to this place, made me who I am today–a better man, I hope–but whatever good they have produced, I wear them, my albatross, with shame and regret.

I share them with you, and in sharing them, I share myself. They are my monsters, this is my closet. My cabbages, my kings.

1) Christmas, 2002 — Halfway through rehearsals for our annual “cantata,” we received news that the Methodist minister’s daughter had come out as a lesbian. And all hell broke loose. (Keep in mind that this wasn’t even our church.) We hatched a plan: what a perfect opportunity to share that Good News! By the next weekend, we had taken it upon ourselves to blanket the three surrounding counties–two in Missouri and one in Kansas–with a completely unsolicited mass mailing detailing the evils of homosexuality. We redefined “going on the offensive.” Now, I was just a lowly part-time youth and music minister at the time; I didn’t have a whole lot of say. Which works out well, because I didn’t say it. I didn’t say anything. And what’s worse–I wrote part of the horrible thing. Only the love part, mind you, only the plan of salvation. Only the part that explains how the only hope for all the evil gays and lesbians out there is to reject themselves as people and put on my name tag of choice. No harm, no foul, right? Come to Jesus, who loves you for who you are. But be sure to bathe first…

2) Winter, 2004 — I am now a full-fledged pastor in Robinson, Texas. I have been on the job for a total of four months. And I’m faced with a “fractious member.” I would like to tell you that I reached out to this person, helped him through a hard time, opened up a dialogue between him and the church at large. You know, all the stuff I go on about now. I would love to tell you that, but I can’t, because I didn’t. Instead, I dragged him out to the woodshed and “churched” him. Why? Because he believed a Christian could lose his or her salvation. And that’s not what I wanted my church to believe. For this piddly, sad little reason, I cast him into the proverbial outer darkness. A man who had emotional (and possibly mental) problems, a man who needed help. I had to protect my flock. From nothing at all. So I refused to protect him. From anything. And the cherry on top? When informed of what I had done, a local associational missionary summed up my actions in these words: “What a brave thing for a minister to do. That boy’s going places.”

3) Fall, 2006 — I’ve just performed my first funeral. A member of my congregation, not too much older than myself, had lost his wife to cancer. It was, as it always is, a traumatic experience for all involved. I thought of the man as a friend; we often talked, had heart to heart conversations; I felt that, of all the people in the church, he understood me best. When I, the poor part-timer, had a need, he stood up and filled it–a replacement for a busted thermostat in our rental house, a new laptop, whatever. He was a friend, a brother. And then…three months after his wife died, he came to me and told me he had met someone new, and asked me to marry them. Now, I had reservations about the timing–there were teenage daughters involved, the wound was still fresh, etc. But my real reservation was nothing so reasonable. This woman was a Mormon, see. And that, as I was taught, was a deal breaker. It was a clear-cut case of “unequal yoking.” So I said no. After everything he had done for me, I said no. But wait–that’s not all. Naturally, his whole family promptly left the church, leaving me to lick my principled wounds and spout pompous. I recently, in cleaning out my e-mail folders, came across a message I wrote to them, and the measure of my arrogance is hard to express. I was a giant prick. They were hurting the church; they turned their backs on me. I played the role of sacrificial lamb to the cotton-picking hilt. Oh my children–why hast thou forsaken me? Without batting an eyelid.

These memories are all bloody bullet holes in my heart, and they’ve never quite healed over. I am hopeful that at some point during my ministry “career” I did something good, but in the crunch of it all I folded like a cheap suit. And here’s the damnedest thing of all: as the minister’s handbook has it, I wasn’t folding at all. I was Taking A Stand. I was a flippin’ hero of the faith.

If I had to put into a nutshell the reason I left the church behind, well, there you have it. I hurt people; I turned them away from the one place supposedly defined by unconditional love; and in doing so, I Stood for What I Believed. The Lord is my shepherd. Now get the hell out!

It took me years to figure this out, but now I know. I see myself for who I was and what I was doing. I had this “treasure,” see, in a jar of clay. And it was nothing but cabbage. In the words of “Hawkeye” Pierce, “Don’t you understand, man? You’ve struck coleslaw!”

And no matter what I do, I can’t seem to get the taste out of my mouth…

 

 

Rock and a Hard Place

396280_10100316678480673_951323144_n…now that we’ve got them just where they want us.

– James T. Kirk

Question of the day: Do I want to be an atheist?

Answer: Not necessarily. Call it phantom limb syndrome or whatever you like, but a part of me still very much wishes I was a Christian. More to the point, it wishes all my Christian acquaintances would allow me to still be one.

It seems that it’s not cricket to claim a Christian identity without accepting a prescribed bill of goods. Prescribed, generally, by the same people who insist that any attempt to categorize the Divine is beyond us puny humans. I never cease to be amazed that those who speak of God and faith as beyond definition are all too happy to force that elusive definition upon unsuspecting others.

On the other side of the equation, I wish my new atheist friends would stop trying to revoke my membership anytime I express continuing affection for my Christian upbringing or any amount of regard for people who remain within the Christian fold.

Apparently, unless I’m willing to concede that all those folks, near and dear to my heart regardless of philosophical disagreements, who continue to embrace a religious worldview are near-sighted simpletons who only do good in spite of themselves, I’m betraying the atheist worldview. My wife, my parents, my sibling and siblings-in-law, close friends and long-time mentors–either I condemn them as idiots, or I’m no longer welcome in the sandbox.

So I’m stuck, between a Christian rock and an atheist hard place. I can’t even say I’m an agnostic without the hardliners on both sides accusing me of either intellectual laziness or moral cowardice.

Newsflash: I am who I am. Some days, I’m so strong an atheist that I can’t even spell “God.” On other days, I’m so sick of atheists that I consider baptizing myself again. I am who I am…and here’s what that looks like:

I am a follower of Jesus (the man, not the ex post facto metaphysical invention). But then, I’m also a follower of Shakyamuni Buddha. And a follower of U2, and Jon Stewart. And of truth wherever else I might find it.

I refuse to judge a book–any book–by the worst thing it contains, or a group of people by the most despicable individual among them. The Bible, taken as a whole, contains a lot of stuff that to our postmodern sensitivities is beyond abhorrent, but it also contains a lot of stuff that is beautiful and good. To refuse to learn from the good out of anger at the bad…well, that’s ignorance, as far as I’m concerned. And there are individual Christians out there who make me want to punch a baby, the Fred Phelpses, James Dobsons, and Franklin Grahams and such. But if I allow those infuriating, narrow-minded, self-righteous few to act as straw men for all the good and loving people who raised me and taught to me to be who I am today–heterodoxy and all–then I do Christians everywhere a grave injustice, and I’m the one not worth their time.

(Just so we’re clear, there are also individual atheists out there that I find completely intolerable, Dawkins, Harris, and the like. Anyone who can, with a straight face, tell me that these guys are any more open-minded than the “religious nuts” they go on about–well, XYZ, my friend.)

Religious upbringing is not child abuse. Sometimes abusers happen to be religious, and religion can be transmitted in harmful ways, but one of these things is not (necessarily) like the other. There are things about my childhood that I wish had been different, but that applies, I expect, to all of us. What I know for a fact is that, while my parents raised me in a very Christian home, they also taught me to be the loving, accepting, thoughtful person I try so hard to be. I owe them who I am, even the willingness to tell all y’all to take a flying leap if you suggest otherwise.

Take away the ad hominem, and we’re all just a bunch of plankton convinced that we’re whales. We’re all on the same journey, whether or not we agree on the stops along the way. It’s hard to believe, I know, but there are Christians out there who don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God; who don’t believe in an afterlife, or Noah’s ark, or a six 24-hour day creation. They don’t even believe in stoning homosexuals. And they are Christians whether you like it or not.

There are also atheists who are more than willing to see the beauty in Scripture (anybody’s Scripture, Bible, Koran, Talmud, etc.), and to engage Christians in respectful conversations based on an assumption of mutual intelligence. I know there are, mainly because I am one of them.

Somewhere inside me, Christianity lurks, hand in hand with the atheist’s skepticism. Why? Because it occupied the first three decades, plus, of my life. I cannot turn my back on that part of my identity anymore than I ought to turn from my search for Truth. Because some of that Truth still speaks through the Christian in me…

By and By

What must I do
to escape being you?
The lies I hold true because
you once told them, and oh,
how you sold them! A bill of
ill goods, black to the core: I
ate my fill and came back for more.396280_10100316678480673_951323144_n

I put them in baskets set aside for
the winter, a wine so malign it
betrays its own vintner. And when
my eyes opened and witnessed
new light, how desperate you were
to chain me to night. And how you
delight in making me squirm, in
stealing my pudding and feeding me worms.

You promise high heaven and then
slam the gate; make off with the key while
I stand and wait, cold and alone, trampled
by rain, a chill you’ve told me is for my own gain.
And yet, there you are, happy and warm,
inside with your cocoa, while I drown in the storm…