Life: It All Depends on Where You Are Standing

Photo by Ken Kistler, Public Domain

Photo by Ken Kistler, Public Domain

As you know, I spend a lot of time writing about my past: people, places, and events that are very much a part of the fabric of my life. I try to be as truthful and accurate as possible when I recount the past, but I am ever aware of the fact that I am giving an account of things as I remember them. Having read a good bit about the brain and memories, I know my retelling of my past may or may not be accurate. As best I can remember, I try to give an honest accounting of my life.

I have a younger brother and sister, and it is amazing how differently we each view events that happened in our childhood. Who is right? I’ve come to understand, we all are. The story we tell depends on where we were standing at the time.  As a 15 year old boy and the oldest son, my view of our parent’s divorce , is much different from that of my 11-year-old sister. The same can be said about many of our shared seminal experiences.

I live with a lot of guilt. I am prone to depression and I can be quite pessimistic. I have faced long, deep bouts of depression, times where I have felt that death would be too good for me. With my words, theology, and religious practice, I hurt people. Or so I think. I’ve come to have these feelings because I am looking back at my past with the eyes of a 58-year-old man. How could I have been Bruce Gerencser, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher? Who is that man, I ask myself. Thanks be to Zeus he no longer exists, having been slain by reason and maturity, but I still live with the memories of the past.

I am Facebook friends with several of the kids who were members of Somerset Baptist Church, a congregation I pastored from 1983-1994. I was their pastor through the formative years of their life. Not only did they sit under my preaching 3 times a week, they also attended Somerset Baptist Academy, a private Christian school I started in 1989. I often feel I hurt them and let them down. I think back to how narrow I was over things like certain kinds of clothing, music, physical contact between the sexes, movies,  and TV. If these children hated me, I wouldn’t blame them. Thankfully, they don’t.

When I talk to these former students, I hear their perspective on our shared experiences. All of them are in their 30s now and many of them are married and have children. Several of them are gay. Their religious persuasions run from atheism to liberal Christianity. None of them retained the fundamentalist Christianity of their youth. From their vantage point they recall things quite differently from the way I do. Several of them recall my wife teaching them to read. One man mentioned going back to the old church grounds and playing another game of kickball for old times sake. Again, what we remember depends on where we were standing at the time.

I recently re-read several posts I wrote about fundamentalist Baptist evangelist Don Hardman and his wife Laura. (please see Laura’s Light by Laura Hardman, A Book Review and The Preacher: The Life and Times of Donald A. Hardman, A Book Review)  As I read these posts I felt twinges of guilt and sadness. When I was a pastor, I had no closer friends than Don and Laura Hardman. I loved them like they were family. When they came to our church it was the highlight of the year. For 15 days we would focus on God and his Word. Every day Don and I would go out evangelizing and street preaching. The church loved the Hardmans and graciously gave of their money and food to help them.

From my vantage point as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I have nothing but good memories and feelings when I think of Don and Laura Hardman. I never saw them fight and I never had a cross word with them. Even when we parted company for a few years over my Calvinistic beliefs, we remained friends. In the early 2000s, the Hardmans came to Our Father’s House in West Unity, Ohio, a church I was pastoring at the time, and conducted a week long meeting. We had a great time, but I knew that I could not have them back. While they remained right where I met them in 1987, I had changed. My view of God, the Bible, politics, culture, and other Christian sects was evolving. Yet, we remained friends until 2008, when my deconversion permanently fractured the relationship.

Here I stand in 2015, no longer a Christian, now an atheist. My view of the past is clouded with the tincture of time. While I still have fond memories of evangelist Don Hardman’s protracted revival meetings, I have come to see that the preaching and the theology behind it was psychologically controlling and damaging. This is how I view much of my preaching as well, especially the first 15 years or so. Over time I matured. I began preaching expositionally and I turned from a Bible-quoting, hellfire-and-brimstone-preacher to more of a teacher of the Bible. Oh, I was still quite passionate about God, the Bible, and how we ought to apply it to our lives, but I was much more careful about using the Bible in context and letting the text speak for itself. While the Hardmans remained steadfast and unmovable throughout our friendship, my understanding of them changed. Again, my vantage point changed, resulting in me viewing the Hardmans differently.

Polly, my wife, and I have known each other for almost 40 years. Last July we will celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary. A year ago, I uploaded a bunch of old pictures to Facebook: family pictures; pictures from the Somerset Baptist Church, and pictures from Our Father’s House. As I uploaded these photos I began to weep. The memories of years gone by flooded my mind; memories of the people I pastored and the children I taught at Somerset Baptist Academy; memories of my wonderful wife and our little babies. Good memories. Wonderful memories.

Now, having a different perspective, I view the events recorded in these pictures differently. Is this maturity? I don’t know. Time changes how we view the past.  What were once wonderful memories are now clouded by what I now know about the emotional and mental manipulation I perpetrated on those who called me Pastor. As I have shared before, I am in a unique position. I am both a victim and a victimizer. I followed in the footsteps of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preachers who emotionally and mentally scarred my life. Victimized by their manipulation, I in turn victimized those who were members of the IFB churches I pastored. It’s an ugly cycle of abuse that I was fortunately able to put an end to during my latter years in the ministry and subsequent post-Jesus life.

So it is with Polly. While she and I walked side by side through the years we spent in the ministry, Polly’s viewpoint is very different from mine. I was the leader of the church and the center of attention. People, for the most part, respected me, loved me, and supported my work as a pastor. For Polly it was different. Like many pastor’s wives she was my gofer. She did what others didn’t or wouldn’t do.  No one in the nursery? Polly filled in. Entertain people every Sunday for 20 years? Polly did it without a complaint, even when her pastor husband forgot to tell her so and so was coming over for dinner. She quietly submitted to  a life as the helpmeet of a poorly paid, Type A, constantly-working, never-home, Baptist preacher.

Polly did without.  Our entire family did without, but Polly more so than me the children and I. She never said a word. She quietly lived in ramshackled houses and drove cars that were better suited for a demolition derby.  She made do with what she had. This much I know, I do WISH there was a heaven, because Polly deserves a huge mansion right next door to Dottie Rambo’s Log Cabin.

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However, since there is no heaven, all I can do is make sure that Polly has the best life possible for the rest of this life. She deserves it!

It should come as no surprise then that Polly remembers the past much differently from what I recall. One time I said, wouldn’t you like to go back to __________church? Immediately she replied, No I wouldn’t. I was surprised by her quick and negative response. I asked, why not? I then quickly learned, from where Polly was standing, that her view of this church was very different from mine. Who is right? We both are.

I have written a good bit about the abuse that went on, and continues to go on, in Baptist group homes. (please see Sexual Abuse in the Name of God: New Bethany Home for Girls, Teen Group Homes: Dear IFB Pastor, It’s Time for You to Atone for Your Sin and The Dogma that Followed Me Home)  The stories that some people share from their time in these facilities break my heart. I want to personally find these abusive miscreants  and beat the shit out them.  They deserve to have punishment heaped upon them. They hurt  people that I love and respect, and the fact that these dear friends of mine still suffer from the abuse received from men like Mack Ford angers me to this day. Every once in a while, someone will come along and leave a glowing testimony from their time in the same facilities. They loved their time there. They were helped and their life is the better for it. How can this be? Surely, someone is lying, right? Not at all. While it is possible that someone is lying or they are living in denial, more often than not, the difference is simply a matter of where the person was standing in relation to the person, place, or event.

Time shapes how we view the past. For me, I am finding that the further a person, place, or event is in the past, the fonder my memories are. I suspect that’s how we as humans cope with life. The tincture of time often brings healing, and it also allows us to gain enough distance from the negative things in our past that they no longer feel harmful or threatening. While time rarely heals all wounds, it does allow us the space and distance necessary to be at peace with those things that cut us to the quick. Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for.

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9 Comments

  1. Steve

    Brilliant. Wish I were as wise & could write half as good. Superb, man!

    Reply
  2. Appalachian Agnostic

    Though it is sad, I am fascinated by the fact that you and Polly grew and changed your minds about things while the Hardmans were so sure they were right about everything in the first place that they stayed right where they were. I remember hearing a preacher brag about believing the same exact thing he believed thirty years before. I am not so sure this is a good attitude. It shuts down the learning process.

    It is inevitable that you would lose their friendship. You grew up while they didn’t. I have read some of Mrs. Hardman’s writings and I am surprised at how naive and childish she is. Yet she comes across as arrogant at the same time. I have many family members who I used to spend a lot of time with when we were all on the same religious page. Though I have many fond memories of that time, I know it could never be the same with them today. It is especially sad around the holidays. But I can’t force myself to go back and believe again in order to fit in and they probably aren’t going to all suddenly de-convert. It is best for us if we remain civil from a distance.

    Reply
  3. Daniel Wilcox

    Another insightful article. (Maybe you might put the best ones into a book:-)

    You wrote, “I have a younger brother and sister…how differently we each view events…Who is right? …we all are. The story we tell depends on where we were standing at the time.”

    There are other factors, too. For instance, temperament and values, (maybe even gender), make a huge difference. My younger sister has wonderful memories of all those huge Thanksgiving dinners my mother made over the years. She has copied our mother’s activities. Always busy on Thanksgiving, too busy even to make eye contact!

    In contrast, for me Thanksgiving (except for the concept of thankfulness, a good ethical action) was always a very negative experience. Just a lot of busyness and superficiality.

    The women were exhaustively busy all day cooking, table-setting, and then cleaning up and washing countless dishes, pots, and pans, etc. The men watched TV, some of them at about a near-dose level after that huge meal.

    I was the “Waldo,” the one who wanted instead for us to share deeply, for there to be much interaction, for us to experience closeness with relatives we rarely saw, and to grow closer to the ones we saw regularly but who were all too busy most of the year for quality time.

    Reply
  4. Karen the rock whisperer

    I remember a mystery novel (don’t ask for author or title, I read this long ago) where the protagonist solves old mysteries, egged on by a mysterious friend. The protagonist says something like, “how can this be solved after all this time?” And the mystery-friend replied with something to the effect of, “somethings become clearer with time.” That meant nothing to my 20-odd-year-old self reading the novel. But now, at 56, that means a heckuva lot.

    For example, I had a very difficult relationship with my mother. She was a wonderful woman, but our personalities were totally opposite. She thrived on security, rules, and comfort; I wanted freedom and new experiences. She was anxious; I’m laid back. She feared failure; I saw it (see it) as a learning experience. So it took me a very long time to appreciate her generosity, her kindness toward those who especially needed it, and her concern for people who had fallen off everyone else’s radar. In fact, I’m still coming to terms with our relationship, and she died in the last hours of 2002. Alas, I need that lapse of time to really appreciate her. I’m sad that I couldn’t be more gracious and accepting of her while she was alive; instead of being frustrated with her anxiety, maybe I could have been more helpful about finding common ground.

    But reevaluating my relationship with my mother and my father (who died in 2006) has made me a better person. I’m more sensitive to other people, and accepting of whatever baggage they carry, knowing that I carry my own share. And that, I think, is the value to reliving these memories — learning from them, and learning how to be a better person because of them. We only have a limited time to work on ourselves; if these help, they’re worth the pain… mostly.

    Reply
  5. Marja

    Great post. My father, who is one of the most thoughtful and nonjudgmental people I have ever met, always says “reality is what’s between your ears.”

    Reply
  6. Melody

    When I talk with my brother about our childhood, there are many things we remember differently and some that we remember more or less the same. It’s all a matter of perspective. I was the eldest, I was a girl: these things had quite some influence on where we stood and how we looked at things. My brother has much fonder memories of my grandfather than I have, for example, he was the first grandson and was doted on, whereas I was just a girl and an opinionated one at that… which wasn’t appreciated much.

    I do like it when we remember things the same though as it feels validating and helps me to know that I am not overreacting since he remembers it as well.

    Reply
  7. Dale

    Bruce, you saw the psychlogical and emotional manipulation for what it was and stopped doing it. Your contemporaries who are still preaching? You know by now they’re aware of how they manipulate their flock…yet they keep doing so. Maybe they are confident that God wants it that way. Most likely, they enjoy the power and the “rewards” that can be reaped (or raped, in Jack Schaap’s case….forgive me, all, if that offends; I couldn’t help it). Bruce, that’s proof that you truly are a man of integrity and I’m proud to know you. Proud, in spite of your support of THE Ohio State University football :-).

    Reply
  8. Carolyn

    Regarding brothers and sisters and how differently they view events: I am one of six children. I grew up in a household with three older sisters, a younger sister and a younger brother. My oldest sister grew up in a household wherein she had five younger siblings. My brother grew up in a household wherein he had five older sisters, etc. One’s birth position gives each person a perspective on life and on events that none of his or her siblings can entirely share (this from a mother of twins). And particularly, one’s age makes a great deal of difference in how one views a family event. Additionally, differing personalities can cause siblings to view events in different ways. A girl with an anxious personality can be much more affected by a family blow-up than is her more laid-back brother.

    Reply
  9. Cob

    Beautiful post

    Reply

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