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So, You Love Those Bears More Than You Love Jesus?

teddy angels

My former life as a Christian can best be described as passionate, committed, and devoted, yet at the same time be described as wild, chaotic, and ever-moving. Years ago, I read a passage in one of Thomas Merton’s books wherein he talked about how people often judged him based on his past and not on where he was presently. As a devoted follower of Jesus, I often experienced similar judgment. I was an ever-moving target, and people bent on judging me often did so based on the past and not where I was at the time. This happens even today. Evangelical critics will focus on a particular point on the timeline of my life and use my beliefs, practices, and experiences at that point in time to render judgment. This, of course, totally misrepresents my journey and leads to faulty conclusions. In particular, critics will focus on what they consider the AHA! point in my résumé; for example, I was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher. They think they have me right where they want me; however, I reply, yes, but I wasn’t always an IFB pastor. I left the IFB church and moved on to Calvinism, generic Evangelicalism, and then progressive Christianity. Always restless and moving — that best describes my life, even to this day.

I always envied Christians who were steady eddies; people whose Christian lives never changed or moved. Of course, I couldn’t understand such staid living. Weren’t we to always challenge ourselves with the teachings of the Bible and be sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Ghost? Weren’t we supposed to follow the promptings and directions of God’s Spirit? Why did it seem that God was ALWAYS leading me to take up my cross and follow him or sell all that I have and give it to the poor, but he never seemed to be leading my colleagues in the ministry to do the same? Why was I willing to do without to advance the kingdom of God, yet most of the Christians I knew weren’t willing to do the same? I often wondered why I seemed to be on a spiritual wavelength different from that of most Christians, including men who labored in God’s vineyard.

I believed, for many years, that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, and that its words were to be read, meditated over, and obeyed. The Bible wasn’t a book of suggestions. Yes, it was a book that spoke of God’s grace, but it also had hundreds of laws, commands, and precepts Christians were commanded by God to follow. I never viewed these commands as optional. The Bible — at least to me — was clear: Do THIS and thou shalt live. Obedience led to life eternal, and disobedience led to God’s chastisement or Hell. Passage after passage in the Bible talked about the importance of following Jesus’ steps and keeping his commandments. Solomon, in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes, summed up the whole duty of man this way: Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. Jesus himself summed up the laws of God this way in Matthew 22:36-40:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

These verses described my heart’s desire: love God with all my heart, soul, and mind and love my neighbor as myself. I thought, at the time, these verses are in every Christian’s Bible, yet why do so few Christians take them seriously? By the way, I STILL wonder about this to this day. Most Christians live lives indistinguishable from those of atheists, agnostics, humanists, pagans, and the adherents of religions deemed false by Evangelicals. Outside of what they do between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and noon on Sundays, there’s very little difference between saints and sinners.

When it came to material things, Jesus said:

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:21)

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

These words come from a passage of Scripture (Matthew 5-7) commonly called The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gathered his disciples on a mountainside and taught them what it meant to be his followers; what would be required of them if they were to follow the Lamb of God whithersoever he goeth. I believed then, and still do, that Christianity and the world would be better served if the followers of Jesus actually read and practiced the teachings found in Christ’s hillside sermon.

I am in no way trying to paint myself as once having been a perfect Christian. As this story will later show, I ended up living a life no different from most Christians. I was far from perfect, daily breaking the commands of Christ in thought, word, and deed. That said, I couldn’t help but notice the difference between how I lived my life and how most other Christians lived theirs.

In the late 1990s, I felt convicted over what I perceived was my materialism and that of my family. Hell was hot, souls were lost, and people were dying, and I believed God wanted me to do more to reach the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. Thanks to my oldest two sons, who were living at home at the time and paying rent, along with Polly working at a local manufacturing concern, and me drawing a modest salary from the church, the Gerencser family was starting to take on the look of a typical middle-class midwestern Evangelical family. There were four cars in the drive, a TV in the living room and master bedroom, a computer in the office, and newer furniture in the living room. Polly and I were able to take our first vacation since the 1980s — without the children. We had money to go out on dates, buy clothing/shoes, and enjoy a bit of the American dream. But, thanks to Jesus and his teachings, I became increasingly uncomfortable with our way of living. I thought, how can we live this way when there are billions of people in the world who don’t know Jesus? What kind of example was I to the church and other Christians? These questions and others began eating at me, and soon I believed that God want me (us) to embrace simplicity and frugality, giving our excess money to the church, missionaries, and other groups who were engaged in building churches, evangelizing the lost, and ministering to the poor. I began selling off things I thought I didn’t need: firearms, hundreds of books, electronic equipment, and an extensive collection of political memorabilia from the 1960s and 1970s given to me by my political junkie mother (letters from notable politicians and campaign buttons/literature.) I dutifully and happily sold these goods and gave them to the Lord’s work. I was gladly willing to do without for the sake of the gospel. Only one life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last, went the Evangelical mantra.

One night, I gathered up all the things I had collected over the years from the various churches I pastored, including sermon notes and tapes, and set them on fire in the backyard. In my mind, this was me setting fire to the past and telling God I was ready to be used by him in any way he saw fit. I sure wish I had these things today!

Little did I know that this time, my wife wasn’t willing to join me in suffering for Jesus.

polly gerencser late 1990s
Polly Gerencser, late 1990s, carrying water from the creek to flush the toilets. An ice storm had knocked out the power.

Polly loves collectible bears. As our finances improved, I started buying Polly Teddy Angel bears for her birthday, our wedding anniversary, and other special days. As my great sell-off continued, I noticed Polly wasn’t joining me in giving a burnt offer to God. We had a few “discussions” — Greek for Bruce talking and Polly listening — about her unwillingness to forsake all and follow Jesus. I specifically mentioned her bears. One day, after yet another round of eBay listings and nothing given to the cause by Polly, I said to her, “So, you love those bears more than you love Jesus?” “No, I really do love Jesus,” Polly replied. “It’s just that some of these bears have sentimental value.”  I asked, “what bears, then, don’t have sentimental value?” One by one, I picked up the bears and asked, “This one? This one?” I learned that almost every bear had a story: “Mom gave this to me for my birthday, you gave this to me for Valentine’s Day, you gave this to me with a letter that told me you loved me.” In what would be one of the greatest regrets of my married life, I badgered Polly — in Jesus’s name, of course — into selling many of her bears, regaling her with stories about what would be accomplished with the money gained from their sale. With tears in her eyes, Polly gathered up half of her bears and gave them to me to sell. I remember saying, “see that wasn’t so hard!”

Brutal, I know, but if I am going to tell my story honestly and openly, I must tell it warts and all. Quite honestly, I am embarrassed to even write this post. All I can visualize is the love of my life crying over giving up her bears. She had few things to call her own (as did I) in our married life, yet here I was asking (demanding) that she give up reminders of some of the happy times in her life. Gifts were few and far in between for both of us. We didn’t buy each other Christmas gifts, so, for Polly, all the gifts she had from me were bears, Fenton glass, and other collectibles. They were small tokens of love, yet each carried great meaning for Polly. I grossly underestimated how much these things meant to her. At the time, I saw her attachment to these things as a sign of love for the world; an unwillingness to forsake all and follow Jesus.

This phase of my life would pass, never to return. I finally realized that I was standing alone on this matter, and that every other Christian I knew was busy pursuing houses, lands, cars, and material wealth. I realized while still a Christian that I had been a fool; that I had sacrificed my health and financial security, and to what end? Hell was still hot, souls were still lost, and people were dying. Bible verses that spoke of laying up treasure in heaven no longer satiated my spiritual desires. I wanted the lives other people had, as did Polly and our children. I became, I suppose, just another preacher who loved Jesus, but also loved the good life.

I left the ministry in 2005, and left Christianity in 2008. Since decoupling from Christianity, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the religious and psychological forces that led me to a life of servitude, self-denial, and poverty; that led me to demand that my wife and children follow in my steps. Had I been single, the only harm caused would been to self, but as a married man with six children, I harmed those I loved and cared for the most. There are not enough lifetimes left for me to apologize for the harm I caused to Polly and our children. I now know that I spent much of my life serving a myth; and that my sacrifices and voluntary poverty accomplished almost nothing. I say almost, because I know the money and material goods I gave to the poor, sick, hungry, and homeless helped them, so my giving had some effect, but all in all, my life of devotion to Jesus was “a waste of time, money, and talent” — to use the line oft recited by Baptist preachers when trying to goad congregants into doing more for Jesus. I pissed away tens of thousands of dollars, and even more when not-taken salary is added in. As with all past misdeeds, there’s nothing I can do to undo them. The past is the past. All I can do is learn from past mistakes, pass what I have learned on to others, and spend what life I have left living one hell of a hedonistic, sinful life — that’s sarcasm, by the way, for the Evangelical dullards who happen upon this post.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar

    I know the feeling, my friend; I’m so sorry for your regrets & I agree, there can never be enough lifetimes to make up for our religious madness, all we can do is try & move forward & make it up to those we love as best we can

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    mary g

    sorry for the regrets. we all have them,esp. about what we did in the name of religion. I don’t know if mom and dad regret or not, they seem to be drinking more deeply of the koolaid. I regret the harshness w/my kids in the name of jesus, thank goodness it only lasted a short time when they were very young. however, I still lay awake at night w/the bad memories in my mind. but all we have is now and what we can attempt make of our futures. we are always working to improve ours and kids futures. hopefully we can all educate the next generation about the evils of religion and let it fade out of existence.

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    I’m so sorry–this is a heartbreaking account. Things with sentimental value can never be truly replaced. The worst part is realizing all your sacrifice was unnecessary. But I am sure you have done all you could to make up for it ever since coming to your senses!

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    Becky Wiren

    It’s hard and I’m sorry. And poor Polly! But you now have a life where you give comfort to those who need what you offer. It matters.

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    This is heartbreaking. You were doing exactly what the story of the sermon on the mount told you to do, and honestly, you are correct that most Christians talk the talk but don’t walk the walk. For better or worse, you did. Polly and your kids probably forgive you after all these years. Interestingly, I was just in the bible belt this past week and was thinking about some of these issues – how so many Christians don’t live at Jesus commanded yet want to force their morality on others through legislation.

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      Becky Wiren

      Hey OC…I have family members in the South and I have no doubt they voted for Trump. And some of them I knew to be what we would consider loving Christians. They think of me as a northern liberal heretic anyway and I think my aunt’s heart is broken over my non-Christian beliefs.

      I also have a Christian friend here up north who is a Trump supporter. I refuse to talk about politics with her, as I don’t believe she is able to think outside the Trump box at all. So my aunt and my friend are what I would’ve considered Biblical literalists, and look where it’s led them. Funny enough, I have some other very good Christian friends who are Biblical literalists (creationists etc) who are anti-Trump, strongly so. But that denomination is worldwide instead of confined to the US. So they are more accepting of the brown people in the US.

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    Julie Snider

    Just to let you know, Bruce, that I appreciate your candor & do so enjoy reading your blog. Your frank honesty is refreshing.

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    This is hard. Truth is a bugger, sometimes, but your laying bare these regrets makes for a good lesson for everyone.
    The brainwashing is real and it’s, as you said, bad enough when it’s just one person. But the fact you did this to Polly and your family is something that you probably will never rectify. They DO love you and you ARE regretful and apologetic. In the scheme of things, what you required of them is nominal. Honestly!
    Thank you, Bruce.

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    Gerencser, you were a miserable creep preacher, worse than my preacher father and a big Kool-aid garbage can for Jesus! You were merciless because you listened to your heart as the good book trained you through the years. You wanted to suffer and you spread suffering to those near and far. Evangelicals reading this post will lament that you are so lost now that you think you did wrong when in fact you were on the one true path to eternal life! If you had gone further, you might have killed your own family to save them just as was done in the Crusades by God’s faithful servants. You were the real deal, Gerencser. I have seen a few others in my life who make me sick to my stomach just the way you do when you talk of what occurred in your family, the abuse, the outright abuse done to obey the Law you felt you had a special hold on. What a shit you were. There is no other way to say it. I could go on about your own early family history and draw certain parallels to it that might suggest you were set up to harm yourself and others but you already know the drill because you have been in therapy and begun to face who you are, who you have been. I am thankful to know you have that support now.
    By the way, I was on the same shithead team as you were for years and harmed those near to me in like fashion. I drank long and deep from poison Jesus and tried to follow the evangelical suicide that was trained into me. I could easily take out each instance of your name in my post here and insert my own regarding the harm I did. It is so hard to sit and admit completely and utterly how duped I was and what an easy mark I became for the abuse that followed in prayer and deed. It humbles, to say the least.
    I admire you, Bruce. You are a brave man. It always amazes me and verily I say, confirms my lack of belief, when Christ-ites come after you with such zeal. They use their perception of you to hack at themselves and prove how right they are with God. They ‘prey’ for you and go haywire.They exhibit the peace that passeth understanding and truly, truly as they spray their venom/knowledge at you, they are loving you as they love themselves. For if you choose to harm yourself with excessive belief systems, how can you not harm others too? Hate your neighbor as you hate yourself is every bit as true at ground level (action in thought and deed) as love your neighbor as yourself.
    Thank-you, Bruce, I think your candor is admirable and for me, healing.

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    Wayne Beamer

    Bruce: I echo Brian’s comments. This is the best blog you’ve written in a very long time. You’re so lucky to have Polly. Much love and forgiveness to you and yours… Wayne

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    Yulya Sevelova

    This was quite a post here. So many of us have regrets regarding where belief in Jesus has led us in the decisions we made, or thought we were required to make. You came to in time though, and apologized to your family for that Fundy damage with the bears. Lots of people never reach that point. I am surprised that the church organization heads never paid a living wage to you though ! Out in California they sure do. $100,00 a year is routine annual salary, along with housing and other perks. That said, your sincerity in giving away what you could to the kingdom is so rare here in America and the West. Christianity is just too materialistic and power -mad. It’s not enough to be middle-class. This is why there’s so much affinity fraud in the churches, real estate being the greatest target, and a way to launder money. Out here this is a common occurrence. A lot of lives, and faith, as casualties. As in deaths, and stolen property ! There’s a source for the Black Collar Crime series right there, lol.

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    Ah, yes, so hedonistic. I remember going back to reading fiction as a Christian, you know, romantic and/scifi fiction. Biographies. Historical fiction. Reading fiction was kind of frowned on by my church. In the end, there was no way I could stay in a Christian church (like most) where a person is supposed to close off their mind. I needed to read. But it did make an opening that led me into greater rationality.

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    Thank you for sharing. Recently I reflected on 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 and Matthew 6:19-21 concluding that I spend a lot of money on my comic and book collections, realizing that it will certainly burn one day if the moths don’t destroy it or thieves steal it before the fire consume it. Yet, I treasure it. Ugh.

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    This has to be one of the most heartbreaking posts you have written. It’s full of self-awareness and insight as you reckon with how your actions affected yourself and those you love.❤

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    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, if you didn’t already have my respect and admiration, this post would have garnered it.

    On one hand, I wish that your devotion to a myth didn’t cost you and your family so much, not only materially. On the other hand, your account of your years “in service to the Lord” and what you’ve done since show two of your essential character traits: caring and commitment. They can be a person’s downfall but they can be (if you’ll pardon a Christian-ism) your saving grace.

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    Jeff Brown

    Wow, this was as difficult to read as it was difficult for you to write. I know I was probably one of the undedicated Christians you described. I know we NEVER gave 10% of our income to the churches we attended. Personal gain and buying the things we wanted were more important. I know your sweet Polly has forgiven you and your marriage is now stronger than ever. I wish you both well in your life together.

    Love you guys!

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    “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
    Muhammad Ali
    Don’t envy the “Steady Eddies”, pity them.

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