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Category: Family

Bruce, the Fixer

fix it man

Earlier today, my good friend Brian Vanderlip said:

Hey Bruce, Practice resting and see if you can beat me at it! I have this theory that all those damaged by the fundy virus are unable to relax without guilt making it impossible to sustain or nearly so. I sit and read for a while and then get up because I feel guilty… Just for taking it easy with a book! That guilt-free time of rest and reading is what I wish for you, my friend, and the strength to venture forth with your camera. Pope Brian has absolved you of your ignorant disdain for cheese with burgers and your foolish nonsense about toilet paper rolls being hung any old which way. (Comment on the post Living with Fibromyalgia.)

Brian is the son of an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher, and, much like myself, a crusty curmudgeon. I love Brian’s numerous turns of phrase, while at the same time making thoughtful points and observations.

In today’s post, I want to build on what Brian said about how our former religious beliefs and practices made it almost impossible to rest; that attempts to rest and relax often brought feelings of guilt. Spend decades and decades in such an unhealthy environment, and it leaves deep, lasting psychological scars. Even after divorcing Jesus and walking (running) away from Evangelical Christianity, some of us have trouble getting away from the pathological need to be perpetual motion machines. In my case, I spent my life fixing things that were broke: churches, marriages, and relationships. When I was looking for a new church to pastor, why was I so drawn to dysfunctional churches that would require herculean efforts to fix? I hope to answer this question and others in this post.

One question that comes to mind, at least for me, is how much obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) plays a central part in my restless need to fix things. Was I always this way? Did my staunch Fundamentalist Baptist upbringing fuel my OCPD? I am not sure I can adequately answer these questions. All I know for certain is that from my teen years forward I’ve been a restless person, always looking for the next conquest. I can look back over my life and it is not hard to see a man who was a wanderer, someone who was never satisfied. Of course, it was my religion that taught me to never be satisfied with self. I was taught and then taught others that we sinned daily in thought, words, and deeds. There could never be a good day, a sin-free day, a day when I felt that Jesus wasn’t lurking around the corner, ready to punish me for my indiscretions and failures. Even as a Calvinist — a sect that speaks much of and glories in God’s grace — I never had a day where I felt that everything between me and Jesus was a-okay. Calvinism is inherently a works-based religion. True Christians® must persevere until the end to be saved, and even then God could say to you, “HA! the jokes on you! You never were one of the elect. It’s Hell for you, buddy.”

As a pastor, I believed most Christians were quite lazy. How dare they fritter their lives away while there was work to do building the Kingdom of God. Hell is hot and Jesus is coming soon, I thought at the time. How dare we lounge around and relax while there were souls to save! So I was quite driven to labor in God’s vineyard. Didn’t Jesus say:

I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work. (John 9:4)

I suspect my personality made it easy for me to work myself to death serving Jesus. I carried the same work ethic into my secular employment. I worked hard, never missed work, and rarely took days off. I was drawn to management jobs that allowed to me to work, work, work. For many years, between my church and secular employment, it was not uncommon for me to work 60+ hours a week. Polly not-so-fondly remembers the days when I would go to work in the morning, come home, shower, and head for the church, returning late at night. Day in day out; six, often seven days a week. I am not looking for a medal here (or condemnation). I recognize that my driven personality caused harm to my family, and materially affected my health. But, you can’t understand the man Bruce Gerencser without understanding what I have shared thus far.

This behavior when on for decades. The churches I pastored loved me because I was willing to be a full-time pastor while working a full-time job outside of the church. Churches loved my passion and zeal, my commitment and devotion. And I did it all for Jesus. Well, that and the fact that I really craved being busy. I was, in every way, a textbook workaholic. It certainly wasn’t for the money. Our family made more in 2020 than I made in eleven years pastoring Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. Now don’t read too much into that. It’s not that we are well off. We’re not. It just that the churches I pastored didn’t pay well, and not one church I pastored provided insurance or retirement. I don’t blame these churches, per se. After all, I was the CEO. Why didn’t I ask for (demand) a better salary and benefits? On the other hand, why did the deacons/church board/congregants never raise the issue and demand the church take better care of its preacher?

Truth be told, I would have worked for free. I was so in love with Jesus and the work of the ministry that I practically took a vow of poverty. When the churches I pastored had money problems, I was first in line to say, “don’t worry about it. Just don’t pay me this week.” Of course, I never thought I would be a broken-down sixty-three-year-old man unable to work. Choices made decades ago have now extracted their due in the sunset years of my life.

Since how much money I was to be paid was never the object for me, I focused on the work of the ministry: preaching, teaching, evangelizing, street preaching, teaching Christian school students, cutting firewood, shoveling snow, working on church vehicles, remodeling church buildings, and daily ministering to the needs of church members. My motto? Better to burn out than rust out.

Over the course of twenty-five years, I pastored/worked for seven churches. My pastorates were either long in tenure, or quite short: 8 months, 2 1/2 years, 11 years, 7 months, 7 months, 7 years, and 7 months. (What was it about the number seven, right?) What I do know is that I wasn’t very good at determining “God’s will for my life.” I have always had a hard time saying no. Take my short time at Victory Baptist Church in Clare, Michigan — a now-defunct Southern Baptist congregation. After I sent my resume out to Southern Baptist area missionaries, it was only a matter of days before my phone was ringing off the hook — calls from churches looking for a pastor. I was thirty-five years old at the time, with three children still at home. And, my wife played the piano, and both of us sang special music. Woo hoo! Just what churches were looking for! You would think that I carefully considered each of the 15+ churches that contacted me. Surely, I did that, right? Sadly, I did not. Victory Baptist was the first church that contacted me. First come, first served.

We traveled to Clare and I preached for the church one Sunday. Nice people. Friendly. But, oh my God, dysfunction was on display everywhere I looked. I should have run away, but instead, I agreed to come back and preach for them again in two weeks. Afterward, the church asked me to become their pastor (and the former pastor remained in the church). I should have said no. Everything in Polly’s reaction said to me, “just say no, Bruce.” But I ignored my intuition and my smart and sensible wife, choosing instead to come and “help” these really, really nice people. Victory Baptist was a church I was sure I could “fix.”

While the church had its largest attendance while I was their pastor, seven months later I was out the door. My idea of what the church needed to do to grow and prosper was very different from that of the entrenched, indolent power base. The former pastor’s wife said in a public business meeting before I left, “Bruce, your vision for the church was never our vision.” I warned the church that I would not fight with them, but they wanted to fight anyway, so I resigned. THE issue? Toys in the nursery. Toys in the nursery? Yep. A long-time member of the church hauled into the nursery a bunch of outside yard toys, many of which were dangerous for toddlers. I told her it was not a good idea and removed them. (Our insurance agent would have told her the same thing.) Livid, she took the matter to the deacons. Three days later, we were sitting back in Ohio. Not one church member said goodbye or helped us load our moving truck. This would be the last church I pastored. I was done.

Underneath the story of my life courses a restlessness that drives me to work, work, work. No time for rest, not because of God or some sort of divine calling, but because it’s who I am. I am happy to report that I do rest and relax more now than I ever have. Good news, right? Progress. Not really. You see, my health problems are what have forced me to take it easy. I don’t want to, but I really have no choice. That is, IF I want to live. So, I crawl kicking and screaming to the couch, fretting over what I call the tyranny of the to-do list. Every week and month I get farther and farther behind. Maybe I just need to set my to-do list on fire! Problem solved.

I have, in the past year, rediscovered my love for Lionel O-Gauge electric trains. With the help of two of my sons and Polly, I am building a layout in one of our unused bedrooms. And I promise — I really, really do — that once this is done, I am going to rest.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Short Stories: The Missing Hammer

hammer

From 1983-1994, I pastored the Somerset Baptist Church in Mt. Perry, Ohio. After meeting for two years in several rented buildings in Somerset, we purchased an abandoned, brick United Methodist Church five miles east of town. Cost? $5,000.

The sanctuary was built in 1831, and a flat roof annex was built in the 1960s. Both buildings were in horrible states of disrepair. I spent the next ten years repairing and remodeling the buildings, as did some church members and my three oldest sons. Rarely did a week go by when we weren’t working on one of the buildings. Keep in mind, I had ZERO construction skills, so I was learning on the job — everything from plumbing to electrical work to tarring a flat roof to framing walls.

In 1989, I purchased a broken-down 12’x60′ mobile home for my family and me to live in. I parked it 50 feet from the church sanctuary. Think about that for a moment: 720 square feet for a family of eight. I had to do all sorts of building projects to make the mobile home fit for us to live in. Again, I had to learn on the job, as did my sons.

At the time, we had a Sears credit card. When I needed tools — and it seemed I always needed tools — I bought Sears’ Craftsman tools. One such purchase was the hammer pictured above. I loved this hammer. Well-balanced, perfect for my use.

One day, my favorite hammer disappeared. I looked and looked and looked for the hammer, without success. I was fairly certain that one of my sons had “borrowed” the hammer and left it “somewhere.” Of course, no one confessed to the crime. I ended up having to buy a new hammer.

Years later, on a crisp fall day, my sons and several church boys were raking leaves along the back fence of the cemetery. As was typical back in the day, the boys burned the leaves. One of my sons decided to help the fire along with gasoline. This quickly turned the leaves into a raging fire, burning all the leaves along the fence line. Fortunately, the fire didn’t jump to our neighbors farm field.

After the fire died down and was extinguished, guess what showed up? My hammer — surprisingly unscathed by the fire. “Someone” had left my hammer in the weeds along the fence line, and there it lay until the fire.

I still use this hammer, and I am always reminded of the fire when I do. I suspect after I am dead and gone that my oldest sons will battle over who gets the hammer. Such memories . . . And maybe, just maybe someone will confess to leaving the hammer in the weeds.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce, Are Your Wife and Children Atheists?

gerencser family 2018

Bob asks:

I had been wondering about this question and since you touched on it in this blog I wanted to ask, and it is about your wife’s stand on Christianity in general and her standing today for herself.

You mention that she walked away from church when you did. So my questions are:

Has she turned towards atheism as well? If she did, was it at the same time as you or later on?

If she did turn away from Christianity, how much of an influence were you with her denying her faith in Christ?

If she has become an atheist, doesn’t it seem odd that two completely committed Christians in the same family like this would just walk away and become atheists? I can see one, but I think the odds of two would be very high. I’m thinking this only because of the depth of commitments people make to their Christian faith. Walk away from church? Yes. But both turn to atheism?

These questions are only being asked if she has become an atheist.

Also, where do your kids stand with Christianity at this point?

Typically, I don’t answer questions about what my wife and children believe about God/Jesus/Christianity/Atheism. This blog is simply one man with a story to tell. Where the lives of my family intersect with the telling of my story, I am comfortable writing about them. However, when it comes to what they specifically believe and how they live out those beliefs, I leave it to Polly and our children to tell their own stories. And the same goes for me too when they are asked about or confronted over something I have said or written. My family has been accosted at work, college, and while shopping by Christian zealots demanding that they answer for something I have written on this blog or for the local newspaper. Typically, my family tells such people that they don’t answer for me, and the best way to get their questions answered is to contact me directly.

That said, I would like to briefly answer Bob’s questions.

Yes, Polly and I walked away from Christianity together. This should come as no surprise since Polly and I have been doing virtually everything together for the past forty-four years. We not only love one another, we also really like each other, 98.9 percent of the time, anyway (inside joke).

We have been married for more than forty-two years. I can count on two hands the days we have been apart from one another. While each of us has hobbies and the like that the other isn’t interested in, for the most part we have shared interests. Polly is my best friend. Why would I want to spend time with anyone else? Our marriage certainly isn’t perfect. Stick around for a fight and you’ll think we really don’t like each other. However, disagreements quickly come and go, and then we sit down, eat dinner, drink a glass of wine, and watch whatever TV show is currently our favorite. The Bible says to not let the sun go down on your wrath, and we have practiced this maxim for almost five decades.

Thus, when we began to seriously question the central claims of Christianity, we spent countless hours talking about our beliefs and the Bible. I would read passages from books and we would discuss what I had read. While I certainly read a lot more books than Polly did — which has, until recent years, always been the case — she did a good bit of reading herself.

Our discussions were honest, open, and forthright. No demands were made of the other. Neither of us, at first, knew exactly where we were headed. We knew that we were done with organized Christianity, but the future remained volatile and uncertain.

A week or so after we left the Ney United Methodist Church, we gathered our children together to talk with them about where we were in life. Remember, our six children were raised in a devout Evangelical Christian home. Their father and mother had been in the ministry their entire lives. Their father was the only pastor they had ever known. When we told our children that we were leaving Christianity, they were aghast over what that meant. I had been the family patriarch. Our children never had the freedom to decide whether or not to go to church. It was expected. Now they were being told that there were no expectations; that they were free to go to church, not go to church, worship God, not worship God, etc. In other words, I cut my children loose from their ties to their patriarchal father (though our three oldest sons had already begun to move away from the control I had over their lives).

I must admit that those first few months after this meeting were difficult, as our children tried to imagine life for their parents post-Jesus. Twelve years later, I wish I could say that all these difficulties are gone, but there remains some tension over my outspokenness on matters of God, Bible, and faith. While my family is happy to be free of the family patriarch, some of them don’t seem to want to grant their mother and me the same freedom. Such is the tension that will always be there when a family is an admixture of religious beliefs and unbelief.

In early 2009, I sent out the widely circulated letter, Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. Here’s what I wrote:

Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners,

I have come to a place in life where I can no longer put off writing this letter. I have dreaded this day because I know what is likely to follow after certain people receive it. I have decided I can’t control how others will react to this letter, so it is far more important to clear the air and make sure everyone knows the facts about Bruce Gerencser.

I won’t bore you with a long, drawn out history of my life. I am sure each of you has an opinion about how I have lived my life and the decisions I have made. I also have an opinion about how I have lived my life and decisions I made. I am my own worst critic.

Religion, in particular Baptist Evangelical and Fundamentalist religion, has been the essence of my life, from my youth up. My being is so intertwined with religion that the two are quite inseparable. My life has been shaped and molded by religion and religion touches virtually every fiber of my being.

I spent most of my adult life pastoring churches, preaching, and being involved in religious work to some degree or another. I pastored thousands of people over the years, preached thousands of sermons, and participated in, and led, thousands of worship services.

To say that the church was my life would be an understatement.  As I have come to see, the Church was actually my mistress, and my adulterous affair with her was at the expense of my wife, children, and my own self-worth.

Today, I am publicly announcing that the affair is over. My wife and children have known this for a long time, but now everyone will know.

The church robbed me of so much of my life and I have no intention of allowing her to have one more moment of my time. Life is too short. I am dying. We all are. I don’t want to waste what is left of my life chasing after things I now see to be vain and empty.

I have always been known as a reader, a student of the Bible. I have read thousands of books in my lifetime and the knowledge gained from my reading and studies have led me to some conclusions about religion, particularly the Fundamentalist, Evangelical religion that played such a prominent part in my life.

I can no longer wholeheartedly embrace the doctrines of the Evangelical, Fundamentalist faith. Particularly, I do not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture nor do I accept as fact the common Evangelical belief of the inspiration of Scripture.

Coming to this conclusion has forced me to reevaluate many of the doctrines I have held as true over these many years. I have concluded that I have been misinformed, poorly taught, and sometimes lied to. I can no longer accept as true many of the doctrines I once believed.

I point the finger of blame at no one. I sincerely believed and taught the things that I did and many of the men who taught me were honorable teachers. I don’t blame those who have influenced me over the years, nor do I blame the authors of the many books I have read. Simply, it is what it is.

I have no time to invest in the blame game. I am where I am today for any number of reasons and I must embrace where I am and move forward.

In moving forward, I have stopped attending church. I have not attended a church service since November of 2008. I have no interest of desire in attending any church on a regular basis. This does not mean I will never attend a church service again, but it does mean, for NOW, I have no intention of attending church services.

I pastored for the last time in 2003. Almost six years have passed by. I have no intentions of ever pastoring again. When people ask me about this I tell them I am retired. With the health problems that I have it is quite easy to make an excuse for not pastoring, but the fact is I don’t want to pastor.

People continue to ask me “what do you believe?” Rather than inquiring about how my life is, the quality of that life, etc., they reduce my life to what I believe. Life becomes nothing more than a set of religious constructs. A good life becomes believing the right things.

I can tell you this…I believe God is…and that is the sum of my confession of faith.

A precursor to my religious views changing was a seismic shift in my political views. My political views were so entangled with Fundamentalist beliefs that when my political views began to shift, my Fundamentalist beliefs began to unravel.

I can better describe my political and social views than I can my religious ones. I am a committed progressive, liberal Democrat, with the emphasis being on the progressive and liberal. My evolving views on women, abortion, homosexuality, war, socialism, social justice, and the environment have led me to the progressive, liberal viewpoint.

I know some of you are sure to ask, what does your wife think of all of this? Quite surprisingly, she is in agreement with me on many of these things. Not all of them, but close enough that I can still see her standing here. Polly is no theologian, She is not trained in theology as I am. She loves to read fiction. I was able to get her to read Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus and she found the book to be quite an eye opener.

Polly is free to be whomever and whatever she wishes. If she wants to start attending the local Fundamentalist Baptist church she is free to do so, and even has my blessing. For now, she doesn’t.  She may never believe as I believe, but in my new way of thinking that is OK. I really don’t care what others think. Are you happy? Are you at peace? Are you living a good, productive life? Do you enjoy life? Yes, to these questions is good enough for me.

I have six children, three of whom are out on their own. For many years I was the spiritual patriarch of the family. Everyone looked to me for the answers. I feel somewhat burdened over my children. I feel as if I have left them out on their own with no protection. But, I know they have good minds and can think and reason for themselves. Whatever they decide about God, religion, politics, or American League baseball is fine with me.

All I ask of my wife and children is that they allow me the freedom to be myself, that they allow me to journey on in peace and love. Of course, I still love a rousing discussion about religion, the Bible, politics, etc. I want my family to know that they can talk to me about these things, and anything else for that matter, any time they wish.

Opinions are welcome. Debate is good. All done? Let’s go to the tavern and have a round on me. Life is about the journey, and I want my wife and children to be a part of my journey and I want to be a part of theirs.

One of the reasons for writing this letter is to put an end to the rumors and gossip about me. Did you know Bruce is/or is not_____________? Did you know Bruce believes____________? Did you know Bruce is a universalist, agnostic, atheist, liberal ___________?

For you who have been friends or former parishioners I apologize to you if my change has unsettled you, or has caused you to question your own faith. That was never my intent.

The question is, what now?

Family and friends are not sure what to do with me.

I am still Bruce. I am still married. I am still your father, father in-law, grandfather, brother, uncle, nephew, cousin, and son-in-law. I would expect you to love me as I am and treat me with respect.

Here is what I don’t want from you:

Attempts to show me the error of my way. Fact is, I have studied the Bible and read far more books than many of you. What do you really think you are going to show me that will be so powerful and unknown that it will cause me to return to the religion and politics of my past?

Constant reminders that you are praying for me. Please don’t think of me as unkind, but I don’t care that you are praying for me. I find no comfort, solace, or strength from your prayers. Be my friend if you can, pray if you must, but leave the prayers in the closet. As long as God gets your prayer message, that will be sufficient.

Please don’t send me books, tracts, or magazines. You are wasting your time and money.

Invitations to attend your Church. The answer is NO. Please don’t ask. I used to attend Church for the sake of family, but no longer. It is hypocritical for me to perform a religious act of worship just for the sake of family. I know how to find a Church if I am so inclined, after all I have visited more than 125 churches since 2003.

Offers of a church to pastor. It is not the lack of a church to pastor that has led me to where I am. If I would lie about what I believe, I could be pastoring again in a matter of weeks. I am not interested in ever pastoring a church again.

Threats about judgment and Hell. I don’t believe in either, so your threats have no impact on me .

Phone calls. If you are my friend you know I don’t like talking on the phone. I have no interest in having a phone discussion about my religious or political views.

Here is what I do want from you:

I want you to unconditionally love me where I am and how I am.

That’s it.

Now I realize some (many) of you won’t be able to do that. My friendship, my familial relationship with you is cemented with the glue of Evangelical orthodoxy. Remove the Bible, God, and fidelity to a certain set of beliefs and there is no basis for a continued relationship.

I understand that. I want you to know I have appreciated and enjoyed our friendship over the years. I understand that you can not be my friend any more. I even understand you may have to publicly denounce me and warn others to stay away from me for fear of me contaminating them with my heresy. Do what you must. We had some wonderful times together and I will always remember those good times.

You are free from me if that is your wish.

I shall continue to journey on. I can’t stop. I must not stop.

Thank you for reading my letter.

Bruce

This letter, of course, caused a firestorm of epic proportions, one that is burning to this day. My life and career went up in smoke, with countless Evangelical friends, family members, and colleagues in the ministry, standing on the sidelines cheering as I burned.

As you can tell from the letter, I still believed in some sort of deity — a deistic God, perhaps? However, by the end of 2009, I was calling myself an atheist. Polly, on the other hand, embraced agnosticism. Her reasons for leaving Christianity are very different from mine, but that story is hers to tell.

I read in Bob’s question an accusation of sorts, one I have heard countless times: that Polly doesn’t think for herself; that’s she is an unbeliever today because I am. Out of all the things that people have said about us over the past twelve years, this by far is the most offensive (and perhaps Bob didn’t mean to be offensive, so I am going give him the benefit of the doubt). For the record, Polly is a college-educated woman. She graduated second in her high school class. To suggest that she is a lemming following in my footsteps is absurd. Granted, Polly is quiet and reserved, and I am not. This fact might lead people to false conclusions. Here’s what I know: Polly knows exactly why she no longer believes in the Christian God. Her reasons for deconverting are somewhat different from mine, but she is far more hostile towards organized religion than I am. Again, perhaps she will share why this is so someday.

We have six children and thirteen grandchildren. Currently, one of our sons attends a Fundamentalist Baptist church, one son attends the Catholic church with his family, and the rest of our children are largely indifferent towards religion. I suspect the NONE label best describes them. While none of our children has publicly said they are an agnostic or an atheist, they are certainly anti-Evangelical and generally adverse to the machinations of American Christianity. Politically, outside of the son who attends a Fundamentalist Baptist church, our children are progressives and liberals, with a smidge of conservatism and libertarianism stirred in. This is as specific as I can be without trampling on their right to control their own storyline. I respect the boundaries we have set, and if one of them ever decided to tell their story, I hope they will let me publish it here.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Short Stories: 1978: Our First Christmas

bruce and polly gerencser 1978
Bruce and Polly Gerencser, in front of first apartment in Pontiac, Michigan, Fall 1978 with Polly’s Grandfather and Parents

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

On a hot summer day in July of 1978, a young, naïve couple recited their wedding vows, and with a kiss for luck, they were on their way. Little did they understand that they really didn’t know each other as well as they thought they did. Young love, also known as mutual infatuation, will do that, obscuring flaws in your one and only.

Polly and I were college freshmen at Midwestern Baptist College when we started dating in September 1976. Five months later, with a 1/4 carat, $225 engagement ring in hand from Sears and Roebuck, I asked Polly to marry me. She enthusiastically said yes. Polly was 18 and I was 19.

We had grand plans: 3 kids, a house with a white picket fence, and a lifelong pastorate in a nice, quiet rural community. As with all such fantasies, reality proved to be quite different from what we expected. It didn’t take long for each of us to see that being married to the other was not quite what we expected.

Several months before our July wedding, we rented an upstairs apartment on Premont Avenue in Waterford Township (Pontiac) Michigan. Our apartment had four rooms: a living room, bathroom, bedroom and kitchen. The walls were freshly painted. The living room floor had recently been covered with green and white shag carpeting. (I would later come home from school to find a discolored, brown stain on the carpet. Polly had spilled her tea and used bleach to remove the spot.)

After classes ended in May, Polly went home to prepare for our wedding and I moved into the apartment. I worked at a nearby grocery store, Felice’s Market. Knowing that I needed to make extra money so I could furnish our apartment, one of the Felice brothers asked me if I was willing to repaint the store’s roof with aluminum reflective tar. I said yes, and earned $200 for my efforts.

One day, while out and about with college friend Wendell Uhl, I stopped at a yard sale that had a bunch of furniture for sale. I made them a $150 offer for all the furniture, an offer they quickly accepted. Upon returning home from our honeymoon, Polly was quite surprised to see all the “wonderful” furniture that I had purchased to furnish our apartment. After a few months of marriage, we bought a love seat from Kay’s Furniture to replace the piece-of-junk futon I had purchased at the yard sale. The love seat, along with a new double bed we bought from J.L. Hudson’s, would be the last new furniture we would own for the next 20 years.

After our wedding, we had about six weeks before classes started up again. We settled in as newlyweds to a wonderful life of wedded bliss. Little did we know how quickly life would throw us a curve.

During the first week of fall classes, we found out that Polly was pregnant. We had everything planned out, yet, at the time, it seemed God had a different plan for us. We now know that the ineffective form of birth control we were using did not do its job. Polly was quite sick from the pregnancy, which forced her to reduce her class load. By Christmas, Polly was four months pregnant. Her expanding belly advertised to family and friends that little Jason or Bethany was on his/her way.

We planned to go to Polly’s parent’s home for Christmas Eve, then get up early the next morning and drive to my mom’s home in Rochester, Indiana. At the time, we were driving an old beater, one of many such cars we would own over the years. After spending Christmas Eve with Polly’s family, the next day we borrowed Polly’s parents’ car, a Plymouth Arrow, to make the trip to Rochester to see my mom. We returned later that night.

Even though we spent Christmas with family, we still wanted to have our very own Christmas tree. We had some Christmas decorations that our moms had given us, and these, along with a few new decorations we had purchased from a nearby department store, would be enough ornamentation for our tree.

We decided to buy our tree from the nearby Boy Scout tree lot. After we purchased what we thought was the perfect tree, we put it in the back of our green Ford station wagon and drove home. Once there, I dragged the tree up the long flight of stairs to our apartment. I then put the tree in the recently-purchased $2 tree stand, tightened the screws, and let go of it so I could admire my handiwork. The tree proceeded to fall over. No matter what I did, the tree would not stand upright.

The more I tried to get our perfect tree to sit aright, the angrier I got. For the first time, Polly saw how angry I could get. My legendary redheaded temper was on full display. I finally reached a breaking point. I opened the upstairs window, and much to Polly’s surprise, I threw the Christmas tree out. It landed with a thud in the front yard.

After I cooled down, we went out and bought another tree. And, as with the previous tree, I couldn’t get this one to stand up straight. As I look back on the tree debacle, I suspect the problem was the cheap, undersized tree stand. My answer on that day for the falling tree was simple: I nailed the tree stand to the floor.

And THAT was our first Christmas.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Can Atheists Celebrate Christmas? 

bruce and polly gerencser christmas 2015
Santa and his favorite elf.

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

Growing up in an Evangelical home, I knew that Christmas was all about the birth of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. Gifts were sparse, often just two or three packages, but never far from view was the most wondrous gift of all: salvation through the atoning work of Christ on the cross. The churches I attended spent significant time each holiday season reminding congregants that Jesus was the reason for the season. Sermons against Santa Claus, consumerism, and idolatry were common, as were pleas for money to help the poor and disadvantaged.

Polly and I started dating in September 1976. On Christmas Eve of that year, I drove from my mother’s home in Bryan, Ohio to Newark to meet Polly’s parents and attend her family’s Christmas gathering. This was the first time I had the opportunity to be alone with Polly, and we took advantage of it, using trips to the apartment complex’s laundry room to get as much kissing in as possible before returning to Midwestern Baptist College and its thou-shalt-not-touch six-inch rule. The family gathering was held at the home of Polly’s aunt and uncle, Jim and Linda Dennis. Jim was the pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple. Prior to gathering at their house, we dutifully attended the Christmas Eve service at the Baptist Temple. During the service, Polly’s uncle decided to thoroughly embarrass both of us by pointing out that Polly had a special visitor with her. He then said, “Bruce and Polly have a shirt tail relationship. We just don’t know how long the shirt tail is.” I can imagine Polly’s Mom saying to herself, not very long if I have anything to do with it.

After Christmas Eve service, we drove over to the Dennis’ home. As I walked in the door, I couldn’t help but notice the largest pile of Christmas gifts I had ever seen in my life. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but it was quite evident that receiving a lot of gifts came in a close second. Prior to the gift-giving orgy, someone — I can’t remember who — gave a quick devotional, reminding all of us, yet again — as if we haven’t heard before — that Christmas was all about Jesus, his virgin birth, death on the cross, and resurrection from the dead. Once the Sermonette for Christianettes® was duly delivered, it was time for the gifts to be distributed. Polly and I had already traded gifts, so I didn’t expect anything for myself. I was surprised (and embarrassed), then, to receive a gift from Polly’s parents — a leather belt.

After Polly and I married, we settled into a holiday routine that had us celebrating Christmas Eve with her family and Christmas Day with mine. Things continue this way until the late 1980s. I had stumbled upon material that purported to reveal the pagan history and true meaning of Christmas. Wanting to be obedient to Christ and untainted by the world, I decided, as the head of the home, that we would no longer practice Christmas. I can only imagine how heartbroken Polly was when I gathered up all of her Christmas decorations and donated them to Goodwill. I did make an allowance for us attending family Christmas gatherings. We bought no gifts for our children, treating Christmas as if it were just another day. For several years, our family drove to the Charity Rescue Mission in Columbus on Christmas Day to help serve food to the homeless. Several families from the church I was pastoring at the time — Somerset Baptist Church — went with us. While I deeply regret becoming the Grinch that stole Christmas, feeding the homeless put Christmas into perspective for the Gerencser family.

Somewhere in the 1990s, I realized that you could make Christmas into whatever you wanted it to be. Much to the surprise and delight of our children, we bought a Christmas tree and decorations. We also allowed for limited gift-giving. As I look back on this, I realize that I did with Christmas exactly what the Catholics did when they took pagan practices and repurposed them for Christian use. Yes, Christmas was originally a pagan holiday, as were many of the practices associated with it, but I believed that such things could be used to further the gospel of Christ and give witness to Jesus. From that point forward, in the churches I pastored I allowed Christmas decorations to be put in the church auditorium. For the next decade, our home and the churches I pastored celebrated Christmas as most other American families and churches did. Jesus may have been the reason for the season, but gift-giving was a close second. To assuage the lingering guilt I had over consumer-driven gift-giving, I made sure our family and the churches I pastored gave liberally to missionaries and the poor.

Twelve years ago, on the last Sunday in November, Polly and I attended church for the last time. For the longest time, we found it impossible to attend anything remotely associated with religion. We had just gone through a nasty divorce with God, and we didn’t want to go anywhere that would remind us of our ex. After a few years, the distance between deconversion and the present was sufficient that we were able to attend Christmas programs and concerts without wanting to commit homicide. Our first foray back into the religious world was attending the production of Handel’s Messiah at a nearby church. That same year, we attended a Christmas concert put on by a Trans-Siberian Orchestra cover band — Siberian Solstice. One of the mainstays of the group is my counselor.

Evangelicals often deride me for practicing Christmas. How can an atheist practice a religious holiday? they ask. Christmas is all about Jesus, and aren’t you being hypocritical if you celebrate a holiday set aside to worship a God you don’t believe in? I suppose that this would be a valid question if the evidence at hand showed me that, indeed, Christmas was all about Jesus and his alleged virgin birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. However, the evidence clearly shows that Christmas is all about family, food, and gift-giving, with Jesus often being a cursory add-on — even for Evangelicals. While many Evangelical churches will attempt to put Christ back in Christmas, most church families will practice Christmas in the same manner as their non-Evangelical neighbors. While Polly’s family still practices Christmas just as they did 45 years ago, it is now evident that the obligatory attendance at the Christmas Eve service and the devotional before presents can be opened are mere formalities — things to be endured until the real reason for Christmas begins.

As atheists, we can enjoy the holiday season, sans Jesus. In fact, Polly and I both say that Christmas is far more enjoyable now than it was when I was pastoring churches. Quite frankly, the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s were so busy that we had little time to enjoy the holidays. Like many Christian churches, who once a year want to show the poor and disadvantaged that they really, really, really care, we put together several food baskets and delivered them to the poor. (Isn’t it amazing that the poor only need food and help during the holidays?) Not only did we have to do obligatory alms to the poor, we also had to prepare for special services such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. By the time the new year rolled in, Polly and I were quite glad the holidays were over.

These days, we are free to enjoy Christmas without worrying about whether we are giving Jesus his just dues. For Polly and me, Christmas is all about family. We eat lots of food with no worries about waistlines. Polly loves to bake and I love to eat (in normal years, but not 2020 thanks to bowel problems) what she bakes, as do our children and grandchildren. For the next month, Christmas songs will waft through the air of our home — yes, even religious ones. You might be surprised if you stop by to hear us singing Joy to the World, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, or many of the other religious songs associated with Christmas. The lyrics of the songs are reminders of our cultural heritage, not declarations of faith. This is why you will also find us singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. For us, family and not Jesus is the reason for the season. If Christians want to focus on Jesus during Christmas, that is certainly their right to do so. However, I refuse to let them ignorantly suggest that Christmas is a Christian-only holiday. When confronted with such historical ignorance, I remind them that Christmas means different things to different people. It is a holiday that should bind all of us together, reminding us of the blessings of family and our common heritage. Evangelicals who stupidly say that there is a war against Christmas deserve a double-barrel gun salute. There is no war against Christmas, and no matter how many times Sean Hannity says that there is, the fact remains that Christmas is a religious and a secular holiday. Christians are free to worship the baby Jesus — cue Ricky Bobby and Talledega Nights — and sing praises to his name, and the rest of us are free to practice Christmas without the religious baggage.

How do you practice Christmas now that you are no longer a Christian? Are the holidays stressful for you? Do you still attend Christmas services? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 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.

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce Gerencser