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Believing Humans Have Eternal Life is Harmful and Wastes Life

eternal life

Cartoon by Mark Lynch

I am not suggesting that the reality of death isn’t painful, but just because something is painful doesn’t mean it can be avoided, or even that it should be.  I believe the promise of eternal life is a coping mechanism, and I don’t like it.  Pascal’s famous wager posits that if there is even one chance in a million that God exists, you should bet your life on it, but to me those are terrible odds.  Indeed, it may well be that the greatest mistake in this world is to live as if you have endless time…when in fact you don’t.

Bart Campolo, Why I Left, Why I Stayed, p. 133

What would Evangelical Christianity be without the belief that humans are eternal beings that will either dwell in Heaven (God’s Kingdom) or Hell (Lake of Fire)? Evangelicals give up a lot of living in order to earn a room in Heaven’s Trump Tower. I say “earn,” because despite talk of grace, Evangelicals know that gaining a golden ticket requires work and effort on their part. There are sins that must be confessed and forsaken, and Christians who wallow in the cesspool of the “world” likely will end up in Hell with Adolph Hitler, Barack Obama, and Bruce Gerencser. Thus, Evangelicals religiously attend church, pray, read their Bibles, witness, give tithes and offerings, buy Christian literature, listen to Christian radio, watch Christian TV, support Evangelical political candidates, and fight against abortion, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage. These same Evangelicals try their damnedest to follow the sexual mores of the Bible. From the moment they awake in the morning until they fall asleep at night, Evangelicals focus their minds on God, Jesus, the Bible, Christianity, and making sure that the evil agenda of Satan and the Antichrist is defeated. (I am aware of the fact that not all Evangelicals are zealots; that many of them are nominal, in-name-only Christians, but millions of Americans are committed followers of the Evangelical God. It is these people who are the focus of this post.)

Those of us who spent much of our lives living and breathing Evangelical beliefs and practices often find ourselves lamenting the time wasted serving a mythical deity. I was fifty years old before I saw the “light” and divorced myself from Jesus. From the age of fifteen to the age of fifty — thirty-five years — I devoted my life to Jesus and did all I could possibly do to live according to the teachings of the Bible — failing miserably, by the way. None of my six children played sports or enjoyed many of the things “normal” children do because their Dad demanded that they, too, devote their lives to Jesus. My children, for the most part, were either educated in unaccredited private Fundamentalist schools or home schooled. Rarely were they given the opportunity to do something that was not connected to either school or church. My oldest son attended over three thousand church services and heard virtually every sermon I preached. The same could be said for Polly and the rest of my children. We lived and breathed God, the Bible, and the church. To what end? What did we gain from such a life? So much wasted time. Hours, days, and years squandered with no hope of a do-over or a second chance. Lost time is just that — lost. All the weeping and wailing in the world doesn’t change the fact that the time wasted in service of a myth is forever lost.

Ephesians 6:16 says, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. James 4:14 states, Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away. And Proverbs 27:1 says, Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.  For Evangelicals, these verses are reminders of the brevity of life and the importance of serving God while they have the opportunity. Amos 4:12 speaks of preparing to meet God. Evangelicals believe that this life is preparation for the life to come; that the pain, suffering, heartache, and loss faced in the here and now is meant to keep them from becoming attached to the world. 1 John 2:15-19 states:

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.

Evangelicals are implored to not love the world with its pride and lusts. Someday, according to the Bible, Jesus is going to return to earth and destroy the heavens and the earth, making all things new. Knowing this to be “true,” Evangelicals forsake the world, knowing that, in the end, they will be glad they did. And for those Christians who love the world and its fleshly desires? Their behaviors reveal that they aren’t True Christians®.

Evangelicals know that life is short. Psalm 90:10 says, The days of our years are threescore years and ten (seventy); and if by reason of strength they be fourscore (eighty) years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.  All too soon, death will come knocking on their doors, thus it is crucial to live life in such a way that when Jesus calls their number he will say to them, well done thou good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of the Lord (Matthew 25:23).

It is too bad that Christians don’t live their lives according to Solomon’s book of wisdom, Ecclesiastes. Solomon reminds people of the brevity of life, and the best any of us can do is eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. And therein lies the point of the Bart Campolo quote at the beginning of this post. This life is the only one we will ever have. This is it. No re-dos. No second chances. No reincarnations. No coming back as ghosts or angels. Every breath, every heartbeat brings us one moment closer to death. I am sixty years old. If I live to age seventy, this means my life is six-sevenths gone. If I live to eighty, three-fourths of my life is in the rear-view mirror. I currently take drugs that prolong my life. Without them, I would have already gone up in the smoke of the local crematorium.

There are moments in the night when pain keeps me from sleeping, and I lie in bed listening to the tick-tock of the clock on the nearby nightstand. Tick-tock, tick-tock, two seconds of life is gone. Sixty tick-tocks and a minute is gone. Thirty-six-hundred tick-tocks and another hour of my life is dissipated into the night. Someday, sooner and not later, readers of this blog will be greeted with a post from my wife or one of my children. It will say that on such-and-such a date at such-and-such time, Bruce Gerencser drew his last breath. Cause of death? Life.

Knowing this to be true, I refuse to spend my time chasing ghosts, goblins, and gods. I refuse to offload the present in the hope that I might receive some sort of divine payoff from a mythical deity. Life is meant to be lived in the here and now, with no promise of tomorrow. Yes, it is okay to plan for the future, but not at the expense of enjoying the present. Campolo says belief in eternal life is harmful because it is, above all things, a lie; a lie based solely on some words written in an ancient religious text thousands of years ago. Believing this lie causes people to miss out on all that life has to offer. Believing this lie changes relationship dynamics, pitting believers and unbelievers against each other. If Heaven and Hell are real places, then it stands to reason that Evangelical concern for non-Christian family, friends, and neighbors is warranted. However, there is, based on all we know about the universe, no Heaven or Hell. The only heaven and hell any of us will ever know is that which is lived in this life. That’s why I want, with what little time I have left, to live and raise a little hell, and make earth as heavenly as I possibly can.

Let me conclude this post with the advice I give to new readers on my ABOUT page:

You have one life. There is no heaven or hell. There is no afterlife. You have one life, it’s yours, and what you do with it is what matters most. Love and forgive those who matter to you and ignore those who add nothing to your life. Life is too short to spend time trying to make nice with those who will never make nice with you. Determine who are the people in your life that matter and give your time and devotion to them. Live each and every day to its fullest. You never know when death might come calling. Don’t waste time trying to be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find one or two things you like to do and do them well. Too many people spend way too much time doing things they will never be good at.

Here’s the conclusion of the matter. It’s your life and you best get to living it. Some day, sooner than you think, it will be over. Don’t let your dying days be ones of regret over what might have been.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Only Those of Us Who Believe in Heaven Have Hope

stairway to heaven

Last night, my wife and I were talking about death: about how we are the youngest of the older adults in her family; that we could have a spate of deaths over the next decade. Polly’s parents are in their 80s and her surviving aunts and uncles are getting up there in age too. Death comes for one and all. Sooner, and not later death will come knocking on our doors and say it’s time to go. We will be permitted no protestations, given no second chances. For me personally, at that moment I will have taken my last photograph, written my last blog post, and hugged and loved my family for the last time. Death brings an end to everything but the memories we leave behind in the minds of those who loved us or called us friend.

The permanence of death is one of the reasons men invented Gods, the afterlife, heaven, and hell. Most people have a hard time believing that this life is all there is. Believing that humans are somehow, some way superior to other animals or their deity’s special creation, people hope life continues on after the death. For Christians, the Bible promises them if they worship the right God, believe the right things, and live a certain way, that one day their God will resurrect them from their graves, give them new bodies that will never suffer, age, feel pain, or die, and grant them title to a mansion in a new Heaven and a new Earth. Those of us raised in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches likely remember the song, Mansion Over the Hilltop:

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined

[Chorus]

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we’ll never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold

Tho’ often tempted, tormented and tested
And, like the prophet, my pillow a stone
And tho’ I find here no permanent dwelling
I know He’ll give me a mansion my own

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one that’s silver lined

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And some day yonder we’ll never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold

Tho’ often tempted, tormented and tested
And, like the prophet, my pillow a stone
And tho’ I find here no permanent dwelling
I know He’ll give me a mansion my own

Video Link

This song perfectly illustrates the view of eternity held by millions and millions of Christians. Life is viewed as little more than a preparation time for death and moving into new digs in the sweet by and by. Atheists, on the other hand, place great value on this life, on the here and now, because this is the only life we will ever have. Once we draw our last breath, we will either be turned into ashes or worm food.

I woke up today to find Polly in somewhat of an agitated mood — an uncommon state of mind. Her mother had called earlier in the morning to let her know that her elderly IFB preacher uncle was in the hospital. He had to have emergency surgery to remove 12 inches of his bowel that had turned septic. Polly told her mom about the conversation we had last night about how everyone is getting old and dying. Polly mentioned to her mom that our oldest son had been looking at some old family photographs and said of one photo, sixty-six percent of the people in this picture are dead.  Polly’s mom replied, well you know, only those of us who believe in heaven have hope.

That’s been Mom’s approach of late, to begin every sermon one liner with well, you know, reminding her daughter that what she plans to say next Polly already knows. Out of respect for her mom, Polly says nothing, but I fear the volcano is rumbling and will someday erupt. Polly said to me, this is what I should have told her: Those of us who don’t believe that shit don’t have to worry about getting into heaven or worry about did we pray the prayer, believe the right things, or do the right things. If Polly actually said these things to her mom what would cause the most offense and outrage is that Polly said the word shit. Imagine the outage if it became known that Polly can, on occasion, use the F word. I am sure that her salty speech would be blamed on her continued corruption at the hands of Satan’s emissary, Bruce Gerencser.

I have no doubt that Mom is feeling her mortality and she wants to make certain that she will see Polly again in Heaven after d-e-a-t-h. You know, the whole unbroken family circle thing. While Polly understands her mom’s angst and wishfulness, she does find the mini-sermons irritating and offensive. Mom likely thinks, with death lurking in the shadows, that she needs to put as many good words in for Jesus as she can; that repeating Bible Truths® will turn back her daughter’s godlessness and worldliness; that if just the right words are spoken, the Holy Spirit will use them to pull Polly kicking and screaming back to the one true IFB faith. Now THAT would be entertaining!

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 60, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 39 years. He and his wife have six grown children and eleven 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. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

Bruce is a local photography business owner, operating Defiance County Photo out of his home. If you live in Northwest Ohio and would like to hire Bruce, please email him.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

Bruce, Were You Happy in the Ministry? Part Two

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

When I write posts like Leaving the Ministry: Dealing with Guilt and Regret, I am always concerned that someone might conclude that I was unhappy while I was in the ministry or that felt I was trapped in a job I didn’t want to be in.  Neither of these conclusions would be an accurate assessment of the twenty-five years I spent in the ministry.

If you have not done so, please read Bruce, Were You Happy in the Ministry? Part One.

In October 1979, Polly and I, along with our newborn son Jason, packed up our meager belongings and moved from Montpelier, Ohio to Newark, Ohio. Polly’s parents lived in Newark. Her father was the assistant pastor at the Newark Baptist Temple, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church pastored by her uncle James Dennis. For a few months, until we could find a place to live, Polly and I lived with her parents. Our first home in Newark was a duplex several blocks from Polly’s parent’s home. Living in the other half of the duplex was an older couple who attended the Baptist Temple. Later, we would move to a two-story home across the street from Polly’s parents. We lived there until we moved to Buckeye Lake, Ohio in 1982.

Both Polly and I agree that our time spent living in Newark was one of the most difficult and challenging times we have ever faced in our thirty-nine years of marriage. Polly started working at Temple Tots — the unlicensed daycare “ministry” of the Baptist Temple. In the fall of 1980, Polly found herself pregnant with our second son, Nathaniel. By then, she had started teaching first grade at Licking County Christian Academy (LCCA) — an unlicensed, unaccredited school operated by the Baptist Temple. (Polly was paid less money because she was not the breadwinner.)

I busied myself working in the church’s bus ministry, hoping that Pastor Dennis would make me the director of the bus ministry. He did not, telling me that it wouldn’t be right for him to give a family member the job. (Numerous family members would later work for the Baptist Temple.) James Dennis and I spent the intervening years in a love-hate relationship, with major conflicts seemingly bubbling to the surface every few years. While Polly’s family puts the blame for this squarely on my shoulders, a fair accounting of our conflicts shows that both of us bear responsibility for our inability to see eye-to-eye. Our history is long, complex, and littered with buried secrets that, even at this late date, could prove to be embarrassing. Age and health problems have pummeled James Dennis and me into submission, leaving us without the strength and will to continue the war. This is for the best.

After working for the local cable company repairing push-button cable boxes and working at several factories, in early 1980, I accepted a managerial position with Arthur Treacher’s — a large fast-food seafood restaurant chain located in Columbus, Ohio. My starting pay was $144 a week, or about $423 a week in today’s dollars. After my training and a few months as the assistant manager of the Heath, Ohio store, I was promoted to the general manager position of the Brice Road store in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. I would spend the next eighteen months daily driving back and forth from Newark to Reynoldsburg — about 27 miles one way. I worked long hours, six, sometime seven, days a week.

bruce and polly gerencser 1985

Bruce and Polly Gerencser, Sweetheart Banquet, 1985

With Polly busy raising young children and teaching at LCCA and me working long hours at the restaurant, we found ourselves estranged from one another. For a time, Polly and I were like two ships passing in the night. Polly, ever the awesome mother, focused her attention on our two boys, figuring that our marriage would be just fine. In her mind, the kids came first. I, on the other hand, ever the workaholic, poured myself into my job, often leaving for work early in the morning and returning late in the evening. Conflict with Polly’s parents and Pastor Dennis increased during this time, so I used my long work hours as a way to avoid interaction with her family. I was able to avoid family gathering by saying, I have to work, sorry. Polly’s family didn’t seem to mind that I was absent, believing then, as they do today, that I was “different.”

While Polly and I never talked about the dreaded D word, divorce, both of us recognized that our marriage was in trouble. We were deeply committed followers of Jesus and active in the machinations of the Baptist Temple. Despite my long work hours, I still worked in the bus ministry, went on visitation, and attended church services on Sunday. Polly helped with the nursery and sang in the choir. While we were busy, our life was not what we expected it would be when we left Midwestern Baptist College in 1978. Both of us believed God had called us to the ministry, so as long as we weren’t in full-time service for the Lord, our lives were not in line with the will of God. Polly and I saw this as one of the reasons we were having marital troubles. Decades later, now an old married couple with grandchildren, we now know that the root problem was immaturity and fanciful expectations. Our focus should have been on family and building financial security. Instead, we yearned to be Pastor and Pastor’s wife. In our minds, Jesus and the ministry came first. Wholeheartedly believing this would plague us for much of our married life.

Late in 1981, Mrs. Paul’s bought out Arthur Treacher’s. Mrs. Paul’s made all sorts of stupid changes, and after several months of working for them, I decided I had had enough and turned in my resignation. Several weeks later, I started working for Long John Silver’s as an assistant manager. Long John’s was rapidly expanding in the Central Ohio area, and I was part of a team of managers that helped open new stores. Polly had, by then, stopped teaching and returned to working at Temple Tots. Towards the end of the year, Polly’s Dad decided to leave the Baptist Temple — a long story in and of itself — and start an IFB church in nearby Buckeye Lake. He asked if Polly and I wanted to come along and help him with the new church. We quickly agreed, and I became the assistant pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. Finally, Polly and I thought, we are back on track, doing that which God had called us to do.

Though much turmoil and heartache would await us in the years to come, we were happy to be in the ministry once again. Outside of a few months here and there when I was between churches, we would spend the next twenty or so years pastoring churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. No matter what trials and adversity came our way, we were happy to be serving the Lord. The Apostle Paul wrote that he had learned, regardless of the state of his life, to be content (Philippians 4:11) Over time, Polly and I became quite stoic about life. No matter what came our way, we smiled, put our trust in the Lord, and practiced the content Paul spoke of. Our commitment to Jesus gave us what the Bible calls, a “peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Life wasn’t easy for us, but it was satisfying. Difficult times were seen as tests from God (James 1:2-4) or loving correction (Hebrews 12:5-8) from our Heavenly Father. All that mattered was that we were in center of the perfect will of God for our lives (Romans 12:1,2). Believing that the calling of God was irrevocable (Romans 11:29), being in the ministry was what mattered most to us. Over time, the “ministry” swallowed up Bruce and Polly Gerencser, leaving us with no self-identity. We spent much of our marriage denying self and sacrificing ourselves for the cause. After leaving the ministry, and later leaving Christianity, Polly and I had no idea who we were. Our post-Jesus years have been spent reacquainting ourselves with who we really are. This process has been painful, yet satisfying. While we were happy in the ministry, our happiness was derived from “doing.” These days, we continue to learn that happiness most often comes from being, not doing.

Stay tuned for Part Three.

Helping the Least of These

bruce gerencser 1971

Bruce Gerencser, Ninth Grade, 1971

Suzanne asked:

Bruce, I would be curious to hear how your old church handled this issue. It really seems to be a bedrock sticky wicket that says more about the pastor of the church than anything else. I am going to a Methodist church now where they will pay your electric bill or give you a grocery store gift card but will not hand over cash. Seems sort of mean even if it’s likely a better idea.

I grew up in a home where money was hard to come by. Dad always had a job, but never seemed to have enough money to pay the bills. This is why, as a youth, Dad moved us from town to town and school to school. When people learn about my well-traveled upbringing, they often ask, did you move a lot because of your father’s work? No, we moved a lot because Dad didn’t pay the rent (my parents never owned a home).  Clothing, lunch money, and spending money were hard to come by, and when Dad did buy me clothes, they were often cheap Rink’s Bargain City (Bargain Shitty) knock-offs. My first pair of Levi’s came not from my Dad, but courtesy of a five-fingered discount at a local clothing store. This would not be the last time I shoplifted.

Medical and dental care were almost nonexistent. I can count on one hand the times I went to the doctor growing up. It was only after my parents divorced and Mom signed up for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Medicaid that I received regular medical and dental care. To this day, I remember going to the dentist as a sixteen-year-old boy, only to be told, yes, your teeth need work. And once your Dad pays his bill, I will be glad to fix them. Talk about embarrassing.

Early on, I realized that if I wanted money of my own that I was going to have to work for it. My first jobs were raking leaves, shoveling snow, and mowing yards. My first “official” job — at age fourteen — was daily emptying the trash at a local nursing home. As a teenager, I worked all sorts of minimum wage jobs. Once I had my own money, I was then able to buy my own clothes, pay for school lunches, and fund my social activities.

I have said all this to emphasize that growing up poor deeply affected how I dealt with people as a pastor. Having suffered the embarrassment of using food stamps and the indignity of being forced to wear welfare glasses (see photograph above), I knew firsthand the struggles of the poor. These experiences made me compassionate to those whom the Bible calls “the least of these.”

In what follows, I will detail how I interacted with the poor in the churches I pastored; what ministries I started that specifically ministered to the disadvantaged and marginalized. During the twenty-five years I spent in the pastorate, I had the privilege of ministering to countless people who were down on their luck. Yes, I met more than a few con-artists, grifters, and lazier-than-a-coon-dog-on-a-cold-winter’s-night users and abusers. I am sure that my kindness was taken advantage of. I took the approach that my job was to help; it was God’s job to sort out motives. Now, this doesn’t mean that I was an easy mark. I wasn’t. I rarely gave money to people, knowing that doing so often fed drug or alcohol addictions. If someone needed gas I took them to the gas station and paid for the gas. When homeless people asked for money, I offered them a meal at a nearby diner. When people needed help with their utilities, I directly contacted the utility and paid the bill. Of course, I couldn’t have done any of these things without the gracious financial support of church members.

Over the years, the churches I pastored had food pantries and clothing rooms that were open to the public. Having suffered the indignity of being singled out for being poor, I made sure that we never embarrassed the poor. If someone said they needed help, we helped them (within the limits of our finances). While I certainly wanted to see people saved, I never made helping poor people contingent on them attending church. I took the approach, freely received, freely given. Unlike many holier-than-thou, self-righteous Baptist preachers, I never had a problem encouraging people to avail themselves of services and benefits offered by the state welfare department and federal food banks.

For eleven years, I pastored a Baptist church in Perry County, Ohio — the northernmost county in the Appalachian region. It was there I saw abject and generational poverty. Good jobs were hard to come by, and once the coal mines closed, those who had well-paying mining jobs were forced to work jobs that often paid minimum wage. The unemployment rate was double-digit, ranging from ten to nineteen percent. As is now the case, the number of unemployed was much higher than the official numbers suggested. Once unemployed workers stopped receiving unemployment benefits, they were no longer counted. These unemployed workers turned to the welfare department for help, trying to eke out an existence on meager government checks and food stamps. Some worked jobs that paid cash or turned to growing marijuana.

The majority of church members were on some sort of government assistance — usually food stamps and Medicaid. Most church families had at least one member gainfully employed. The highest paid man in the church made $21,000 a year (except for a year or so when a nearby church had a split and a number of their middle-class members attended the church — they later left, taking their money with them). Annual church offerings peaked at $40,000 a year, when attendance averages neared 200. Most years, the total offerings were in the $20,000 range. My largest annual salary during this time was $12,000. Five of our six children’s births were paid for by Medicaid, and for several years we received food stamps. Now, this doesn’t mean we didn’t try to improve our lot — we did. I pumped gas and worked as a mechanic at a local gas station, sold insurance, worked in restaurants, and delivered newspapers. I believed then, and still do, that there is no shame in being poor. Work hard, do what you can, and live on the results. (In retrospect, I certainly would have done many things differently, but I, to this day, believe all work is honorable and has value, regardless of its pay.)

During my eleven-year stint as pastor of Somerset Baptist Church, I spent a significant amount of time helping the poor, both in the community at large and in the church. When a man said he would come to church if only he had shoes, I gave him a pair of mine. When members needed money, I loaned it to them or paid their bills. I sold cars to several church members, no money down, pay me when you can. One church member took advantage of my generosity, buying a car from me and never paying for it. This person sat on the front row on Sundays. I often found it hard to look at him without thinking, hey deadbeat, pay me for the car. But then I would think of Jesus and the Sermon of the Mount or remember my own poverty-filled upbringing. I knew this person’s family history — how he grew up in abject poverty, dropping out of high school and becoming a drug addict. I knew he had spent time in jail and hadn’t had a driver’s license in years. (I helped him get his license reinstated.) As Jesus did for the poor of his day, I had compassion for him, even if he, at times, irritated the heaven out of me. (He was, despite these failings, one of the kindest, most helpful men I have ever known. If I needed help with something, I knew I could call on him.)

For several years, Polly and I took in foster children, mostly court-referred teenagers. The county paid us a stipend for giving these teens a home. I have plenty of stories I could share about our foster children, but I will just share one for now. We had two teen boys living with us who decided that they wanted a bit of freedom. They stole our car (a dealer loaner, as our car was in the shop having a new motor installed), checkbook, and credit card, and took a joy ride to New Jersey. They ran a red light in Jersey and were pulled over by the police. After finding out there was a warrant out for their arrest, they were arrested and returned to Ohio for prosecution. Prior to their court appearance for felony theft, the judge called me and asked me to come to his office for a visit. He asked me what punishment I thought he should mete out to these boys. I told him that I felt that they should be punished, but that I didn’t want to see them go to prison. He (we) decided that he would give them the maximum sentence at a youth detention center, but release them after thirty days. Needless to say, they learned their lesson. One of the boys lived with us again. We forgave him, believing that this is what Jesus would have us do. More than a few people thought we were crazy (and maybe we were).

From giving homeless people a place to stay at the church to feeding the homeless men who frequented the streets of Zanesville, Polly and I, along with the church, tried our best to minister to those in need. As a pastor, I had many shortcomings and faults. I deeply regret my Fundamentalist Baptist preaching and its emphasis on sin instead of grace. I wish I could have seen the disconnect between my hellfire and brimstone preaching on Sundays and my compassionate, patient help of the poor the rest of the week. If I had been the bleeding-heart liberal that I am today back in my Perry County days, I suspect the church would have been known above all else as a place of love and safety for the disenfranchised. I could easily have been a Steven Anderson (please see Christians Say the Darnedest Things: Lazy Bums Want Us to Act Like Compassionate Christians by Steven Anderson), propping up hate of the poor with Bible verses, but fortunately my life experiences softened my heart, and as Jesus did, when he looked at the poor I had compassion on them.

Several years ago, after finding out that I had helped someone with a particular need, my mother-in-law told me, Bruce, why you’d give the last shirt off your back if someone needed it. (Polly grew up in a middle-class home — new cars, vacations, home ownership.) She then said — perhaps thinking of what the Bible said about helping others — well, I guess that is not a bad problem to have. In retrospect, I can see how some of my liberal giving caused her to be concerned. Here we were barely keeping our heads above water and I was giving money, food, clothing, and other things to the poor. If I had to do it all over again, I would have certainly provided a better life for Polly and our children, but I would never have wanted to lose my compassion for others, especially those at the bottom of the economic scale.  While my children did without while Dad was sacrificially helping others (and if they hated me for doing so I would understand), all of them — especially the oldest three — have told me that these experiences helped to make them into the hardworking people they are today (Our family has what we call the Gerencser Work Ethic®: work hard, do your job, don’t miss work; be the best employee you can be.)

As I re-read this post, I am uncomfortable with its personal focus. I am not the type of person who, after helping someone, publicizes my largess. Works of charity ought to be done in secret — without fanfare or applause. No need to let everyone on social media know that I did this or that for someone. The good feeling I receive from helping others is enough. Paying it forward is a good way to live, and even if there is no karmic justice, I want to be known as a man who loved and cared for others.

[signoff]

Can Atheists Celebrate Christmas? 

bruce and polly gerencser christmas 2015

Santa and his favorite elf.

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, 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 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, I do think feeding the homeless put Christmas into perspective.

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 a pagan practice and repurposed it 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 decoration 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.

Eight 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. If I remember right, 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 are 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 virgin birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. However, the evidence clearly shows that Christmas is all about family, food, and gift-giving. 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 40 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.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day fall on a Saturday and Sunday this year. It will interesting to see what local churches will do since Christmas falls on Sunday. The last time this happened, many churches held a short Christmas Eve service (so the tithes and offerings could be collected) and canceled Christmas Day services so congregants could spend time with their families. Some Baptist churches who normally held two services on Sunday canceled their Sunday evening service. Of course, wanting to show that they are not like “liberal” churches, a few Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches maintained their regular schedule of services.

As atheists, we thoroughly enjoy the holiday season. 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 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 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 but reminders of our cultural heritage. 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 and sing praises to his name, the rest of us are free to practice Christmas without the religious garb.

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

Other posts about Christmas:

Christmas, 1957-2014

Christmas: A Plea To Evangelicals Who Evangelize Non-Christian Family Members

How Fundamentalist Christians Ruin Christmas

1978: Our First Christmas

Local Christian Sends Letter to my Son and Tells Him He is Headed for Hell

letter-from-first-baptist-church-bryan-ohio

Years ago, I attended First Baptist Church, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB)  in Bryan,Ohio. Recently, the church asked members to write letters to people, inviting them to church and subtly reminding recipients that their lives are worthless without Jesus and hell awaits  if they do not purchase fire insurance.

One of my sons, a practicing Catholic, received one such letter. Here’s what the handwritten letter had to say:

We would like to invite you and your family to First Baptist. Sunday School is @ 9:30. Worship @ 10:30.

More importantly, we invite you to know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, if you don’t already.

For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

Matthew 16:26

Based on the return name and address on the envelope, I know the letter writer. Why did this person choose to write my son? Does First Baptist really think that this is an effective way to reach people with the gospel?

Perhaps it is time for me to do some writing of my own about my experiences at First Baptist.  Several years ago, I attended a funeral at First Baptist. You can read my thoughts about the funeral here. I feel a s-e-r-i-e-s coming on….

1983: Smelly Carpet, Sprite, Psycho Bruce, and a Christmas Tree

christmas tree new lexington 1985

Christmas tree at another New Lexington house, 1984

In July 1983, I planted a new church in Somerset Ohio. I would, for the next 11 years, pastor Somerset Baptist Church, starting in a storefront and later holding services in a 150-year-old brick church building purchased from the Methodist Conference. I would learn a lot about myself during the time I spent pastoring this church For a few years, the church experienced rapid numerical growth, leading to scores of professions of faith. And then, just as quickly, the church numerically receded, returning to a typical country church of 50 or so people. I could spend months writing about my experiences as pastor of this church, but for now I want to focus on a house we lived in on Water Street in New Lexington, Ohio.

When I started the church, we lived in Buckeye Lake, 25 miles north and west of Somerset. Wanting to live in the area where I would be ministering, we sought out housing in Somerset. Unable to find housing, we rented a house in New Lexington — a community built on a hill nine miles south of Somerset. After moving into the home, we noticed the carpets had a smell. The longer we lived there the worse the smells became. I mentioned this to the owner. He said the previous tenants had animals and that’s why the carpet smelled. Determining that we were likely going to move if he didn’t do something about the smell, the owner had the carpets replaced in the living room and main bedroom. Despite the fact that the owner replaced the carpet, the house still had a faint smell of animal urine. I suspect the urine and had soaked into the wood floors underneath the carpet, and as anyone who has ever had to deal with such a problem knows, once this happens either the floors must be sanded and refinished or shellacked to seal in the odor. Six weeks later, we would move to a ramshackle farmhouse northeast of Somerset, near Glenford, Ohio.

There are several stories I would like to share from the few months we spent living on Water Street. I have always been a pop (soda) drinker. My drink of choice was/is Pepsi, but I would, from time to time, drink other brands such as Coke and Sprite. These were the days when pop came packaged as eight returnable 16 ounce glass  bottles. Many of my fellow baby boomers have memories, I’m sure, of collecting pop bottles or using pop bottles for ashtrays or emergency urinals The returnable bottles were sent by grocery stores to bottlers who would sanitize the bottles and refill them with the proper soft drink. One day, I decided to drink a bottle of Sprite. I grabbed the bottle opener, popped the cap off the bottle, put it to my lips, and tipped the bottle so the sugary drink would flow. Suddenly, I felt something hit my teeth. I quickly stop drinking, and upon investigating I found a barrette with hair still attached in the bottle. Gagging, I quickly put the bottle down. To this day, I find it hard to drink Sprite. Irrational as it might be, all I can think of when I think about drinking a Sprite is that barrette with hair attached hitting me in the teeth.

As a young adult, I did a good bit of walking and talking in my sleep. My brother and sister have all sorts of stories about my sleepwalking escapades, including walking through the living room brushing my teeth. A short time after Polly and I were married, she awoke to find me standing in the corner of the bedroom urinating. Sound asleep, I thought I was in the bathroom. The sleepwalking continued into my later life. One night, while living in New Lexington, we had gone to bed, and as had been the custom for the past 38 years, Polly quickly fell asleep and I fitfully tossed and turned before finally drifting off into that night’s dream world. Several hours into the night, Polly awoke to find me crouched over her — eyes wide open. I was sound asleep, but Polly thought I was a psychopath fixing to kill her. After a few moments, I rolled over, while Polly was left shaking, fearing for her life. Both of us wondered if I would someday do something hurtful and not know that I did it. Fortunately, Polly and our six children survived. These days, the only sleepwalking I do is the wide-awake kind as I make one of my nightly trips to the bathroom or the kitchen. I still talk in my sleep from time to time. Polly no longer fears becoming the next day’s headline, though she does enjoy retelling what I said to her in one of my sleep talking moments. I can, in her words, still be quite entertaining.

A few days after Thanksgiving,we decided to move from Water Street  to our newly-rented house in Glenford. We had very few possessions, so we were able to do all the moving with a pickup truck. Having just put up our Christmas tree several days before, we decided to leave all the decorations on the tree as we moved it to its new location. I still remember how hilarious it was to see that Christmas tree sitting in the back of the pickup truck, fully decorated. As you might imagine, by the time we got to our new house, all the tinsel had blown off the tree , as had some of the glass bulbs. I know– the stupid stuff kids do, right? We put the tree back together, in preparation for what we still call to this day the Christmas from Hell. But that’s a story for another day.

Why Evangelical Beliefs and Practices are Psychologically Harmful — Part Two

submission

Evangelicalism is dominated by Bible literalism. God said it, and that settles it. There can be no debate or argument on the matter. An infallible God has spoken and his infallible words are recorded in an infallible book — the Protestant Christian Bible. Whatever the Bible teaches, Evangelicals are duty bound to believe and obey. While Evangelicals may argue about the finer points of this or that doctrine, calling oneself an Evangelical requires fidelity to certain, established doctrinal truths. Christianity is, after all, the faith once delivered to the saintsJesus is, after all, the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Psychological manipulation is a common tool used by Evangelical preachers to force congregants to do their bidding. I hear the outrage of offended Evangelicals now, screaming for all to hear, that THEIR church is not like that; that their pastor is different. Maybe, perhaps, but I doubt it.

If their church or pastor really is different, it is likely because they are not really Evangelical. There are a lot of churches and pastors who are really liberals or progressives who fear making their true theological and social identities known. Fearing the mob, these thoughtful Evangelicals hide their true allegiances. I don’t fault them for doing so, but such churches and pastors are not representative of Evangelical belief and practice.

In particular, women face the brunt of Evangelical preaching against sin and disobedience. What do Evangelicals believe the Bible teaches about women?

  • Women are weaker than men.
  • Women are intellectually inferior, requiring men to teach and guide them.
  • Women are to submit to her husbands in the home and to male leadership in the church.
  • Women must never be permitted to have authority over men.
  • Women must dress modestly so that they don’t cause weak, pathetic men to lust after them.
  • The highest calling of women is to marry, bear children, and keep the home.
  • Feminism is a Satanic attack on God’s order for the church and home.

Think about this list for a moment. Are Evangelical women equal to men? No! Women are, at best, second class citizens. They must never be put in positions where they have control or power. Such places are reserved for men. We dare not question this. After all, it is God’s way

Is it any wonder that many Evangelical women lack self-esteem and think poorly of themselves? How could it be otherwise? Everywhere they look women are progressing, free to live their lives on their own terms. Yet, here they sit, chained to a ancient religious text and a religion that demeans women and views them as little more than slaves or chattel.

I am sure there are many Evangelical women who will vehemently object to my characterization of how they are treated by their churches, pastors, and husbands. In THEIR churches women are quite happy! They LOVE being submissive to their husbands as unto the Lord. They LOVE being relegated to cooking duty, janitorial work, and nursery work. They LOVE having no higher goals than having children, cooking meals, cleaning house, and never having a headache.

The bigger question is, WHY is it that many Evangelical women think living this way is normal and psychologically affirming — exactly what God ordered for their lives? Evangelical women don’t want to disobey God or displease their husbands or churches. Whatever God, pastors, male church leaders, and husbands want, Evangelical women give. This is their fate, and until the light of reason and freedom creeps in, Evangelical women will continue to bow at the feet of their Lords and do their bidding.

Once women break free from Evangelicalism, a thousand horses and one hundred arrogant, know it all preachers, couldn’t drag them back into the fold. Once free, they realize a whole new world awaits them. With freedom comes responsibility. No more defaulting to their husbands or pastors to make decisions for them. These women are free to make their own decisions. They quickly learns that life in the non-Evangelical world has its own problems and that women are not, in many cases, treated equally there either.

Over the years, I have watched numerous women break free from domineering, controlling Evangelical husbands. I have also watched women flee domineering churches and pastors. Some of these women went back to college to get an education. No longer content to be baby breeders, maids, cooks, and sex-on-demand machines, they turn to education to improve their place in life. Often, secular education provides a fuller view of the world and opens up all kinds of new opportunities for the women.

Sadly, this new life often leads to family problems. Husbands who have worn the pants for decades don’t like having their God-ordained authority challenged. This is especially true if the husbands remain active Evangelical church members. Many times, unable to weather dramatic changes, these mixed marriages end in divorce. Evangelicalism was the glue that held their marriages together, and once it was removed their marriage fell apart.

Some husbands and wives find ways to keep their marriages intact, although this is hard to do. Imagine living in a home where mothers and wives are considered rebellious, sinful, and wicked by their Evangelical husbands, pastors, friends. Imagine being considered a Jezebel.  Evangelicals are not kind to those who rebel against  their God and their interpretation of the Bible. The Bible says rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. Biblical literalism demands that these rebellious women be labelled as practitioners of witchcraft. Once considered devotees to God, the church, and their families, these women are now considered to be pariahs — servants of Satan who walk in darkness.

I want to end this post with a bit of personal commentary.

For a good part of my marriage to Polly, our marriage was pretty much as I described above. I was the head of the home. I made all the decisions. I was in charge, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Polly bore six children, cooked, and kept the home. On and off, when finances demanded it, she worked outside the home. and in her spare time, she homeschooled all six of our children, including one child with Down Syndrome.

Polly is a pastor’s daughter. Her goal in life was to be a pastor’s wife. She went to college to get an MRS degree. Polly is quiet and reserved, and thanks to forty plus years of Evangelical indoctrination, she is also quite passive. During the twenty-five years I spent pastoring churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan, Polly heartily embraced her preacher’s-wife responsibilities. She was a dutiful wife who always exemplified what it meant to being in be submission to God and her husband. Never saying a cross word or demanding her own way, Polly submitted to those who had the authority over her.

A decade ago, things began to change in our marriage. I finally realized how abusive and controlling I had been. Granted, I was just being the kind of Evangelical husband and pastor I thought I should be. I tried my best to follow the teachings of the Bible and the example of pastors I respected. Regardless of the whys of the matter, I must own my culpability in behaviors I now consider psychologically harmful

In November 2008. Polly and Bruce Gerencser — hand in hand — walked away from Christianity. For the first time in our lives we were free from the constraints of God, the Bible, and the ministry. We were free to choose how we wanted to live our lives; free to decide what kind of marriage we wanted to have.

In many ways, very little has changed. Polly still cooks, but now she whips up gourmet meals because she LOVES to do so. I still manage household finances, not because I am the head of the home, but because I am better with numbers than Polly is. Both of us take care of household chores. I still do most of the shopping, but I no longer make the list. I am the numbers guy, someone who can figure out price per ounce in my head. By the time Polly finds her calculator in that bottomless purse of hers, I already have the equation figured out. Each of us tries to do the things we are good at.

The biggest difference in our marriage is this: I now ask Polly, What do you think? What do you think we should do? Where do you want to go? On top or bottom?  We have learned that it is okay to have lives outside of each other; to have desires, wants and hobbies that the other person may not have. The Vulcan mind meld has been broken.

Polly recently celebrated 18 years of employment for a local manufacturing concern. Out from the shadow of her pastor husband she has excelled at work. Her yearly reviews are always excellent and she is considered an exemplary worker by everyone who works with her. Over the past two years Polly has received two promotions. She now supervises auxiliary department employees on second and third shift. Polly even has an office with her name on the door. None of these things would have been possible had we remained within the smothering confines of Evangelical beliefs and practices.

In 2013, Polly bought a new car in her own name. Yes, I helped picked out the car and took care of the financing details, but it is her car. A first for her, and believe me, this was a BIG deal. In 2012, Polly graduated from Northwest State Community College with an associates of arts. This was a huge undertaking on her part. Why did Polly go back to school, you ask? Because she could. And that’s the beauty of our current life. Freedom allows us to live openly and authentically.  We no longer have to parse our lives according to the Bible. Both of us are free to do whatever we want to do. Having this freedom of spirit has allowed us to experience things that never would have been possible had we remained Pastor and Mrs. Bruce Gerencser.

Polly continues to break out of her shell and I continue to learn what it means to be a good man and husband. We still have our moments. There are those times when both Polly and I find it quite easy to fall back into our former Evangelical ways, As those who have walked similar paths know, it is not easy to change attitudes and lifestyles which were decades in the making. I suspect, until death do us part, we will remain a work in progress.

We’ve Only Just Begun

bruce and polly gerencser 2015

Bruce and Polly Gerencser, Summer 2015

Forty years ago, a young man from the flatland of rural northwest Ohio moved to Pontiac, Michigan to study for the ministry. Also enrolled at Midwestern Baptist College was a young woman who hailed from Bay City, Michigan. What follows is their story.

The young man packed his worldly goods into his beater of a car, and waving goodbye to his Mom, drove out of the trailer park, turned east on U.S. Hwy 6 and set a course for Pontiac, Michigan. His mother had kissed him goodbye, letting the young man know how proud she was that he was the first Gerencser to go to college. He pushed her away, uncomfortable with her display of affection, a behavior he would one day regret. The young man thought, finally, away from the craziness and the drunkard husband.

Two-and-a-half hours later, the young man turned off of Golf Drive onto the driveway for Midwestern Baptist College. He stopped his car in front of the dormitory so he could unload his belongings and move them to his assigned dorm room — room 207. On that day, the young man wore a maize and blue shirt with the number 75 on the front and the word REV on the back. This shirt was a gift from a young woman who hoped the young man would remember her. He didn’t, knowing that enrolling at Midwestern would provide him ample opportunity to meet attractive Fundamentalist women. He would soon learn that a wide-open field of romance would quickly fade in the beauty of a dark-haired, beautiful young woman.

Shortly after classes began in the fall of 1976, the young man and young dark-haired woman began flirting with one another. At first, they sent flirtatious notes, often meeting up for card games in the dormitory kitchen. While both of them would briefly date other people, by the end of September, the young man and young woman decided to give dating one another a try.

They were an odd match. The young woman was quiet and reserved, rarely speaking more than a few words. The young man, on the other hand, was a talker, and opinionated. He lived life in the fast lane, serving Jesus, yet pushing the lines of Fundamentalist decorum and acceptability. Years later, the young woman would tell him that she was drawn to his wildness — her bad boy.

Midwestern Baptist College — a Fundamentalist institution founded by Dr. Tom Malone, the pastor of nearby Emmanuel Baptist Church  — had strict rules concerning dating and male/female interaction. Dating couples were only allowed to date on Saturday evening and after Sunday night church. Couples were required to double-date, and all dates had to be approved by dorm supervisors. Couples were not permitted to travel beyond a ten-mile radius from the college. Coupled were not permitted to have any physical contact with each other. Breaking this rule would result in being campused — meaning that offending couples were not allowed to date off campus. Repeated infractions led to being kicked out of school.

The young man and young woman quickly found that keeping the six-inch rule — the width of a songbook — was impossible. Fearing expulsion, they sought out other dating couples that also found the no-contact rule a strain on their relationships. On date nights, the young man and young woman could now snuggle close to one another and hold hands. As with all young couples with raging hormones, their desire for physical intimacy increased as time went along. Yet, fearing being discovered and expelled, the young man and young woman — for three months — didn’t kiss.

Christmas of 1976 found the young man visiting the young woman at the home of her parents in Newark, Ohio. The young woman’s father was a preacher — a recent graduate of Midwestern. Her father was the assistant pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple — an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church pastored by the young woman’s uncle, Jim Dennis.

One evening, the young woman’s mother asked her to retrieve their clothing from the laundry room. The young man followed along, and it was there, in an apartment laundry room, the young couple kissed one another for the first time. Many kisses would follow, but neither of them would ever forget that one brief moment where they were able for the first time to express their love for one another.

Love for one another? Yes, their relationship quickly moved from casual to serious, culminating in the young couple’s engagement on Valentine’s Day 1977. A quarter-carat diamond engagement ring was purchased from Sears and Roebuck for $225, sealing their commitment to marry in July of 1978. Little did they know that the young woman’s mother would do everything in her power to foil their plans, going so far as to tell her daughter that she forbade her to marry the young man. He comes from a divorced family, her mother said, and divorce is hereditary.

After a year of pressuring the young couple to abandon their plans, the young woman’s mother relented and consented to the wedding — not that she had any other option. For the first time, the young woman stood up to her mom, telling her that she planned to run off and get married if she continued to oppose her marriage to the young man.

Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Wedding July 1978

Polly and Bruce Gerencser, Wedding July 1978

July 15, 1978, was a hot and humid day. There was no air conditioning at the Newark Baptist Temple, not that this mattered to the young couple. Their special day had finally arrived, the day when they would become Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Gerencser. Their friends from college, along with family members and church members, filled the pews to witness the joining of the young man and young woman in holy matrimony. Songs were sung, vows were exchanged, and then, with a kiss for luck, they were on their way, innocent of where their life together would take them.

Six weeks after their wedding, the young man came home from work and was met with the news, I’m pregnant. Nine months later, the first of the young couple’s six children was born in Bryan, Ohio. After almost three years at Midwestern, the young couple was forced to drop out of college and move to the Bryan – the birthplace of the young man. This would be the first of many moves for them. Over the next thirty-eight years they would move numerous times, living in dozens of rental houses.

Life was not easy for the young married couple. Ignorance about how to manage money quickly led to all sorts of problems. Years later, the young man, now a seasoned Baptist preacher, would remark, it took us a few years to figure out that you had to pay the electric bill to keep the lights on. They faced numerous problems, wondering if their marriage would survive – thus proving the young woman’s mother right: divorce is hereditary. Survive they did, and here on July 15th they will celebrate their thirty-eighth wedding anniversary.

The young couple walked out of the Newark Baptist Temple, cheered on by family and friends — two innocents wondering what fate would hold for them. Six children, one with Down Syndrome. Poverty. Moves to Michigan, Texas, Arizona, and Ohio. Bankruptcy. Health problems. Constant struggles to survive, living on poor wages and food stamps. Leaving the ministry and losing faith. Yet, despite stresses that often cause marriage failure, the commitment and love of the young couple endured. Seasoned by adversity and failure, the pair — now nearing their 60th birthdays — continue to honor the vows they made to one another years ago.

Later today, the ageing couple will celebrate their wedding anniversary with a meal at a fancy restaurant and a night of watching races at a local dirt track. They will make jokes with another, promising hot, torrid sex before the night is over. And more than likely, once they arrive home, they will each give the other the look, the one that says, I’m tired, maybe tomorrow. Climbing into bed, they will turn to one another — just as they have thousands of times before — and say, I love you. The young woman, now with gray hair and weathered skin, will quickly fall to sleep, leaving the young man to his thoughts; thoughts of a well-lived life, of love and commitment and adversity and failure. But thoughts, most of all, of the fact that he is the luckiest man alive.

Soon the young man — now with a white beard and failing health — will gently run his fingers through his sleeping love’s hair, pondering the life they have shared together. His mind will likely return to a basement laundry room and the moment where he realized that the young woman in his embrace was his one and only. Forty years later, she remains not only his wife and lover, but also his best friend and confidante. Life is good, he will say to himself as he drifts off to sleep, hoping that come morning he will have one more opportunity to say, I love you.

Do We Need to Believe in the Christian God to Have a Meaningful Life?

jesus all about life

Do we need to believe in the Christian (Evangelical) God for our lives to have meaning? Larry Dixon, professor of theology at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina thinks so. In a post titled Man’s Significance, Dixon stated:

Why does man consider himself such a “big screaming deal”? Is there no basis for our thinking we are unique in the universe, that there is something about man that shouts “You have value! You have worth!”

Evolutionary theory essentially argues that man makes up his own significance. The Bible teaches that we are made in the image and likeness of GOD — and we, therefore, have meaning.

How sad to miss that fundamental truth of our creation, and to simply sit back in despair and entertain ourselves to death with our machines!

Listen carefully to what Dixon is saying: Those who deny that meaning is derived from belief in God, live lives of despair, spending their brief sojourn on this earth entertaining themselves. Dixon, an Evangelical, shows that he is clueless about how secularists, atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other non-Christians find meaning and purpose. One can reject a created by God anthropocentric view of life and still find great satisfaction in living life to its fullest. In fact, it is unbelievers who often value and cherish life the most because they only get one opportunity to walk the path of life. If you have taken the time to read my ABOUT page, you likely read my answer to the question If you had one piece of advice to give me, what would it be?  Here is what I said:

You have one life. There is no heaven or hell. There is no afterlife. You have one life, it’s yours, and what you do with it is what matters most. Love and forgive those who matter to you and ignore those who add nothing to your life. Life is too short to spend time trying to make nice with those who will never make nice with you. Determine who are the people in your life that matter and give your time and devotion to them. Live each and every day to its fullest. You never know when death might come calling. Don’t waste time trying to be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find one or two things you like to do and do them well. Too many people spend way too much time doing things they will never be good at.

Here’s the conclusion of the matter. It’s your life and you best get to living it. Some day, sooner than you think, it will be over. Don’t let your dying days be ones of regret over what might have been.

Another explanation of how non-believers view life can be found in the Humanist Manifesto:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

That Evangelicals can’t wrap their minds around this fact is their problem, not ours. Perhaps Evangelicals are unable to comprehend a meaningful, purposeful life without God is because life before death is viewed — in theory — as little more than:

I say in theory because — as observers of Evangelicalism know — God’s chosen ones love THIS life as much as atheists do. Christians profess to be ready to go home (Heaven), but few of them are lining up to board the next bus to the pearly gates. Blissful, pain-free eternal life might await Christians once they cross to the other side, but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to experience the pleasures of Club Heaven®.  Simply put, Evangelicals say one thing and do another.

life all about jesusBelievers and unbelievers should alike admit that this life matters, and how each of us finds meaning and purpose is no one’s business but ours. My wife’s parents are 80 years old. Their world revolves around Jesus, the Bible, and their church — the Newark Baptist Temple. Nine months ago, Polly’s father had his hip replaced. The surgery proved to be a disaster and he is now in a nursing home. My in-laws were forced to sell their home — a place they have lived for 38 years. Knowing that they had to move, Polly suggested to her Mom that they move near our home so we could take care of them (We live 3 hours Northwest of their home in Newark, Ohio). Polly’s Mom replied, I can’t. My church is here. I have known Polly Shope Gerencser for 40 years and I have NEVER seen her so devastated as she was by her Mom’s words.

Polly’s sister was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005. (Please see If One Soul Gets Saved It is Worth it All)  Polly is her parents’ only living child. Both Polly and I thought that they would not only want to be closer to their daughter (we see them 5-6 times a year), but also near our children, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. When Polly’s Mom said I can’t. My Church is here, Polly heard, My Church is more important than you! My “real” family is my church.

And Polly’s parents have the right to choose what matters most to them. When Polly and I returned to rural NW Ohio, we did so because we made a conscious choice to be near our children and grandchildren — all of whom live less than 20 minutes from our home. Family matters to us. For me personally, I know that chronic illness and pain have likely shortened my life expectancy. Knowing this, I want to spend as much time as I can going to races with my sons, watching my grandchildren’s school and sporting events, and doing all I can to leave those I love with a lasting memory of a husband, father, and grandfather who lived life to its fullest. Some days, all I can do is sit quietly by and watch my grandchildren play. Other days, infused with a false sense of energy and vitality, I play hard, laugh, argue and debate, and remind my children that I am still the intellectual king of the hill (I can hear them snickering). Regardless of how I feel, it is my family that gives my life meaning and purpose. It saddens me that my in-laws have chosen a contrived family — one that will dump them if they ever fail to bow in obeisance to Jesus — over a flesh-and-blood family that loves them. It is, however, their choice, so I must live with it. Their decision is yet another reminder of the fact that Christians often forsake the earthly for what they think will improve their room size in God’s mansion in the sky.

Now, let me get back to aimlessly living a life of despair.

Nancy Campbell’s “Vision” for Her Children and Grandchildren

all about jesus

According to the Above Rubies website, Nancy Campbell is an “internationally known author, speaker, and authority on Biblical Motherhood and Family.” Campbell preaches the old-time Fundamentalist  gospel of patriarchy — a world in which women marry, obey their husbands, bear lots of children, and keep the home. Recently, in a post titled A Higher Vision, Campbell detailed her vision for her children and grandchildren. Here’s what Campbell had to say:

I want children who love God above all else.
I want children who are growing into the likeness of Christ.
I want children who love righteousness and abhor evil.
I want children who have a biblical mindset and stand for God’s truth.
I want children who will not compromise godly standards.
I want children who will not be tainted by the spirit of this world.
I want children who will not give in to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, but who will pursue the will of God.
I want children who love God’s Word and love to pray.
I want children who will blaze across this world with the gospel and message of truth.

Amen.

As you can see, Campbell’s vision for her progeny focuses on the Evangelical God and the Bible. Like many Evangelicals, her vision is singular and blinkered, making Campbell blind to the wonders of the world outside the narrow confines of the Christian box. All that matters to Campbell is that her children and grandchildren turn out to be good little Christians who follow the approved way of life.

I too have children and grandchildren, and like Campbell I have a vision for them. However, my vision is far different from that of Campbell’s:

I want children who think for themselves.
I want children who enjoy life.
I want children who treat others with respect.
I want children who love their families.
I want children who value hard work and enjoy the fruits of their labors.
I want children who aren’t afraid to stand against bigotry and racism.
I want children who will live every moment to its fullest, realizing that life is short.
I want children who value fun, pleasure, and relaxation.
I want children who will travel far and wide, enjoying the wonders of earth.
And most of all, I want children who are happy.

Amen.

Campbell’s vision is one of exclusion, whereas my vision is one of inclusion. Campbell’s vision focuses on right beliefs and obedience, whereas my vision focuses on embracing and enjoying life. Campbell’s vision sees the goal as a room in God’s celestial kingdom, where my vision sees the goal as a life well lived. Campbell envisions life as that of Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s ProgressTrudge on dear Pilgrim, remembering that Heaven awaits you IF you make it to the end. What a sad way to live life, squandering the too-short time we have on earth.

I have more of a Dixie Chicks way of looking at life. In 1998, the Chicks released the single Wide Open Places. I think the song aptly describes how those of us who are rooted in there here and now view life:

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

Many precede and many will follow
A young girl’s dream no longer hollow
It takes the shape of a place out west
But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed

[Chorus]
She needs wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes
She needs new faces
She knows the high stakes

She traveled this road as a child
Wide eyed and grinning, she never tired
But now she won’t be coming back with the rest
If these are life’s lessons, she’ll take this test

[Repeat Chorus]
She knows the high stakes

As her folks drive away, her dad yells, “Check the oil!”
Mom stares out the window and says, “I’m leaving my girl”
She said, “It didn’t seem like that long ago”
When she stood there and let her own folks know

[Repeat Chorus]
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes

Video Link

Wide open spaces, that’s what I hope my children and grandchildren find as the meander their ways through this life. Who knows what might lie ahead. Campbell wants to keep her children and grandchildren safe within the confines of the Evangelical box. (Please see The Danger of Being in a Box and Why it Makes Sense When You are in it and What I Found When I Left the Box) While there is great comfort and security that comes from knowing everyone is safely in the box, this is no way to live and enjoy life. That’s what Evangelicalism does. It confines people for life in Bible Prison, safe from the evil, sinful world. Humanism, however, opens wide the gate and says, You are FREE! Enjoy life. Embrace all that it has to offer, knowing that we don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Life is like the steam rising from a radiator on a cold winter’s day. It quickly dissipates into the air and then it is gone (James 4:14).  Solomon was surely right when he said:

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour
….
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?
….
Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.
….
For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun. Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

Let me conclude this post with the advice I give on the ABOUT page of this blog:

You have one life. There is no heaven or hell. There is no afterlife. You have one life, it’s yours, and what you do with it is what matters most. Love and forgive those who matter to you and ignore those who add nothing to your life. Life is too short to spend time trying to make nice with those who will never make nice with you. Determine who are the people in your life that matter and give your time and devotion to them. Live each and every day to its fullest. You never know when death might come calling. Don’t waste time trying to be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find one or two things you like to do and do them well. Too many people spend way too much time doing things they will never be good at.

Here’s the conclusion of the matter. It’s your life and you best get to living it. Some day, sooner than you think, it will be over. Don’t let your dying days be ones of regret over what might have been.