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Category: Guest Posts

Is “Israel” Evidence for the Existence of God?

israel palestine

Guest Post by Neil Robinson

As for evidence, you might be aware of Israel. That nation has been in the news much of late. So, without being flippant at all, I present Israel as evidence. Think about it. They are living the script written thousands of years ago. Not by chance.

— Don, A Christian Apologist

Israel as evidence for the existence of God. I’m thinking about it as Don suggests.

Where did it all begin, this bizarre notion that one tribe in the Middle East was chosen by God to be his special people? According to the Genesis myth, it was when YHWH promised Abraham he’d be his best buddy forever and ever, so long as he mutilated his body and those of his sons in perpetuity. They would also have to keep every one of this bullying god’s 365 rules and regulations, including the petty and piffling ones. So far so good, apart from the fact it was all very one-sided, and the mutilation of course. You’d think this would’ve been a sign that things weren’t quite kosher, but no; Abraham and his descendants buy into it and almost straight away, YHWH begins to let them down.

God’s Chosen Ones soon find themselves slaves in Egypt. A second mythical character is needed – up pops Moses – to get them out of this scrape. Unfortunately, after Moses has finished chatting with YHWH, who identifies as a burning bush on the top of a mountain, the sulky deity feels slighted by something the Israelites are doing. As is his way, he has many of them slaughtered and the rest he forces to troop around the same small plot of land for 40 years. This is how best buddies treat each other!

Later, the Jews find themselves defeated by the Babylonians and are carted off into exile. This exile, which YHWH does nothing to prevent, lasts 70 years. Still, it leads to a pleasant song made famous by Boney M in 1978 so I suppose it was worth it.

For the next few hundred years, Israel fell under the rule of other nations more powerful than itself. Not to worry though, YHWH is still ‘looking after them’, particularly those who are slaughtered in the rebellions that ensue. As Robert Conner says in a recent comment on Debunking Christianity, ‘If Yahweh ever threatens to bless you and your children, just kill yourself and get it over with.’

Fast forward to the Roman occupation of Israel. YHWH, having undergone a makeover, reneges on his promise to take care of his Chosen Nation forever and ever and comes up with a different plan to save people from his own cussedness. Now, if they want to continue as his friend, they have to believe a supernatural being has returned from the dead.

Abandoned by God, as he now wants to be called, Jews who haven’t defected to the new faith see their sacred, eternal temple destroyed by the Romans in AD70. Thousands of them are massacred and the Jewish nation ceases to exist.

This sets the pattern for the next two millennia in which God’s new friends organise pogroms, massacres, and vicious persecution of Jews. This culminates in the Final Solution of the Third Reich which seeks to eliminate the Jewish people entirely. While awaiting extermination in a concentration camp, Andrew Eames scrawls on the wall of his prison: ‘If there is a God, He will have to beg for my forgiveness.’ God allows six million of his Chosen People to die at the hands of the Nazis.

Following the Second World War, Israel took possession of the area surrounding Jerusalem, then occupied by Palestinian Muslims who are themselves descended from earlier immigrants. Thousands on both sides are slaughtered in the conflict that follows. In 1948, after almost 2,000 years, Israel became a nation once again; not through any miracle of God but as a result of human endeavour and bloodshed.

Tension and further skirmishes followed, leading to the present day when Israel finds itself under attack by Hamas terrorists. Thousands of innocents – women, children, and babies – have been slaughtered without mercy. Israel is, as I write, retaliating and intends to enact further vengeance. And where is God in all this? You guessed it: nowhere to be seen.

According to some – including the naive writer at the top of this post – all of this serves as evidence of God’s existence. That Israel has persevered for so long, despite opposition, persecution and the holocaust is not, however, evidence of God, any more than the great cathedrals of the world are. It is instead testimony to the resilience, resolve, and sheer bloody-mindedness of the people themselves. Perhaps their belief in YHWH (they don’t, of course, recognise his Christian counterpart) has fuelled their persistence, as it has their territorial claims.

Jewish beliefs and history are not evidence that YHWH exists. If anything, his apparent abandonment* during their many trials and tribulations is evidence to the contrary.

*Of course a non-existent entity can’t actually abandon anything, any more than it can lend its support or favour one group of people over another.

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

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Vivek Ramaswamy Disingenuous About His Religion

Vivek God is Real

Guest Post by Troy

If you’ve seen parts of the first Republican Presidential debate, you likely noticed the brash young neophyte (and obnoxious) Vivek Ramaswamy. Not only is he a practicing Hindu, he’s also the highest caste in the Hindu religious system. So I found it interesting when he makes a list of “truths” (many of which are not or are nuanced to the point of not being a “truth”), the first being “God is real.” This does have a strategic value to him. He can stave off questions about his, let’s face it, alien religion and does so because his audience isn’t thinking about sacred cows and the non-person Hindu god Brahman. By doing this he can cauterize the political wound his religion will no doubt have on the evangelical base of the GOP. Americans are so unacquainted with Hinduism that at least for now he’ll likely get a free ride on his religion. There is no religious test to be President, but since he seems to be wearing his religion on his political sleeve, I think it is fair game. Ramaswamy also gets a free ride on the caste system which no doubt has been part of his success. While he is asked questions about American racism based on skin color, the media aren’t even primed to ask about the Hindu caste system that is based on societal traditions. I suppose one question that one might ask is this: Will American evangelicals tolerate a polytheistic Hindu so long as he kisses Trump’s keester? After all, Trump is not and never will be an evangelical. In addition, can Ramaswamy “hide” his Hinduism in plain site by proclaiming “God is Real dammit!”? For those of us who’d like to see less church in our state, I’m sorry to say Ramaswamy would be as bad as Trump or Pence. The best way to hide this deficit is to overcompensate–he will overtly and loudly be a cheerleader for evangelical church-state entanglements. Hopefully, it doesn’t get that far, but I’ll be interested to watch and we need to make sure the media is asking the right questions to take Ramaswamy to task.

Video Link

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

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

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

The Mind Set Free

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Guest Post by Merle Hertzler who blogs at The Mind Set Free

If you search for my site, The Mind Set Free, you are likely to first find a book and sermon by Jimmy Evans, A Mind Set Free. Evans promises mental freedom. Yet he relies on the theme verse, “Casting down arguments, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” That does not sound like mental freedom to me. That sounds like mental captivity.

By contrast, when I speak of the mind set free, I am encouraging intellectual freedom, which is the freedom to explore ideas that differ from your religious background or cultural demands. Evans, however, asks people to commit that they will listen only to that which is consistent with what he calls The Word of God. He asks people to consciously block out ideas that differ from the Word of God. That is mental captivity.

The Place of the Skull

He explains why he thinks they crucified Jesus at a location called The Place of the Skull. It turns out God chose this place, Evans tells us, because God wanted to show the inherent corruption of natural thoughts inside our skulls. How does Evans know this is the reason for the selection of this site for the crucifixion? He doesn’t know this. But it makes for a good story. And so, he tells it as truth, not merely as one possible explanation. We hear that Jesus died in the place of the skull so he could let us know he wanted control of what happens in the skull. Really? That explanation sounds contrived.

I know how this works. Years ago, I regularly taught Sunday School. One can simply make up an explanation that sounds feasible, and so that is what it is. There is no need to question it or say this is just one interpretation. We found an explanation, so that’s how it is. Onward.

We hear that the devil and others are corrupting our thoughts in our skulls. What is his solution? He asks us to cast those thoughts out. We cannot allow ourselves to listen to anything that differs from The Word of God, which is, of course, his name for the Bible.

Why listen to The Word of God? He explains that the words in the Bible are so powerful, that they even brought into existence the very matter that forms the pulpit from which he is preaching. That is quite a stretch. First, nobody knows how the universe came into existence, but most likely the ultimate cause of the universe did not even have a mind. But even if the ultimate source of the universe had a mind, and we choose to call that mind God, we are still a long way from proving that this cause revealed himself in the ancient Hebrew scriptures and that the Bible contains his words. But even if that book contains God’s words, those words wouldn’t be the same words that created the atoms that made up his pulpit. Nevertheless, Evans somehow equates the words of the Bible with words that created all the matter we see. So, listen up!

He tells us to force ourselves to live by these words that he finds so powerful. “Every thought that comes into my mind,” he argues, “I need to point a spear under its neck and say ‘You are going to listen to what Jesus has to say’…Any thought that does not agree with the Word of God, I take it out.”

A lot of thoughts pass through my mind each day. Even if I wanted to avoid thinking them, how would I prevent my mind from thinking about these things? I don’t even know what my next thought will be. How can I prevent it from being one that opposes the Bible? He proposes that we block out those thoughts through biblical meditation.

Biblical meditation, as he defines it, is quite different from Eastern meditation, which is a process by which one empties the conscious thought stream while observing the thoughts that enter the mind outside of the normal stream of conscious thought. Some find that emptying the conscious mind this way is an effective method to see what is really going on inside the mind outside the clamor of everyday life. Others use relaxing vacations to do the same thing. The whole idea is to give the mind a little freedom to generate its own thoughts.

But biblical medication, as he proposes it, is the opposite of emptying the mind to give it freedom. Instead, he argues for purposely filling one’s mind with a particular set of thoughts. He asks us to force these thoughts from The Word of God into our consciousness night and day, constantly ruminating on them, constantly forcing the consciousness to dwell on the desired thoughts. We overcome atheist thoughts, he says, by forcing the correct thoughts–the thoughts that supposedly created atoms–into our minds.

To illustrate this, he tells us that, if we are told we should not think about a yellow elephant, we would find it hard to keep thoughts of yellow elephants out of our minds by sheer willpower. But if, instead, we force ourselves to think about purple lizards, then we won’t be thinking about yellow elephants. And so, he tells us, if we constantly think about the Bible (or purple lizards), then we won’t be able to think about atheist books (or yellow elephants).

The whole idea of trying to suppress certain thoughts often has paradoxical results. In psychology, Ironic Process Theory suggests that trying to suppress thoughts actually makes them stronger. In a famous experiment, Daniel Wegner found that subjects who tried not to think of white bears later found themselves thinking of white bears even more. In another experiment subjects listening to a story on a tape were divided into three groups that were each instructed either to a) deliberately not think about the tape, b) think about anything at all, or c) think about anything including the tape during the time the tape played. After the story finished, those who had been asked not to think about the story were more likely to talk about the story compared with those in the other groups. Similarly, another experiment found that subjects with a spider phobia, who were told not to think about spiders for five minutes, found themselves more likely to speak about spiders after that period was over. In yet another experiment, subjects with chronic low back pain were asked to play a computer game against a harassing opponent. Some subjects were told to suppress feelings of anger during the game. Those subjects who were told to suppress feelings of anger were later more angry and more aware of their chronic back pain after the game was over.

All these experiments show it is not easy to suppress thoughts and feelings. Attempts to do so can have paradoxical effects. The suppressed thoughts often later rebound to become very strong. The person who is going to continually suppress thoughts against his religion and force himself to think only thoughts in line with his beliefs can find himself needing ever larger efforts to keep the unwanted thoughts out. The result is not mental freedom. It is mental captivity.

When we hear new ideas, and our minds are interested, then it is fine to listen. That is what I refer to as the mind set free. It is simply observing that some new way of viewing the world has stimulated our thinking and then taking the time to understand and analyze that new view. If we find the new thoughts helpful, we can incorporate them into our worldview. If we find the new ideas worthless, we now understand why we don’t want to pursue those ideas further. If the ideas come up again, we know immediately why we rejected them before. No need to pursue them further. We already thought it through. Those thoughts already had their day in court. We move on. That is true mental freedom.

But Evans apparently would not have us take time to understand opposing thoughts coming from the world. He tells us instead to take those thoughts out. When the atheist speaks, we should apparently metaphorically clap our hands over our ears and shout the thought down: “I don’t hear you! I don’t hear you! Thus saith the Lord . . . Be gone, yellow elephant. Purple lizards, purple lizards, I am thinking of purple lizards. I don’t see no yellow elephant!”

That is not mental freedom. It is mental captivity.


One thought stream he tells us to avoid is thoughts of low self-esteem. I agree that self-esteem issues can lead to depression and anxiety, so yes, it is important to have healthy self-esteem. The combination of our biology and previous experiences can sometimes lead many of us into dangerously negative self-thoughts. That is a real problem. To overcome this, Evans resorts again to his self-brainwashing technique, in which one overflows the mind with thoughts he considers proper such that the negative thoughts don’t even have a chance.

With his technique, we endlessly concentrate on The Word of God. One verse he suggests is Psalm 139:14, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” So, if you are feeling down, just keep repeating this verse? I can tell you from experience this does not work for me. Constantly repeating a verse that tells me what to think does not overcome what the mind wants to think.

Yes, we are wonderfully made. Any biology book will tell you the amazing details of human biology. And many books talk about the marvelous things that we can do. But, of course, our biology is also deeply flawed, leaving us susceptible to diseases and unnecessary limitations, and our inner selves can also be flawed. But still, the overall being is good. And so, we can find many reasons to view ourselves as something worthy of value and respect. If we understand those reasons, we can truly feel good about ourselves, while balancing this positive view with realistic knowledge of our limitations. Such understanding is far more fruitful than repeating that an ancient book says I am wonderfully made. We overcome low self-esteem by understanding what it means to be good as a human. We cannot overcome it by drowning out reason with a steady stream of preferred thoughts.

Evans turns to another verse to build our self-esteem: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) Here we have a statement that is simply false. You cannot do all things, even if Christ strengthens you. You are human. You have human weaknesses. You are limited. Endlessly repeating that we can do all things is simply brainwashing ourselves to believe something that is not true. If you truly force yourself to believe that you can do all things through Christ, then you have an unrealistically high view of yourself, a view that others who see you can easily interpret as hubris.

If your solution to negative self-thinking is unrealistically positive I-can-do-all-things thinking, it is no wonder that such positive thoughts don’t do well at crowding out the negative. Eventually, those suppressed negative thoughts push their way to the forefront of consciousness. It is better to instead understand the many facts about the whole self that are both realistic and positive.

In the popular secular treatment, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, patients learn about negative thoughts that distort reality, such as, “People always focus attention on me, especially when I fail.”  “Only my failures matter. I am measured by my failures,” and I am responsible for every failure and every bad thing that happens.” These are distortions of reality. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, one learns to identify these distortions that cloud the thinking and to view things more positively based on realistic assertions. Such therapy is far different from the therapy that simply brainwashes one’s self into thinking one set of thoughts that is not exactly true in the real world.

Evans tells us that it is the devil that is telling us to have low self-esteem. One wonders then why the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “We are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil,” and why John Calvin taught that self-love was a noxious pest. Were these people doing the work of the devil? Faced with the facts, Christians simply abandoned the historical Christian teaching on self-esteem, and conveniently found that thoughts that promote self-esteem were in their Bible all along. But the positive thoughts they find in the Bible are often far from reality.


Evans turns next to a discussion of sexual desire. He tells us that, when he was young, sexual thoughts overwhelmed him. He doesn’t tell us if his desires were for men or women, and I don’t care. Sexual thoughts are totally normal in young people. I have no problem with a person having and enjoying thoughts of sexual arousal, provided one doesn’t then behave and talk in ways that are inappropriate.

How did Evans conquer his lusts? “I began to meditate on scripture,” he tells us. “I got set free that quick,” he says with a snap of his fingers, “It didn’t take two seconds.”

Somehow, I don’t believe it was that simple. If sexual thoughts come to my mind, then no, constantly repeating “whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart,” (Matthew 5:28) does nothing to help me. Instead, I could simply acknowledge the thoughts and find ways to act morally and respectfully in the situation. If the drive becomes strong, there are ways for people to later relieve the urges in the privacy of one’s bedroom or with a consensual adult partner. But if one insists on removing the thoughts through self-brainwashing alone, then I doubt this will do the trick in two seconds as claimed. When faced with sexual desires, endlessly repeating Bible verses until the thought goes away only induces guilt without addressing the thoughts. Such attempts at mental freedom do not work.

Suppressing sexual desires can have all the familiar paradoxical effects of suppressing any thoughts. The suppression can lead to the thoughts becoming stronger. By contrast, understanding, accepting, and dealing rationally with desires can break the power of those thoughts.

Bruce Gerencser has documented countless times that members of the clergy have been charged with Black Collar Crimes, often involving sex. No doubt many of these people knew verses about sexual purity, preached them, and thought about the verses often. But in the end, somehow the urges allegedly drove these people to immoral activity. Endless meditation on commands does not end the desires. Understanding the desires and appropriate responses is far better.


Evans promises that his technique of metaphorically shouting down every idea that differs from the Bible is guaranteed to free you from fear, anxiety, depression, and lust, and that any Christian who does not know such verses is bound for defeat. He is simply wrong. Ask any good psychologist. There is simply no evidence that forcing yourself to think about how Jesus does not want you to fear, become discouraged, or lust will solve your problems. There are plenty of other good psychological options.

If you agree with Evans’ technique of closing your mind to every idea that differs from the Bible, it is doubtful that you have read this whole post. The words written here are specifically words he probably wants you to avoid. It is your choice. If you want to allow only those thoughts that say the Bible is God’s word, that say you can do all things through Christ, and that condemns any thought of sexual fulfillment outside of strict biblical norms, be my guest. But please, do not call that a mind set free. It is not. It is a mind held captive.

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

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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Is Prayer in Schools the Answer to All America’s Ills?

prayer in school

Guest Post by Matilda

Recently, Matt Gaetz has said he wants a law to make prayer mandatory in schools. He’s just the latest in a long line of fundy lawmakers, pastors, and leaders to want the same, telling us it’s the only solution to every one of the USA’s problems.

I’m comparing that belief in school prayer as the antidote to all that is wrong with American society, to religion in UK schools.

Britain is now an almost secular society in spite of the fact that, since 1947, it’s been law here that there should be a daily act of Christian worship in schools and that religious education (RE) should be part of the core curriculum. The mandatory act of worship still stands, though the teaching of RE is subject to local education boards and faith schools can set their own curricula. I used to observe that the only parents who withdrew their children from Christian teaching were from ethnic minorities who practised another religion. I then saw white British-born parents beginning to exercise their right to withdraw their children because they just found the idea of religious indoctrination abhorrent or totally irrelevant to their lives.

I was told that becoming a teacher was God’s plan for me, and that it would be a great career for sharing my faith. Newly married, hubby and I did just that. We were huge fans of Larry Norman back in the early 1970s. We played his albums repeatedly. I remember that a chill went through us as we heard his line in a song, ‘It’s against the law to pray in schools.’ And we worried slightly, because here in the UK, hubby and I, as teachers, could unashamedly promote our evangelical faith. Perhaps Norman was being prophetic, we would soon be persecuted and have to go into hiding.

In one place I lived, Christian mums held a monthly prayer meeting for Christian teachers in the local schools. In another, our church put out a summer prayer list, where students could fill in the dates of each of their end-of-year exams so we could pray for them on those days. Maybe our church students would be ‘A Good Witness,’ by getting better grades than heathen students and be able to attribute it to the power of prayer for them in school.

For decades I had free range. I told bible stories to 5-7-year-olds, quietly ignoring genocidal bits of the OT. I took assemblies – many schools didn’t have a practising Christian on the staff so were relieved when one offered to do that. Then schools were told they should be part of ‘the wider community,’ and invite local clergy in for morning worship. We rubbed our hands with glee and contacted evangelical speakers, or evangelists visiting the area and got them in so they could promote our brand of Christianity. I took courses that led to me training schools on how to utilize the newest, trendy way to teach RE in their schools. A fundy organisation had managed to draw up an RE curriculum that was very Bible-based, yet acceptable to secular authorities, but it required training, so I did that gleefully too. Being sneaky-for-Jesus was just fine if it got our flavour of faith into schools.

So, I’m wondering how prayer in USA schools would affect society – because it certainly hasn’t in the UK.

Back to those praying mums who told me I was ‘sowing seeds’ with every story. Maybe not now, but even many years on, it might get my hearers to think about their eternal destiny. . . I seriously can’t think of having met anyone who got saved as an adult by recalling what they had to pray for in school or because of what they were taught in mandatory RE classes. I suggest that if you ask many Brits how they’d describe school assemblies, they’d say ‘boring.’ No one’s ever told me they got saved by recalling that teacher many years later, who’d pranced about on stage with sets of two toy fluffy animals boarding the Ark and explained God’s omnibenevolent character to them through his genocide. No one’s ever told me they found The True Meaning Of Christmas when they took part in those many Nativity plays I produced, much as those pretty little (blonde) girls loved those sparkly angel dresses, tinsel, and glitter.

Am I completely off track here, Am I completely misunderstanding USA Christian culture?

I’m just recalling my wasted decades of praying and evangelising openly in UK schools, and, like other evangelistic projects I took part in, they recorded a score of zero converts.

What effect do you think compulsory prayer will have on America’s children? Will it re-Christianise the country as God sends wondrous, miraculous answers to school prayers?

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

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

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Overcoming Obstacles

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Guest post by ObstacleChick

“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Philippians 4:13 (KJV)

Many who spent a significant amount of time in evangelicalism will be familiar with this verse. Personally, I questioned the wording, thinking that it should be “I can do all things through Christ WHO strengtheneth me” but that was not how the wording appeared in KJV. As someone whose brain can overanalyze anything, I wondered whether it was Christ who strengthens me or the IDEA that I can do all things through Christ that is supposed to strengthen me. That is, does Christ himself strengthen me, or does the knowledge that if I work with and believe in Christ I can do all things? These are different concepts, and I heard different interpretations. 

Regardless, in the athletic world, I see this verse quite frequently printed on race shirts, tattooed, or written in ink on the bodies of athletes. I wonder how these folks interpret this verse. However they interpret it, obviously these athletes view the verse as a mantra to keep their mental game strong.

There is considerable research into the effects of one’s use of psychological tools on one’s physical athletic performance. An example of a recent review of research from the National Library of Medicine is noted below:

Mental toughness is the ability to handle pressure, adversity, and stress by overcoming failures. It is also the state of persisting without refusing to quit, with the possession of superiority in mental skills. This review aimed to describe the effect of mental toughness on the performance of athletes and also to have an insight into the various interventions to improve mental toughness. For this, PubMed was searched using the appropriate keywords till December 2021 and a narrative synthesis was performed. Mental tightness was evident to be correlated with many important aspects such as better performance, goal progress, withholding stress, coping, optimism, and self-reflection. It also helps in a better level of confidence, constancy, control, positive cognition, visualization, and challenges than the opponent team. Many interventional strategies have been adopted in previous years which mainly focused on personalized programs including psychological skills training, coping and optimism training, mindfulness, yoga, general relaxation, imagery, and a combination of both, and many more other aspects were observed to be effective in improving mental toughness. However, physical training alone did not observe to be beneficial. The current evidence indicates the important role of mental toughness on the sports performance of athletics and the role of various interventional strategies focusing on mindfulness and psychological interventions in improving mental toughness. All these interventional strategies need to be implemented in the actual practice.

When I was in college, I learned that a regular and consistent exercise regimen could be beneficial to my health. There were few people in my family who were active; instead, I had many relatives who suffered from a variety of illnesses, and the messaging I received from my relatives was this: “you’re female, and in our family, your destiny is to get fat — but don’t let yourself get fat.” There was no messaging on how I was supposed to handle this issue, so I started paying attention to fitness and nutritional advice. In my early 20s, I started exercising, and I continued to do so through 2 pregnancies, my 30s, my 40s, and now into my 50s. Along the way, I picked up road running 5Ks through marathon distance, and a coworker introduced me to the sport in which I currently specialize, obstacle course racing (OCR). OCR is basically running distances from 100 m to 24-hour events with a variety of obstacles that demand that one goes over, under, through, or carry heavy objects. OCR requires full body strength, skill, and running ability. Participants run the gamut of first-timers looking to challenge themselves to professional athletes. When I completed my first race in 2012, I was a fit first-timer who became hooked on the sport to become a fairly proficient age group competitor.

In 2019, I started to exhibit some success in my age group, sometimes snagging a top-3 finish. Focused training has helped with my skills, and I have improved in races. However, there are instances during races I suffer from imposter syndrome, and sometimes my focus and mental game slip during the course of the race, especially if I am struggling with an obstacle. Sometimes, I’ll give up and stop pushing hard, only to beat myself up during the car drive home. I regret the number of times I watched a 3rd place finish slip through my fingers because I neglected my mental game.  When I retain my focus, refuse to give in to negative thoughts, and determine to persevere, I can do quite well. 


The Spartan obstacle in this photo is called Bender. It’s a ladder that starts about 6 feet off the ground and leans toward you as you approach it. Racers need to climb over the top of it. It requires some upper body strength, some skill, confidence, and overcoming fear of heights for those of us who fear heights. It’s an obstacle I have struggled with, not for lack of strength but for lack of trust in my own strength. My body is capable, but sometimes my mind goes in a negative direction. There are times that I have succumbed to negative thoughts and given up. 

For the past few months I have been struggling with the normal perimenopause changes my body is going through. There are days when I feel like I am living in someone else’s body. Hot flashes, sleep disruption, body composition changes, slower recovery, and where is my motivation? But I will not give up. A 20-minute workout is better than none. One round of exercises is better than none. And usually, once I get started, even if I feel like I am sluggish or weak, I will feel better after 10-15 minutes.

This weekend I went for my weekly long run and did not feel motivated or enthusiastic. I felt slow and sluggish, but after about 30 minutes, I felt good. After 60 minutes, still good; 90 minutes, good; 120 minutes, good. A woman ran up beside me and commented that I was running at a good pace and asked how many miles I had done. She was surprised that I had run 12 miles and had a couple more miles to go. She asked questions about my training, saying she was 42 and wants to run a marathon in 2024. I encouraged her to keep training and let her know that I am 53 and just completed a 50k a few weeks ago. She thanked me and told me that I was inspiring.  

Sometimes we inspire people when we are doubting ourselves. We need to just keep doing what we’re doing and stop critiquing ourselves so much. For some people, a mantra like Philippians 4:13 can help them with their mental toughness. Granted, it’s an appeal to an outside force rather than focusing on one’s own strength. Those of us who are atheists know that no amount of prayer will make up for the lack of proper training. As former evangelicals, we were taught that we should NOT rely on ourselves but should rely on God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. As an atheist, I can ONLY rely on myself – my training, my mental fortitude, my preparation. Honestly, it is a privilege to be able to complete the training and races, and I am thankful that this body allows me to do so. I do not take that for granted.

Have you found yourself in a position where you have needed to shift your mindset from trusting in an outside source (a deity) to trusting yourself? What were some challenges you have faced to make that happen?

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

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From Segregation Academy to Parents’ Rights

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

When I was verging on thirteen, my family moved from Brooklyn, New York to a small New Jersey town that was turning into a bedroom community for New York commuters.

I forgave my parents for that move when I turned 40.

Seriously, any sort of disruption is difficult for someone entering puberty. In previous posts, I discussed how conservative my old neighborhood—blue-collar, white, and Roman Catholic—was. While our new community was more middle-class and not as Catholic, it was, in some ways even more conservative—and religious. Or, at least, the prevailing attitude is perhaps more influenced by religion. 

Some of that, I believe, had to do with the light and physical space. In Brooklyn, we lived in apartments until I was eight. Then my parents bought a row house, where we lived until we moved to New Jersey.  That house, the apartment buildings, and most other structures in the neighborhood were constructed from bricks flaked and bubbled but somehow held together and insulated the people within them like the worn coats of old people. Those bricks, those houses, simmered softly in summer heat and glowed like embers at sunset, and echoed stories shared on stoops and over hearty meals. 

There were no bricks on our block in New Jersey. In fact, there were few anywhere in the town, except in one of its older sections. Oh, and I was older than the house we moved into, or any of the others on our street. They were single-story or split-level, with no basements—or stoops. So neighbors couldn’t sit outside and chat unless one invited the other into their yard or house. The fronts of those houses were flat, painted in flat shades of white and beige. 

Almost everybody I knew in my Brooklyn neighborhood attended the same church, in the middle of our neighborhood. Many of us also attended its Catholic school. Ironically, as much as we talked, and kids played with each other, we interacted very little, if at all,  during Mass. If anything, the church served a purpose that, I would learn much later, Elizabeth I envisioned for the then-new Church of England: It wasn’t so much a unifying faith as much as a social glue. In other words, she cared more about attendance than belief.  Likewise, we—even those of us who attended the church’s school– didn’t talk much, if at all, about our notions of the triune God but we all knew enough to attend or “assist” at mass on days of obligation.

The New Jersey town had a Roman Catholic parish, which I attended, as well as churches and chapels of the mainline Protestant denominations. If I recall correctly, there was also an Evangelical church, but I (and, I suspect, almost anybody who didn’t attend it) didn’t know what it was. On Sunday morning, the streets—quiet except when people were on their way to work or school—were all but deserted, as most people were in one of those churches. I don’t recall any open hostility or even debates between members of different churches, but there didn’t seem to be much communication between the leaders of those churches, or between members of churches about matters related to their institutions and faith.

As I described in an earlier post, my Catholic school in Brooklyn was, in essence, a Northern segregation academy.  It opened around the time courts ordered the busing of Black and brown kids from other neighborhoods–”trouble,” as some called them—into public schools in white neighborhoods like ours. Our New Jersey enclave was “spared” such a fate because, well, there weren’t Black or Brown kids to bus to the school. I recall only one Black classmate: an extremely intelligent and talented girl whose family had a farm on the outskirts of town and, I would learn later, were descendants of a community of free Blacks and escaped slaves that once lived in the area. I would love to know how many times that girl and her family heard “we don’t mean you” from white people talking about the race “problem.”

 I knew only one kid who attended the Catholic high school: an athlete whom the public high school (from which I graduated) barred from its football and track teams because of a medical condition. My guess is that other kids went to that school because their parents really wanted a Catholic education for their kids—or, perhaps, they wanted to protect their progeny from lowlifes like me!

So, that school didn’t have to be a segregation academy. But, in a sense, the town itself was one. I don’t know whether the local shade of skin has darkened any since I left, more than four decades ago, but it seems that some members of the local Board of Education are trying to “shield” kids from “unsavory” influences, just as they moved to the town to forget, and to keep their kids from knowing about, the darkness and rough edges in the bricks of the cities they left.

Lest you thought that only the likes of Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott are trying to eradicate the existence of LGBTQ kids in the name of “parental rights,” consider this: the town I’m talking about—Middletown Township (ironically, the home of Governor Phil Murphy) has just mandated the “outing” of transgender and other gender-variant kids. Under the new policy, if, students ask to be called a different name or identified by a different gender from the one on their birth certificates, ask to use the bathroom, or participate on a sports team or other activity designated for the “opposite” gender, teachers must notify those kids’ parents.

(Three other New Jersey municipalities, including one that borders Middletown and another in the same county, have proposed policies with nearly identical language.)

Now, I understand parents wanting to know what their children are doing, in school or elsewhere. But I also know how vulnerable such kids are: After all, I was one, though I didn’t “come out” and begin my gender affirmation process until I was in my 40s. Moreover, from other experiences, I know of the perils some young people face. When I taught in a yeshiva, boys confided questions about their sexual orientation, or simply their wish to know what life was like outside the Orthodox bubble, to me. (One also talked about sexual abuse from a rabbi.) Later, as a college instructor—both before and after my gender affirmation—students came to me with questions and fears they couldn’t express to members of their families and communities. And, when I co-facilitated an LGBTQ youth group, I worked with 14 and 15-year-olds who were kicked out of their homes or bullied out of their schools when they “came out.”

Some of those parents who disowned their gay, trans, or genderqueer students, no doubt, thought they could “protect”–segregate– them from the “influences” of people like me. And, by getting rid of the “bad apple,” they can keep the rest from “spoiling.” 

It’s hard for me not to think that the same kinds of people who supported Catholic Northern segregation academies like the one I attended in Brooklyn are also behind the proposals to out kids in the name of “parents’ rights”– in order to segregate other children from the ungodly influences of kids like the one I might’ve been had I the language or awareness to define myself, and those teachers and other adults who might’ve been my allies.

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

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The Place I Will Never Go Again

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Guest Post by Steve

As an ex-Christian and a person living with a mental illness, I have thought quite a bit these past few years about how religion and mental illness intersect, and the positive and negative effects their interaction can have on one’s well-being (especially the mental and emotional aspects). And my inspiration to write this came from a revealing question I asked myself.

What place would I never set foot in again?

I have been to some very remote, rural places where the soil seems to grow far-right extremists. Of course, I was drawn there not by the people, but for the natural beauty found in many such places. I have lived in Wyoming and worked in some of the reddest counties in Florida. And perhaps if I went back to such places, one of those areas would be the place I would never want to visit again, now that the political discourse has become even more toxic than it was in 2016. 

But I went to this place in early 2015, just before (or shortly after) Trump announced his candidacy for President. There was no cult of Trump yet, and visible support for the man in this town was scant, if there was any at all.

But what I saw in Crescent City, Florida scared the shit out of me even more than Trump. What I saw there during my brief four-hour visit has existed in this country for decades longer than Trumpism. And it finds its most fertile soil in communities like these. What I saw there was an unadulterated display of Christian Nationalism that I have never seen the likes of since, even in the rural communities in which I have lived and worked.

I did not technically choose to be in Crescent City that night. I was only there because I was a volunteer for a community organization that served the area and my partner and I were tasked with setting up a booth there to promote it. We were working a community event taking place in the heart of their “downtown.”

The Crescent City Catfish Festival opened with a prayer (of the Evangelical variety), and the musical entertainment for the evening consisted entirely of worship music. Perhaps I am too much of a sheltered suburbanite, but such an overt display of religiosity at a nominally secular public event was not something I ever expected to see. But that is not the main reason I wouldn’t return there.

I can’t recall what the booth next to ours was sponsoring or selling, but the old man there gave me the creeps. I was already struggling with a depression that would eventually lead to my first suicide attempt and involuntary hospitalization, and I think my low mood must have been palpable, or perhaps the old man’s church taught him to spot the signs that a person might be open to a “word from the Lord.” Either way, what happened next was shocking, disgusting, and uncalled for.

Roughly two hours in, the old man walked up to me and looked at me. What came out of his mouth were not words of the good news of salvation through Jesus, but the exhortation to get right with God before we died and went to Hell, if we didn’t believe already. What made things even worse was the tone of the man, which I have since heard echoed in right-wing street protests by youth one-third his age. It was the tone of smug self-righteousness, mingled with sadistic glee, mixed with the emphasis on hellfire.

Vulnerable as I was, this only made me more anxious and eager to leave. When I told my colleague I was disturbed by what this man had done, he brushed it aside, leaving me to grapple with my anxieties and fears alone. Not knowing anything at all about my mental illness at the time, I began to think the old man was right. Maybe I needed to get right with a God I no longer believed in. Maybe God was punishing me for smoking weed, slacking off on my schoolwork and internship, et cetera. Maybe I had strayed off the path and needed chastisement to bring me back into the fold.

And while these doubts and worries did not end up bringing me back to the faith (nor have they in the times I’ve experienced them after that), they worsened my depression and my self-confidence greatly. Looking back, I now know what was happening. I was so overwhelmed I shut down completely. My internship and my classes, my roommates’ hostility towards me, my cluelessness as to what I would do after graduating college, and the feeling of alienation from my friends and family — they all weighed on me. 

And so too, did the “get right or fry” message from this old man. Instead of the supposed love and grace of Christ, all I can think about is the pain and punishment of Hell conveyed through the words of a mean and intrusive old man. I already hated myself so much at the time that this was just gasoline on an already growing fire. 

Seven years later, the public displays of religiosity in Crescent City are ever-present now at right-wing rallies, in the halls of government, and in the classrooms of children. And in most cases, the people most apt to publicly display their religion like this are the types who will go on to mentally scar others through interactions like the one I had with this old man. 

There is no love in the Christianity these people proclaim, only destruction and dominion. The sooner people realize this and realize that Crescent City and places like it are the communities these Christian zealots idealize, maybe we can beat back the rising tide of Christian Nationalism before we are all swept up in its clutches. 

I will never go back to Crescent City, but unless we do something about it, we may all be living in Crescent City sooner than we realize.

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

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Why a Shovel? And Other Dissonances

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Guest Post by Matilda

I was a teacher, a new term started and I soon worked out that one of my class of six-year-olds, Ben, was from a Christian family. He was a chatty child and told me of church picnics and events, of the preacher he liked because he always brought a ventriloquist’s puppet teddy for children’s talks. (Cringe, cringe from me – it was called Brother Ted.) Ben said the name of his church. Google told me it was a Brethren Assembly, KJV-only church, and in pictures of the congregation, l saw that some of the older women wore hats that looked like ones my old grandma wore in the 1940s and 1950s. No one was smiling.

I was fundamentalist, mainstream Baptist, so not as dyed-in-the-wool fundy as Ben’s church obviously was. Looking back, my dissonances had begun partly through knowing young Ben, but it was years before I faced them, until finally, they got to be too many and too compelling for me to disregard any longer.

Over the coming months, having Ben in my class certainly brought some of them to the fore. The children were allowed to bring a new toy they’d had for their birthday. Ben brought a spaceship and explained it to me. He detached the capsule and said two astronauts were bringing a dead astronaut back to earth in it. When they got here, they’d bury the deceased spaceman in the ground and include a shovel. Naturally, I asked, ‘Why a shovel?’ and he said it was so that the man could dig himself out of his grave when Jesus came back and go to Heaven with him. (I still can’t pass a cemetery without smiling at the thought of all those graves with shovels in them, laid across deceased Christians’ chests. Maybe it’s true, God helps those who help themselves.)

One day he told me he’d learned the memory verse for Sunday School. From the Google pictures I’d seen, the Sunday School children all appeared to be under ten years old. Ben said they were going to stand out front next Sunday and say it to the adults with actions. Then they’d repeat it ten times so the adults learned it too. It was Romans 6:23, ‘The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.’ (I daren’t ask what the actions to Romans 6:23 were.) What a verse to be indoctrinating small children with.

One morning, Ben’s mother asked to speak to me to tell me Ben might be upset that week, his grandad had just died, and Ben had also seen a funeral group leaving a house in their street and asked about death. As I expected, Ben wanted to tell me about this. He said neither grandad, nor the deceased man in his street, went to church. He paused and then added, ‘But they were both kind, good people, so I think they’re in Heaven now.’

What a mash-up that poor child was being indoctrinated with. They were told every week that they must accept Jesus as their Saviour or they wouldn’t go to Heaven when they died. Or when you die, do you stay dead in the cemetery with your shovel till Jesus returns? Or does God let good people into Heaven the minute they pop their clogs, even if they didn’t go to church? Which is it?

I wonder what happened to Ben. I do hope his keen mind enabled him to figure it all out and escape that rigid Brethren upbringing. He’s not the only one, of course, confused by the dissonances, contradictions, and clear-as-mud commands of the Bible — lots of us were — until we finally made our escape. I hope so very much that Ben did too.

(He also told me one day of a disappointment. He’d been assigned the part of Jesus in a church drama about the call of Matthew. I said that was a very important part. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I wanted to be Matthew, the Snack Collector.’ I guess in that role, he hoped he’d be able to legitimately extort chocolate bars or Pringles from the others in the play!)

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

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Two Amusing Anecdotes About Watching Pat Robertson and the 700 Club

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Guest Post by Troy

Pat Robertson died last week, and this got me thinking about a couple of stories from when I used to watch. Back in the early 90s, we got cable television after a long wait living in the boonies. (I was a commuter college student living with my parents.) One source of amusement for me (and one of my brothers) was Pat and his 700 Club. In fact, I called Pat’s 700 Club the “other comedy channel.” Pat had some hilarious antics — “word of knowledge” where he’d “heal” someone in the audience. I always laughed when he’d squint his eyes down so hard when he’d pray that I’m certain he thought that was the key to its delivery to God. While most secular people I’ve seen were saying “Good Riddance” to Pat, I actually wish he had made it to his predicted Biblical 120. It seemed his antics got crazier the older he got, and they’d bring him in for occasional commentary (and jocularity).

The 700 Club had a great cast of characters. Pat of course, who looked like some sort of Tolkienesque gremlin, Scottish Sheila Walsh (Oh Pat, thar out thar on tha straits! They ‘haint got no food! We haf to teach ’em about Jaysus!”), Church lady Terry Meeuwsen and Ben Kinchlow “The Black Colonel Sanders.”

Story One

Pat (who always had his ear to the ground for crazy news) had heard an end-of-the-world prediction that the world would end on Thursday, June 9th, 1994. During an entire week that I was watching crazy Pat on the 700 Club he was talking about June 9th over and over again. We college kids liked to stay up late, and sometimes really late. In fact, it was so late it was early . . . I’m wide awake at 2:30 a.m. watching the 700 Club. Spontaneously, I start waving my arms and yelling out June 9th! June 9th! Then I see my dad lumbering down the basement stairs shirtless and in his sleeping shorts looking like death warmed over. (OH NO!) “What are you doing?!! You’re lucky, I thought someone was breaking in and I was going to get my gun!” I told him I was sorry and that was the end of it. Of course, the next day was June 9th . . . but the world didn’t end. Pat wasn’t ashamed. He pointed out that there had been several earthquakes! Of course, there are earthquakes pretty much every day somewhere in the world. I did find it interesting Pat died on June 8th, so maybe he was just a little bit off.

Second Story

Pat liked to give out little freebies, but you had to call in. This time my older brother was watching with me. Pat went on and on about Dungeons & Dragons. I was just curious what was Pat’s beef with D&D? Call now! Get a free pamphlet about Dungeons & Dragons! I wasn’t really comfortable calling the 700 Club to request it, so my brother volunteered to do so. There was a phone in the basement and he went to make the call. He comes back about 5 minutes later with a giant smile. “Troy, that guy was praying for your very soul! Pat might be a con artist, but his prayer line people are definitely sincere.” The 4-page pamphlet came a while later in the mail. I was very disappointed. It was really, really, really lame.

I suppose Pat and I parted ways after that. I’d just tune in for dribs and drabs. I did contact the 700 Club one final time though. I noticed that one of the old stand-by hosts Sheila Walsh was no longer on the show. It seemed like Pat would get very somber when he’d mention Sheila, as if she had betrayed him or died. I had no idea. So I sent the 700 Club an email and asked what happened to her. Nothing nefarious though, she just left to pursue her singing and other churchy stuff. It is possible Pat was upset about Sheila quitting the show, though the email didn’t get into it.

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

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Let’s Talk About Church — Mennonite-Style

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Guest Post by Tammy

When Mom and Dad got married in 1960, he left his childhood church at Central to attend Lockport with Mom. Her entire family attended there, except for her sister Mary Lou, who left Lockport to attend Central Church with her new husband, Vern “Levi” Beck. There was a lot of back and forth between Central, Lockport, and West Clinton. Central was the parent church to the other two, and it had only been a few years that they were functioning as three fully independent organizations. The rest of the Mennonite Churches in Northwest Ohio were started later than these three, and I always thought of these three as the foundation of everything.

It was confusing to me when Dad would refer to West Clinton as the East Church. East and West are usually pretty straightforward for me, but only when I’m outdoors. As soon as I’m in any building, I lose my sense of direction, something that happens to me still to this day. Mom loses sense of direction all the time. I remember lots of times when Dad would ask her which way north was, and she would think for a while before answering. Whenever I’m in a new building and someone leads me to the correct room, when it’s time to leave I ask which direction is the way out. My instinct is to turn in the opposite direction. Even when I try to go against my instinct, I’m still turning in the opposite direction from how I entered the room. 

This habit, calling West Clinton the East Church, is because it’s east of Central, and Lockport is west of Central. For a long time, people called them the East Church and the West Church until they got their current names. I guess West Clinton is in the western part of Clinton Township, hence its name. Lockport is named after the historic village of Lockport, Ohio. It was a busy place for a while, because it was beside Bean Creek, and I think there was a grist mill and a saw mill there. 

Then Stryker and West Unity grew larger, and Lockport ceased to exist as a village. The cemetery is still there and is still used. It’s next to the Lockport Church, and most people assume that it’s associated with the church. But the cemetery is a secular entity. I think it’s administrated at the township level. Most of my relatives on Mom’s side are buried there. Most of Dad’s side is buried in the Pettisville Cemetery near the Pettisville School. 

I was in Mary Lou’s wedding, as a flower girl. The ring bearer was Levi’s nephew, Arlen “Dean” Beck, who was also in my Sunday school class. That Beck family liked their nicknames. My best friend a few years later was Linda “Pin” Beck, who also was in my Sunday school class, and who also was a nephew of Levi. And a cousin of Dean. I was sort of embarrassed to be in a wedding with Dean as my partner walking down the aisle. I was only about four years old, but somehow I knew it was a romantic thing, and I wasn’t sure about being paired up like that. Mom tells me that I behaved well as a flower girl, doing all the things that were expected of me.

Church was my entire social life, outside of relatives, for my first seven years. I only attended a few months of kindergarten, as it only occurred in the spring for kindergarteners in that school system. So I was two months short of seven years old when I finally went to school every day for an entire school year. For all of my childhood, church was superior to school. It was better morally, as we were following God. It was situated in a better place because it was closer to my house. It was better for my family because every time we went to church it was like a family reunion on Mom’s side of the family. School was an afterthought for me, even in high school. My first real boyfriend was in my youth group. I married my second real boyfriend. My best friend was in my youth group. My other best friends were also in my youth group, except for one or two. So my whole life was basically at church. School was like a job someone takes to get a paycheck. Church was the reason to live.

And church was better socially, as it was consistent throughout all my years. Kids would come and go from school, and I would have to change to a different building some years. But my Sunday school class had the same kids from preschool through my senior year, with very few exceptions. The girls were Linda, Pam, Lisa, and me, and the boys were Jeff B., Jeff W., Dean, and Todd. All of them were related to me in some way, other than perhaps Jeff B. They were some combination of second, third, and fourth cousins. Lisa’s dad was my dad’s first cousin. Todd’s mom was my mom’s first cousin. 

Sometime in the middle school years, Gene joined our class. He lived in Michigan, and his parents drove about an hour to Lockport for church for many years. They became central figures in many things there, teaching marriage classes, and being fully involved. They were more involved than a lot of the people who lived nearby and were related to everyone. But because they didn’t live in the local community, their family always seemed outside the circle in my young mind. 

Jeff W. was always a lot taller than the rest of us. He also shared my exact birthday. His mom and my mom were in the hospital together when we were born. I was born to a 21-year-old mother, and his mother already had several children and was probably nearly 40 years old. We had our first birthday party together, and we gave each other teddy bears. Jeff ended up living with his wife and children on the same farm where he was raised, in the same house. Years later, my brother Rick worked for Jeff when he needed help with his sandblasting business. 

It’s funny how I categorized things in my little mind. My dad had a friend in Kidron, Ohio, from their time serving together in PAX in Germany in the late 1950s. They chose to build houses for war refugees, rather than enlist in the military. We made lots of trips back and forth to spend time with Ernie and Jeannie Geiser and their kids. I loved their house because it had an elegant stairway to the upstairs of the house. Instead of a straight passageway, the bottom several steps extended out into a half-circle shape, leading into the living room. So you could sit on the half-circle steps, and visit with people in the living room. This was the height of wonder to me. 

On one of our trips back from visiting them, it was dark and we kids were sleeping in the back seat of the car. No seatbelts in those days. Dad built a wooden insert for the backseat of the car to cover where you put your feet, so the seat was twice as wide. It was like a bed, and we could all lie down and sleep on long trips. So I was in a sleepy state, but listening to my parents talk. Dad made a comment about Jeannie being a really wonderful wife, even if she wasn’t a Mennonite. My mind equated Mennonite with Christian, and while I knew there were other denominations, I also knew that only Mennonites go to heaven. I spent a long time thinking about how sad it is that Jeannie can’t go to heaven. 

On a later trip, we went to church with them, and in fact, they attended a large Mennonite Church in their area. It made Lockport look like a village chapel. I think I stopped worrying about Jeannie after that.

My great uncle Walter Stuckey was the pastor of my church throughout my childhood. He was my mom’s dad’s brother. Every year I received a birthday card from him with a stick of gum and a note about how I’m making my parents proud. I later realized that he sent these to every child in Lockport. 

I always liked how Walter would raise his hands over the congregation at the end of each service, and say, “Now may the Lord bless you and keep you, May he make his face shine upon you, and give you peace.” That’s how I remember it, although the verse he quoted may have been longer. It was always the same, and it was solemn and happy at the same time. I think this was the most religious ritual I ever had as a kid, and I loved it. I probably would have been very happy as a Catholic child. 

When I was about 13, Walter was ready to retire. It was a long and mysterious process, but we finally found a new pastor. I think there were a few fill-in or short-term pastors, but eventually, Keith Leinbach became my pastor for the rest of my childhood. He talked a lot more about personal salvation. He told a lot more personal stories. He was fun to listen to. He was very different from Walter. In retrospect as an adult, I see this as a huge time of change for Lockport. I’m sure there were adults that didn’t like it and others who thought it wasn’t enough change and wasn’t fast enough.

I attended baptismal preparation classes when I was 12 or 13. Walter was involved in teaching them, as he hadn’t totally retired. We were the first group to be water baptized where the girls were given a choice of whether to wear the head covering. In the 1800s, all the Mennonite women covered their heads all the time, like the Amish still do. In the early 1900s, all the Mennonite women covered their heads when praying. My Grandma Wyse kept a head covering in her kitchen drawer, and put it on quickly before Grandpa prayed before a meal. She took it off right after the prayer and put it back in the drawer. By the 1970s, Mennonite women only wore the head covering to church services, and there were discussions about whether it was required. 

So our little group in 1974 was given a choice. I chose to wear it. My dad talked with me about this decision, as he thought that if I started to wear it, then it would be harder to stop later when I no longer wanted to. He thought it would be better to never start. But all the women I admired wore one! So I did too. And then within a few years I stopped, as my dad predicted. By the 1980s, only the older Mennonite women were wearing one.

Mom couldn’t wear a veil at her wedding in 1960. She wore a head covering, with her fancy normal-looking wedding dress. She was fashionable and had short hair, but the veil was too much. The next wedding after that, the veil was allowed. Mom and Dad also couldn’t have wedding rings in their ceremony. They put them on each other privately between the ceremony and the reception. The next wedding ceremony after theirs had rings. Change was happening so fast in the 1960s.

So by the time I was in high school, I no longer wanted to be like all the other Mennonites. I was questioning everything. I was wearing dress pants to church for Sunday night services. That was living on the edge. I wanted to wear jeans but never pushed that hard against the unwritten rules. I also didn’t wear dress pants on Sunday mornings. I had friends who were conservative and only wore dresses to church. They were offended that I wore dress pants at all. I argued about it with the best of them. “God doesn’t care what I wear! I could wear jeans to church and he wouldn’t mind!” But then they argued back that we shouldn’t be a stumbling block to others, so I kept it to dress pants, not jeans. 

This is so weird to write this out. People wear shorts to that church now. They’ve had female pastors. They have female elders. Divorce and remarriage are allowed. I didn’t know a divorced person until I was in high school. They discuss whether LGBTQ people can have leadership positions, although that one remains a little verboten to this day. 

I know our society has changed since the 1960s throughout our country, but I think the rate and amount of change in the Mennonite church is far greater as compared with the change in our society. 

So when I was born, there was a picture of a lamb that was placed on a bulletin board near the preschool Sunday school classrooms. It had my name on it. All the new babies had a similar lamb. When we were old enough to go to preschool, the lamb was removed and given to our parents. Mine is in my baby book. Imagine having such a consistent attendance at a church, that you could do that. The baby was still there several years later, and the group of children going to the preschool Sunday school class was essentially the same kids that graduated from high school together over a decade later.

For a child, this is reassuring and safe. For a church leader, this is a disaster. The only way to grow a church in this situation is for the families to have lots of kids. (Unless the church has lots of community outreach, but the Mennonites were pretty distinctive. Others were always welcome, but it wasn’t easy to join up with Mennonites before 1975 or so.) 

The church growth era hit in the 1970s and 1980s, at the same time that family size was shrinking. There were lots of expectations that a church would continue to grow, or at least not shrink, My great grandma Roth was one of 15 children. She then had 7 children. Her daughter, who was my grandma, also had 7 children. My mom had 4 kids, and I had 3. Two of my adult children don’t have kids, and my son, Jesse, has two. Extrapolate that out for a century, and you can see that the church will no longer be growing. 

In fact, Lockport is dealing with this reality as we speak. We often had 300-400 in attendance when I was a child. I think it’s less than half of that now. You’ll always have some kids grow up and move away, and some marry into other religious systems, or decide that being Mennonite is not for them. 

I’m not lamenting that people are having fewer children, or that churches are shrinking, or that people move away. I’m just thinking about the impacts on our small communities when these social changes occur. The changes are neutral to me, but the social impacts are where my interest lies. Mennonites are not alone in this change. In the Western world, most religious institutions, and many community organizations like The Elks and The Masonic Lodge, have a similar process unfolding.

Every summer we had two weeks of Bible School. Some years it was in the morning, and some years in the evening, but it was always 4 hours of extreme fun! I think Bible school was my favorite thing in all of my childhood. We had snacks! We had crafts! We had recess! We had lots of extra kids there from the community! There were no grades or tests! There was the burdensome and strongly-worded suggestion that we memorize a few Bible verses each night in preparation to recite them to our teacher the next day. For which we would get a prize. Which I always did because I wanted the prize! But oh the burden of remembering that verse until I could unload it verbally and get my prize. Then I was free again!  Hurrah!

As an adult college student in nursing school, I loaded up my brain with all the facts for each exam, and the first thing I did upon leaving the exam room was buy a candy bar. It was awesome. And just now I’m realizing that it’s a holdover from Bible School.

We played lots of organized games at recess, rather than being free to run and roam as we were in regular school. I loved this! One of my favorite games was Red Rover. The kids split into two groups, and stand in lines opposite each other, holding hands. Then one group shouts (after conferring together to make a group decision, which the teachers did not dictate to us!), “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Tammy come over!” Yes! They called my name! So I would go running toward the other group and try to break through their hands. I had to run really fast because so many of them were bigger than me. 

One time I didn’t break through their hands. Instead, I flipped backward and fell onto my head on the sidewalk. I don’t remember this but I was told about it. My first memory of the event is lying on my grandma’s couch. I’m told that I hit my head hard enough that they thought I should rest instead of finishing Bible School that day. Grandma only lived a few miles away so someone took me there to rest. I have no memory of the time between running and lying on my grandma’s couch. I’m pretty sure it was a head injury that induced my memory loss. I was about six or seven years old, I think, based on which classroom and play area I remember from playing that game.

Youth group was awesome. We called it MYF, for Mennonite Youth Fellowship. It was as awesome as Bible School, but on Wednesdays all year long, and we were too cool to be THAT excited about it. There were Bible studies and praying and singing, but mostly it was hanging out with other high school kids and going away for weekends. Lots of campouts and bike trips and cookouts and games. 

MYF sponsors were married couples who committed to a few years of guiding us through all of this activity. It was the most involved volunteer position in the church. The MYF would vote on who they wanted to be their sponsors, then the current sponsors would go ask them. We knew it was risky. Lots of people declined to do it because of the time commitment. But those who said yes were our heroes. My Aunt Donna and her husband Art said yes, and they were my favorite people for a long time. Also Richard and Teresa Stebbins. Yes, they are just enough older than me to have done that. They were probably only in their early 20s.

Pinegrove was a little church that Lockport had started in the 1950s or so, in the Stryker area. They were pretty small, so they teamed up with us for MYF. It was awesome to have new people with us, at a time when we were realizing how interrelated we all were as we saw each other at family reunions. My first real boyfriend went to Pinegrove and I met him through MYF. It turns out that he is my third cousin. No one seemed to mind. It didn’t even matter to me when I realized it. My own parents are third cousins to one another, I reasoned, and everything turned out fine. I had an awesome biology teacher in tenth grade, Mr. Dilbone. He focused a lot on genetics, as it was the hot new science of that era. I knew that beyond first cousins, it was ok to procreate. Maybe even first cousins were not a problem …

Now this all seems so funny to me. My daughter Lydia realized early on how many relatives she had in Northwest Ohio, and one time she said she wanted to marry a person of another race because they would be the least likely to be her relative.

One MYF game we played was Walk A Mile. It’s an excuse to hold hands with the opposite gender. Nobody thought about how LGBTQ people felt about that idea. Boys and girls paired off holding hands, stood in a long line, and extra people left over were the runners. We started walking down the country roads after dark. The runners would go to a person and say something like, “5 back”, and then they got to hold the girl’s hand and the other guy had to go back 5 couples and do the same. Or the girls were runners – depending upon which gender had more people. It was fun making up the instructions for the handoff. I didn’t realize until talking about this as an adult with my husband, that people cheated! Never entered my mind. They of course chose their partner based on their preferences. I was so honest that it was literally unthinkable. 

Speaking of LGBTQ and Mennonites, Pam, from my Sunday school class, and I had quite an adventure. We were about 17 when we went to a Mennonite conference near Kitchener, Ontario. It was for both adults and youth, and we were part of a huge youth choir. We went to all sorts of meetings and workshops, and there was so much to do and see. Pam and I were interested in a workshop on sexuality. We were almost late, and got seats in the front row. As it started we realized that this was meant for the adults, not the youth, but we stayed anyway. Then we started to realize that the topic was not sexuality in general, but it was all about the homosexual question in the Mennonite Church. Then during the question-and-answer time, the man sitting beside Pam asked a question, the content of which made it clear that he was gay. This was the first gay person we had ever known! Afterward, we were so startled and excited and stunned and didn’t know how to feel about this! Pam whispered to me, “I was sitting by a gay man!”

The Mennonite Church continues to talk about this topic to this day. I think they decided that each church can decide for itself, but it has contributed to a lot of debate and a few church and conference splits over the years.

So on one MYF campout, Pin and I were sitting around a campfire with some boys a few years older than we were. One was her cousin, Lynn, and one was my boyfriend, Mark, and there were a few more. Mennonite boys were known for their pranks. But Pin and I were naively innocent. The guys started telling us which weeds and grass were edible. They were picking different ones and naming them. This went on for quite some time. Then one of them said you better roast it first to be sure it’s safe, and they held it over the fire like a marshmallow. Then they ate it. And we believed them the entire time.

On another MYF trip we were staying for a weekend at Brunk’s Cabin in Indiana. There was a lot of ice skating and sledding. On one trip down the hill, my sled spun out of control and I ended up hitting a big tree with the middle of my back. I laid there looking at the sky for a bit, as I couldn’t breathe. Pin’s cousin, Lynn, came to check on me and said, “Are you ok!?!?!” He looked really scared. By then I could breathe, and I simply said, “Yes”, and got up. I never let on how scary that was. Years later, my chiropractor saw scar tissue and a bone spur on that area of my back when he did x-rays. I think it was from that sledding accident.

I loved our annual MYF manhunts. I think it might be my favorite thing of all about MYF. We would choose a farm of about 80 acres, and trade years between which gender did the hiding. The others had a few hours to find them. The losers had to put on a banquet for the winners.

We also divided this activity by gender. I’m starting to think the whole purpose of MYF is to get the kids to marry someone, the opposite gender of course, within the church. And do it young so you have lots of kids. 

Anyway, one year the girls hid in a cornfield on my great grandma Roth’s farm, which was by then being farmed by one of her kids. It was only a few miles east of where I lived. It was in October but the corn wasn’t harvested yet. So we just laid down between the corn rows, all in one long row. We thought that even if the guys walked through the cornfield, it would be difficult to cover every row. And yes, they walked through the cornfield and were only a few rows over from us. We could see them. But they never found us, so they had to arrange and serve the food at our banquet in November.

Another year, we hid on the top of Pam’s dad’s barn. He had a double roof on it, where there was an area where both roofs sloped downward toward each other, and if you went to the bottom of that roof area all you could see was the roof around you and the night sky. So we all laid on the roof, cozy and clean in sleeping bags, while the boys searched the whole farm. We won again.

I think we found the boys both years that I searched for them, but I don’t remember the details. Hiding was so much more fun.

It was traditional to welcome the freshman class to MYF in September of each year. For a few weeks, we would do everything as scheduled, but then we would have an MYF initiation night. Some classes were worse than others, and the one older than us was pretty bad. I ate dog food covered in chocolate, had raw eggs poured over my hair, crawled through straw, and more. It took me forever to get all that out of my hair that night. This was the one thing I hated about MYF. It just seemed mean. 

The next year we were supposed to plan the initiation for the kids one year younger than us. I remember the meeting with the kids my age and the sponsors. We talked about how we didn’t want to do it. In the end, we had a harvest party in the abandoned house on my dad’s farm, and we didn’t do anything mean. Everyone else was surprised, and nobody did that sort of initiation for the rest of the time I was in MYF. My class stopped the hazing. 

Bible quiz was another option for us. I was in it for three years, but not for my senior year. In my junior year, I had joined a lot of extra activities and ended up with a case of shingles on my forehead and in my hair. The doctor had talked with me about how it can be related to stress, when the chickenpox virus is activated into shingles. I decided to cut back and Bible quiz was one thing I let go of. 

Quiz was a lot of memorizing. It made Bible school look like nothing. Over the three years I was in it, we studied the books of John, Amos, Mark, and James. We had it practically memorized. Once a month throughout the school year we would go to West Clinton’s sanctuary and be quizzed on our knowledge. I was pretty good at it. But I really liked the lack of pressure during my senior year.

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

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Bruce Gerencser