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Do Christians Really Love God?

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A Guest Post by John

Do Christians really love God?

I was thinking about this recently and wondered, when I was a Christian, did I really love God? At the time, I believed that I did. But on this side of things, I realize it was a pretty weird and one-sided relationship. It certainly didn’t start out with me loving God. I was a 12-year-old at a YMCA summer camp in 1980. Most of the camp counselors were either Bible school students or just really devout Christians. One night towards the end of the session, all the campers assembled around a huge fire. It was during this time that the gospel was preached to us; a gospel that basically said because of Adam and Eve, we are all sinners; Jesus came and died and was resurrected to pay for our sins; if we believe this and confess him as Lord, we get to go to heaven instead of hell. Hell was described in Evangelical language: eternal burning in torment kind of thing. Well, shit! When they asked if we wanted to pray the prayer of salvation so we would go to heaven, of course, I prayed the prayer! I entered into this relationship with God not out of love, but out of fear. I can’t say that I ever thought about loving God until after college when I started hanging out with some Bible school students that I worked with.

And then there is the whole thing about being commanded to love God. In Mark 12, people are told to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” What does that mean, exactly? I’m not sure that I love anyone to that extent. What is the difference between heart and soul? And how do I love with all my mind and strength? What kind of strength are we talking about? And, can you love someone just because you are told to? I don’t think you can. Can you love someone that you’ve never seen or heard from? Mmmm . . . again, I don’t think so. I thought many times in my Christian days that God had communicated with me about something. But now, I realize it was just me talking to myself, or it was just my natural human intuition. It was all a one-sided relationship. I do remember being thankful, and thinking I loved God because he saved me from hell. But he saved me from the hell that he created. That sounds suspicious! I don’t believe in hell anymore, but you know what I mean.

I try not to think of all the money and volunteer time I gave to the church. Of course, the main reason I was told that this is what I was supposed to do is because I loved God. And, God loved me so much that he would reward me in this life and the one to come because of my love and dedication to him in the present. Yeah, still waiting for some of that. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed most of my time as a Christian in the churches I attended and my days in ministry. But looking back, there was a lot of manipulation and brainwashing going on. Think about the worship songs we used to sing. How many songs did we sing about how much we love God/Jesus/Holy Spirit?

I love you Lord
And I lift my voice
To worship you,
Oh my soul rejoice.
Take joy my king
In what you hear,
Let it be a sweet,
Sweet sound in your ear.

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And there is no shortage of songs just like this one. And don’t forget all the songs about how much God loves us. It’s like we had to keep this in front of us all the time so we wouldn’t start questioning God’s love or if we really loved him. Or was I really just trying to avoid hell and some kind of punishment while I’m on this earth? Again, at that time, I would have told you that I loved God and was doing my best to love him more all the time. But when I really re-visit the things I did and believed, there were selfish reasons for doing so. Number one, I didn’t want to go to hell — thus my initial salvation and many rededications through my teen years. I tithed and gave because I loved God and my church, but I also was taught, and preached, the prosperity gospel. You reap what you sow, right? So if I sow money, I’ll reap money. It might be raises at work, or a better job, or my car wouldn’t break down, or something like that. But I can’t honestly say there was no thought of that in my giving. I wanted to know and live God’s plan for my life. Yes, because I loved him and wanted to do what he created me to do. But part of that was I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I figured if God really had a plan, surely I would enjoy it more than how my life was at the time.

Interestingly enough about that last part — God’s plan for my life — I’ve found life much more fulfilling now that I’ve left the faith. When I was a believer, I was always waiting for some kind of divine guidance to get me from where I was to where I thought I’d be happier. So I was never really present in the life I was living day to day. And the fact that I couldn’t seem to figure out God’s plan for my life only made it worse. Now, I’m present in my daily life, doing what’s in front of me to do. I’ve benefited greatly from secular Buddhist and Taoist philosophies regarding mindfulness and all that goes along with that. Is life perfect? Of course not! I work a pretty stressful job, I’m dealing with stress at home, I have some health issues I’m working through, etc. But I have tools to help deal with life that I never had as a Christian. And they are much more effective than prayer ever was! And I can say that I’m much healthier mentally and emotionally than I ever was chasing after God and his plan and working on loving him more.
So to answer my initial question, do believers really love God, especially the way the Bible says we should? I’d love to hear your thoughts and about your experiences with this.

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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Only the Heathen Cry

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Guest Post by Elise Glassman. Originally published in Aji Magazine Spring 2023.

Growing up in a preacher’s family means hosting a lot of other peoples’ graduations, weddings, and funerals. Each of us has a role to play at these major life events: Dad preaches, Mom runs the reception, and my sisters and I do everything else – we set up chairs and tables, babysit, hand out programs, serve coffee and punch, and clean up after everyone goes home.

Nan’s memorial in 1980 is our first family funeral and I have a new, unfamiliar role: mourner. I didn’t know my great-grandmother well, didn’t understand how tough she was, a single mother in the1920s who lived through the Dust Bowl and World War II and taught at a one-room schoolhouse in Kansas. She was a librarian, property owner, and amateur genealogist, but I only knew her as an elderly relative who sucked on butterscotch candies and occasionally bought us Dairy Queen.

At her wake I sit quietly in the small, hushed funeral home parlor, studying the shiny coffin. Nan’s sunken face is covered in translucent powder, her snowy hair freshly set, shoulders prim under a silken blouse. The room smells of lilacs and a deep earthiness. I look at her and wonder if she’s in Hell.

In the front row, Gram and Aunt Helen weep and dab their eyes with tissues. Only the heathen cry when someone dies, Dad says. Their sadness is proof the godless have no hope. They know they’ll never see their loved one again. For IFB believers like us, funerals are joyous occasions because we celebrate the loved one’s reunification with the Lord, their homecoming. It’s selfish to cry and be sad.

Even in death, we judge.

And, caught between these binary worldviews of utter hopelessness or the triumph of spirit over flesh, the three deaths that befall our family in late 1986 shake my beliefs, and make me question if what Dad preaches about God being in control is actually true.

In September, Gramp Welch has a heart attack and dies. Dad’s brother calls that night to tell us, and we immediately load up the van and begin the long drive to Kansas. Rose and I split the driving so our parents can rest. Dad weeps openly in the back. “I hope he did something about it,” he says, meaning, accepted the Lord.

After the funeral, we go with Gram to the Methodist church basement where women in perms and flowered aprons are setting out punch and casseroles. It’s strange for someone else to be doing the arranging and serving. “I miss Bill terribly but I know I’ll see him in Heaven,” Gram Welch says bravely, picking at her pasta salad. “He trusted in the Lord.”

From her wheelchair at the end of the table, Great-Grandma Staab says mournfully, “It should have been me.”

Later, back at Gram’s house, Dad and his siblings argue at dinner about whether the elderly woman who dozed off in the second row was Great Aunt Mamie or Mabel.

“Did anyone see if Uncle Lester made it?” my grandmother interjects, voice muted.

“What?” my aunt laughs. “Mom, we can’t hear you over that giant gob of mashed potatoes.”

“Who’s Uncle Festus?” Dad’s youngest brother asks. “I thought she said ‘Uncle Fungus,’” my other uncle says.

Dad raises an eyebrow and the siblings start riffing off each other.

“Uncle Fungus was among us.”

”A fungus among us!”

“You could say he’s a fun guy.”

“Are you shitake’ing me?” My aunt’s joke gets a stern look from her brothers.

“Oh, spare us,” Dad says, to groans.

His middle brother says, “there’s no room for ‘shroom jokes at this table.”

“We oyster talk about something else,” Dad adds.

The three give him blank looks.

“No?” His eyes take on a steely glint. It’s a look I know to fear.

“No, dummy, that doesn’t work. We’re riffing on mushrooms,” his sister says.

“Who’s the dummy?” Dad snaps. “I’m not the one living off Mom and scrounging for cigarette money.”

“Jesus H. Christ,” my aunt mutters, getting up. “I sure didn’t miss you and your smart mouth. How do you live with this asshole, Marian?”

Mom’s smile stays frozen on her face but she doesn’t reply. Later, the adults – minus my aunt, who stormed out – drink coffee in the living room and talk. I sit quietly in a dusty corner of the dining room, eavesdropping and looking at my grandfather’s rock collection. During his work as an oil‑field wildcatter, he retrieved interesting stones and fossils from deep in the Earth. Turning a shark tooth over in my fingers, I feel sad. I loved Gramp’s gruff laugh, his homemade peanut brittle, and the Christmas stockings he stuffed with fruit and small toys. We’re supposed to rejoice that he’s gone to Heaven but selfishly I wish he was still here.

On November 7, our head deacon Mr. Foster has a heart attack and dies. It’s his first day at an appliance repair job. He was fifty, which seems elderly, and I feel sorry for the Foster family but Dad says we should feel comforted, even happy, because he was saved and we’ll see him again in Heaven.

A day later, Aunt Helen calls, asking for Mom. “No! Not Pauly!” my mother screams into the phone. Uncle Pauly collapsed in bed, she says when she can finally speak. He’s dead. My parents sag against each other, weeping aloud.

“He was only thirty-six,” Dad adds. He himself turned thirty-nine just weeks ago. “I’ll never see my little brother again.” Tears gush from Mom’s eyes and flow down her face like an undammed river.

I lie awake that night, staring at the ceiling, listening as my sisters weep in their beds. I think about playing burn out with Uncle Pauly in the side yard last summer. My tall, tan, cheerful uncle, who took us to the city swimming pool and taught us to wrestle, is gone forever. It feels unbearable.

Two days later Mom and my sisters and I fly to Kansas City. Mom’s other brother, Uncle David, picks us up. As we walk through baggage claim, I remember waiting here for Gramp and Gram last May. I wish I could go back in time to when Uncle Pauly was alive.

The next few days pass with agonizing slowness. Each event is a fresh occasion for sadness: the memorial in Topeka, where Uncle Pauly and his family lived, the funeral home viewing in Yatesville, then a wake, two rosaries, and finally the funeral mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church.

During the service, there are readings and hymns, times to stand and times to kneel on little padded benches, and I don’t know when to do any of it. I don’t know how to greet the priest or if I’m to turn around and look at the soprano singing in the balcony behind us. Yatesville has always felt like home, but sitting in this pew in this ornate sanctuary, I feel like I don’t belong.

I reach over to Gramp and take his tanned, strong hand in mine. His fingers lie cool and lifeless in my palm. “Why wasn’t it me, Lis?” he says sadly, and I think I might break from crying.

Gram sits at the end of the pew, her head lowered, her fingers caressing her rosary beads. I’ve been so cruel to her this past year, so harsh in my judgments and opinions. I wish I could hug her, but her face is grim and shoulders hunched, her grief cloaking her like armor.

“Now we invite the family to bring up the gifts,” the priest says, and Aunt Helen and Uncle David stand up. I look at the program. Liturgy of the Eucharist. It’s the Lord’s Table.

I look down the pew at Mom but she shakes her head. As non-Catholics, we aren’t allowed to partake in this Communion. My grandparents walk slowly up the main aisle to the front of the church, accepting a wafer on their tongues and sipping from a golden goblet the priest holds.

IFB communion is closed too, I think, so Catholics wouldn’t be welcome. We’re united, Independent Baptists and Roman Catholics, in excluding the other.

When the day comes to fly home, Uncle David drives us back to Kansas City. We stop at a Wendy’s in Salina for lunch. “You can eat healthy here,” he says pointedly, heading for the salad bar.

Mom and my sisters study the burger menu but I trail my uncle, piling a plate with greens and vegetables and Italian dressing. I want to spend more time with Uncle David. He’s a writer and teaches English at a university in Florida. It seems like a wonderful, literary life.

When we get back to his rental car, there’s a slip of paper stuck in the door. My uncle unfolds it. “‘Next time, Baldy, keep your nasty fingers out of the bread stix,’” he reads. “Hands carry germs!’”

“That’s not very nice,” Mom says, but she’s smirking.

“I’m not even that bald,” he protests, wadding up the paper and tossing it in the back seat. He and Mom burst out laughing, and keep laughing until tears stream from their eyes.

These sudden deaths bother me. One minute Mr. Foster was moving a refrigerator, the next he was gone. Gramp Welch was reading in his chair and suddenly slumped over unconscious. Uncle Pauly had had the flu. The day he died, Aunt Terry said he’d mowed the lawn and taken his daughters for a walk. He felt tired after supper and collapsed while reading the newspaper.

These abrupt departures remind me of the way the Bible describes the Rapture. Jesus will return like a thief in the night, Dad preaches from First Thessalonians. Suddenly. Without warning. These deaths are the Raptures of 1986. They represent what I fear most: goodbyes, and disappearances.

Dad schedules Mr. Foster’s memorial service two days after Mom and Rose and Paige and I return from Kansas. He’s expecting a big turnout: Mr. Foster was a retired pastor and filled the pulpit at churches all over the Northwest. “Can you girls keep the nursery?” he asks Rose and me, as he props up a large photo of Mr. Foster at the front of the Basel Building sanctuary.

The rest of us are folding programs. “I thought the ladies from Grace Baptist were,” Rose says.

“Isn’t Rose playing piano?” Mom says.

We all look at Dad. Of course, we expect to have a role to play, but this memorial feels personal. Mr. Foster was a deacon and my boss at the Mission, and Paige is best friends with Kelly Foster.

A dark look crosses Dad’s face. “I asked Morgana Mitchell to play piano, so Rose is freed up for nursery duty. Is that okay with everyone?”

Mom says, “Yes, Marty. We just didn’t know.”

He snaps, “I didn’t realize I had to check in with all you nags before I made a decision.”

Rose and I head to the nursery to get ready. It won’t do us any good to protest. I didn’t feel like I belonged at Pauly’s funeral and I don’t feel like I belong here. “You girls,” ”I echo angrily. “He treats us like little kids.”

“We’ll get through it,” Rose says. “They can’t control us forever.”

The trio of deaths spurs me on with soulwinning. We can’t miss any opportunity to tell Gram and Gramp Hoffman about the Lord, even if they don’t want to hear it. My grandmother, overwhelmed by anxiety and the loss of her beloved son, needs compassion and understanding, but what she’ll get from me is a hard line: be saved, or perish.

“Now we know why you’re not at Bible college this fall,” Mom comments to me.

So people could die? I think. Am I really such an integral part of God’s plan? Dad preaches that being in the center of God’s will brings peace and contentment. But I just feel sad.

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.

Relationship or Situtationship?

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A Guest Post by Matilda

Nancy was widowed recently. She was 92 years old and her husband, Eddie was 96. In 2022, they’d celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary and, like all Brits on that occasion, had received a congratulatory Platinum Wedding Anniversary card from Queen Elizabeth, just a week before she herself died. Eddie’s mental and physical health was deteriorating, he’d had several minor accidents on the large grounds of the lovely English country mansion that had been their home for decades. He’d narrowly escaped death when he’d decided to dredge the lake he’d dug many years previously and whilst driving the digger, it had slid into the water, toppled over and he’d had to cling onto it till help came. He was snappy and irritable with Nancy in ways that were new to her.

The couple had a large extended family whom they loved to entertain — the east wing alone had 6 guest bedrooms. So this family was worried because just two weeks after Eddie’s death, Nancy packed her bags, dragged them downstairs, and told them she was taking a taxi to a nearby Care Home, one she’d had her eye on for a while, and it had a vacancy. The family thought she’d made a very wrong and hasty decision, one she’d later regret as she also said she planned to sell her beloved mansion home.

I saw it differently. I’d just learned the word ‘situationship’ and felt that was Nancy’s position. She’d loved Eddie, but watching him deteriorate, she dreaded every time he went into the gardens or his workshop, fearing yet another accident or that he’d collapse out there and not be found for several hours. I think her relationship had become a situationship, one that would never improve, it was all downhill for the foreseeable future.

She grieved for Eddie, but I think she had a sense of release, of relief that he’d died peacefully in his sleep and not after some collapse or accident, some long and painful stay in hospital leaving him even more incapacitated. She knew he’d be angry and frustrated if that happened, he’d take it out on her as she tried to care for him, and any caregivers they employed, would soon leave because of his bad behaviour with them.

I relate this to my deconversion, and learning this word ‘situationship’ made me realise that I’d believed I was in a wonderful and loving relationship with Jesus and my Father God who had his loving arms around me every moment. But gradually I became uneasy. I was Jesus-ing my socks off 24/7 and there was not even a glimpse of the great harvest of souls I thought my God promised his faithful ones. Our relationship was going downhill, however much I prayed for him to show me where I and my church were going wrong as we tried to ‘seek and save the lost.’ I could no longer put any trust in a belief that was often expressed by my fellow X-tians: that this reward for our efforts was just around the corner, we just had to perform one more evangelistic activity and the miracle would happen. I wasn’t in an awesome, loving relationship, I was stuck in a situationship, beginning to dread the future which was going to be one of sliding further and further downhill with more and more failed attempts at evangelism and at keeping our church active and relevant in our village.

I’m different from Nancy in that she was in a real relationship with her husband for over five decades until his health problems changed everything. I was in a fantasy one for the same length of time with a fictional God and Jesus. But I suggest that both of us celebrate our freedom now from many worries and inconsistencies. Our sense of relief is palpable. She’s happy in her one room in her Care Home — though her family is still sure she’s faking it, she must hate its small size after her mansion — and I’m happy and free too, differently of course, to do whatever I want with my life just as she’s done. I think both of us feel a sense of peace we wouldn’t have thought possible had we not been able to give it a try.

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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Toys and Houses

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Guest Post by Tammy

Let’s talk about toys. 

(Editor’s note: And houses. And shopping. And minimalism. As is the custom of this author, she rambles.)

My earliest memory involves a toy. I’m sitting on a floor of red and black square tiles in the kitchen of our mostly underground home, in about 1964. The home was a rectangle, with a long hallway in the middle down the long axis, effectively dividing it into two areas. The area to the east was the parent’s bedroom, then the living room, then the gun room. We called Dad’s workshop the gun room because it was where he worked on his guns. I think he was rebuilding old muzzleloader guns back in the early 1960s, although my memories are unclear. The gun room was always locked when not in use, and I didn’t even go in there when he was working there. It was clearly my dad’s private space. He kept the door open, but still.

The hallway was useful for many things, including playing “Mother May I” with our babysitters. And racing toy cars. And it made a wonderful circle in the house, around which we could chase each other. 

The other side of the house, to the west, was the kids’ bedroom (yes, I shared a bedroom with my two younger brothers, which didn’t bother me much. I just yelled at them to “get out” when I needed alone time.), then the junk room, then the shared bathroom/laundry room, then the kitchen. In between the bathroom and the kitchen was the entryway to the house. This was my favorite part. It was a long set of wooden stairs up to the surface of the world. It was like coming out of a hidden burrow each time we went outside. The wall between the stairway and the kitchen had a window without glass. We called it the kissing window. Because Dad would climb two stairs, stick his head through the window, and Mom would kiss him goodbye from the kitchen. We stored little items like keys and such on the windowsill. I can’t imagine why a window would be in that location but I loved it.

The bathroom was unique in that the toilet area was a foot higher than the rest of the floor. It was probably to accommodate plumbing, but it was truly a throne in my eyes.

The outside of the house was about 3 feet above ground level, with a flat roof covered in many layers of tar paper. The entrance stood up above the roofline, and when the snow drifts gathered around the house it was easy to imagine that the entrance was a tiny little building all on its own, barely big enough for one person to stand in. Decades before my parents bought it in 1959, someone else had built it as the first part of a whole house construction project. They lived in it, hoping to someday add the upper stories to the basement. That day never came. 

My dad drew many iterations of plans for the new house. The new house was at least a decade in the planning stages, and then another five or so years in building it. I was an adult before I realized that a big house could be built in under half a year if you hired some help. My dad did most of the work on the new house himself. I helped him with the bricks. Over the course of several summers, I carried bricks and mortar to him while he laid the bricks. I also thought that bricking a house always took several years. I sang songs to him while we worked. His favorite was “This land is your land.” I had no idea of its colonialist message back then, celebrating the stealing of land from the original Americans. I just liked the song.

(Late footnote per the author’s sister Jackie: “This Land Is Your Land” is more of a communist/socialist song, written in opposition to “God Bless America”, a true colonialist anthem. She cited sources. She is correct. The author confused two anthems about her native land. The author believes that colonialism and socialism are, however, equally vilified depending upon which news channel one watches.)

My dad was always a champion of Native Americans. He often talked about how horribly we Europeans had treated them, sometimes with tears in his eyes. He read a lot about history, especially about the land around his farm and where he grew up. When Roots was on television, it was a family event each night of the miniseries. He also instilled in us how horrible slavery and racism are. We had some adopted black cousins, and I was always proud of that fact as a kid. I was eager to see more skin colors in my world.

I was an innocent and gullible child. When it was time to start digging the foundation of the new house, Dad took the whole family outside to look at the hill that he was about to start digging into with his bulldozer. He had marked out the outline of the new house in chalk on the hill. The back half of the house was two stories above ground, and the front half was only one story above ground. This half-basement plan made the house warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, and also less susceptible to holding too much moisture like basements tend to do in swampy northwest Ohio. This was all clearly taught to us by our father. He wanted us to understand these things. He also demonstrated to us and to our visitors how the walls of the basement house were not straight. He would hold a wooden yardstick (always to be respected because, on the rare occasions when we were spanked, it was with that very yardstick) up against the wall of the living room, and the wall was at least six inches closer to the yardstick in some places as compared with others. It was clear that we should not complete the other man’s long-ago idea of adding stories on top of the basement house. The walls would fall in.

So we were out there looking at the chalk lines. And my mom turned to me and said, “Tammy, go over there and wash the dishes.” I thought she wanted me to go into the basement house and start the dishes, and I didn’t want to miss out on the first scoop of dirt that Dad was almost ready to take out of the hill! But she was in fact pointing at the imaginary kitchen in the new house. And I realized that I had been gullible once again. I was about ten years old and expected more of myself by that age.

Speaking of walls falling in, I was the sole responsible oldest person in the house when the water was falling in through those walls. My parents, with my youngest brother Joe, went to Toledo one evening and left me and my brother Rick home alone. There was a rainstorm, and then there was a lot of rain, and then something happened that had never happened before. The rain started pouring down the walls around the window in my bedroom. It was flooding the house, and as the oldest child and the person in charge, I was trying to figure out what to do. I got a bucket and old towels and started mopping up the water and dumping it down the shower drain. Rick continued to watch television. I continued to mop. After many buckets of water, I called my Grandma Stuckey. I needed help. She came over and stayed with us until our parents and Joe got home. Grandma didn’t seem to mind the flood. She just sat with us in the living room and I felt so much better. In retrospect, I think there were drains in the floors, seeing as it was a basement, and mopping was not necessary until the rain stopped refilling the puddles on our floors.

Back to toys.

So I’m sitting on the kitchen floor and Rick is sitting to my left. He’s only about a year old. He can’t walk yet. But he’s strong. I’m over three years old, but he seems stronger! He has a big plastic blue spoon, a toy for use in a sandbox. He is hitting the toy box with the blue spoon. Quite vigorously. I’m intimidated. I’m also shy. I also know he won’t understand my concern. So I moved away from him and let him hit the toybox. My first memory. Self-preservation.

I got a really cool Christmas gift one year at Grandma Stuckey’s house. I think it was from one of my young aunts. I had lots of aunts. But there were three young ones on the Stuckey side who ranged in age from six to ten years older than me. They were the best because they weren’t busy with their own husbands and kids! Joan, Donna, and Elaine. I’m sure it was one of them who got me this most wonderful Christmas gift. High heels! They were plastic, translucent, with a bow, and so very elegant. And they fit my feet! I walked around in those high heels for a very long time.

I also had a full set of plastic dishes, along with a little stove, refrigerator, and some other kitchen appliances. I played with them a lot. I usually liked them. But there were so many of them! Keeping them all organized was so hard. I didn’t even know how many there were in total. They were a source of fun and stress all at the same time. I liked toys that were more unified. Fewer pieces. Ideally one big piece. So easy to organize and keep track of those types of toys. So I’ll tell you a secret if you don’t tell my mom. I would dump all the plastic silverware and plates and bowls on the floor. I hoped my brothers would walk on them and break them. Then I could throw some away and have less to keep track of and less to pick up and less to organize. I would never break them on purpose. That would be so bad. But accidents do happen.

Minimalism was a part of me from the beginning. I liked playing “Girl Scout,” It involved one of my mother’s scarves and a blanket and a cookie and a doll. Brothers were welcome if they wanted to join me. The idea was to wrap myself in the blanket, tie the scarf around my head, and sit with my doll on the grass while eating the cookie. I had everything that I needed. All that stuff in the house was not necessary, and I could look at the sky and live outdoors on the grass. It made me so content to sit there with only a few things.

When I was older, I would take long walks on the farm. I often walked through the woods behind Dad’s shop, on the paths that he mowed with the lawnmower every summer. Once I got all the way through the woods and across a small creek, where there was a meadow. I would lie down in the meadow and look at the sky. All I could see was clouds and the meadow grass blowing around me. It was perfect. I needed almost nothing to be happy and no one knew where I was.

I wonder if the draw of minimalism comes from feeling overwhelmed. Too much stuff, too many people, too much noise – I just wanted less of everything.

Mom was ready to pull her hair out when I was in junior high. She took me shopping for clothing a few times a year. As I got older, I was more resistant to going. I don’t know that I ever refused her (I always wanted to be a good kid and get along with everyone) but I distinctly remember telling her that I don’t need more clothing. I told her that I had a pair of jeans, so why would I need a second one? Many of our shopping trips were all-day events, with various aunts and cousins joining us. It was a day of grand plans. A few different shopping malls in Toledo were involved. 

My favorite thing was always lunch. I could sit down for a while and refuel. I remember being so tired in the stores. I would sit on the floor sometimes while waiting for others to finish their shopping. We tended to shop in a large group, so I had lots of people showing me clothing and asking me if I liked it. Then they would bring it in different sizes to the changing room for me. It was concierge-level service. But I had no idea what clothing I liked. I didn’t know if I liked it when I tried it on. I couldn’t really tell if it fit or looked good on me. There were so many opinions from everyone else that I couldn’t find mine. So I bought whatever my mom thought I should buy. After wearing things a few times to school, then I knew what I liked.

All of this shopping was with the Stuckey aunts. We never shopped with the aunts on the Wyse side, and I never asked why not. There were just some things that were as they were, not to be questioned.

I wonder if I had low blood sugar as a kid. The meal was such a relief. A physical relief, like I was going to fall over soon. I didn’t talk about this much, in my memory. Maybe my mom thinks otherwise! Anyway, I hate shopping to this day and online shopping is the best invention ever. In very small amounts as too much clothing causes one to want to throw it on the floor and hope someone rips it apart so the closet isn’t so full …

As an adult, I went shopping once with my sister-in-law Elaine. We went to a large discount store in Toledo, and I planned to buy some dress shirts for Jim. It’s so easy to buy for men. They have consistent sizing between brands and don’t even need to try things on most of the time. Elaine and I were walking around the store, and after several minutes she said, “You don’t have to stay with me. You can look around on your own, and we’ll meet up at the cash registers when we’re done.”

I then realized that I had been following her, probably because I didn’t like to shop and I thought that was how you shopped with another person. I was over two decades old before I realized that the aunts who had stayed close together as a large group, always within each other’s view throughout the entire shopping experience, were an anomaly. Elaine was gently redirecting me to a different way of shopping. I was probably annoying her. And I hate shopping. So there’s that.

When I was a preschooler, I remember lining up my stuffed animals on the back of the couch before taking a nap. They all needed to be sitting beside each other, looking out over the living room. Then I could go to sleep. A few decades later, there was a little boy named Aaron who lined up his dozens of stuffed animals in a similar manner before going to sleep. Only they shared his bed and each one had to have his eyes clearly visible above the blankets so they could see what was happening as he fell asleep.

My favorite toy ever was a 10-speed bike. I saved up about $100 and Dad took me to the bike shop. I think he paid half and I paid half. It was the coolest thing available in the 1970s. I rode that thing everywhere. I would ride it the eight miles to Archbold for marching band practice. Ride eight miles, march and play music for 3 hours, and ride home for eight miles. I often rode around the country mile on our farm, just for fun. I don’t remember telling my parents that I was doing that. I wonder if they ever thought they’d lost me.

In MYF (Mennonite Youth Fellowship, the best part of the entire church experience in my opinion) we had a biking/camping weekend with an organization that set those things up for church groups. I was in the four-person group with two high school guys and Sam Wenger, who was the pastor of the church whose kids combined with ours for youth group activities. This was before I knew that he would be my future brother-in-law. Sam told me to lead the group. So I did. I didn’t want them to be bored with a slow girl leading the way, so I made sure to go fast enough the whole time. Years later, after Sam was my brother-in-law, he told me that he chose me so that he would be able to keep up with the younger people. And I went so fast that he could hardly manage to stay with our group.

And my other memory of favorite toys are not toys at all, but pets. We had a few cocker spaniel dogs. We would have a litter or two of puppies from them every summer and would raise them to a few months old and then sell them to people from the nearby cities. We had so much fun with those puppies. I sat outdoors with them many times, playing with them for hours. One time I leaned back in the grass, and a bee stung my right hand. But the puppies were so much fun that I just pulled the bee’s stinger from my hand and kept on playing.

I also had a baby goat named Peggy, who climbed all over my dad’s car. And a baby raccoon named Racky, who I fed with a baby bottle. I had scratches on my arms from where Racky held onto me as I fed him. And there were chickens, geese, and turkeys. And we hatched eggs in the incubator my dad made. We had baby chickens, baby ducks, baby geese, baby turkeys, baby quail, and maybe more that I’m forgetting. 

My first experience with grief was when my dog died. I was about twelve, and I cut some fur from her to remember her color before Dad buried her. It broke my heart. But there’s a grief experience that I don’t remember, except from the stories my mom tells me. My dog was named Do-Do, both O’s are pronounced with a long sound like in the word “So.” I named him. I think it was because he was trying to get the clean laundry off the clothesline and my mom called him a Do-Do. Like a dodo bird.

He died when a car hit him when he went on the road. Dad buried him behind the shop and put up a gravestone that was still there when I was in high school. I repeatedly said to my mom afterward, for many months, “Member Mommy? Do-Do died? Daddy cover up Do-Do? Member Mommy?”

All of our family pets were buried there over the years. When Jackie’s cat died a few years ago, in about 2015, I believe that she took it to the same site for its internment.

So there you go. A long rambling story about toys and all the other things that my mind wandered to while thinking about them.

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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They Know It When They See It

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Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Some Catholic school alumni are traumatized by the experience. I don’t think I was, if only because what I experienced in the church itself—specifically, from a particular priest—was far worse than any misfortune I incurred in the classroom.

Moreover, I did nothing to deserve sexual exploitation at the hands of that prelate. But some might argue that I had the impact of Sister Elizabeth’s hand against my face coming to me as a consequence of my insolence. 

So what was my offense? Another kid mentioned something about a movie popular at the time—Midnight Cowboy, if I remember correctly.  “Nobody should see it,” she pronounced.  “It’s dirty.”

To which I retorted, “How do you know?”

The funny thing, in recalling the episode more than half a century later, is that I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass, though I had the capacity for it. My question, really, was almost innocent; it just kind of popped out of me.

And I think, perhaps, she reacted more out of shock that even though I could be snarky—I’ve concluded that it’s part of my DNA—I actually was a rather well-behaved kid and a good student.  Plus, being an altar boy gave me some cachet in that milieu at a time when I didn’t know, and people I knew didn’t use, words like “cachet” and “milieu.” If anything, I suspect that until that moment, she rather liked me—or, at least hated me less than she and other nuns seemed to hate other kids.

So what got me to thinking about that episode? A recent news story. To wit: a parent in a Utah school district filed a petition to have a book banned from a local school.

All right . . .You probably think that there’s nothing unusual about that. After all, the Beehive State is one of the most conservative states in the nation. It may well have been the closest thing the United States had to a theocracy until Ron De Santis, Kay Ivey, and Greg Abbott started to make the fantasies of the Christian Right come true. 

Ah, but there’s a twist to this story. Actually, two twists. One is the book in question. The other: The parent in question has actually read the book.

That I had to write the previous sentence speaks volumes (yes, I know) about the current state of affairs. The folks who are emptying bookshelves in your kid’s school or your library don’t make sheepish admissions, as I might about having lived in New York City for much of my life, but never having visited the Statue of Liberty, about not having ventured between the covers of what they would keep from the rest of us. They boast about it and double down on their ignorance by saying they didn’t need to thumb through the pages; they just had to scan the reviews or ads for it.

That is why, if your kid is going to learn the truth about intergenerational trauma or brutality that underlies relationships that are supposed to nurture and protect the people in them, it won’t come from Maus or The Bluest Eyeat least, until Junior and Missy are old enough to procure or borrow them on their own, just as they won’t be able to look at Michelangelo’s David until they take a trip to Italy.

And, in the school district in which the parent I mentioned filed the petition, the yung’uns won’t learn about adultery, incest, and drunkenness from the book that the parent wants to ban. Just think of the irreparable harm that wonderfully responsible adult is sparing young, innocent people by shielding them from this:

See now, I have two daughters who have not known a man; please, let me bring them to you, and you may do with them as you wish.

Oh, but it gets worse:

Then they made their father drink wine that night also. And the younger arose and lay with him, and he did not know when she lay down or when she arose. Thus both the daughters of Lot were with child by their father.

Neither of those passages depicts any suitable role models. Nor does this:

[W]henever he went to his brother’s wife, he would waste his semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother. 

In addition to drunkenness, pimping children, incest, adultery (with an in-law, no less!), and masturbation, the book in question also mentions homosexuality, bestiality, fratricide, homicide, and hit-and-run fatherhood. Not the sort of stuff you want your precious child to dive into, is it?

The ostensible purpose of bringing up all of those topics is to warn people away from them—well, except for the homicide and hit-and-run fatherhood: Depending on who does those things—specifically, one who does them—they can be justified. But, still, you don’t want your kids to do such things, do you?

And if you don’t want your little ones to end up in Chelsea or the Castro district, you don’t want to learn about “alternative lifestyles” at such a young age. Perhaps that’s how the parent in question felt in filing the petition to ban the book I’m about to mention.

Since I know my audience, I am sure that, by now, most of you realize that book is The Book—a.k.a., the Bible.

Now, the parent—whose name and other identifying information were not made public—probably doesn’t want to make the Bible disappear from school bookshelves. A state legislator named Ken Ivory called the petition a “political stunt” (as if members of his own party haven’t pulled them!) and points out that the state law the parent cited as the basis for the ban is intended to keep “pornographic material” from soiling the hands and minds of babes. That same law, which purports to define what is “obscene”: It doesn’t have to be the work as a whole; it merely needs to contain mentions of sexual arousal, stimulation, or any number of other human activities.

Sir Kenneth Clark admitted that he could not define “civilization.” But, turning his gaze to the Notre Dame cathedral, he said, “I know I’m looking at it.” When, in giving his opinion in Jacobellus vs. Ohio (1964), US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart conceded that he couldn’t define “obscenity,” but insisted, “I know it when I see it.” Most people, if they’re being honest, would admit they can’t articulate a cogent, succinct definition of what they want to encourage or keep from their kid any more than a kid can learn what is right or wrong—or simply what a parent or other authority figure doesn’t approve of—unless they see examples of it. If you don’t want your children to masturbate or pleasure themselves with your family’s dog (something that was legal, under most circumstances, in Sweden until 2014 ), how do they know to avoid it (which, of course, they won’t, at least in the case of solo sex) if they don’t know what it is or why it’s so wrong?

I think that’s the point of the petition. If anything containing nudity or depicting sex acts is banned, not only will Fifty Shades of Gray white out or fade to black (If I were going to ban it for anything, it would be its awful writing. How do I know about it?;-)), the Bible and any number of textbooks would be consigned to the ash heap. Hmm . . . Maybe that’s the point: After all, the book banners’ (and garden-variety bigots’) champions know they need “low information voters” to get elected!

Oh, and Sister Elizabeth, wherever you are: If you actually saw Midnight Cowboy, all is forgiven. Entre nous, it’s really good. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone if you agree!

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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I Attended a Segregation Academy

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Last week, the Archdiocese of New York announced that twelve Catholic schools in its domain—which includes three New York City boroughs and seven suburban counties to the north—will close at the end of this school year.

That does not surprise me. The Catholic school I attended, in the neighboring Diocese of Brooklyn, closed in 2004. Three years ago, two dozen schools in the Diocese shut their doors forever. Today, there are roughly half as many Catholic schools and Catholic school pupils as there were in the mid-1960s, when both counts reached their peaks in New York and the United States.

Diocesan leaders and students of such trends cite several factors, which were accelerated by the COVID epidemic and sex abuse revelations. One is cost. When I entered Catholic school, right around the aforementioned peak, a parent, usually the father, could work a few hours’ overtime, or the other parent, usually the mother, could take on part-time work to pay their kids’ tuition. (Notice that I used the plural for children. It was not unusual to find multiple siblings in the same school, or even the same classroom.)  Although Catholic schools still aren’t nearly as pricey as secular private schools, today a working- or middle-class parent’s entire salary could go to the cost of sending one child to a Catholic school.

Another factor blamed for the decline in the number of Catholic schools and their enrollments is the changing demographics of their mostly-urban locations. The closure of my old school is practically a “poster child” of this trend. When I was growing up, my neighborhood was overwhelmingly Catholic with a small, mostly secular, Jewish minority. Today nearly all of the Catholics are gone; now my old neighborhood is part of the largest Hasidic Jewish communities in the United States. 

While it is true that nearly every New York City—and urban American—neighborhood has changed its racial and ethnic composition since the 1960s, many people who moved into those neighborhoods are also Catholic. I am thinking in particular, of course, of Hispanics, but in neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Crown Heights and East Flatbush, there are large communities of Haitian, Jamaican, and African Catholics. Having come to know some, I can safely say that many are at least as devout—and would want a Catholic education for their children as much– as parents of my community.

Of course, one reason why they don’t enroll their children is the aforementioned cost. While some immigrants are, or become, middle-class professionals, others are working multiple menial jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and food in their kids’ mouths. And it must be said that some who could afford to pay the tuition don’t see the point of doing so when, in contrast to the nuns who taught me and my old schoolmates, most of today’s Catholic school teachers are secular, just like the ones who teach in public school. “How Catholic is their education?” an acquaintance of mine wondered about her grandchildren whose single mother, from what I could tell, could afford the tuition only because of the child support payments and a couple of side jobs that augmented her main salary.

There is, however, a related story that no official in the Archdiocese of New York, or anywhere else in the Church, is mentioning. Most of the Catholic school kids of my generation, while working- or lower middle-class, were White. During the 1960s and ‘70s, many of their families moved. One reason is that they needed larger quarters for their growing families — it wasn’t called the Baby Boom for nothing — and houses outside the cities were more affordable. Or, as in the case of my family, the main breadwinner’s job moved outside the city.

Some of those families continued to enroll their kids in Catholic schools. But most, like my family, sent their kids to the public school in their new locale. As my mother would say, my brothers and I didn’t attend Catholic school because it was Catholic. Rather, she and my father, like other parents in the neighborhood, felt more confident in the education the Catholic school provided. Some of that, I suspect, had to do with the fact that my mother also attended Catholic schools.

But other families moved out of their urban enclaves for the same reason they enrolled their kids in Catholic schools while they were living in those neighborhoods. While some schools date to the beginning of large-scale Catholic immigration—first from Germany and later from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European countries—others, like the one I attended, didn’t open until the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the school I attended opened only a year before I entered.

That was also the same time Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and other conservative Christian churches were opening private schools, mainly in the South and Midwest. Ostensibly, the founders of these schools feared that “moral values” were being erased from public school curricula—and from the nation’s laws and value systems. They cited the end of prayer and the diversification of reading lists (and other things, one of which I’ll mention) in those public schools.

And what was being “diversified?” Well, for one thing, points of view: history and other classes were being revised to include the stories of people who had been left out.  But, most troubling to the founders of those “Christian” academies was the new variation in color among the student bodies that resulted from Brown v Board of Education in 1954.

A few school boards and elected officials—most notably Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus—openly defied orders to desegregate.  But more people, including church leaders, subverted that order through the IRS tax code, which allowed “religious” schools to claim tax exemption, and through exemptions provided in the civil-rights laws themselves for private institutions. 

Those schools are now commonly called “segregation academies.” While few, if any, openly barred students of color (mainly Black), they adopted policies that had the same effect. One was, of course, tuition that most Black families couldn’t afford. Another was professions of faith that may have run counter to the families’ beliefs. And some simply made nonwhite kids and families feel unwelcome.

Such was the case in my Catholic school.  I can recall no non-White students; nearly all of us came from the same few European backgrounds I’ve mentioned. (This, I believe, is part of what some of my old classmates mean by the “good old days” they pine for on their Facebook pages.) School and church officials would claim that the school’s demographics reflected that of the neighborhood, which was mostly true.  But, when I was growing up, a few of my schoolmates actually told me that their parents sent them to that school because there were “too many (N-words)” in the local public school.  And, as I recall, at least some of their parents were furious that “trouble”—a code word for Black kids—was being bused into the school and neighborhood.

In short, I can’t help but to think something that leaders of the New York Archdiocese, Diocese of Brooklyn and the church can’t or won’t acknowledge: some of their schools, like the one I attended, were essentially Northern segregation academies. The irony is, of course, that in some neighborhoods, the very people those parents, and sometimes school and church officials, tried to keep out are now the neighborhood that can’t or won’t support the Catholic schools that are, or are in danger of, closing. 

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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Our Church Stories

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

I hadn’t heard from “Ivette” in decades. So, when I saw her name in the subject line, I hesitated.  But my curiosity got the better of me, and I opened the email.

“Dear MJ.” She opened with my current, not my “dead,” name. A pleasant surprise, but was it a prelude to something less respectful, let alone affirming? 

I can’t remember our last encounter, but I know it took place in—or in the context of—the Evangelical church where she was a volunteer who did, basically, anything deemed not important enough for male members. In all honesty, she could have done a better job than I did of leading a Bible study and editing the church’s newsletter. She knew it as well as I did, but if she had any resentment, she didn’t express it, I suspect, as much out of the deference expected of her as to her emotional grace, which she possessed to a much greater degree than I ever have. 

So why was she writing to me after so many years? Did she want to bring me back to Jesus—and the name, gender, and life I left with him, with the God who was him and his father and his ghost?  Or would she, like someone else I knew from those days, berate me because I am not, and could never be, a “real woman: because I have never menstruated, married a man, given birth, or had any of the other experiences by which they define themselves?

Fortunately, her email contained no attempts to return me to her faith—which, I would soon learn, was as much a part of her past as my life as a boy and man was part of mine. She did, however, ask if we could talk. I replied in the affirmative and she sent me her number.

Turns out, she’s been living on the other side of the country almost since the last time I saw her. Ostensibly, she moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast for graduate school and a job. She could, however, have done those things, at least in the field of her study and work, almost anywhere, including the New Jersey town in which our old church was located. 

By now, you might have guessed that she wanted to move as far as she could from that church and anything related to it. The reason did not surprise me—it was something I’d suspected all of those years ago when we were in the church—but it appalled me nonetheless.

“He raped me.”  I knew exactly who she was talking about: a deacon, twice her age or close to it. Sometimes I felt guilty because as a “good Christian,” I believed I should have made more of an effort to engage with him. But I just couldn’t: a sense not granted to me by the Holy Spirit guided me away from him. Throughout all of the time I was part of that church, we were the proverbial ships passing in the night. 

Oddly enough, our pastor, who encouraged us—well, most of us—to get to know each other so that we could serve the Lord “as a body in the spirit,” as he liked to say, made no effort to bring us together even though our avoidance of each other—actually, more mine of him—created a few awkward scenes. I believe that the pastor may have thought I was trying to short-circuit an illicit attraction, which I didn’t have for the deacon and I don’t believe he had for me, even though, given the right circumstances, he might have used me as he used Ivette. Although many more years would pass before I would come to terms with the sexual abuse a priest inflicted on me in the Catholic church where I served as an altar boy, I understood that the deacon was purely and simply a sexual predator, although I, like most people, wasn’t using that kind of terminology to describe people like him.

One striking parallel between Ivette’s story and mine is that each of us clung to our belief or, more precisely, our desire to believe, after experiencing sexual trauma from trusted leaders in the church. That, of course, led me to the church where each of us experienced another kind of trauma. Hers, of course, was brutal and physical. Mine, on the other hand, was psychological, though I didn’t understand it until much later.

People who haven’t been “tokenized” don’t understand the damage it can do. Although my sexual orientation, let alone my gender identity, were never openly discussed, I am sure there were whispers. I was lauded for “sublimating” my desires, which were not named, in service of the Lord. In other words, without saying as much, I was held up as an example that Jesus “loves the sinner but hates the sin” and will therefore guide said sinner away from sin, if only the sinner allows Him in.

Having been sexually abused by “men of God,” I mention my mental distress, not to minimize Ivette’s experience of sexual exploitation, but to mention another way in which she was harmed. Ivette was the only non-White person in the congregation. She is bi-racial:  Her southern Black father married an Englishwoman he met while stationed with the US Air Force. While her identity or appearance—she had a café au lait complexion and nappy black hair—were never pointed out publicly, she was told, privately, that God was “using” her to show that he “loves all of his creations.”

That she wanted anything to do with any church after that, or after being raped, is perhaps a testament to a desire for faith even stronger than mine. She had been studying the Bible diligently and reading theologians, if only the ones who confirmed the beliefs we had at the time. And she continued to study, and read even more broadly, even after she moved and commenced graduate school in a nearly unrelated field. Eventually, she told me, she cycled through a number of churches and even decided, for a time, that Judaism was the “true faith.” She never seriously considered any belief system outside the Judeo-Christian orbit, so once her dedication to Judaism waned, she started to lose all belief.

Oh, and she got into a relationship—which continues to this day—with a Filipina woman she met at a seminar.

We have continued to email each other and have talked on the phone a few times. She revealed something else: a mutual friend in the church, whom I’ll call Emmanuel, committed suicide about fifteen years ago. While that grieved me, it also didn’t surprise me: After a couple of stays in psychiatric hospitals and seemingly endless rounds of drugs, he appealed to Jesus to “heal” him. I don’t know as much about his religious or other history as I do of Ivette’s. It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if he sought, and clung to, faith as an antidote to troubles that the church (or whatever faith institution) in which he was born and raised, or sought solace, caused. Such is the psychological damage that too many churches cause.

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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Does God Care About Us?

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Guest Post by John

Depending on what religion you come from, and what flavor within that religion, this question can be confusing to answer. Each religion believes that God has a favorite group of people and most of the time, the followers of that religion happen to be in his favorite group. What a coincidence!

As far as the Christian God goes, there are many verses throughout the Bible that talk about God’s mercy, favor, protection, intervention, kindness, etc. But there are other verses that talk about His jealousy, wrath, sorrow, anger, etc. Like the time where He killed 99.9% of all humans and animals on the planet because He didn’t like the way the humans He made turned out. Or all the times He told the Israelites to kill whole groups of people because they didn’t believe in the right God. And there was that time where He killed all the firstborn sons in Egypt to soften the heart of Pharaoh, after He hardened his heart to start with.

I hear Christians talk about how God helped them find their lost keys, or get a good parking spot at the store. They (and I used to do the same!) talk about how God kept them or loved ones out of accidents, healed them of some illness (always curable), helped them get a raise at work, and other wonderful things. But at the same time, 25,000 people around the world die every day from hunger or hunger-related issues. Just a day ago, earthquakes in Turkey and Syria killed more than 20,000 people. Recently, a pastor and his staff were flying from Memphis to Texas and the plane crashed, killing the staff. Since April 1999, there have been 23 fatal Christian church shootings. I hear people all the time saying that issues in schools are because we “removed God” from our schools. Ok, what about all these church shootings? It reminds me of George Carlin’s talk about religion being bullshit. Here is a small segment from that routine: “So, if there is a God, I think most reasonable people might agree that he’s at least incompetent, and maybe, just maybe, doesn’t give a shit. Doesn’t give a shit, which I admire in a person, and which would explain a lot of these bad results.”

Video Link

I’ve had a few instances where I narrowly escaped what probably would have been a bad event: a car accident that didn’t happen, a tornado that missed my house, a tree branch that fell and missed my car by inches. And in the past, I attributed these things to God watching out for me. But what about the countless Christians or Muslims or Hindus or whatever faith who weren’t so fortunate? Are they depending on the wrong God? Did they have a lapse in faith that took away the protection or favor of their God? Is their God testing them? Or, maybe their God doesn’t exist. Maybe no God exists? If there is a “God,” I tend to believe that it’s the type of God that Alan Watts and many others describe as, everything is a manifestation of God. This link explains it a bit:

But in my day-to-day life, I no longer believe that there is a God who cares about us. There is just too much evidence to the contrary. And people who try to explain away the mountains of evidence to the contrary have to go through so many mental gymnastics that it just gets silly. Good things happen. Bad things happen; often in seemingly unfair ways, and sometimes in what we would think of as fair ways. Karma; reaping what you sow — however you want to label it. Life happens. If we believe there is some sort of divine being who should be looking out for us and caring for us and doing things for us that we judge as good, life gets very confusing. I think if we can accept life as it is, the good and the bad, it takes a lot of the confusion, anger, and frustration out of life; not all of it, but a lot of it.

To clear up something that people might question, just because I no longer believe that there is a God who cares about us doesn’t mean I have a negative outlook on life. I actually have a better outlook on life now than I had when I was an Evangelical Christian. I like who I am and where I am in my beliefs about the world. I wasn’t able to say that as a Christian, for various reasons. It’s really nice and liberating to like who I am and who I am becoming.

I hope you and yours are doing as well as can be. Peace.

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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Suffer the Little Children

suffer the little children

Guest Post by Neil Robinson who blogs at Rejecting Jesus

I’ve been reading a recent post on Gary Matson’s Escaping Christian Fundamentalism blog: ‘God Is So Good! He Allowed Ten Thousand Children to Starve to Death Today in which Gary asks where God is when this staggering number of children die of hunger every day.

Gary has his very own ‘Doctor Tee‘ — all atheist/agnostic bloggers have them, though admittedly Bruce seems to have more than most — and ‘Swordmanjr’ leapt to God’s defence. The Almighty Creator-Of-All-Things, you see, needs fallible, flawed human beings to do this for him. Swordmanjr accused Gary of scapegoating God who, apparently, is not really responsible for suffering, nor indeed anything horrible.

I guess God could be being scapegoated if it weren’t for the fact his Son, God Incarnate according to some, tells us he cares for human beings much more than he cares for sparrows (which is, admittedly, not much at all), that he is concerned to the extent that he numbers each and every hair on individuals’ heads (Matthew 10:29-30). This must be before he allows so many of them to die of starvation and in natural disasters.

The evidence is that God does not care. He doesn’t care if you’re a child born into poverty who then dies a slow, miserable, painful death through malnutrition. He doesn’t care if you’re caught up in a natural disaster like the recent earthquake in Turkey (which, according to some Christian nutjob, was God’s response to Sam Smith’s satanic performance at the Grammy’s) in which your entire community and you yourself are wiped out. He doesn’t care if you die of a nasty virus, which ultimately he’s responsible for, as millions, including Christians, did during the pandemic. He doesn’t care that you die, when, or how horribly. He – just – doesn’t – care, period.

Jesus, as he was about so much, was plain wrong about his Father’s caring. The real world does not and will not match up with this early Christian fantasy.

Believers who leap to God’s defence invariably do it by launching vitriolic ad hominem attacks on non-theists who dare to criticise his shoddy performance. In doing so, they demonstrate yet another of Christianity’s disconnects: its promise that it makes new creatures of people, filled with love and compassion (2 Corinthians 5:17).

‘By their fruits shall ye know them,’ proclaims Jesus in Matthew 7:15-20. If the Christians who lurk around atheist blogs are anything to go by, those fruits are often pretty rotten: spiteful, vitriolic, hateful . . . ‘evil,’ Jesus calls it. These Christians frequently end their comments with a threat: one day the atheist will stand before God’s judgement throne and then they’ll be sorry; Hell awaits!

God is not there in this kind of behavior. He’s not there when humans suffer and die, frequently horribly. He’s not there in the Bible verses that promise he is there in such circumstances. God is not there.

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 Bible and Self-Esteem — Part Two

guest post

Part One

Part Two

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

Love as You Love Yourself

How can one look at the Bible and promote high self-esteem? Many Christians turn to verses such as the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. They say that is telling us to love both our neighbor and ourselves.

Actually, the verse is not a command to love yourself. It assumes you already love yourself. How can it assume that? Simple. It is talking about how we treat people. It assumes that all people are nice to themselves. It tells us to also be nice to others.

As Rom 13:9 puts it, the command to love neighbors is simply summing up all the other commandments, such as the one forbidding murder and the one against stealing. It is telling us to treat others nicely, just as we already try to treat ourselves nicely.

So no, the command to love our neighbor is not primarily about respect. And no, this verse does not tell us to respect ourselves more. It is about treating people nicely. It assumes we are already nice to ourselves and should also be nice to others.

Made in God’s Image

Ah, but you might tell me that God made us in his image and that this is something to feel good about. And how do you know that? You read it in a book that I think is often mistaken.

Yes, you may have read that God made you in his image, but reality tells a different story. We are close to the image of a chimpanzee, sharing much of its DNA and body structure. Yes, we are significantly different from other apes. There was a series of evolutionary pressures that gave us an enormous concentration of brain power and enhanced abilities to cooperate with others, but inwardly, much of our structure is like that of the ape; a grand and glorious ape that can engineer the Internet, build great civilizations, and create wonderful works of art. But still, biologically we are apes, made in the image of apes–utterly amazing apes.

But even if it is true that God made us in his image, the Bible does not stop there. It proceeds to tell us of a fall into sin for which our ancestors were cursed and removed from the garden. A few chapters later, “the Lord saw that the wickedness of mankind was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) There is not much room there for feeling positive about being human.

Again, we need our self-esteem to be realistic. I find it easy to have high self-esteem based on the reality found by science. We are mammals that have special abilities that make our species truly worth loving.

A New Nature

Many will argue that they are “in Christ,” and so have become a new person (2 Corinthians 5:17). They call this process regeneration. They say it gives them a new nature that makes them want to do good. Does this give them something to feel good about?

My first response is to ask, “How do you know this is true”? Many Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, and others also live moral lives. And many, if not all, Christians fail to live up to Biblical standards. So, if you really have a “new” nature that makes you better than me, where is the evidence?

Even Paul admits that his life is far from this new standard. He argues that he actually has two natures, the flesh and the spirit (Gal 5:17). The word translated flesh literally means the body. So Paul is saying he has a body that wants to do bad things, but he also has a new spirit inside him that wants to do good. And he sees that the two natures are constantly fighting each other. He writes:

For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am fleshly, sold into bondage to sin. For I do not understand what I am doing; for I am not practicing what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate. However, if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, that the Law is good. But now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I do the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin that dwells in me.

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully agree with the law of God in the inner person, but I see a different law in the parts of my body waging war against the law of my mind, and making me a prisoner of the law of sin, the law which is in my body’s parts. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Romans 7:14-24

So yes, Paul claimed to have a new nature, but in this moment of honesty, he admits that it really is not making that big of a difference. His flesh, his body, his natural self still does what it wants.

Paul talks about a spirit inside, but it doesn’t really seem to be working. If this new creation that he has become is really not winning out, how could he rightfully claim that his new, regenerated self gives him a reason for self-worth? And can he really claim that the regenerated person is so much better that he can feel real self-worth, but that others cannot?

Paul ended his confession above on a most dismal note: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” That is depressing.

But wait, don’t stop there. Read on. He answers this rhetorical question: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25) So now we find it actually works and ends with triumph in Jesus Christ.

Or does it? Read on. “So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” Paul could have ended on the first sentence of v25, declaring victory in Christ, and the whole thing would have a positive tone. But he doesn’t. He can’t help himself. In a moment of honesty, the truth comes out. Yes, he does include that note of triumph in Christ, but he immediately goes back to despair: “with my flesh I am serving the law of sin. In reality, that new life he claims does not really work that well.”

Realizing that the flesh — the body — keeps on wanting to do things he considers wrong, Pau has a constant answer: Don’t listen to the flesh. (Rom 8:13, Rom 13:14, 2Co 7:1, Gal 5:16, Gal 5:24) Crucify it! But as he himself admits in Romans 7, this strategy does not work well.

By way of comparison, the Noom weight loss program also speaks of two natures, a “rider” and an “elephant.” The elephant is the part of you that wants to eat anything in sight. The rider is the part that wants to lose weight.

If somebody is actually riding a real elephant, the goal is to get the elephant to go where the rider wants. To do that, the elephant needs to know there is something in it for him; that when the elephant reaches the end of the journey he will be fed and cared for. If we have trained the elephant to know this, the elephant will go where the rider wants.

But what happens if you hop on an elephant when there is nothing in it for the elephant? The elephant then has no desire to cooperate. It will do what it wants. And you then, like the Apostle Paul, might cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?!”

In the Noom program, the idea is for the metaphorical rider to get the metaphorical elephant to cooperate. To do that, we need to be nice to our “elephant” — our inner bodily desire for many food calories — with the understanding that the elephant must in turn allow us to control the overall ride. The rider must bargain with the elephant.

Paul’s reaction to his flesh is nothing like Noom’s. Paul makes no room for finding ways to please fleshly desires. No, what the flesh wants is wrong. So, the flesh must be crucified. There must be a firm, “No!” But, in reality, as Paul admits in Romans 7, his plan simply does not work.

We all have fleshly desires that may want us to do socially undesirable things. And we all have an inner desire to do moral, socially acceptable things. Christians and non-Christians share this. When one claims that only Christians have a good nature, one is making a claim that the evidence simply does not support.

And when one assumes that the fleshly desires are all bad, and the “spirit” is all good, one simply is not being realistic. For we cannot channel all our desires for either good or bad. We are a mixture of conflicting thoughts and emotions. They are the natural result of being human. The best course of action is to rationally think through all of this and find ways that best meet all our desires in ways that are morally acceptable.

But Paul and his immediate followers were against finding rational ways to please the flesh. In fact, they even opposed all efforts to approach life from a rational, scientific viewpoint. (See  1 Corinthians 2:6-13, Colossians 2:8, and A Primer on Christian Anti-Intellectualism)

I find that the assertion that believers have a spirit in addition to the flesh, but unbelievers have only the flesh, is wrong. And in practice, following this two-natures approach is not realistic. If we want our self-esteem to be based on reality, then telling ourselves that Christians have these two natures is not realistic. And it is not practical.

If our self-esteem depends on this theory of transforming grace, and that grace doesn’t seem to work in reality the way it is claimed, we are setting ourselves up for discouragement. If our self-esteem is not rooted in reality, we are asking for trouble. The human mind does not like to hear that it must ignore reality.

God Loves Me

Others have told me that God loves them, and this gives them self-esteem. Bill Cooke describes this method of building self-esteem:

Many accounts of pious converts tell of suffering low self-esteem that was then resolved by being told that they did indeed matter; that despite being one biped among millions on one planet among millions, the creator of this entire universe is interested in their welfare. The success of religious conversions and apologetic arguments consist of religion’s ability to inject people with such quantities of anthropocentric conceit that it almost becomes plausible. Religion’s Anthropocentric Conceit by Bill Cooke

The first problem with basing self-esteem on God’s love is that it is unrealistic. If there is indeed a Creator of the universe, I see no reason to believe he takes a special interest in us.

A second problem with using this as your basis for self-esteem is that this is nothing more than an argument from authority. It says somebody says I have worth; therefore I must have worth. Couldn’t you just figure that out for yourself? Many humanists have long seen the worth and value of being human, without needing somebody to tell us we have worth.

It is like a teenage girl saying that she has worth because her boyfriend loves her. It would be better if she recognized that she had worth because there is within her a core of human goodness. Then she would not be dependent on some authority telling her she is good. If the teenager knows she has worth because of the goodness she sees within herself, she will find it easier to escape an abusive relationship.

If, on the other hand, her only reason for valuing herself is because her boyfriend loves her, abandoning that relationship would remove her source of self-esteem. The need for positive self-esteem is so strong it can drive people to do anything to keep that self-esteem up. She might hesitate to give up her only hope.

Likewise, if the only reason one has for feeling good about herself is that God says she has worth, she might be less likely to explore if this is really the case. Too much relies on it being true. So, she avoids questions about her faith. But, if we cannot explore and ask questions, we are not really free.

And besides, if we base our self-esteem on what the Bible says about us, it is not very complimentary.

All flesh is like grass, and all its glory is like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls off. 1Pe 1:24 (See also Romans 3:11-19, Isaiah 64:6)

As a humanist, I readily see the worth and value of all humans, including myself. I do not need an external authority to tell me I have worth. I can see it in myself.


I conclude that many of the problems that Christians report with self-esteem may well be rooted in the Christian religion itself. The Christian view that we are naturally sinful and depraved is degrading. Attempts to balance this teaching with the teaching of a transforming grace needlessly complicate the efforts to reach a healthy self-image. Those attempts succeed only in the proportion that the resulting self-image approximates reality. But if a self-image based on reality is our goal, should we not start our search with science?

There is a better way. In humanism and naturalistic science, you can simply look at the facts — at the intrinsic value of all humans including yourself — and then you can feel good. You can then move on and start living.

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.

Bruce Gerencser