Life

How Religion Obscures Seeing People as They Are

greg brown somerset baptist church

Repost from May 2014

On Saturday, Polly and I will drive to SE Ohio to pay our respects to a man who was once a vital part of the church I pastored in Somerset. The family has asked me to conduct the funeral and I am delighted that they asked me to do so. (They asked for a non-religious service.) It’s been 20 years since I have seen this family face to face. In recent years, I have reconnected with some of the children via Facebook. It will be good to see them, the children now in their 30s with children of their own.

As I ponder what to say on Saturday, I can’t help but think about the 11 years I spent as their pastor. They knew me when I was a fire-breathing Baptist fundamentalist preacher and school administrator and they also knew me when I was a fundamentalist Calvinistic Baptist. They remember my preaching, the rules, and the standards.  They remember my commitment to the God and the Bible. I hope they also remember my goodness and kindness. While these things will certainly provide the backdrop for our reconnection on Saturday, they will not be the substance of what I will say at the service. Why? Because the past, with all its religious and Biblical trappings, will obscure the man we will be honoring.

You see, he was a good man. He was a friend who would do anything for me, any time, day or night. When I needed help, he always made himself available. While he could be temperamental at times, most of the time he was a kind, compassionate man. But these traits were obscured and mattered little years ago. Instead of seeing the man, I tended to see the sin. Isn’t that what we were taught to do? Holiness and purity were the objective, without which no man shall see the Lord.

He and I were different in many ways. When it came to sin, I could always hide my sin better than he could. Over time, preachers get good at hiding their sin, their failures. After all, they are supposed to be  shining examples of spiritual maturity and holiness. No one wants a preacher who is like  himself. People want a Moses, a Paul, or a Jesus, someone to inspire them and show them the way. So preachers lie, giving the appearance that they, if need be, could walk on water. Deep down they know, that like everyone else, if they walked on water they would drown. Strip away the clerical façade and what you see is a man no different from those sitting in the pew.

I remember the first time Greg came to church. He was wearing a shirt that said Zig-Zag; and no he didn’t roll his own cigarettes. This is a perfect picture of the kind of man he was. He had little pretense; what you saw  was what you got. So when he sinned he didn’t hide it well. I remember one Sunday afternoon he went to the movies with his wife. They saw Born on the Fourth of July. Now, this was a big sin at our church. No movies, especially R-rated movies. I could tell that he was a little antsy at evening service, but he said nothing about the movie. The next day at school one of his children mentioned that Mom and Dad had gone to see a movie. I asked them, WHAT movie? They confessed, with nary a thought that they had just gotten their Dad in trouble. Of course, the good pastor that I was, watching out for his soul, I called him and asked him to come to my office so we could talk. Nothing like getting called to the principal’s office, right?

Before he started coming to the church he had been an avid listener of rock and roll music. Well, at Somerset Baptist Church, we didn’t listen to THAT kind of music! One day he came to church all excited. He had found out that there was music called Christian rock. He had bought a cassette tape of a group by the name of Stryper. (he loved the song To Hell with the Devil)  I took one look at the pictures on the cassette box and I knew that Stryper was nothing more than a tool used by Satan to deceive Christians. I told him it was a bad idea for him to listen to such worldly music. I think he was deeply discouraged by my “Godly”  opinion. He thought he had finally found something that was not only Christ-honoring but that also met his desire to listen to rock music. I, the arbiter of what was Christ-honoring, knew better.

There were a lot of these sinful moments, and as I look back on it, I can see how discouraging it must have been for him. Most of the things I called sin were not sin at all. But, because I thought they were, they kept me from seeing the man for who and what he really was. My religion obscured this man’s humanity, as all religions do to some degree or the other, Instead of seeing the man, I saw him through the lens of the Bible and my interpretation of it. My sin list and my dogma got in the way of me seeing this man as a flawed and frail good man. Like his preacher, he wasn’t perfect.

We spent a lot of non-religious time together, and it is from those times I will draw the stories I plan to share with his family. Great stories. Crazy stories. Funny stories. Stories that will testify of the kind of man he was. Yes, I could share the “other” stories too, but to what end? As I told Polly today, if we live long enough, we all will have moments that are less than stellar. We will have those times where we went the wrong way or made a bad choice, where we hurt others and hurt ourselves. But these stories are not who we really are. They are the exceptions to the rule, the reminder that no one is perfect, including Jesus.

So on Saturday I will mourn the loss of a man I once knew, but I will also rejoice with his family as we share stories about the good man that he was. This will be my first time doing a funeral where there are no religious expectations. No preaching, no need to get a word in for Jesus; no evangelizing or making everything about the church.  On this spring day, in the hills of SE Ohio, we will celebrate the life of a man whom others loved dearly. While his body will be put into the ground, he will live on in the memories we have of him. In the end, this is all the living have.

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Kurt Vonnegut’s Contract with His Pregnant Wife

kurt and jane vonnegut

Kurt and Jane Vonnegut

In the September 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine, the magazine published a January 26, 1947 contract between Kurt Vonnegut and his pregnant wife, Jane, to whom he had been married for sixteen months. I found it hilarious and I suspect Polly wishes we had subscribed to Harper’s years ago so she could have cut this out, highlighted it, and taped it to the fridge, bathroom mirror, and computer screen.

Enjoy!

I, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., that is, do hereby swear that I will be faithful to the commitments hereunder listed:

I. With the agreement that my wife will not nag, heckle, or otherwise disturb me on the subject, I promise to scrub the bathroom and kitchen floors once a week, on a day and hour of my own choosing. Not only that, but I will do a good and thorough job, and by that she means that I will get under the bathtub, behind the toilet, under the sink, under the icebox, into the corners; and I will pick up and put in some other location whatever movable objects happen to be on said floors at the time so as to get under them too, and not just around them. Furthermore, while I am undertaking these tasks I will refrain from indulging in such remarks as “Shit,” “Goddamn sonofabitch,” and similar vulgarities, as such language is nerve-wracking to have around the house when nothing more drastic is taking place than the facing of Necessity. If I do not live up to this agreement, my wife is to feel free to nag, heckle, and otherwise disturb me until I am driven to scrub the floors anyway—no matter how busy I am.

II. I furthermore swear that I will observe the following minor amenities:

a. I will hang up my clothes and put my shoes in the closet when I am not wearing them;

b. I will not track dirt into the house needlessly, by such means as not wiping my feet on the mat outside and wearing my bedroom slippers to take out the garbage;

c. I will throw such things as used-up match folders, empty cigarette packages, the piece of cardboard that comes in shirt collars, etc., into a wastebasket instead of leaving them around on chairs or the floor;

d. After shaving I will put my shaving equipment back in the medicine closet;

e. In case I should be the direct cause of a ring around the bathtub after taking a bath, I will, with the aid of Swift’s Cleanser and a brush, not my washcloth, remove said ring;

f. With the agreement that my wife collects the laundry, places it in a laundry bag, and leaves the laundry bag in plain sight in the hall, I will take said laundry to the Laundry not more than three days after said laundry has made its appearance in the hall; I will furthermore bring the laundry back from the Laundry within two weeks after I have taken it;

g. When smoking I will make every effort to keep the ashtray I am using at the time upon a surface that does not slant, sag, slope, dip, wrinkle, or give way upon the slightest provocation; such surfaces may be understood to include stacks of books precariously mounted on the edge of a chair, the arms of the chair that has arms, and my own knees;

h. I will not put out cigarettes upon the sides of, or throw ashes into, either the red leather wastebasket or the stamp wastebasket that my loving wife made me for Christmas, 1945, as such practice noticeably impairs the beauty and ultimate practicability of said wastebaskets;

i. In the event that my wife makes a request of me, and that request cannot be regarded as other than reasonable and wholly within the province of a man’s work (when his wife is pregnant, that is), I will comply with said request within three days after my wife has presented it. It is understood that my wife will make no reference to the subject, other than saying thank you, of course, within these three days; if, however, I fail to comply with said request after a more substantial length of time has elapsed, my wife shall be completely justified in nagging, heckling, or otherwise disturbing me until I am driven to do that which I should have done;

j. An exception to the above three-day time limit is the taking out of the garbage, which, as any fool knows, had better not wait that long; I will take out the garbage within three hours after the need for disposal has been pointed out to me by my wife. It would be nice, however, if, upon observing the need for disposal with my own two eyes, I should perform this particular task upon my own initiative, and thus not make it necessary for my wife to bring up a subject that is moderately distasteful to her;

k. It is understood that, should I find these commitments in any way unreasonable or too binding upon my freedom, I will take steps to amend them by counterproposals, constitutionally presented and politely discussed, instead of unlawfully terminating my obligations with a simple burst of obscenity, or something like that, and the subsequent persistent neglect of said obligations;

l. The terms of this contract are understood to be binding up until that time after the arrival of our child (to be specified by the doctor) when my wife will once again be in full possession of all her faculties, and able to undertake more arduous pursuits than are now advisable.

Polly and Bruce, Two Godless Peas in a Pod

bruce and polly gerencser 2015

Bruce and Polly Gerencser, Summer 2015

Several months back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.

Kenneth asked:

I am currently married to a Southern Baptist woman who is likely never going to change her mind about her beliefs. I deconverted late last year and am now an atheist. I’m curious as to how your wife ended up an atheist seemingly around the same time as you? I guess deep down I want her to see my views as an atheist but if anyone knows how hard it is to talk to a Christian as an atheist, it is you. My question is, can you tell us more about how Polly came to the same conclusions as you during the time of your deconversion? Maybe she can give us some input too. In a lot of scenarios, one spouse is still stuck as a believer while both the atheist and theist struggle with now being in a “mixed” marriage — I’m in one of them now. Thanks!

I think the best way to answer this question is to explain what took place during the months before we stopped attending church.  When we stopped attending the Ney United Methodist Church neither of us would have said, I am not a Christian. After we decided we no longer wanted to be Pastor and Mrs. Bruce Gerencser, we spent a few years trying to find a church that took seriously the teaching of Jesus. Not finding such a  church frustrated us and led us to conclude that the Christianity of Jesus no longer existed and most churches were just different flavors of ice cream; same base ingredients with different added flavors. (Please see But Our Church is DIFFERENT!)

For most of 2008, I had been doing quite a bit of reading about the history of Christianity and the Bible.  From Bart Ehrman to Robert M. Price to Elaine Pagels, I read dozens of books that challenged and attacked my Christian beliefs. Polly and I spent many a night discussing what I had read. I often reading large passages of this or that book to her and we would compare what we had been taught with what these books said.  While Polly was never one to read nonfiction, she did read several of Bart Ehrman’s books. Over time, both of us came to the conclusion that what we had been taught wasn’t true. We also concluded that we were no longer, in any meaningful sense, a Christian. It was at this point I wrote the infamous Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners.

For a time, both of us were content calling ourselves an agnostic. I soon realized that the agnostic label required too much explanation so I embraced the atheist label. While Polly still will not say she is an atheist, her beliefs about God, Christianity, and the Bible are similar to mine. She’s not one to engage in discussion or debate, content to go about her godless life without having to define herself. I often wish I could be like her.

When left Christianity I feared that Polly’s deconversion was a coattail deconversion; that she was following after me just like she was taught to do in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church. Some of my critics, unwilling to give Polly credit for doing her own thinking and decision-making, have suggested that Polly was/is being led astray by me.  Fundamentalist family members have voiced their concern over Polly being drawn into my godlessness, rarely giving her credit for being able to think and reason for herself. Their insinuations only reinforce her belief that she made the right decision when she deconverted. Polly graduated second in her class and is quite capable of thinking for herself. Granted, this ability was quashed for many years thanks to being taught that she should always defer to me as the head of the home. That I was also her pastor only made things worse.

Where our stories diverge a bit is the reasons why we deconverted. While both of us would say we had intellectual reasons for abandoning God and Christianity, Polly’s deconversion had a larger emotional component than mine did. We’ve spent uncounted hours talking about the past, this or that church, and the experiences each of us had. Polly spent most of her married life under the shadow of her preacher husband. Now free to speak freely, I’m amazed at how differently she views our past. While I was the center of attention, heaped with praise and love, she was in the shadows, the afterthought, the one who had to do all the jobs church members had no time for. It should come as no surprise that her view of the 25 years we spent in the ministry is much different from mine.

As I’m writing this post I am thinking to myself, Polly needs to be telling this story. I can’t tell her story. While I can give the gist of it, I think it is better is she tells her story, that is if she is willing to do. I do know that she has no desire to relive the “wonderful” ministry years. She’s quite content to be free of God, the church, and the Bible, free to be just be Polly. Not Polly, the pastor’s daughter, not Polly, the preacher’s wife, just Polly. And I can say the same for myself. While I am noted for being a preacher turned atheist, an outspoken critic of Evangelicalism, I am content just to be Bruce. Most of our life was swallowed up by the ministry, so we are quite glad to be free and we enjoy the opportunity to live our lives on our own terms.

In many ways, our story is not typical. I’ve received uncounted emails from people who deconverted and are now in a mixed marriage. Like Kenneth, they want to share their unbelief with their spouse, but are unable to do so because of their spouse’s belief or because they fear outing themselves will destroy their marriage. (please see Count the Cost Before You Say I Am an Atheist.) Polly and I  fully realize that if one of us had remained a Christian it could have ended our marriage. We are grateful that we’ve been able to walk this path together hand in hand. The farther away we get from the years we spent in the ministry, the more we realize how good we have it. Our deconversion could have destroyed our marriage and alienated us from our children, but it didn’t. Instead, we’ve been given a new lease on life; the opportunity for each of us to seek our own path. We deeply love one another, have six wonderful children and ten grandkids, and are, in every way, blessed.

Notes

I will ask Polly to share her own thoughts about our deconversion process. No promises.

A few readers might remember that I started blogging in 2007 as a emergent church/progressive Christian. I wish some of those posts were still available because they would help trace that intellectual process that led to our deconversion.

Learning to Number Our Days

cheating deathThe King James Bible says in Psalms 90:12:

So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

Good advice. If I live to be seventy-five, and I doubt I will, I will have lived 27,375 days. The clock will have clicked to the next hour 65,700 times. We all hope to have a long, happy, and productive life. We know our days our numbered. We woke up today knowing that we are one day closer to death than we were yesterday. Regardless of our wealth, health, status or fame, each of us will die some day.  We can not avoid death. No matter how many supplements we take or how much exercise we do, we will, at some moment beyond the next breath, die.

When I was young I rarely thought about death. Death was for old people or for people who got cancer or hit by a truck. Every once in a while my sensibilities were startled by a young friend, family member, or acquaintance dying, but for the most part death never entered my mind. My uncle Dave died at age 26 and several high school friends died shortly after graduating. My wife’s uncle, my dad, and my mother all died in their late 40’s and early 50’s. When these deaths occurred I paused for a moment and considered my mortality, but in a short while all thought of death disappeared. I was young and I had my whole life ahead of me.

Fast forward to today. I am fifty-eight years old. I have health problems, older relatives are dying and rarely does a week go by when someone I know is memorialized on the local newspaper’s obituary page. These days I think of death often. I ponder my own mortality. I consider the notion of nothingness, never drawing another breath.  I imagine going to sleep and never waking again. I have thoughts about how life will be for my wife and family once I am gone.

I don’t fear death. I have no control over it. I know death is lurking in the shadows. Some days, I feel death’s cold breath on my neck. I know that most of my life is now in the rear view mirror. I wonder, what awaits me in the days, months, and years ahead? The Psalmist also said, ” Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.” Again, good advice. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring. The best we can do is live for today and to pursue love and happiness.

Older people like myself often speak of time flying by so quickly. Young people think their 16th, 18th, or 21st birthday will never come. For the young person, most of their life is yet ahead of them. Not so for us old folks. Time flies so quickly for us because we have so little of it left. If I live until I am 70, I have about 4,380 days left out of 25,550 days, less than 20% of my life. The meter is running and I am all out of change.

What do I want to do with the life I have left?  This is a hard question for me to answer. To live my life well requires me to decide what really matters. What do I want to give my time to? I envy those who have life all figured out. I am a restless person, constantly being pulled this way and that.  My passions burn and wane and I have a hard time fixing on those things I want my life to be defined by. When I was a Christian and a pastor all these questions were answered for me. I knew my calling and how God wanted me to live. Some days, I wish I still had that sense of purpose and certainty. Now, I know I must make my own way and find my own meaning and purpose. As a free man, free to do that which I wish to do, I ask myself, how do I want to spend what life I have left?

For now, I am content to focus on family, writing, and photography. I know there will come a day when I will no longer be able to write or snap a photograph, so I continue to do these things while I can. I continue to drink the love of my wife and family, knowing that when the day comes for me to die, they will be the ones that matter.

I Refuse to Accept This

accepting things as they are

Several weeks ago, I watched a sports documentary about a boxer who had brain damage from his last fight. No matter what doctors did, his condition continued to deteriorate. Finally, doctors told his wife that they had done all they could do. Both the boxer and his wife would have to accept that he was not going to get better. In fact, his health would likely get worse.The wife said, I refuse to accept this. Surely, there is something else that can be done. A new drug, treatment, or therapy, surely there is something that can be done.

While I understand the wife’s unwillingness to accept that her husband was never gong to recover, her statement reflects a common misconception about life and the tragedies that come our way. Things don’t always get better. Sometimes, there’s nothing more that can be done. Sometimes, there’s not an answer or a cure.

I have been criticized, often behind my back, for the stoic attitude I have about my health. Since 1997, when I was first diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, I’ve seen numerous doctors, had more blood tests than I can count, and have had repeated scans and procedures. Just this past year alone, I’ve had an endoscopic ultrasound, colonoscopy, CT scan, MRI, and 3 x-rays. Several months ago, I tried using Lyrica again. As before, it helped, but I gained 17 pounds of fluid in one month. Not good when you are already overweight.

Earlier this week I saw the orthopedic doctor. He told me my body is like numerous wildfires. Put one out and others pop up. He gathered up my x-rays and MRI scans and we looked at them. He was quite blunt, telling me that I have arthritis in EVERY joint and that some of the damage is severe. Knees, shoulders, feet, hands, and back, all have arthritis that is causing joint damage. The why is unknown. Some days, the pain from the arthritis is severe, some days it is tolerable. Added to this is the muscle pain I have from Fibromyalgia. Every day is a pain day with some days worse than others. I haven’t had a pain-free day in almost twenty years.

We talked about options. He was quite frank with me, saying that because the arthritis is so pervasive that I was not a good candidate for surgery. Even with my knees and shoulders, scoping them could actually make things worse, resulting in more pain. I like this doctor because he doesn’t bullshit me. His advice? Live with it. Unless I want to have total joint replacements, surgeries that have a huge risk of complications for someone like me who has a compromised immune system, I must learn to live the pain, debility, and the ever so slow loss of function. All that he and other doctors can do for me is help manage the pain and try to improve my quality of life.

And I am fine with this. As I told the doctor, sucks to be me, but it is what it is. Unlike the boxer’s wife, I know there is nothing more that can be done. All the whining, complaining, praying, wishing, and hoping won’t change the fact that I have a body that is failing. All I can do is make the most of what life I have left.

A Personal Reflection: The Rhythm of Life

plant going to seed

Cicadas sing their early evening song and crickets add their chirp, reminding all who stop to listen that summer is almost over.

Farmers wrap up baling straw and hay; soon they will harvest corn and beans. As in every other year of my 58-year existence, I am reminded by the harvest that fall has arrived.

The baseball season winds down and soon football will vie for my attention. The Reds won’t make the playoffs. Will this be the year the Bengals win a playoff game?

The garden soon will be spent. The sunflowers are beginning to seed, offering a sumptuous meal to birds that frequent the yard. The Indian corn stalks have ears. Once dry, they will provide colorful decoration for Halloween.

Apples are starting to turn red. Last year, a freeze killed all the blooms, but this year there should be plenty of applesauce to can, a fact the grandchildren will certainly appreciate.

The last cabbages are shredded, and put into brine which will yield sauerkraut in a few weeks. A pungent odor wafts through the kitchen, one that is endured for the sake of hot dogs and spareribs.

The pumpkins are turning orange, and come Thanksgiving, the queen of the kitchen will turn their meat into pie. What possibly could be better than a pumpkin pie heaped with whipped cream and family gathered around the table, grateful for the lives they share with one another.

Summer flowers start to die and drop their seeds, while mums begin to flower, offering the year a last splash of color before the cold temperatures of winter claim their beauty.

Where has time gone, I ask myself. It seems the days pass so quickly now. Didn’t we just celebrate Christmas?

Life is short, I remind myself. Enjoy the rhythm of changing seasons and let them be a reminder that no one is promised tomorrow.

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What Have You Been Reading Lately, Bruce?

 

calvin and hobbes reading

Several months back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.

Lydia asked:

What have you been reading lately, Bruce?

One of the frustrating side effects of my declining health is that I am no longer able to read like I used to. Gone are the days of devouring one book after another. This has been hard for me to adjust to. By the time I do the necessary reading and research for my writing and try to keep up on the magazines I subscribe to, I have very little physical and mental energy left to devote to reading books. If I had to put a number on it, my ability to read and comprehend has declined by 50% or more. This decline has been a daily force of irritation and a subject I talk to my counselor with on a regular basis. While he encourages me to keep active, he also encourages me to accept things as they are. Instead of trying to read a 600 page book that at one time took me a few days to read, I now choose books that are 300 pages or less, allowing myself several weeks to read it.

My primary care doctor thinks that the pain and health problems wear me down mentally and physically, making to harder for me to read like I used to. While I accept this as the new normal for my life, I don’t like it.  That said, here’s my  book list. The first book is what I am currently reading. Those that follow are what I intend to read next.

varieties of scientific experience

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan

mortality

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

our only world

Our Only World by Wendell Berry

faith vs fact

Faith vs. Fact :Why Science and Religion are Incompatible by Jerry Coyne

and god created lenin

And God Created Lenin: Marxism vs. Religion in Russia, 1917-1929 by Paul Gabel

karl marx

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber

After I am Dead

walking by graveyardAs soon as Christian fundamentalists read this headline they will shout at their screen:

  • You will be burning in hell!
  • You will know there is a God!
  • You will know I was right!

They will see my death as vindication of their belief system. I wonder how many of them will say to themselves, I bet Bruce wishes he had listened to me!  I can hear a Calvinist saying, now we know Bruce was not one of the elect! They will speak of the preacher-turned-atheist who now knows the TRUTH (please read Christopher Hitchens is in Hell).

If they bother to read beyond the title of this post they will see this post is not about my e-t-e-r-n-a-l destiny. I have no concern over God, judgment, or hell. I am confident that hell is the creation of those who want to control people through fear. Fear God! Fear Judgment! Fear Hell! Since Christianity and the Bible no longer have any power over me, I no longer fear God or hell. I am reasonably certain that this is the only life I will ever have, and once I die I will be…drum roll please, d-e-a-d.

Here’s what I want to happens after I draw my last breath.

First, I do not want a funeral service. Waste of time, effort, and money. No need for fake friends or distant family members to show up and weep fake tears. No need for flowers. I want Polly to spend as little as possible on disposing of my dead carcass. Trust me, I won’t care.

plus size cremation

Second, I want to be cremated. No special urn. A cardboard box will work just fine. If Polly wants to show her love for me, a Hostess cupcake box would be sweet.  As I jokingly told my children, when I am cremated I will go from ass to ashes.

Third, I want my ashes to be spread along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Polly knows the place. I hope my children, daughters-in-law, son-in-law, grandchildren, and close family will be there. I want no prayers said and as few tears as possible. Perhaps those who are gathered will share a funny story, one of their many Butch/Bruce/Dad/Grandpa stories. I hope they will remember me for the good I have done and forgive me for those moments when I was less than I could or should have been.

And that’s it.

Life is not about dying, it’s about living. Since I am on the short side of life, I dare not waste the time I have left. When death comes, the battery in my life clock will be depleted. Like the Big Ben clock beside our bed, the one I listen to late at night as it clicks off the seconds, I know there is coming a day when I will hear CLICK and that will be it.

How about you? As an atheist or non-Christian, what do you want to happen after you die? Have you made funeral plans? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

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The Mighty Maple and Pine Tree

house 2014

House 2014

Sometime in the latter part of the 19th century, someone built a small farmhouse on the edge of the small, bustling community of Williamstown. In time, Williamstown became Ney and these farmers planted a maple tree and pine tree in their front yard, near the dirt road local residents used to travel  between the communities of Defiance, Bryan, Farmer, Sherwood, Williams Center, and Mark Center. Over time, these tree grew and by 2015 they became two of the largest trees in Ney.

pine tree 2012

Pine tree 2012

The pine tree, eight feet in diameter at its base, towers above the south side of the farmhouse, providing shade for the new family who lives there. Throughout the year, the pine tree drops cones that litter the ground and plug the gutters.  The tree seems healthy, year after year producing buds that turn into cones. Its fallen cones and needles require frequent removal to the compost pile, but the shade provided by this majestic tree makes this work of little importance.

The maple tree, now seven feet in diameter, sits to the west of the pine tree, near the edge  of US Hwy 15. Its vast branches provide plenty of shade on a warm Ohio summer day, and every morning the songbirds sit in its branches serenading anyone who takes time to listen.   Every year, save one, since the new owners have lived in the farmhouse, the maple tree has thrown its seeds to the wind, plugging gutters and taking root in the gravel parking lot around its base. And every year, its seeds find out-of-the-way spots to take up root, hoping the new owners will let it live.

The maple tree is not as healthy as the pine tree. Its age is evident, and every thunderstorm drops a dead branch from its vast expanse. Towering twenty feet above the peak of the farmhouse, the maple tree has seen ten or so decades come and go. People in the farmhouse have lived, moved, and died, and its current residents expect the mighty maple tree will outlive them too.

house 2013

House 2013

Five years ago, knowing that someday the inevitable will happen and the maple tree will die, the new owners of the farmhouse planted a new maple tree, just like the unknown owners did a century ago. This wisp of a tree, now twelve feet tall and seven inches in diameter, will one day tower over the northeast corner of the property. That is, if the future owners of the farmhouse see beyond the present and let it plug their gutters too. The current farmhouse dwellers think like this: enjoy the present by planting bushes and flowers, but don’t forget the children of children of children.  Plant trees that future generations will admire and enjoy. They will be a living reminder to all who dare to pay attention; that a man and woman and their mentally handicapped daughter cared about the world they lived in.

maple tree 2014

Like the maple tree, someday, sooner than later, the man and woman in the farmhouse, will die. Like the maple tree, there’s a rot growing slowly inside of them. It will one day consume them, returning them to the earth from whence they came.

The Bruce and Polly Fantasy Game

white birch clare michigan 2003

House we rented in White Birch, a wooded community north of Farwell, Michigan. At the time, I was pastoring Victory Baptist Church, Clare Michigan 2003


white birch clare michigan 2003-001

House we rented in White Birch, a wooded community north of Farwell, Michigan. At the time, I was pastoring Victory Baptist Church, Clare Michigan 2003

Depression Sea is roiling today, my mind is twisting, turning, and dying.

She knows, she always knows. My face and body language tell a story she’s read time and again.

She worries that this time the story might have a different ending.

I’m at the doctor’s office.

Wasn’t I here last month? I already know the answer, having made the trip eight times and the year isn’t even half over.

As we wait for the nurse to call my name, we play the Bruce and Polly Fantasy Game®.

Playing the game allows me to change the monotonous, deadly channel that keeps playing over and over in mind.

We look at one another, smile, and begin the game.

The game always has the same answers, but we like to play anyway.

In the Bruce and Polly Fantasy Game®, we take shared places and experiences and meld them into one. A fantasy, to be sure, but who knows, maybe we’ll strike it rich, rob a bank, or write a book detailing where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.

Spring in Ohio, with its promise of new life and flowers.

Fall in Ohio, with its crisp air and changing colors.

Winter in Arizona, no snow for us, we survived the Blizzard of 78.

Summer in the Upper Peninsula , nestled as close to our Canadian friends as possible.

Our rented  house from White Birch, Michigan, with a 1970 green Nova SS sitting in the drive.

bruce 1970 nova ss

Bruce putting water in 1970 Nova SS, March 1976, somewhere in Kentucky

Package these things together and magically move them to the eastern seaboard, to a small, out-of-the-way fishing community on the shore of the Atlantic.

Turn the house so it fronts the Ocean, allowing us to sit on our deck and watch the sunrise and the fishing boats making their way to the secret spots known only to those whose hands and face bear the weathered look of a lifetime spent fishing.

Nearby live our children and grandchildren. Not too close, yet not so far as to be beyond an invite to a Saturday night BBQ.

This is Bruce and Polly’s fantasy.

She remains worried, wondering if the slough of despondency will bury the man she loves.

All I want is for the pain to stop.

Is that too much to ask?

I already knows the answer. I always knows the answer.

The nurse calls my name and I  haltingly walk to the exam room.

No weight gain, medications the same, pulse 78, and blood pressure just a little high. Refills ordered, sure is hot, hate the humidity, how’s Bethany, he’ll be in to see you soon.

The doctor walks through the door and sits near me.  Eighteen years we’ve danced to this tune, both of us now dance much slower than we once did.

The doctor thinks I am chipper today, better than last month.  Little does he know what I’m really thinking. We talk about the Reds, Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto, and the All Star game. I promised the nurse that we wouldn’t do our thing, our thing being shooting the breeze while other patients wait. I lied. He’s behind and I’m to blame.

We shake hands and afterward I put my hand gently on his shoulder.  I tell him, see you in two months. This sounds like a lie, a hollow promise with no hope of fulfillment.

I want to live.

I want to die.

We stop at St. John’s produce tent and buy some local strawberries. $3.50 a quart. We buy some Georgia peaches too, which will turn into pies for Sunday. The strawberries will top the angel food cake she will make in the morning; just like every other June 19th for the past thirty-seven years.

bruce and mom 1957

Bruce and his mom, July 1957

June 19, 1957, in a building years ago torn down and replaced with a new one, at 9:01 AM I drew air into my lungs for the first time. A new life born into poverty in a nondescript rural Ohio community, delivered by a doctor who also worked as a veterinarian.

The path is now long and how much path remains is unknown.

Will the game be called today or will we get to play, for the nth time the Bruce and Polly Fantasy Game®?

I’m still betting on playing the game.

Note

For those who struggle with chronic pain and illness, a birthday can often lead to deep depression, a reminder of all that has been lost. While the healthy focus on all they have, those in pain and who suffer from years of chronic debility can, and often do, focus on how much they have lost. Yes, it is wonderful to have a sliver of life to hold on to, to have a spouse, children, and grandchildren who love you, but nothing can ameliorate the sense of loss.

This is not a cry for help. I am just talking out loud with friends.

Focusing on What Really Matters

focus on what matters

As a Christian, I viewed life this way:

  1. Life is given to us by God.
  2. Life is a preparatory time for life after death.
  3. Troubles, trials, and adversity will certainly come our way but these things are part of God plan for us. He is testing us, trying us, and developing a longing in us for Heaven.
  4. While pleasure and happiness have their place in the human experience, it is far more important to know the joy of the Lord, and if need be deny oneself pleasure and happiness for the sake of God’s Kingdom and the eternal reward that awaits those who run the race God has set before them.
  5. While there is nothing wrong with material things, they do have the power to corrupt and distract us from that which really matters. As the Westminster Catechism says : What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
  6. Life is to be lived with God, his will, and eternity always in the foreground.
  7. Death is a promotion from this life to the next. While we will leave our loved ones behind for a time, we know that if they are followers of Jesus we will see them again in Heaven.

As an atheist, I view life this way:

  1. Life is given to us by our parents.
  2. This life is all we have. There is no life after death, no second chances, no do-overs. This is it.
  3. Troubles, trials, and adversity will certainly come our way. These things happen to most everyone, and it is the price we pay for being among the living.  Sometimes these things happen due to our bad choices or rash, foolish decisions. However, many things befall us simply due to luck. Wrong place. Wrong time. Wrong circumstance. Bad genetics.
  4. Pleasure and happiness are to be sought after since this life is all we have. In seeking pleasure and happiness, we should consider how seeking these things affects others,  but we should not allow others to stand in the way of our pursuit of pleasure and happiness. Life is too short to allow others to dictate the parameters by which we live our lives.
  5. We should seek after those things which give our life meaning and purpose. While there is a place in the human experience for living for the sake of others, this should not be at the expense of our own meaning and purpose. While narcissism is not a trait most humans value, neither is living a life that belongs to everyone but the person living it.
  6. Since life is defined by the space between birth and death, it is important for us to live each day to its fullest. Every day we live means we are one day closer to death. While death may provide a release from pain and sickness, it is bittersweet. Bittersweet because we are leaving behind those things which mattered to us. Above all, we are leaving behind those we love.

A year or so ago, I watched the final show of the acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under. (created by True Blood creator, Alan Ball)  The show is about the Fisher Family and their funeral home business. For five seasons viewers are taken on a journey with the Fisher family and death. I found Six Feet Under to be one of the best dramas I have ever viewed. In the final show the writers tried to tie together all the loose ends. A few episodes back Nate Fisher had a brain aneurism and died at age 40. He left a wife, two children, and a complicated life. The last several shows focused on Nate, his contradictory life, and its effect on everyone his life touched.

The last few moments of the show were the most powerful moments I have ever experienced while watching TV. I wept as the show moved through the lives of all the Fisher family as they aged and one by one died. All of them dead. No one escaped. While it would be easy to say “how sad”, I found it to a reminder of how important it is to value and cherish the life we have. We spend so much time doing things that are meaningless or add nothing to our life. I know it is very easy to get sucked into normalcy, to just go with the flow. We tell ourselves, Tomorrow. Perhaps a Bible verse is appropriate here:

Boast not thyself of to morrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth. (Proverbs 27:1)

Perhaps each of us need to ask ourselves:

  • Am I happy?
  • What is it I want to do with my life?
  • What brings me pleasure and happiness?
  • What do I want to do that I have not yet done?

What are your answers telling you? What are your thoughts on what I have shared here?

The Battler

the battler

The Battler

When he battled liberal churches and preachers they loved him.

When he battled Democrats they loved him.

And then he became too liberal for them.

When he battled Fundamentalists they loved him.

When he battled those who preached cheap grace they loved him.

And then he became too liberal for them.

When he battled the institutional church they loved him.

When he battled the mega-churches and TV preachers they loved him.

And then he became too liberal for them.

One day he realized that he had spent his entire life battling, and to what end?

No one stood by him.

The great battler stood alone.

Along the way he had changed.

And when he changed, they walked away.

He learned a hard lesson.

They never really did love him.

They loved his smart writing.

They loved his stand for truth.

They loved his personality.

They loved everything about him except what mattered.

When he needed them the most they were nowhere to be found.

He made them uncomfortable, they said,

He had changed.

He wasn’t what or who he used to be.

What happened to him, they asked?

Perhaps the real question is, what happened to them?

He often feels like a one night stand.

Used.

He still fights the battle.

But now the battle is within.

He battles the demons of the past,

He battles the reality of the present.

And he battles fear of tomorrow.

He is forced to forge new relationships.

Why does he feel the closest to people he has never met?

He used to laugh at the very notion of internet friends, yet where would he be without them?

They read what he writes and offer their opinion.

They agree, they disagree, but they let him be who he is.

They require no fidelity or obedience.

What’s a battling old preacher to do?

The fires still burns.

Passion still stirs in his being.

But the old battles provide no fight.

So he looks for a new battle to fight.

Maybe he will fight for those scarred and damaged by the gods.

Maybe he will fight for those who can not, or fearfully will not, fight for themselves.

Maybe he will fight for those whose lives have been ruined by People of the Way.

Maybe he will fight for a better world for his children and grandchildren.

There are still battles to fight.

Choose who and what you will fight for.

And forget those who only loved you for the battles you fought.

Written 2010