This is the sixty-fourth installment in the Songs of Sacrilege series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a song that is irreverent towards religion, makes fun of religion, pokes fun at sincerely held religious beliefs, or challenges the firmly held religious beliefs of others, please send me an email.
Gaze at the night sky See the blanket of stars Expanding through space and time Suddenly you can’t breathe And you wonder why you’re alive And who you were created by The answer stares back at you Though you don’t realize
We are all stardust We are all stardust Science has shown us We are all stardust
Mysterious and beautiful Violent and cruel It’s amazing how the universe Is so much like you When it’s time for stars to die They explode across the sky And you would not exist If it was not for this
We are all stardust We are all stardust Truth is within us We are all stardust
Warning: a good deal of my thoughts and feelings on all this are quite raw. If I come across that way, I’m not meaning to demean or offend. I do my best to be polite. I can’t help but feel I am taking an awful risk. It’s with a great deal of trepidation that I get into this more than on a surface level. The images of children stumbling and millstones have a permanent imprint on my mind. But, I think everyone here can handle it. Besides that, I’m not encouraging anyone to follow my ways or path–you are responsible for yourself, your faith, your life with or without god. But I do–and you should–proceed with caution.
I am a product, not of IFB/Evangelical fundamentalism, but of Campbellite/Church of Christ fundamentalism. I left that for liberal Evangelicalism, only to find the grass wasn’t greener. I am currently in the long, drawn-out process of leaving the Faith altogether. But, I will admit “faith” is something I’m not so sure I am leaving. I don’t know, anymore.
I admit right off the bat that I am not an atheist. I am agnostic, but lean toward some kind of Jesus pursuit. I no longer believe in any inerrant bible or literal “word of God”, but I still think the Bible is a valuable document to carefully read and consider, in the same way the Tao Te Ching or Das Kapital are valuable to read and consider. I doubt I would be considered “Christian” in most senses, anymore.
I was born in Amarillo, Texas, the firstborn to parents who were at least third-generation Campbellites. As such I grew up in the non-institutional, non-instrumental churches of Christ. If you know the history of that “movement”, you will know that says enough about the theological baggage I carry around.
Campbellite baptism is how I was taught to approach “getting saved”, which was always separated from believing. I had always believed, always knew Jesus, even from childhood; until now I never knew a time of “unbelief.” That did not mean I was saved, however. “Faith and works” were always held in tension, and neither were sufficient to get me into Heaven. My baptism sprang from a fear of Hell, but it also developed from teenage angst about growing up in the church. I relented under the typical church pressures, but my conversion was sincere even if less than fully “educated.” An argument can be made that no discernible change in life resulted. Looking back, that is a significant note to keep in my back pocket.
I met my wife in high school. She was a profoundly unhappy girl and I vowed to be the one person in town who would not add to her sadness, if not be the one to make her happy. There was just one problem: she was a Catholic. Again, if you know anything about the Churches of Christ, me even dating her was a mighty scandal.
That is what marrying my wife made us. After we both graduated from college, we moved to the Detroit area, far away from our Colorado home. Incidentally, we lost two children, and I nearly lost my wife. What I also lost was my armored perspective on good and evil, right and wrong. We moved back home soon after and had our first [living] child. We then, almost immediately, lost my mother-in-law. Our firstborn was diagnosed with Type-1 diabetes at age 5, as was I one year later–as an adult. Gain and loss have became prominent themes in our life together. These events solidified our existence as misfits, and life soon became an exercise in dealing with the unmet expectations of others; not least of which were the expectations of other Christians.
What I was learning was that my family were–and are–the greatest gifts I have been given. I discovered they are more valuable than even my “salvation.” My family, and not the church, taught me about love. Everyone else taught me about expectations, and the consequences of not meeting them.
I am an engineer. For a time, I worked construction, which was not the industry for which I was educated. Once again I was a misfit, a fish out of water. Years of this lead to a restlessness and anxiety, feelings of being trapped with no other options. The funny thing was that my time in that job was a sort of parable of my wider life. At the time I mistakenly thought it was a “faith-lesson” strengthening my Christianity. Big mistake. I did learn what faith truly was, and it was not what the church told me it was.
The Hebrew Bible talks of the refiner’s fire. My branch of engineering deals with steel-making, so blacksmithing has deep root in my consciousness. There are no miracles in the blacksmith’s world, only long, arduous work. The blacksmith doesn’t “believe” or “pray” for a result, he takes his hammer, anvil, and a very hot fire and beats on a piece of steel until it is a useful tool. It takes hours, days, or weeks to create something of use. Only after hard work does his effort bear any fruit.
Similarly, Jesus talked of moving mountains with only a little faith. Christianity has left us with the mistaken notion that the right faith would allow us to instantly throw that trillion-ton pile of rocks and trees into the ocean with a wave of our hands. Or, that the right faith would bring us untold riches and health. Life has taught me otherwise. Moving mountains takes faith, alright, but the kind of faith that picks up the shovel and scoops the dirt day after day, week after week, year after year. A mountain is moved one rock at a time. I know this because I watched it happen on a job site: one shovel, one bucket, one dump truck, one day at a time. It was boring and monotonous. And it surely was not instant.
Finally, Jesus talked about building on rock and not sand. This was the easy one to learn. Any house or other structure worth its money is built on a solid foundation. What is the foundation of fundamentalism? What is it but the sand of inerrancy, or the shakiness of one literal, modern interpretation of a collection of ancient texts. Even the “eyewitness” accounts of Jesus of Nazareth are rife with corrupted and uncorroborated evidence. Christianity, as it stands now, is built on a surprisingly shifty foundation. Not a good start to building a life.
Learning these lessons has shown me, in the here and now, that I generally live life in tension; I am holding contradictory positions. It is not a good situation for an engineer to hold to an existence of cognitive dissonance. So, now I’m wavering.
Where I’m At
In a manner of speaking, I have no issue with the people of the church, although I haven’t been to meetings in many months. I am happy with most of the people, however the church is, and all churches are, bound by a system and spends too much energy and treasure to feed itself. Having so much stock invested leads to rules and expectations on people that aren’t really justified. From what I read and understand in the Bible, the church was meant to be about a community in relationship. But, so much of the activity and program of church makes authentic relationships nearly impossible.
But none of that is the driving issue with me. I might be able to live and cope with those idiosyncrasies. Coming face to face with some of the things happening in my life–random, causeless things–has caused doubts to take center stage, doubts I’ve always harbored and tried to work out on the back burner. As it is now, I’m skeptical of nearly everything–church, theology, family priority, god itself. I feel like I’m watching the deconstruction of everything I’ve ever believed, hoping to be left with enough to rebuild, or to be convinced rebuilding is worth the energy, or even necessary.
[Warning: severe understatement ahead.] Generally speaking, the church doesn’t deal with doubt very well. Just try to question a pastor’s decision, debate the elders’ authority, resist any authority, doubt the Bible, or doubt an agenda or program. Try questioning the small group ministry and see where it gets you. Simply asking the question, any question, gets you branded. This doesn’t even consider questions about the arguably more important topics of doctrines and practice. Individual friends, even while uncomfortable, will help you entertain doubts, to a point. But when the corporate body is involved, doubt is quashed, because it can’t be managed or controlled.
I doubt. I question. I doubt well-established, deeply held, fundamental things. From the time I was a boy, as far back as I can remember, I have never really doubted god. For the years that I’ve known and learned about god, I had never doubted who he was or that he somehow loved me. That is, not until now.
I suppose the spiritual growth process requires doubt at some time. It seems that in doubt, faith and perseverance must grow to overcome it. Still, when these doubts came, it brought a tremor deep within that I did not expect. It has brought fits of very intense emotion. It has been difficult to keep my composure when confronted with my doubts.
Over the past few years, I have been exposed to new–at least new to me–theological hypotheses. What they are is not the point, and I don’t wish to argue their merits or faults here. Their effects on me, however, I need to work out. Having believed a certain thing about god for so long, I have agonized over having that foundation cracked, even if just a little or just in perception. After half a lifetime of being quite sure of what I believed, that assurance has been shattered, and worse, may yet be proven to be based on something completely false. To someone like me, who is comfortable with facts laid out in an orderly, black and white fashion, this is the height of uncomfortable.
While I don’t like to call it “panic”, a sort of core panic has set in. Admittedly, my first reaction was one of anger. I felt lied to and duped. To some extent, I still do. I re-read scripture passages, along with a few new sources of information and I begin to see all sides as having some merit in their positions. A deeper depression sets in, and then harder questions rise up. “Which is it?”, I ask myself. “Both?” “Neither?” “Does it matter?” In my black and white mind, there must be an answer. What is truth?
I think of Job… what an awful thing to happen to one person. Not only did he lose almost everything, his wife and three friends were of no comfort. Nevertheless, god steps in to end the argument. God, interestingly enough, lectures Job on speaking where he has no knowledge. Funny—the whole time Job is crying out to god as his final arbiter, calling for vindication—he receives a stern reprimand. All the while, Job gets no answers to who was right in the final theological analysis. None. Job and his friends are left wondering. And so am I. It seems everything was set aright, for the most part, for Job after all. But what was the point of having to suffer so overwhelmingly? Was it just so god could prove a debate point?
If the experiences of Job teach me anything (assuming that god is indeed benevolent), it is that god doesn’t call us to nail down our theology to be acceptable to it. He calls us to trust it. All of our understandings are feeble. This isn’t to say truth is not important. It is to say that god holds truth, not us, and not me. Therefore, we need to trust him and not scholars, theologians, preachers, or ourselves.
Such is wholly unacceptable to some people. I get that. And, it is all predicated on a god who is there to trust in the first place. What if it isn’t? Can “God” be reasonably presupposed, even with the claims of the Cloud of Witnesses?
I can’t really nail down a single event which has brought all of this to the forefront. I could name several candidates, but how exactly they fit in would take volumes to describe and tie together. The nearer ones would be easier than those far off, but only relatively. Whether it was a grandfather’s declaration that I wouldn’t amount to much, or a pastor’s desertion of the flock in his charge—or any of a thousand more incidents and accidents—all had their part to play in my derailed faith.
Even so, if I had to venture a guess at a common thread it would be this: cognitive dissonance. That is, that which I believed or wanted to believe was not what I saw or thought I saw. The truths I held were not what in reality was or is. Mutually exclusive ideas cannot be true at the same time.
Over the past few years I have been dealing, in my mind, with the dichotomy of how life should be versus how life is. I am unable to confirm the quote, but Mel Blanc is purported to have said, when comparing his characters Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, “Bugs is the ideal we all try measure up to, but Daffy is who we see in the mirror every morning.” That seems to fit it into the nutshell I’m talking about. Similarly, the “Christian life” is such a lofty ideal, but when compared to reality, it looks like a sham.
Is there any hope? Society surrounding me leads me to believe not. Depending on which preacher you sit in front of on Sunday mornings, no matter the platitudes and “gracious” language (if you’re fortunate enough to get even that), the answer is still no. For every fellow addict who understands and knows the struggle, there are 99 “good” citizens who deny any issues of their own and stand in judgment of your law-breaking.
So, I’m left with a choice. I can be honest with myself and everyone, taking the barbs and arrows from a society and a religion who don’t understand and don’t really care to understand, or I don the mantra of the Wizard, hoping to distract all Oz from the reality of who I am. It feels like the only way is the wrong way.
I really don’t know what to do with this. I haven’t been taught to deal with it. It has always been that I don’t measure up, and I have to measure up before god will love me, but it’s impossible for me to measure up. To a certain extent, I have been convinced there is no hope. Go to any church, and likely you will find there are rules and expectations before you are accepted as “one of us.” Churches are not the only culprit, society at large has the same expectation—do what we say or else.
But, if you boil down the story of the Bible, that is not what god seems to be saying, at least that isn’t how I read it. No matter what I think of god and his interaction (or lack thereof) in this screwed up world, the book says that through Jesus somehow things are different. The man behind the curtain can be exposed for who and what he is, and god accepts him… accepts me. He will deal with me kindly and fairly.
I don’t know about you, but I never hear that in the churches I’ve been associated with to this point. Spend a single day in the secular world and you will find this, too, is an anathema. I’m only now getting the whole thing through my own thick, judgmental skull. The thing is, I still don’t know what to do with it.
There is no point in running down the list of things I still believe or things I don’t believe anymore. The details of the jots and tittles have caused enough madness. The best I can give you at this point is that I am agnostic about the whole thing. I simply don’t know. Further, I’m skeptical of anyone who claims they do know. I’m skeptical that some things are even knowable.
If you want to know what I believe, watch me. See what I do and how I act. That will tell you all you need to know. Maybe the reason there was no change in my life at my conversion was that I didn’t really believe it in the first place.
I was and continue to be skeptical of any Sunday School teacher or pastor from my past. I know they don’t know. And here I am: a walking contradiction. For all my years, this is what I have heard: Sure, god loves me and sent Jesus to save me, but… BUT… if I don’t ________, then [insert any one of the typical religious threats here]. For all my years, I have tried to conform and do as I was told. It has gotten me nowhere. I’m still the same person, with the same personality issues, the same social ills, the same faults, and the same sins.
I can’t continue down the same path. I’m not sure I even want to, anymore. I can’t keep the inevitable at bay.
My conclusion is that I’m done. I can’t do it. I have never been able to do it. All I hear is, “You need to do more… do better… don’t do that… do this… change… pull your weight… contribute… make a difference… obey…”
So, I’m not going to try, anymore.
A well-written deconvert to atheism explained his experience in this way:
“These are the three things that changed my thinking: a major crisis, plus new information that caused me to see things differently, minus a sense of a loving, caring Christian community.” –From John W. Loftus, Why I Became an Atheist, Prometheus, 2008.
I mention this quote not to say that all of this must turn out, in the end, as me turning to atheism. It is more of a warning to myself that I am three-thirds of the way down that path Loftus describes.
To this point I have found only one fact I can rely on: love. While that fact carries a lot of weight in and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily answer the questions I’m haunted by. It is a hopeful start, even so. I consider love to be the chief end of life; love of others, primarily. Life is too difficult to go through without a friend to help along the way. Jesus supposedly spoke of love, but his followers show an appalling lack of it. This is the chief reason I have left the church and Christian religion: so few of Jesus’ so-called “disciples” actually love anyone. I don’t blame Jesus, I blame those who do what they do in his name. I still believe in love, even if I don’t know if I believe in god.
That, of course, could all change. In all of this, I’ve learned something about myself. I’ve told you the story, for the most part. From as early as I can remember I have felt like a misfit, not meeting family, friends’, and others’ expectations. Well, my response to it all has always been, “I’ll show them.” I was driven to prove myself to any- and everyone. High school valedictorian, smallest defensive end in the league, if not the State (All-Conference). Graduate from the best engineering school in the country in 4 years. Aced the class the prof said I had no business taking. Save the company I work for millions per year. Professional Engineer Certification in a 3rd discipline I was not educated in. Prove my boss wrong. Defy church leadership because–damn it–they’re wrong. Etcetera, and etcetera, blah, blah and blah. Then all of it came crashing down.
No matter how good, right, or correct any of that stuff is, I only did it to justify myself. My complaints toward anyone who opposed me, criticized me or didn’t “like” me was not one of rightness, but of not validating me, my ego. Like many before, I didn’t like myself, so I sought to force everyone else to do so as compensation. “I’m the smartest guy in the room; I’m right and you can’t deny it.”
I am who I am. That is enough. Jesus told his followers, “Love your enemies.” Ghandi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
I figure, now, I just need to let it all go. I don’t need to show anything to anyone. I just need to love and forgive, and not grasp at those I find around me. Then I can let the rest of it fall where it does. That doesn’t answer any questions, but maybe in the end that is the beginning.
A local Evangelical Christian recently put signs along the highway that said, Want the Truth? Read the Bible.
Evidently, he didn’t think an atheist photographer might be driving by and take a picture. Funny how other signs come into the picture that perhaps change the intended meaning of the sign. WRONG WAY.
Wrong way, indeed. Too bad I didn’t have a felt marker with me. I would have marked out THE BIBLE. Want the truth? READ. By all means, read the Bible. It is the best tool for turning a Christian into an atheist. But don’t stop there. Keep reading.
Regular readers know that I battle chronic illness and unrelenting pain from the moment I get up until the time I fitfully fall asleep in the wee hours of the morning. For those of you who are new readers, let me give you the short version of my medical resume:
I have Fibromyalgia, which causes pervasive fatigue and muscle pain. I also have nerve pain in my face, hands, and thighs, loss of motor function and strength, osteoarthritis in every joint, including my back, frequent loss of bladder control, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Since late last year I’ve gone through numerous tests in an attempt to figure out why I am losing weight and frequently don’t feel like eating. An endoscopic ultrasound found a lesion on my pancreas and enlarged lymph glands. So far, they have not turned cancerous. I’ve been treated twice this year for squamous cell carcinoma (hip and lip) and several years ago I had a basal cell carcinoma removed from my nose. I have a labrum tear in my right shoulder and joint damage in my left shoulder, feet, and knees. I require the use of a wheelchair and/or a cane to get around.
This is my life. There’s little I can do to change it. I hunker down and try to live the best way I know how. It’s been a decade since I’ve had what I call a good day. These days, a good day is one where the pain is manageable and I can work in the office for a few hours and maybe go to a football game with my sons. A bad day is one where narcotic pain medications do little to ameliorate my pain and I am left curled up in bed wishing I were dead. Depression is the dark passenger in my life, and there are times when I fight the desire to end the suffering and pain.
I know there is no cure on the horizon, no magical drug that will make everything better. I’ve been tested, retested, and tested again, so much so that I glow in the dark. I have blood work at least six times a year. My last blood draw required seven vials of blood, and that was after the phlebotomist stuck me three times trying to find one of my deep veins that would give enough flow to fill seven tubes. Despite all these tests, I remain, to some degree, an enigma to doctors, a patient with symptoms that don’t neatly fit into a specific diagnosis box.
As a skeptic, atheist, and humanist, I accept that life is what it is. I know that a deity isn’t going to magically heal me, and I’ve concluded neither are doctors. I have two choices in life; either endure whatever life bring my way or roll over and die. So far, I’ve chosen to endure, Yes, I hope for better days and I certainly desire for the good days to outnumber the bad days. But, regardless of my thoughts and desires, the die of my life is cast. In eighteen months I’ll be 60 years old. I’ve lived a decade longer than my father, who died of a stroke at age 49, and five years longer than my mother, who killed herself 23 years ago. I’ve watched death rob me of those I love, and I have little doubt that death is lurking in the shadow of my life, ready to claim me for its own. Death, like life, is certain, and as anyone who is chronically ill can tell you, the prospect of death is an ever-present reality.
Yet, I can have delusional moments where I pretend I’m not sick. There are times I become quite depressed as Polly goes off to work each day. As a man who was taught that the husband is supposed to be the breadwinner, I find it emotionally and mentally painful to watch the most important person in my life go to work every day so we can have a roof over our head, food to eat, and all the trappings of a typical Midwestern lifestyle. I tell myself that Polly was a stay-at-home mom for many years and now our roles are reversed, but I still wish I could be the one kissing my spouse goodbye and saying I love you as I walk out the door for work. I know this will never be the case, but I can, at times, trick myself into believing that I can once again be Bruce Before Illness and Pain.
The chronically ill are known for convincing themselves that things are not as they seem. Put mind over matter, well-wishers tell the sick person. I’ve tried just such an approach many times over the years. Sickness be gone, pain depart, I say to myself. I can do anything I want to do. The only thing standing my way is me! Try as I might to convince myself that a wonderful new day has dawned, it’s not long before reality slaps me up the side of the head and asserts its rule over my life.
I continue to scan the help wanted ads, looking for the perfect job for a broken down, incapacitated old man. Every once in awhile, I’ll apply for this or that job, thinking that the prospective employer will be sure to call. Rarely does the phone ring. Recently, I applied for a job that required 2-5 hours every other week stocking display counters at the local Meijer. I sent the company my resume, and a week or so later they contacted me for an interview. On the day of my interview, I made sure I looked my best, donning a crisply pressed shirt and dockers. Not wanting to give off the cripple vibe, I left my cane at home and uprightly walked into Meijer for the interview. I was sure that this was the perfect job for me. Just enough work to restore a bit of my self-esteem and provide added income for our household budget.
The interview went well. I generally interview well. Having hired hundreds of people in my day, I know what an interviewer is looking for. I was pleasant, made eye contact, and asked the interviewer questions about herself, the company, and the job. She seemed to be excited about the prospect of hiring someone like me. Or perhaps, I just thought she was excited. Regardless, I left the interview thinking I would soon be stocking batteries at the local Meijer. A few days later I learned the company chose someone else for the job.
Not being chosen for an inconsequential, low paying job resulted in a weeks of depression and thoughts of suicide. Try as she might, Polly couldn’t rescue me and all my counselor could do was keep me holding on to the proverbial knot at the end of life’s rope. In time, the dark clouds lifted and I was able to put the rejection behind me.
I can convince myself that I can still work like I did before 1997, the year I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. I’ll convince myself that I can stand on my feet for hours at a time, even though I can rarely stand for more than an hour. Just shopping for groceries requires me leaning on a shopping cart, and by the time I leave the store my body is screaming in pain.
My body never lies, but I do. I lie to myself, and I often lie to Polly. I’ll tell Polly that I want to apply for a job at this or that store and she’ll give that look I’ve see uncounted times before. But I can do it, I tell her. I won’t know until I try, right? The love of my life lets me drift on the sea of my delusion, knowing that I will sooner or later realize I can’t do what the job requires me to do. She never looks down on me or chides me for trying the impossible. She knows, based on almost 40 years of loving me, that I am a proud man, a man who has a hard time embracing his life as it now is.
Sometimes, I will inflict greater pain on myself, refusing to give in to what my body demands of me. Last Friday, my sons and I attended a local high school football game. The night before I got about 4 hours of sleep, and wisdom dictated that I cancel my plans to go to the game. So much for wisdom. I went to the game and endured three hours of being battered by people walking up and down the aisle. A man in back of me, thinking he still was in high school, spent the night cheering loudly and stomping his feet. Every time he stomped his feet my body rippled with painful shock waves. By the time the last touchdown was scored, I was ready to murder the man where he stood.
After the game was over, I haltingly made my way down to the ground. This particular school decided to build its football stadium a long distance from the parking lot, and I wondered if I was going to be able to make it back to the car. With head down, teeth gritted, I walked toward the car. My sons, still in their prime, quickly, even with grandchildren in tow, outdistanced me, and soon they were yards ahead of me. They stopped, allowing me to catch up, only to find me straggling behind a few minutes later.
During the game, we had been talking about Polly’s parents, her Dad’s upcoming hip replacement, and their unwillingness to change their way of life. Pride was their problem, we decided. As I walked towards the car, a woman in a golf cart stopped and asked if I would like a ride to the car. Everything in my being said YES, but pride turned her offer of help away with a, no, I’m fine. Thank you. A few minutes later another woman in a golf cart stopped and again asked if I needed a ride. I gave her the same answer I gave the first good Samaritan. My oldest son, watching my obstinate denial of reality, laughed and reminded me of my own pride. I chuckled, and then continued on my way to the car.
My son,of course, was right. It’s pride, the desire to rise above my illness and pain, that often brings more pain and debility. Try as I might to see my life as it is and embrace my new reality, I continue to have times when I attempt to conjure up the Bruce that existed before illness and pain took from me much of what made me a man. I look at old photographs and weep, lamenting a life that once was. And then I dry my eyes and remind myself that nothing I do can bring back that which is lost. The best I can do is embrace life as it is. I have a beautiful wife, six wonderful children, and ten awesome grandchildren. Surely, I’m blessed with that which many people would give anything for, I remind myself. I can choose to lament what’s been lost or rejoice over what I still have.
Today, I rejoice. Now, where’s the employment section of the paper?
When I tell people about the death of my infant daughter, they often respond that she is in heaven. They tell me that she is an angel now. They tell me that she’s with God. But as an atheist, these words have never brought me any comfort.
My daughter was born three years ago. I went into pre-term labor at 22 weeks gestation, and try as they might, the doctors could not keep her here with us. Her short life, just eight hours long, has marked my life and my husband’s life deeply. Margaret Hope (or Maggie, as we refer to her) continues to exist with us in her own way, but this persistence has absolutely nothing to do with god or Jesus or angels or any other specific afterworld. This is what works for us as parents. It’s what works for about two percent of the U.S. population who currently identify as atheists, and for about 20 percent who are agnostic or unaffiliated with any particular set of beliefs.
Being an atheist in a believer’s world can be difficult at times, especially when some of the more fervently religious are close family or friends. It’s even more daunting when faced with grief and death. Christians believe that when we die, we either go to heaven or hell. Many, of course, believe babies go to heaven because they are, well, babies. When our daughter died, my husband requested to have our baby baptized, fearing in some way for her soul, a remnant of his Catholic upbringing. There was no time for a traditional baptism while she was alive but her NICU doctor performed the rite for her while we held her in our arms for the first time, our tiny, frail, lifeless daughter whose eyes never even got a chance to see. It felt bizarre to me, but I allowed it because my husband was suffering and it seemed to bring him some comfort. Later, as reality hit harder, he would lose all faith as I had done…
…Those around us did their best to offer words of comfort, but after a while, I became tired and even resentful of the comments about my daughter needing to go be with Jesus. Worse still, I isolated myself so I wouldn’t need to hear their “comforting” words because all they did was make me feel worse. Like so many other non-believers, I cannot wrap my head around the idea that there is some supreme being that allows these sorts of things to happen, commands them to happen. Being a bereaved parent is hard enough, but being one when you don’t believe in god is something else altogether…
…Agnostics and atheists understand why people have faith. We understand it brings them comfort. At times, I wish I could believe that my daughter is watching over me right now while enjoying a beautiful and eternal afterlife. But that’s just not what I believe. Instead, I imagine her in all sorts of places. Maybe her energy shot out into the stars. Perhaps some molecule of her is dancing around on Jupiter. Other times, I think about much of her remaining in my heart, as science tells us part of every child’s DNA remains forever with her mother, a fact that does bring me great peace.
Maggie’s physical remains are in a plastic, white box, swaddled in her hospital baby blanket, and placed inside my bedroom closet, still waiting for the day I am willing to part with them. I really don’t know what happened to her soul, if such things even exist. And while it may comfort you to say to me that my daughter is in heaven, it does absolutely nothing for me or for the countless others who don’t subscribe to your brand of faith — and that is okay.
You can read the entire article here. Priscilla Blossom’s blog can be found here.
This is the sixty-third installment in the Songs of Sacrilege series. This is a series that I would like readers to help me with. If you know of a song that is irreverent towards religion, makes fun of religion, pokes fun at sincerely held religious beliefs, or challenges the firmly held religious beliefs of others, please send me an email.
This is my open letter, this is something to remember, I won’t be buried before my time, I’m not searching for forever. I’ve got my eyes opened wide.
I’ve been searching under rubble from the past, just looking for a reason to make your life last, No need to look skyward for you to find hope, no need for redemption to be saved from the rope, fuck no.
I’m not searching the sky for a reason to live ’cause I found beauty right here and found the passion to give, so let me give you my heart, let me give you my tears, let me give you my life, let me give you my fears.
Just so you can hold on and sing while I do, sing these words out so loud, like I sing them for you.
This is your open letter, something to remember, we can still keep on fighting even though life is not forever.
This is my open letter, this is something to remember, this is my open letter, I’m not searching for forever.
What follows is part three of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).
(Please note that this post will provide some hand-holding for those with little to no understanding of Christianity)
Part 5: The Missionary Calling
Stories usually require introductions and this one begins with two things; the first is attraction. Two teenagers going to the same youth-group decide get together for the reasons most teenagers do; they liked each other. Being good Christian types they had vowed to stay “pure” which, in their church, meant no sex; hand-holding, hugging and kissing were all acceptable activities just as long as they didn’t take it too far. After they both finished high-school they got engaged and a wedding soon followed.
So far this is a pretty stock-standard stuff however there was one thing about these two that made them a bit, well, different. They both felt called by God to be missionaries. Separately they had decided that any person they would marry had to also feel the same “calling” so, after going out for a few months, they were both delighted to discover that they shared the same viewpoint. At the time this served to validate the idea that they were meant for each other; as if God himself had ordained their union. Whether God really did bring them together or not I am grateful for one of its by-products – my own birth.
Yes my parents each had “want to be a missionary” as criteria for a spouse. It may not be the weirdest thing someone looks for in a partner but it isn’t normal either. They also both felt called to be missionaries and that is the part I want to examine here. I am cognizant that some readers know what is meant my “missions” – especially if you have read earlier posts. For those familiar with the concept please proceed onto the next section
I will now take the time to give a short bible lesson from Matthew 28:18-20. Known as the Great Commission, this passage is said to record one of the few teachings of Jesus after he has been resurrected from death:
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
If it isn’t already obvious this is a key teaching, not just for evangelicals, but Christianity in general. Not only is it (allegedly) one of the final things Jesus directly imparted to his first followers but it is also one the clearest and least ambiguous commands Jesus gives in the gospels. If anyone has ever wondered why Christians are so big on proselytizing– well it’s because Jesus told them to. And Jesus is kind of a big deal for them.
My parents took this verse very seriously indeed. So once they completed high-school they started university. Marriage followed during which time I was born. Understand that this was 1970s New Zealand so education was free and students received a weekly allowance from the government. Juggling study and having a family, while certainly not easy, wasn’t the big struggle it might have been in other countries. Throughout all of this their ultimate desire to become missionaries remained.
In 1983, with the financial backing of their Open Brethren Assembly, they decided to transplant their family from the socialist-democracy of New Zealand and into the right-wing dictatorship of the Philippines to become missionaries. They had no problem moving two young boys, I was now almost three years old and my brother almost one, from a relatively safe and clean environment into one where hygiene standards and disease control was not as high on the government’s agenda. Placing their family in a dangerous environment and moving them away from doting grandparents, who had no other grandchildren at the time, was a secondary consideration to the glory of the gospel.
If this sounds a bit dismissive of their choices be assured my intention is not to denigrate them but to explain what they did from my current perspective. When I grew up as a child of missionaries their decisions seemed normal and, because it was for God’s glory, righteous. It is only all these years later that I see how crazy their life-choices can seem to others – particularly those who don’t think in a religious frame-work. To my parents, however, there was no real choice being made – Jesus gave the command and the Holy Spirit convicted them, specifically, to help carry it out. Their only decision was whether to follow the calling or ignore it.
Anyone who is or has been a devout member of any faith will realize that is no real choice at all. To do anything less than comply would be disobedience. The flip-side is that, because these feelings of conviction are strong desires, this conviction is actually what the faithful follower really wants to do. At a mundane level it is simply people pursuing their goals only with the added belief that these goals are given to them by God. In other words my parent’s got to do what they wanted while also being able to feel like they were sacrificing for the greater good; the epitome of having your cake and eating it too.
So that relates to my parents specifically and it might leave you wondering: What about all the other missionaries? Do they have similar stories and reasons for doing what they do?
Well that is a good point and I don’t have a definitive answer as I haven’t found data on the main reasons missionaries go and do what they do. However I have heard many a missionary give a testimony and preach a sermon where they do reveal their reasons. Add the fact that I knew many missionaries and listened in on their conversations with my parents – I have a pretty good idea why they tend to do what they do.
In most cases it is the same reason I outlined above. They feel the conviction and off they go. Now the reasons they go where they go and do their specific missionary work can differ quite a bit. But the belief that this is what God wants them to do is pretty consistent throughout the missionaries I knew. Obviously, as with my parents, I can’t say if they really felt God convicting them. Perhaps they were zealous and idealistic young people who thought being a missionary sounded important or fun or, even, exciting. I will never know.
Of course there were a few missionaries that were there for the “easy ride”. This may sound strange when you consider that the Philippines was not a safe place to live compared to most first world countries – but there were some big advantages living there. Exchange rates mean that the money sent to support missionaries can often go a long way; especially if the church or mission agency sends a lot over. Coupled with the fact that, at least in those days, there was little oversight (Often sending a newsletter home every quarter was sufficient) and it ended up being a sweet deal for some.
These were the people who I, and others, always wondered what they actually did. They ate at nice places, bought the latest gadgets and were often taking vacations to interesting places around the country. I remember when I finally worked out why they continued to “work” over in the Philippines when I read a newsletter from one of them. It made it sound like they were single-handedly converting the entire country. I was amazed at how well they could spin a story. While nothing in this newsletter was an outright lie it was certainly embellished.
Most Missionaries are workaholics, if anything, so don’t get the impression they are all freeloaders. Nor am I saying that missionaries with excellent communication skills are all liars. I also am curious as to how easy it is for today’s missionaries to get away with this. The internet has made communication very easy and also increased the expectation of regular contact and reporting. The slackers might be easier to spot – but only if people are actually motivated to check on them.
The final point I want to make about the missionary calling is that there is another step beyond feeling led by God. In the Brethren churches all missionaries must gain commendation from the church elders (the leaders of Brethren assemblies). If this is given they then need to raise the required levels of support. This is important if the local assembly can’t provide 100% of the money needed. In the case of my parents they were supported primarily by their church but also had another, smaller, Brethren group make up the rest. This covered our living expenses. On top of that certain one-off expenses (like our school fees) were provided by generous donors.
While other missionaries follow similar models there are a lot who don’t. Some of the larger organizations have application processes and training that are provided for all prospective missionaries. Support is given, not through individual fund-raising, but by pooled donations that are distributed evenly among their missionaries and programs. They may own property and equipment for their missionaries to use (houses, vehicles, furniture). Still others use a mixed model where accommodation might be supplied by the agency but everything else is self-funded (just as one possible option).
One thing about all these models is that the more a missionary has to self-fund the more autonomy they tend to have. However they tend to have less training and cultural orientation. So there are always trade-offs. Some people will opt to go with a mission agency for other reasons: such as the types of ministry opportunities they want to be involved in. If someone wants to work on bible translation with isolated tribal groups, for example, it would pay to join New Tribes Mission who specialize in these activities.
Feeling called to the mission field (as it is commonly known) is no guarantee someone will be a missionary. Whether sent by their church or joining a mission organization there is still a lot of work ahead of them. Of course I am not convinced the “calling” is anything more than a reflection of their own desires and I believe that some missionaries feel the same way deep down.
The one thing you can never say, regardless of how you end up being sent, is that it’s your own idea. If you think mission works sounds like something you would like to try (and who doesn’t like to travel?) you must convince people that the whole idea was God’s and that you must follow the path he set for you. You don’t have to believe it but it would be a lot easier to convince others if you do.
A recent video of an atheist chat session on the internet is a must watch for all Christians! Every pastor, Christian leader, homeschooler, teenager, Christian parent, and, in fact, all Christians need to see this video chat featuring a number of very intolerant atheists (and some are hateful and angry). In fact, watch it at your Bible study, youth group meeting, home group, home, and so on—you will hear for yourself some of the best practical illustrations of many passages of Scripture come to life, including Romans 1, 2 Peter 3, and many other passages of Scripture that refer to people who oppose Christians. This can be an excellent practical Bible study for you.
The atheist video is one of the best I’ve seen to illustrate atheists exhibiting the following traits:
Intolerance and arrogance
Hatred of biblical Christians
Hatred of the Bible
Wanting to control education and capture your kids’ hearts and minds
Fighting against freedom of religion
Wanting to close down or limit biblical, Christian homeschooling
Seeking to control what private organizations teach
Desiring to control what you teach at home
Claim Christians are scientifically ignorant but are themselves scientifically inept
Sanctimoniously determining morality for themselves
Attempting to shape the culture according to their anti-God beliefs
First, let me say I wish atheists/humanists/secularists would STOP putting out videos like the one mentioned by Ham. The video is poorly done, quite embarrassing, and certainly should not be taken as a representation of how all or many atheists, humanists, and secularists think.
Second, Ham is an expert at ginning up support for his conspiratorial ideas about atheists, humanists, and secularists. It is NOT in our best interest to give him things that he can easily manipulate to gain his desired objective.
Now to Ham’s delineation of what he thinks the atheist agenda is. My response is indented and in italics.(it may not appear this way on some mobile devices)
Intolerance and arrogance
Intolerance and arrogance are human traits and not specific to any group. There are lots of intolerant, arrogant Christians, Ham included. Besides, intolerance has its place. We should be intolerant of beliefs that deliberately promote ignorance; beliefs like the earth is 6,020 years old and that global warming is a myth.
Hatred of biblical Christians
I am sure that there are atheists who hate Christians. However, most atheists do not hate Christians. They hate their beliefs. They hate their attempts to promote ignorance. They hate their attempt to hijack the U.S. government and turn our secular state into a theocracy.
Hatred of the Bible
Hate the Bible? Really? Who in their right mind hates a book, an inanimate object? I HATE you, Moby Dick! This is a silly statement. What we DO hate is what Christians DO with the Bible,and that’s trying to force everyone to worship their God and obey its commands.
Ignorance of what? The Bible? Not a chance. I may be ignorant of many things, but ignorance of the Bible is not one of them. Ham mistakes disagreement for ignorance. He is also oblivious to the fact that many of us were raised in church and know the Bible inside and out. Some of us are even college or seminary trained former pastors. We are anything BUT ignorant.
Wanting to control education and capture your kids’ hearts and minds
If Ham is talking about public schools then the answer is yes. Public schools should be secular, tax-supported institutions. People like Ham, holding to ignorant, unscientific beliefs, have no business being anywhere near the public schools. If parents want to school their children in scientific ignorance they are free to home school them or send them to a private Christian school.
What’s extremism? In Ken Ham’s world, extremism is anything that differs from his narrow, peculiar beliefs. Besides, whose beliefs are extreme? Those who follow the path of science or those who get their science and history from a literalistic interpretation of an ancient text written by unknown authors thousands of years ago?
Fighting against freedom of religion
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
We are fighting against those who want to establish a theocracy. We are fighting against those who say the separation of church and state is a myth. Ham and all persons are free to worship God as they see fit as long as they stay on their side of the wall of separation of church and state. Want to drink poison and handle snakes as Mark 16 commands? By all means, go ahead. But, poison-drinking, snake-handling beliefs have no place in public schools or in official government policy.
Wanting to close down or limit biblical, Christian homeschooling
Limit, yes. Close down, no.
Home school teachers should be competent and society has a right to expect that every child receives a quality, comprehensive education. If home schoolers are willing to do this, I have no problem with home schooling. However, a number of states need to improve their home schooling and non-chartered private school laws. As it stands now, there is far too much latitude given to parents and private schools, and this often results in a poor, substandard education.
Seeking to control what private organizations teach
Again, we all have a vested interest in what children are taught. Our future depends on them receiving a quality, comprehensive education.
If he is talking about the Home School Convention, Answers in Genesis, or the Creation Museum, then yes they should be free to teach whatever they want as long as tax money is not being used to support these ignorant “teaching” endeavors.
Desiring to control what you teach at home
See above. Ham has repeated this point three times.
Claim Christians are scientifically ignorant, but are themselves scientifically inept
No, we don’t say Christians are scientifically ignorant. We DO say that young earth creationists are scientifically ignorant. Anyone who thinks the universe is 6,020 years old or thinks dinosaurs walked on the face of the earth at the same times humans did is scientifically ignorant. Every time science comes up with a new discovery that repudiates creationism, Ham fires up his IBM 286 computer, opens up Word Perfect for DOS, and writes a post disagreeing with the new discovery. He then posts it to the Answers in Genesis BBS. Wrong decade? Not in Ken Ham’s world.
Sanctimoniously determining morality for themselves
Duh, who else is going to determine what my morals are but me? Ham wants everyone to have his morals because he got his morals directly from God. If Christians all get their morals from God, why is it so many of them have differing moral views?
Attempting to shape the culture according to their anti-God beliefs
Guilty as charged with one caveat. I am trying to shape our culture with my humanistic beliefs, not atheism.
Please see Part One in this series for an explanation of ACE schools.
Manna Baptist Academy was a ministry of Manna Baptist Church, one of the IFB churches we associated with. The Pastor and Principal was Mr. Watson, whom I had originally met at Wildwood Christian Academy. Pastor and Mrs. Watson had three children who attended the school during the time I was there. The oldest one, during my first year, was in her senior year and she acted as a Monitor They also used their other two children as monitors during my second year. There was a lot of favoritism shown to their children. Any time their children had problems with other children, their parents jumped right in and took care of the problem. There was no teasing them or pulling pranks, unless you wanted to be talked to by the Principal. This would be followed by a call to your parents. Not a good system.
My first day there, I instantly knew things would be different and better for me. The Supervisors and Monitors were more relaxed. The whole atmosphere was more relaxed. Most of the kids who attended the school went to church either at Manna or the one I attended. It felt a lot more like a large family than a school. The Watsons would give longer breaks and allowed a little more freedom than in the other schools I attended. For example, sometimes they would make an announcement that everyone would be free to score their work as needed until the next break. In my second year, myself and two other boys were allowed to take the dividers out of our offices. Supposedly it was to help the boy who transferred in during the middle of the year. We helped the new kid and had a good time whispering and goofing off, we just never got too loud. This never happened in my other ACE schools
Since I had matured a bit, I took my schooling more serious and actually tried to succeed. I didn’t have homework very often; and, when I did, it was usually just a page or two. In my second year, I kept E level privileges most of the time. I actually found that I enjoyed school and used the system to my advantage. Because I was doing so well, the Supervisors left me alone. I was also the second oldest person in the school, so I was an older kid, which gave me a little bit of status, too.
It was here that I saw one of the huge shortfalls in the ACE system. One of the kids who was my age was taking college prep studies in 9th grade. He was doing Algebra 1 and 2, as well as taking French. No one at the school was able to help him with the Algebra PACEs. What they did was give him the score keys and let him figure out he answers, almost like reverse engineering. Fortunately, he was an honest kid who really wants to study for college, so he stuck with it and learned Algebra. For French, he listened to cassette tapes and copied phrases into his PACE. There was no way of truly checking to see if he was actually learning the language or just memorizing phrases. This is a bad way to learn a language.
When I was in 9th grade, I showed a lot of initiative, so I was given some responsibility every now and again. I was allowed to be a monitor several times and I got to help the kids in the Lower Learning Center. Because I kept the E level privileges, I was free to do what I wanted most of the time. There were a couple of other kids who did the same, so we would do our school work together or play basketball when it was nice outside.
My parents didn’t want me to graduate early, so I was only allow allowed to complete one year’s worth of work each school year. This kept me from getting E level a couple of times. In the two years there, I got a total of three detentions. No scoring violations or incomplete goals this time, though. I was older and smarter. I knew how to do things and not get caught. I didn’t do too much cheating, though. Mostly it was in Math. Any ACE student can relate to the dread of completing pages and pages of division and multiplication. Some days you would want to cry. Five pages of it can seem like an eternity. (As an adult, I discovered I have dyslexia, which didn’t help with my math. We had one of our children diagnosed, and I had almost all the same symptoms. Large groups of numbers are my kryptonite, just like my child.)
Two of the detentions were for talking at the scoring station and goofing around. The last detention I got was because I didn’t get a homework slip at the end of the day. I completed my last page of work just as school ended, but I didn’t score the work. The next day, when goals were checked, Mrs. Watson gave me a detention for incomplete goals. She said it was because I should have gotten a homework slip, even though all that needed to be done was to score. What a crock of crap. I was scared to death to bring that detention slip home; I had visions of the spankings I got while I was at Grace Baptist Academy. Fortunately, my parents realized what a B.S. move that was, so I wasn’t in any trouble.
Sometime during the second year, my parents started butting heads with the Watsons. I’m not quite sure what started it, but the friction was very obvious. The above mentioned detention was one manifestation of the feud. Mr. Watson began to, not so subtly, try to undermine my parents beliefs. Part of the problem was that my dad had begun to truly follow Jesus. This meant forsaking the world and all of its trappings. No TV, no secular magazines, no sports, no frivolities, and things like that. Maybe my parents brought up things that angered the Watsons, I don’t know. All I know is that I started to be picked at, ever so slightly. They even began using their son to spy on me.
As a boy, I had an interest in regular boy things. One thing I liked was secular music. Some of the other kid’s parents had no problem with the kinds of music they listened to, so I would talk about popular music with them. One day, we were in the weight room and we talked about music for over an hour, all of us older boys, including the Watson’s son. Just three days later, my mom and I got called into the office for a meeting. The subject was how I spent an hour talking about rock and roll music. This was a big no-no, both at school and at home. They told us that Mrs. Watson overheard us talking from the other side of the wall, I know that their boy told on me. He pretty much admitted it. Interestingly enough, none of the other boys’ parents were brought in for this. This was only one example of the stuff that began to go on.
For some reason, their daughter (who was the same age as me) had access to the test scores. She helped score the final tests of even her peers. Many times she would come to us the next day and talk about how easy the tests were and how she would have gotten a better grade. One time, she told me that her parents couldn’t believe what a dummy I was for flunking a certain test. Nepotism was alive and well in that school.
It was here that I remember learning about the great defenders of the Christian faith. Men like Dr. Lee Robertson, Dr. John R. Rice and Lester Roloff. We were taught about the great things these men had done and how Lester Roloff was being persecuted for Jesus. There were actually sections in the PACEs about these, and other, great men of the faith.
It was also during my time here that I realized that the IFB movement and ACE were linked together. Since I was a little older, I started paying attention to the things being said. I also saw that many of the authors we were required to read for literature were the leaders of the IFB movement, and/or their children. It is almost like an inbred family. No new ideas or thoughts could come in because all that we needed to know had already been written by The IFB leadership. Even the dictionaries we used were purchased from ACE, so they were heavily expurgated and edited.
In my first year, we had two girls that had attended the Rebekah Home for Girls, the “school” Lester Roloff started. They were sent back to their parents when the school was closed down. I became good friends with both and was labeled a rebel because of it. When one of these girls ran away from home towards the end of the year, I was grilled about it three different times. I told them I didn’t know anything, but they didn’t believe me.
By the end of my second year, my parents decided that they were going to homeschool my brother and I. My brother has dyslexia and did best with one on one teaching. Additionally, my parents were trying to keep even more separate from the world, as they began to develop different beliefs, especially when my dad began to have Calvinistic beliefs. The IFB churches with their outer holiness and inner worldliness, their pastor worship, and other shenanigans finally began to burn my dad out. He started trying to find a better place.
So, this was my third ACE school experience. It was my best experience. A lot of it had to do with my attitude. I also believe much of it had to do with the way the school was run. The atmosphere was more pleasant and not as rigid. In fact, the regional ACE inspector came with his son one day to observe the school. Myself and another boy were done with our goals for the day, so we went outside to play basketball, at 11:30. We invited the inspector’s son to play, but his dad wouldn’t let him. I heard that he wasn’t too impressed with how the children were allowed to work at their own speed and do what they wanted. I think the Watsons had the right idea about teaching and had some non traditional ideas towards learning, they could only do so much in that system.
Polly and her younger sister Kathy, Bay City, Michigan 1965
It’s a sunny, spring day, Memorial Day weekend.
Utica, Ohio is having its annual ice cream festival. A woman and her husband decide to attend the festival. Hopping on their Harley, off they drive to Utica.
The traffic is busy, and the husband knows he had better be careful.
But off in the distance, a woman grows impatient with traffic. She’s in a hurry, wanting to get home. She makes a decision that will have catastrophic consequences a few seconds later. She quickly makes a u-turn, and much to her horror there is a motorcycle coming right at her.
It’s already too late. The husband does what he can to avoid the oncoming car, but his wife, the mother of his three children, is thrown from the Harley and her head hits the pavement.
And just like that, she’s dead.
Every dream, every hope, and every opportunity of tomorrow is now gone.
Being a Christian family, we turn to our God and ask why. We pray for strength and understanding. The heavens are silent, and they remain so even to this day.
In a moment of anguished religious passion, someone says, if one soul gets saved through this, it is worth it all.
No, it’s not. How dare we reduce the worth of a life, this one precious life, to that which God can use for his purpose. A husband has lost his wife and his children are motherless. Her grandchildren will never know the warmth of her love. Her sister and parents are left with memories that abruptly stopped the moment their sister and daughter hit the pavement.
No, I say to myself, I’m not willing to trade her life for anyone’s salvation. Let them all go to hell. Give us one more day when the joy and laughter of family can be heard and the family is whole. One more day to enjoy the love and complexity she brought into our life.
One more day.
(In honor of my sister-in-law Kathy Shope Hughes who died on Memorial Day 2005)
What follows is part three of a series by ElectroMagneticJosh, a man whose parents were Evangelical missionaries. This series will detail his life as a Missionary Kid (MK).
Part 4: The second part of my education
Something I should have made clear in the last part was that this is not just an overview of my education but also of my time as an MK. It is a good way to give the “big picture” of my life before I delve into more specific issues and thoughts.
In my own mind I tend to compartmentalize my MK experience as being in two distinct parts. It is easy to formulate this distinction purely because of the time spent back in New Zealand (2 ½ years) before my family returned again – at which point I was older and have clearer memories.
It goes further than the time elapsed between living there though. The first part of my MK life was spent living in small towns (where my parents were involved in church planting) and being home-schooled. The second part was a very different experience. Nothing was going to be same; not my location, my education or my parent’s ministry.
Before I dive into those differences, however, this part of my story will begin with a setup.
After my parents both fell ill and needed to return to New Zealand, I found myself in a place I rather liked. My family was living in a semi-rural village on the outskirts of Auckland (the biggest city in NZ) while still being no more than a half hour drive to the CBD (unless there was traffic). My father was a full-time school teacher and my mother a home-maker. I had a lot of friends both locally through my school and further afield (but not by much) through the church we belonged to. I also had both sets of grandparents and a few aunts, uncles and cousins all living in close proximity.
Cue the nostalgia-infected idealized version of childhood.
Life may not have been 100% perfect, but for me, at that time, they seemed to be going great. I saw no reason why this life of mine wouldn’t continue on a predictable trajectory. I saw myself living at the family home until I was an adult and got a job, went to university, or got married (those were the only three reasons I couldn’t imagine leaving home for at the time). I want to make it clear that I was very content and did not expect or want things to change.
So when my parents called a family meeting I was not happy with what was to come. They had been giving it some thought and my father wanted to be involved in Christian ministry again. And they had two options they were considering: 1) Return to the Philippines or 2) Take a Pastoral position in Auckland.
To me it seemed obvious – do the Pastor thing. Then they hit me with the bombshell; the position was on the exact opposite side of the city about a 1 hour drive on a good day. I would have to move house, change school and make a completely new set of friends. While my younger siblings seemed to accept these changes meekly, I was stuck between two terrible options. At 10 years old I felt like my whole world was getting taken away from me and there was nothing I could do.
I pleaded with them to consider option 3: stay where we are and not move anymore. Or option 4: they move away but I move in with my grandparents. I am not sure how my parents felt about their oldest child wanting to emancipate himself from them but, in the end, the decision was made and back to the Philippines it was.
My parents were not going to be doing the exact same thing as they did before. My father, along with some Filipino church leaders and missionaries, had come up with a different concept for church planting. They would train a team of Filipinos to be church planters. First they would study (theology, evangelism techniques and the like) and then they would be sent on a mission to plant a church. My father would co-ordinate their education and monitor the team’s progress. Support for these church planters would be raised from overseas (NZ, Australia, Canada and the USA) so that they could devote several years to the endeavor.
As a result my father would need to be based in a central location and the capital city of Manila was selected. This meant I and my two siblings (my sister was born six years prior) would not be home-schooled. We were to go to a Christian International School called Faith Academy.
Founded in 1956 by missionaries from several different organizations and denominations, Faith Academy (to be known as “FA” for the duration of this post) is a K-12 school offering a US-based curriculum as well as GCSEs for British and other commonwealth students. According to Wikipedia, its current enrollment is around 600 students at the Manila campus with a further 150 studying at a smaller mission school in Davao which is in the south of the Philippines. I am too lazy to confirm if these numbers are consistent with my own time there but they seem close enough.
I would be a student at FA for six years in total, which comprised grade six through to my graduation as a senior. Some of you may have noticed that there was a year unaccounted for – I spent grade 10 back in NZ before returning for my final two years. I graduated in 1998 and returned to New Zealand marking the official end of my life as an MK.
If the above section seemed brief – don’t worry, I do have a lot to say about FA and its own unique culture in the future. This post is just to give an over-view of life and, hopefully, provide context for future thoughts. I will just deal with a couple of differences between FA and NZ schooling.
New Zealand, being in the southern hemisphere, has its summer break over Christmas. As a result, the new school year begins around the start of February so it actually follows a complete year. When I left NZ I was half-way through the equivalent of sixth grade but started FA at the start of the new school year. Down the line it meant all my age-peers in NZ would finish high school six months earlier than me.
This idea didn’t bother me at all until I returned to NZ for a year and rekindled some of my old friendships. Suddenly the thought that they would be working or starting university six months earlier than me really bothered me. This now seems like such a trivial difference to dwell on but, as a high-school kid, these things really mattered.
Ironically the difference that had a much bigger impact on my life’s trajectory was the one I didn’t think much of at the time. Teachers at FA openly discussed god and their beliefs/theological views in the class-room – regardless of the subject. For someone who had come from a very secular country this felt very refreshing at first. Bible was now a subject we took along with Math, English, History and Science. Our weekly school assemblies were now a chapel time (complete with worship) and I felt my teachers were people I could trust in a way I hadn’t felt before – because they had “God’s truth” in them just like me.
After a while this became mundane and I started taking it for granted. Like others who attended missionary schools (or Christian schools in general) this just became another part of my education. I only realized just how much bible education I had received when the family returned to NZ for a year. Apart from the shock that public high-school brought me (kids and teachers would swear – oh no), I realized that I was far more bible literate at 15 than most of the youth group I attended and even many of the adults in the church.
This year back also brought a change in me personally. I still don’t fully know why, but when I returned to FA for my final years of High School I felt more certain of God and Christianity. Maybe it was a reaction to the secular school system that convinced me that “God’s way” was better. Perhaps it was how welcome I felt by the people in our home-church and the knowledge that I would see them again in a couple of years. It might even have stemmed from an arrogance that had been building inside me – the view that my knowledge and my experiences made me unique and would lead me to do mighty things for God (yes, it’s embarrassing to look back on now).
Whatever it was, when I graduated I was certain of God, His word and my faith. I had strong convictions that I was certain were right. I knew that whatever I did and wherever I went I would do so by God’s grace and following his lead. If 18-year-old-me knew that I would end up with a radically different perspective he would have been upset and, very likely, scared for his future.
Please see Part One in this series for an explanation of ACE schools.
I attended Grace Baptist Academy from 1980-1983, 3rd through most of 5th grade. This was a school that was about 40 minutes away, but my aunt was going there, so I was able to ride with her. Grace Baptist Academy was a ministry of Grace Baptist Church. My first year was their third year of school. It had started out with only six or seven children and had upwards of 60 by the time I started. The church was pastored by Pastor Colas and the principal was Mr. Wainscott. Mr. Wainscott was a tall, thin man who drank coffee all day long. I still remember the smell of his breath when he would come to my office and answer questions.
Being a veteran of one ACE school, I remember thinking I was going to have an easy time at this school. After orientation the first day, imagine my horror when I found out several fundamental things were different. First, the letters for achieving extra privileges were GBA rather than ACE. Ok, I was able to deal with that. Next, I found out the order for PACEs was different- Math, Social Studies, English, Science, Word Building. Believe it or not, I struggled with that the entire time I attended that school. It seemed wrong because of the way I was originally taught.
This was the year that erasable ink pens became popular. Before the school caught on to them being used on goal cards, the older students were using them and changing their goals to suit their needs. I did this myself a few times.
I began doing something that all ACE student do. Due to the way the PACEs are set up in the lower grades, answering questions was just a matter of reading the question, finding the exact same sentence in the text and copying the answer verbatim. This is one of the worst habits a student can acquire. We never studied and learned, we just used short-term memory to fill in a blank. Even in the final tests, the questions were the same ones as in the PACE. In the higher grades, you actually had to look for answers, but the bad habit had been learned and enforced by then. The only subject in which this wasn’t possible was Math.
My first year there, I started a bad habit of just daydreaming and not getting any work done until the end of the day. Then it was a race to get as much finished before needing to ask for a Homework Slip. After a while, I was getting homework every day. My parents told me I needed to get my work done at school, so I began just crossing my goals off and not asking for a Homework Slip. Since the school was so large, the Supervisors couldn’t check everyone’s goals every day. I often got away with not doing my work, since the next day I would rush and get both day’s work done. A few days later, I would be back to daydreaming and not get anything done, again. When I did get caught, it was an automatic detention. After bringing home Detention Slips for the same thing a few times, and the spankings that went along with it, I starting forging my parent’s signature.
At Grace, one of the things they did was to allow you to serve detention at lunch time. This allowed working parents to keep their same schedule, yet take away free time from the bad kids. By forging my parent’s signature and serving detention at lunch, I missed quite a few spankings.
After a while, my behavior was bad enough that I began to get swats at school. We were given 5 swats if we got more than 6 demerits, which I seemed to do regularly. The swats would cancel out the demerits and you started over with a clean slate. Since school swats were nowhere near as bad as a spanking from either of my parents, I preferred to have swats at school. Even though they hurt, the worst part of them was the embarrassment. Mr. Martin was the one who gave out the swats, so everyone knew that when he took you to the back room, you were gonna cry. I can honestly say I was being a shithead at this time. I remember Mr. Martin being a nice guy and I honestly think he hated to give me swats.
I remember a time when he told me a story about a boy who was always getting into trouble and then getting a spanking. After a while, the teacher said he didn’t know what to do any more. So, when it was time to spank the boy again, he gave the boy the paddle and told the boy to spank him. That way the boy would know how much he despised giving spankings. The boy started crying and couldn’t do it. The teacher didn’t spank the boy and the boy didn’t have any more problems. Hearing this story, I thought maybe I was going to avoid swats. Alas, Mr. Martin dashed my hopes. He told me that he would have done that if he thought it would do any good. I got my swats after all.
Another thing I started doing was cheating heavily on my scoring. In addition to memorizing answers, I developed a code to write down answers, using the scoring pen. I began tapping dots onto all of my pages, as though I was bored. In reality, I used those dots to copy answers, then complete the answer when I got back to my seat.
The study and scoring method that was used encouraged children to cheat. We were expected to work mostly on our own, with very limited help from the Supervisors and Monitors when we didn’t understand something, usually math. Then, we were expected to score the work we didn’t understand and figure out how to do the problem correctly. If this isn’t a recipe for failure, I don’t know what one is. As an adult, I have been taught several methods for teaching people. Our Supervisors and monitors had no idea how to teach us, so they were unable to help us in the way we needed. I’m sure they wanted to help, they just didn’t know how.
I became a good sneak, due to the punishments I was receiving. I did everything I could to get away with doing as little school as possible. I learned that if you wrote with erasable ink lightly, when you erased it, there was no indent to show you had changed anything. I learned how to distract adults to take their attention away from what I was doing, so I wouldn’t get caught. I also practiced memorizing large amounts of answers for short term retention. This way, I could mark all of my answers correct and fix them when I returned to my desk.
After being frustrated for by this system for a couple of years, I just started not scoring my work correctly. I would just mark the page as all correct, without checking the answers. This would only work for a while, though. When a PACE was turned in, the Supervisors would check over the work to make sure we scored correctly. I started getting multiple demerits for scoring violations. These would lead to Detention Slips, which would lead to a spanking at home.
The punishment I received at school and home for my scoring violations and incomplete work was way above any pleasure I derived from cheating. I honestly don’t know why I did what I did. Several Supervisors took the time to try and counsel me. I was suspended three times. There were several parent/teacher meetings. Finally, I was expelled from Grace in the middle of my 5th grade year. They had put up with me for over two years and they had finally had enough. I finished out that year in a public school and didn’t go to a private school again until 8th grade.
I remember Mr. Wainscott taking me aside one day and talking to me about the problems I was having. He kept asking why I was behaving the way I was. I gave all kinds of answers, but he wasn’t buying any of it. Finally, I blurted out that I was cheating and disobeying because my parents smoked. (This was in a pretty conservative time and in a conservative group. Smoking and drinking were not acceptable behaviors.) I remember thinking that he would suddenly understand and all would be forgiven. I shouldn’t have wasted my breath. Smoking parents didn’t change anything in the least.
One time, during a parent/principal conference, I was sent out of the room after the meeting was over. After discussing my future for a few minutes, Mr. Wainscott pulled out a hash pipe made from a soda can. He had no idea what it was. He had found it behind some wood used for a construction project. The good, Godly kids attending the school were getting high during breaks.
Not all of my time was bad, though. Twice a week, we went to the YMCA for P.E. We younger kids got to swim for an hour and a half each session, or we could go to the gym and shoot basketballs with the older kids. Our school had a pretty decent basketball team, so they made good use of the court there.
The school also had father/son and mother/daughter nights. One of my best memories, ever, is the night my dad took me to a father/son night. I remember that we watched a Harlem Globetrotter’s film and ate finger foods. My dad was a construction worker, so him being able to come to something like that was special.
Since the school was bringing extra money in, the second year I was attended, the church bought pews. These were nice, with dark wood and good cushions. I was just tall enough that my belt buckle was touching the top of the pew. The wood was something soft and I ended up scraping the top of the pew. I saw that and was sure I would get in trouble, but no one said anything. After a week or so, I sat in the same place and scratched it some more. I think I did this a total of 4 times until it was brought up in morning assembly. Oops.
The school also had a decent music program. Ms. Greenwalt was our music teacher and I think she had professional training from somewhere. It was here that I really began to enjoy music. The two years she was at the school, we put on large musicals. The younger kids (below 7th grade) performed “Down By the Creek Bank” one year. It was a blast practicing and I still remember some of the songs. The older kids performed “I Love America”, which I think was a Bob Jones University musical. Ms. Greenwalt also taught the younger kids how to play a recorder. Most of us just produced horrible screeching sounds.
This was definitely my worst experience in ACE. Fortunately, the third school I attended was a much better place. As I look back on my time there, I can’t help but wonder if the PACE order change is what caused all of my problems.