My former life as a Christian can best be described as passionate, committed, and devoted, yet at the same time be described as wild, chaotic, and ever-moving. Years ago, I read a passage in one of Thomas Merton’s books wherein he talked about how people often judged him based on his past and not on where he was presently. As a devoted follower of Jesus, I often experienced similar judgment. I was an ever-moving target, and people bent on judging me often did so based on the past and not where I was at the time. This happens even today. Evangelical critics will focus on a particular point on the timeline of my life and use my beliefs, practices, and experiences at that point in time to render judgment. This, of course, totally misrepresents my journey and leads to faulty conclusions. In particular, critics will focus on what they consider the AHA! point in my résumé; for example, I was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) preacher. They think they have me right where they want me; however, I reply, yes, but I wasn’t always an IFB pastor. I left the IFB church and moved on to Calvinism, generic Evangelicalism, and then progressive Christianity. Always restless and moving — that best describes my life, even to this day.
I always envied Christians who were steady eddies; people whose Christian lives never changed or moved. Of course, I couldn’t understand such staid living. Weren’t we to always challenge ourselves with the teachings of the Bible and be sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Ghost? Weren’t we supposed to follow the promptings and directions of God’s Spirit? Why did it seem that God was ALWAYS leading me to take up my cross and follow him or sell all that I have and give it to the poor, but he never seemed to be leading my colleagues in the ministry to do the same? Why was I willing to do without to advance the kingdom of God, yet most of the Christians I knew weren’t willing to do the same? I often wondered why I seemed to be on a spiritual wavelength different from that of most Christians, including men who labored in God’s vineyard.
I believed, for many years, that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God, and that its words were to be read, meditated over, and obeyed. The Bible wasn’t a book of suggestions. Yes, it was a book that spoke of God’s grace, but it also had hundreds of laws, commands, and precepts Christians were commanded by God to follow. I never viewed these commands as optional. The Bible — at least to me — was clear: Do THIS and thou shalt live. Obedience led to life eternal, and disobedience led to God’s chastisement or Hell. Passage after passage in the Bible talked about the importance of following Jesus’ steps and keeping his commandments. Solomon, in the twelfth chapter of Ecclesiastes, summed up the whole duty of man this way: Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. Jesus himself summed up the laws of God this way in Matthew 22:36-40:
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
These verses described my heart’s desire: love God with all my heart, soul, and mind and love my neighbor as myself. I thought, at the time, these verses are in every Christian’s Bible, yet why do so few Christians take them seriously? By the way, I STILL wonder about this to this day. Most Christians live lives indistinguishable from those of atheists, agnostics, humanists, pagans, and the adherents of religions deemed false by Evangelicals. Outside of what they do between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and noon on Sundays, there’s very little difference between saints and sinners.
When it came to material things, Jesus said:
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:21)
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)
These words come from a passage of Scripture (Matthew 5-7) commonly called The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gathered his disciples on a mountainside and taught them what it meant to be his followers; what would be required of them if they were to follow the Lamb of God whithersoever he goeth. I believed then, and still do, that Christianity and the world would be better served if the followers of Jesus actually read and practiced the teachings found in Christ’s hillside sermon.
I am in no way trying to paint myself as once having been a perfect Christian. As this story will later show, I ended up living a life no different from most Christians. I was far from perfect, daily breaking the commands of Christ in thought, word, and deed. That said, I couldn’t help but notice the difference between how I lived my life and how most other Christians lived theirs.
In the late 1990s, I felt convicted over what I perceived was my materialism and that of my family. Hell was hot, souls were lost, and people were dying, and I believed God wanted me to do more to reach the unwashed, uncircumcised Philistines of the world. Thanks to my oldest two sons, who were living at home at the time and paying rent, along with Polly working at a local manufacturing concern, and me drawing a modest salary from the church, the Gerencser family was starting to take on the look of a typical middle-class midwestern Evangelical family. There were four cars in the drive, a TV in the living room and master bedroom, a computer in the office, and newer furniture in the living room. Polly and I were able to take our first vacation since the 1980s — without the children. We had money to go out on dates, buy clothing/shoes, and enjoy a bit of the American dream. But, thanks to Jesus and his teachings, I became increasingly uncomfortable with our way of living. I thought, how can we live this way when there are billions of people in the world who don’t know Jesus? What kind of example was I to the church and other Christians? These questions and others began eating at me, and soon I believed that God want me (us) to embrace simplicity and frugality, giving our excess money to the church, missionaries, and other groups who were engaged in building churches, evangelizing the lost, and ministering to the poor. I began selling off things I thought I didn’t need: firearms, hundreds of books, electronic equipment, and an extensive collection of political memorabilia from the 1960s and 1970s given to me by my political junkie mother (letters from notable politicians and campaign buttons/literature.) I dutifully and happily sold these goods and gave them to the Lord’s work. I was gladly willing to do without for the sake of the gospel. Only one life twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last, went the Evangelical mantra.
One night, I gathered up all the things I had collected over the years from the various churches I pastored, including sermon notes and tapes, and set them on fire in the backyard. In my mind, this was me setting fire to the past and telling God I was ready to be used by him in any way he saw fit. I sure wish I had these things today!
Little did I know that this time, my wife wasn’t willing to join me in suffering for Jesus.
Polly loves collectible bears. As our finances improved, I started buying Polly Teddy Angel bears for her birthday, our wedding anniversary, and other special days. As my great sell-off continued, I noticed Polly wasn’t joining me in giving a burnt offer to God. We had a few “discussions” — Greek for Bruce talking and Polly listening — about her unwillingness to forsake all and follow Jesus. I specifically mentioned her bears. One day, after yet another round of eBay listings and nothing given to the cause by Polly, I said to her, “So, you love those bears more than you love Jesus?” “No, I really do love Jesus,” Polly replied. “It’s just that some of these bears have sentimental value.” I asked, “what bears, then, don’t have sentimental value?” One by one, I picked up the bears and asked, “This one? This one?” I learned that almost every bear had a story: “Mom gave this to me for my birthday, you gave this to me for Valentine’s Day, you gave this to me with a letter that told me you loved me.” In what would be one of the greatest regrets of my married life, I badgered Polly — in Jesus’s name, of course — into selling many of her bears, regaling her with stories about what would be accomplished with the money gained from their sale. With tears in her eyes, Polly gathered up half of her bears and gave them to me to sell. I remember saying, “see that wasn’t so hard!”
Brutal, I know, but if I am going to tell my story honestly and openly, I must tell it warts and all. Quite honestly, I am embarrassed to even write this post. All I can visualize is the love of my life crying over giving up her bears. She had few things to call her own (as did I) in our married life, yet here I was asking (demanding) that she give up reminders of some of the happy times in her life. Gifts were few and far in between for both of us. We didn’t buy each other Christmas gifts, so, for Polly, all the gifts she had from me were bears, Fenton glass, and other collectibles. They were small tokens of love, yet each carried great meaning for Polly. I grossly underestimated how much these things meant to her. At the time, I saw her attachment to these things as a sign of love for the world; an unwillingness to forsake all and follow Jesus.
This phase of my life would pass, never to return. I finally realized that I was standing alone on this matter, and that every other Christian I knew was busy pursuing houses, lands, cars, and material wealth. I realized while still a Christian that I had been a fool; that I had sacrificed my health and financial security, and to what end? Hell was still hot, souls were still lost, and people were dying. Bible verses that spoke of laying up treasure in heaven no longer satiated my spiritual desires. I wanted the lives other people had, as did Polly and our children. I became, I suppose, just another preacher who loved Jesus, but also loved the good life.
I left the ministry in 2005, and left Christianity in 2008. Since decoupling from Christianity, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the religious and psychological forces that led me to a life of servitude, self-denial, and poverty; that led me to demand that my wife and children follow in my steps. Had I been single, the only harm caused would been to self, but as a married man with six children, I harmed those I loved and cared for the most. There are not enough lifetimes left for me to apologize for the harm I caused to Polly and our children. I now know that I spent much of my life serving a myth; and that my sacrifices and voluntary poverty accomplished almost nothing. I say almost, because I know the money and material goods I gave to the poor, sick, hungry, and homeless helped them, so my giving had some effect, but all in all, my life of devotion to Jesus was “a waste of time, money, and talent” — to use the line oft recited by Baptist preachers when trying to goad congregants into doing more for Jesus. I pissed away tens of thousands of dollars, and even more when not-taken salary is added in. As with all past misdeeds, there’s nothing I can do to undo them. The past is the past. All I can do is learn from past mistakes, pass what I have learned on to others, and spend what life I have left living one hell of a hedonistic, sinful life — that’s sarcasm, by the way, for the Evangelical dullards who happen upon this post.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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