Tag Archive: Funeral

The Family Patriarch is Dead: My Life With James Dennis

pastor jim dennis

Pastor Jim Dennis at a family outing in the early 1980s

Last week, James Dennis, the retired pastor of the Newark Baptist Temple in Newark Ohio, died from complications of myasthenia gravis at the age of seventy-five. Jim was my wife’s uncle, married to her mother’s sister. Jim attended Midwestern Baptist College in the 1960s, the same college Polly and I attended in the 1970s. Jim pastored the Baptist Temple for forty-six years. Known as a staunch Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB), Jim’s ministry was well-known in the IFB community. Jim’s three children are all in the ministry. His son Andy is an Evangelical pastor in Newark, his oldest daughter is married to IFB evangelist David Young, and his youngest daughter is married to missionary James (Jamie) Overton.

Jim came into Polly’s life as the young single pastor of the Kawkawlin River Baptist Church in Bay City, Michigan — the church attended by Polly’s parents. He later married Polly’s aunt, Linda Robinson. I first met Jim in 1976 during college Christmas break. Jim, along with Polly’s father, would marry us in a wedding held at the Baptist Temple on July 15, 1978. From that moment, Jim Dennis and I had a complicated relationship. There were times that I admired the man and coveted his advice. There were other times when I despised the man, especially after Polly and I left the ministry and later left Christianity. In the past decade, I talked to Jim a handful of times, never more than exchanging pleasantries.

The story that follows is my understanding of the past and my relationship with Jim Dennis. I am sure that others will object to my telling of this story or be offended that I dare to air Jim’s (and mine) dirty laundry. Their objections are duly noted, but I am a writer and this is a story I must tell. Readers are free to make their own judgments about what follows.

There was a time when Jim Dennis and I, theologically, were of one mind. Both of us were IFB preachers. Both of us were raised in IFB churches. Both of us attended IFB preacher Tom Malone’s “character building factory” — Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan.  Both of us believed we were proclaimers of old-fashioned, Biblical Christianity. Our theological sameness, however, did not last. Jim would pride himself in believing the same things his entire life. Polly’s mom has remarked on more than occasion that she was proud of the fact that she had in her pastor Jim Dennis a man who never changed his beliefs. In her mind, he began the ministry with the right beliefs and he died holding on to those same beliefs. Bruce Gerencser’s beliefs, on the other hand, were constantly changing and evolving. Jim never read books outside of his theological rut, whereas I was willing to read authors who held different beliefs from mine. My reading habits are what took me from the IFB church movement to Fundamentalist Calvinism to generic Evangelicalism to Progressive Christianity, and finally, to agnosticism, atheism, and humanism. In Jim Dennis’ eyes, my life’s trajectory is a warning to those who dare to dabble in the world’s knowledge and goods. And in my eyes, Jim is a tragic reminder of what happens when someone refuses to read widely or investigate their beliefs.

Jim Dennis was known as the patriarch of the family; the wise sage who freely dispensed wisdom and knowledge to all, requested or not. Early on, I had conflicts with Jim over all sorts of issues, ranging from child rearing to whether it was okay to pick my wife up from work wearing gym shorts (Polly, at the time, worked for the Baptist Temple’s daycare. She was paid less wages than male employees because she wasn’t our family’s breadwinner.) In October of 1979, we moved from Northwest Ohio to Newark. We attended the Baptist Temple for 18 months. During this time, Jim and I had numerous conflicts — some minor, some major. Jim concluded that I had a rebellious streak, a view widely held by Polly’s parents and family, and I thought Jim was a closed-minded, authoritarian legalist. Our opinions about each other would only become more settled through the forty-two years we knew each other.

In 1981, Polly and I left the Baptist Temple to help her father start a new IFB church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. Polly’s father had been the assistant pastor at the Baptist Temple for almost five years. He wanted to stay in the Newark area and pastor his own church. There were conflicts between my father-in-law and Jim that precipitated Dad’s resignation, but those stories are his to tell, not mine. Needless to say, Dad was happy to be on his own. I was the assistant pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake until July, 1983, when I left to start the Somerset Baptist Church in Somerset, Ohio.

I believed that it was vitally important for a pastor to live in the community in which his church was located. Polly and I moved to Buckeye Lake — a rundown former amusement park/lake cottage rental community — so we could effectively minister to congregants. (I would also work for the village for several years as a grant writer/program manager/building code enforcement officer.) Buckeye Lake proper was street after street of rundown houses. The poverty rate was the highest in the area. My kind of people, but not the type of people Polly’s parents wanted to be living next to. Our willingness to live among them, endeared us to many people, especially local teenagers. This led to the church growing rapidly. After we left, church attendance declined, and Dad later closed the church.

bruce gerencser 1983

Bruce Gerencser, age 25, Ordination 1983, Emmanuel Baptist Church Buckeye Lake, Ohio

I don’t want to make myself out to be a saint, because that would be a falsehood. Living in Buckeye Lake, living in marginal housing, wasn’t something we would have done had it not been for the importance, in my mind, of living where you minister. During our time in Buckeye Lake, Polly’s uber-rebellious sister came to live for us a short while. One day, Jim Dennis showed up at our door wanting to talk to Polly’s sister. (Please read If One Soul Get’s Saved It’s Worth it All, a short post about Polly’s sister’s tragic death in a motorcycle accident.) Jim quickly became adversarial with Kathy, especially over the fact that she was wearing pants. Jim was an anti-pants crusader his entire life. Women who worked for the church or served in any official capacity were required to sign a statement that affirmed their obedience to his no-pants edict. As his anger towards Polly’s sister rose, Jim decided to physically grab a hold of her so he could “shake some sense into her.”  His physical assault of her quickly came to an end when I threw him out of our home. Sadly, Polly’s sister would later repent of her “sin” and returned shamefaced to Jim Dennis and the Baptist Temple. She would do this repeatedly over the years up until her death in 2005.

From that point forward, I had an off-and-on relationship with Jim. Despite our conflicts, there was a part of me that still desperately wanted (needed) his approval. I had Jim come preach meetings at several of the churches I pastored. As I continued to move leftward politically, theologically, and socially, our relationship became distanced, with us only seeing each other on Christmas Eve for family Christmas. We used to go out to their spacious country home for Christmas Day, but word one year was passed down to us that we were no longer invited to their home. The reason given was the size of our family. This, of course, deeply hurt Polly. These were her uncle and aunt. Why would they shun her like this? No answer was forthcoming.

I could spend hours talking about the various conflicts between Jim Dennis and Bruce Gerencser, but for the sake of this post I want to share just one that I detailed in a post titled Christmas, 1957-2014:

With my parents being dead, we spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Polly’s parents. This abruptly changed in 2010. I left the ministry in 2003 and abandoned Christianity in November 2008. In early 2009, I sent out my family-shattering letter, Dear Family Friends, and Former Parishioners. This letter radically changed our relationship with Polly’s fundamentalist family.

Christmas of 2009 is best remembered by a huge elephant in the middle of the room, that elephant being Polly and me and the letter I sent the family. No one said anything, but the tension was quite palpable.

2010 found us, just like every year since 1978, at Polly’s parent’s home for Christmas Eve. This would be the last Christmas we would spend with Polly’s parents and her extended family. We decided to blend into the background, and other than exchanging short pleasantries, no one talked to us. Not that they didn’t want to. We found out later from one of our children that Polly’s uncle wanted to confront me about our defection from Christianity. Polly Mom’s put a kibosh on that, telling her brother-in-law that she had already lost one daughter and she was not going to lose another. (Polly’s sister was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2005)

I appreciate Polly’s Mom being willing to stand up to the man who is generally viewed as the spiritual head of the family. I am glad she put family first. If Polly’s uncle had confronted me there surely would have been an ugly fight. Whatever our differences may be, I deeply respect Polly’s parents. They are kind, loving people.

Christmas of 2010 was two years after President Obama was elected to his first term. Polly’s family didn’t vote for him, and through the night they made known their hatred for the man, Democrats and liberals in general. Polly and I, along with many of our children, voted for Obama, so the anti-Obama talk and the subtle racism made for an uncomfortable evening.

Most years, a gag gift is given to someone. This particular year, the gag gift, given to Polly’s uncle, was an Obama commemorative plate one of our nephews had bought on the cheap at Odd Lots. One of Polly’s uncle’s grandchildren asked him what the plate was for. He replied, to go poo-poo on, poo-poo being the fundamentalist word for shit. This was the last straw for us.

On our way home the next day, I told Polly that I couldn’t do it any more, and she said neither could she. So, we decided to stop going to Polly’s parent’s home for Christmas Eve. We do try to see Polly’s parents during the holiday, but we no longer attend the family gathering on Christmas Eve. Making this decision saddened us, but we knew we had to do it. (BTW, our children still attend the Christmas Eve gathering)

Jim’s funeral was last Saturday. I did not attend, though Polly and two of our sons made the four-hour trip to Newark to represent the Gerencsers at what the Baptist Temple called Jim Dennis’ Graduation Service. Unlike Polly and our older sons, I have a hard time biting my tongue when I am around Fundamentalists. I wear my emotions on my sleeve and my face generally tells others what I think. While my health precluded me from making the trip, I suspect that deep down I simply did not want to go. I knew exactly how the service would go — two hours of praising Jesus and deifying Jim Dennis, complete with lies about where Jim went after death. Similar to their Evangelical brethren, IFB preachers often lie when preaching funerals. According to orthodox Christian theology, Jim Dennis is lying in the grave, waiting for his body to be resurrected from the dead. However, traditional IFB preaching says that the deceased is, instead, running around Heaven praising Jesus for his glory and grace.

Jim was an avid hunter. In his younger years he would take trips out west to hunt big game. I suspect more than a few funeral attendees thought that Jim was now hunting the mountain ranges of God’s Heaven. This, of course, led me to ask my son, so, there will be violence in Heaven? Ah the illogical lunacy that makes an appearance at funerals. The man, Jim Dennis, was glorified and presented as one without blemish or fault. The man, the myth, the legend. Those of us close to him know better. Yes, in many ways Jim was a good man. He loved his wife, children, and grandchildren. But, we dare not forget that he was also an authoritarian brute, a man who attempted to dominate and control the lives of others; a man who thought his advice to others was straight from the mouth of God; a man who believed he knew the will of God for others (a will of which he repeatedly reminded me). I have fond memories of us spending holidays at the lake with them. I also have good memories of the few times we went hunting together. These memories, however, do not erase the great psychological damage his preaching and behavior inflicted on countless congregants and church members. Polly and I bear deep scars from being excoriated by him over this or that “sin.” How could we ever forget him telling us that it was not God’s will for us to be poor or that it wasn’t God’s will for us to have more children (even though his own children now have large families). We can’t forget the lectures or the sermons that seemed directed right at us. You see, Polly married a man that NO ONE in the family wanted her to marry, and our current state of the affairs, to them anyway, is proof that they are right. If Polly had only married an obedient IFB preacher, why she might still be in the ministry today. Both Polly and I have made peace with the fact that we will always be on the outside looking in with her family. In the last decade or so, we have finally reached a place where we no longer give a shit about what family members think about us. We are who we are.

Let me conclude this tome with one more story. Seven or so years ago, one of the family’s preachers decided to try and understand our deconversion. We talked privately for a few days until Jim got wind of our discussions. The preacher was told to stop talking to me. I was a dangerous man, one given over to evil and false doctrine. The preacher, of course, complied. Jim was the family patriarch, and when he issued an edict everyone was expected to obey. That Polly and I were living in open defiance of his authority was not something that could be tolerated. Unfortunately, for Jim, we were safely beyond his reach, no longer caring about what came out of his mouth.

The patriarch is dead, but his religion lives on.

Notes

James Dennis’s obituary:

James Dennis

Newark – A funeral service for Pastor James Russell Dennis will be held at 11am on Saturday, January 13, 2018 at Newark Baptist Temple, 81 Licking View Dr, Heath, OH 43056. Dr. Charles Keen will be officiating. Family will greet friends from 4pm-8pm on Friday, January 12, 2018 and for one hour prior to the service at the church. Following the service, Pastor Dennis will be laid to rest at Newark Memorial Gardens.

Pastor Dennis, age 75, of Newark, passed away on January 9, 2018 at Licking Memorial Hospital. He was born on November 3, 1942 to the late Russell and Grace (Welsh) Dennis in Pontiac, Michigan.

Pastor Dennis was an avid hunter, but more than anything, he loved being a preacher. He loved to help people in his community and church family. In 1968, Pastor Dennis became the pastor of Newark Baptist Temple, until he retired in 2015. Following retirement, he continued to proudly serve his Lord until his death. He was a pioneer in Christian education; he founded Temple Tots Day Nursery School in 1970 and Licking County Christian Academy in 1972.

Pastor Dennis is survived by his loving wife of 51 years, Linda (Robinson) Dennis. He also leaves behind his children, Cilicia (David) Boelk, Bethlie (David) Young, Andrew (Jenny) Dennis, and Toree (Jamie) Overton; 19 grandchildren; 3 great grandchildren; and sister, Betty Freeman.

In addition to his parents, Pastor Dennis is preceded in death by his grandson, LCPL James Boelk, KIA Oct 10, 2010.

The family would like to give special thanks to Licking Memorial Hospital, 2nd Floor doctors, nurses, and staff, for all their care and compassion over the past month.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Newark Temple Baptist Missions, 81 Licking View Dr, Heath, OH 43056.

To sign an online guestbook, please visit www.brucker-kishlerfuneralhome.com.

Published in the Advocate on Jan. 11, 2018

The Newark Advocate had this to say when Jim retired in November 2014:

It’s been 46 years since Pastor James Dennis began leading Newark Baptist Temple Church.

Although he still has an overwhelming passion for his role in the church, Dennis has decided to retire in November. It was a difficult decision to make, but he said he understands the need to bring new life into the church as it heads into the future.

“It has been a privilege to serve almighty God, to see people accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. … It’s just a blessing to see how God can change the lives of people,” Dennis said. “But I also understand the need to get a fresh breath of air in here.”

Dennis was born and raised in Michigan, and after attending seminary school, he started a church in Bay City, Michigan. It was there that he met his wife, Linda, after her family began attending the church.

The two were happily married and living in Michigan when Dennis received a call from one of his friends who told him Newark Baptist Temple was looking for a new pastor. At the time, he had no plans to leave his home, but he felt God pushing him out of Bay City.

He accepted the position and moved to Newark in 1967. At that time, the church was still young, having been formed only five years earlier, and there wasn’t much for Dennis to do outside preaching. But through the years, the church expanded, adding multiple ministries and launching the Licking County Christian Academy.

The school was founded in response to what the church saw as a need for an educational experience grounded in morality and God’s word, Dennis said. Although it has remained small, the school provides an important component to education, and Dennis thanks the Lord for every student who leaves a graduate.

Newark Temple Baptist has very active youth and children’s ministries, and six years ago, it started Reformers Unanimous, a ministry that helps people with dependency issues.

“The Lord has been kind to us,” Dennis said of how the church has grown.

….

Although he is retiring, Dennis plans to stick around. He will continue to attend church at Newark Baptist Temple and said he might take on some speaking opportunities if needed.

One thing is for sure: He’s not done sharing God’s message.

“You may step down from a certain aspect of the ministry, but you never stop ministering. It’s an eternal calling,” Dennis said. “I know that God has a plan and a will for me.”

How Religion Obscures Seeing People as They Are

greg brown somerset baptist church

Repost from May 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jesus is the Only One That Matters

all about jesus

In a Gospel Coalition article titled Please Don’t Make My Funeral All About Me, Nancy Guthrie had this to say:

…We were an hour and fifteen minutes in to today’s funeral before anyone read from the scriptures, and further in until there was a prayer. Resurrection wasn’t mentioned until the benediction. There were too many funny stories to tell about the deceased, too many recollections, too many good things to say about the things he accomplished to speak of what Christ has accomplished on his behalf.

 

But then this wasn’t a funeral. It was a “Celebration of Life.” In fact there was really little mention of death or of the ugly way sickness slowly robbed our friend of everything. Christ and his saving benefits could not be made much of because death and its cruelties were largely ignored…

Guthrie, like many Evangelical Christians, believes that the only thing/person that matters in life is Jesus. Even in the most personal of moments, a funeral, Guthrie wants everything to be about Jesus. The person in the coffin is of no consequence. The life they lived mattered little, because without Jesus they had no life. Without Jesus, their life had no meaning or purpose.

Guthrie wallows in her depravity. She sees herself as a loathsome, vile worm, a putrid corpse of sin and defilement. That is, until Jesus regenerated her and gave her new life. From that moment forward, her life was not about her, but about Jesus. From the moment of her new birth to the moment she dies, she is a nobody. Only Jesus matters.

In Guthrie’s mind, the best funeral is one where the minister says, Joe Smith lived, knew Jesus, and died. Now let me tell you about Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the ugliness of sin and death. In other words, Guthrie wants the funeral to be like a church service, a passive event where Jesus is praised and everyone and everything else doesn’t matter.

This approach is dehumanizing and it robs the dead person of all that made them who and what they are. If they lived a full life then they left behind countless memories and stories that certainly ought to be told. Why not celebrate the dead person’s life? Why not, one last time, remember them for what they said and did?

Guthrie sees funerals as an opportunity to be reminded of our worthlessness and the awesomeness of Jesus. Any talk of the good works or the good life of the deceased is too humanistic, too worldly for her. Rather than making much of the deceased, she desires a service where the dead person is just a pretext to talk about the man of the hour, Jesus.

If the funeral service is really all about Jesus, perhaps it is proper to ask exactly what Jesus did for Guthrie’s friend whose ugly sickness slowly robbed them of everything? Did Jesus physically comfort and aid her friend?  Did he have the power to heal her friend? Did Jesus do so? Of course not, her friend died.

Suppose a friend of yours died in a car accident. Your friend could have been saved by a doctor who stopped to gawk at the accident. The doctor offered no aid and made no attempt to save your friend from death. He had to hurry home to help his wife find her car keys. Everyone in your town knows the doctor could have saved your friend’s life, yet he did nothing. Does anyone think that the doctor should be the guest of honor at your friend’s funeral? Of course not. How is this any different from praising a deity who sat idly by while Guthrie’s friend suffered and died? This deity had “all power” yet did nothing.

Guthrie betrays the fact that she is really just like us unwashed, uncircumcised, celebration of life, Philistines when she writes “In fact there was really little mention of death or of the ugly way sickness slowly robbed our friend of everything.” Robbed her friend of everything? Wait a minute, I thought JESUS was E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G? Isn’t everything else about their life, even their suffering, just the minutia of life? Why bother to even mention the deceased? Are they not just a prop used to preach the gospel to those who came to the service thinking they were attending so-and-so’s celebration of life?

I was once like Guthrie. I saw funerals as an opportunity to preach the gospel, to witness to people who would not likely darken the doors of the church I pastored. While I did spend some time reflecting on the life of the deceased, that is if they were a Christian, my main focus was preaching the gospel. In one church, a dear, close friend of mine, a devoted follower of Jesus, died at the age of 40. His funeral was held at the church and for 40 minutes I hammered his Catholic and Methodist family with the Calvinistic gospel. I even told them that the deceased had specifically asked me to preach at his funeral, knowing that it likely would be the last time they would ever hear the gospel.

What did I accomplish? Nothing. I thoroughly offended my friend’s family and from that day forward I was, to many of them, Pastor Son-of-a-bitch. In Guthrie’s eyes, I did the right thing. I exalted Jesus. I made the funeral about sin, death, and resurrection. But in the eyes of my friend’s family, I made their loved one’s life of little to no importance. The life their brother/uncle/father/friend lived, his good works, his commitment to his family and his job, none of these things really mattered. According to the Bible, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags…” Any good this man did was because of Jesus and any bad he did was due to his sinful, carnal nature.

Simply put, Jesus ALWAYS gets top billing.  This is why I have, for the most part, stopped going to Evangelical funerals. Since the deceased is of no consequence, why should I subject myself to the prattle of a preacher as he tries to use guilt (sin) and fear (death) to coerce people, at a time when they are emotionally vulnerable, to become a Christian?

After I am Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

plus size cremation

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

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

And that’s it.

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

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

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Dear Pastor, Do You Believe in Hell?

hell

Oh, preachers preach about it. Life is short, hell is real, or so they say. But, I am not sure they really believe what they are saying.

Baptists are noted for being hellfire and brimstone preachers. In my Baptist preacher days, I preached hundreds of sermons on hell. The altar was often lined with sinners fearing hell. I was a very, very good hell preacher.

Everyone knows that some day they will die. Many people fear what happens “after” death. It is the fear of the unknown that leads many people towards religion. Hellfire and brimstone preaching is good for the church business. If people fear hell they are more likely to buy into the salvation/heaven scenario. You don’t want to go to hell, do you? You don’t want to burn in the flames of hell forever, do you?  Scare people right into heaven, that’s the essence of the gospel preached by many Evangelicals.

I have come to conclusion that most preachers really don’t believe in hell. Preach as they might about hell, when it comes time to put their theology into practice, they cower and refuse to proclaim their hell belief.

Let me tell you a story about a man named Bob. (Bob is a pseudonym, but all the details that follow are real.) Bob was raised in a Fundamentalist Baptist home. His parents were stern, devout, Christians who helped start several local Baptist churches.

At the age of 17, Bob attended a revival meeting at the First Baptist Church. When the invitation was given Bob walked down the aisle, knelt at the altar, prayed the sinner’s prayer, and in that moment became a Christian.

A short time after this, Bob had a falling out with his family and moved out of his parent’s home. Bob never attended church another day in his life apart from an occasional funeral or wedding.

Bob lived to be 83 years old. From the time Bob was 17 until he died at age 83, he lived a life of sin and infamy.

Bob was a child abuser. Bob beat his wife. Bob was a drunk. No woman was safe from Bob’s leering eye and his groping hands.

Bob was a nasty, vulgar,  kind of drunk.

Bob raped a woman while her 12 year old son was home from school sick. He was never prosecuted because his victim was a mentally troubled family member.

Bob died recently.

Bob’s funeral was held at the same Baptist church he once attended.  His family still attends the church. The funeral was the first time that Bob had been to church in over 60 years.

The preacher mentioned what an ornery man Bob was. And then the preacher spent the next 20 minutes preaching AT Bob’s friends. The funeral service was not about Bob at all, it was all about Jesus. Maybe that was better because it was probably hard to find much good to say about Bob.

Mercifully, the preacher brought his Jesus talk to a close with an invitation to trust Jesus as savior.

Why? So they too could be in heaven some day with Bob. The Bob, who at age 17 walked down the aisle, knelt at the altar, prayed the sinners prayer, and became a Christian.

Shocking?

Hardly.

I have attended dozens of funerals over the years. I have preached a good number of funeral sermons myself. In every case, the deceased was preached into heaven. No matter how the person lived, no matter what they did, heaven was their final destination.

Baptists are known for believing in what is commonly called “once saved, always saved.”  While I no longer claim to be a professing Christian and I am quite vocal about my atheism, according to many Christians, I can’t get “unsaved”. Once saved, always saved. (also called eternal security, perseverance of the saints). God has me whether I want him or not.

According to the  preacher at First Baptist, Bob is safe in the arms of Jesus. Pity all the women he raped, abused and molested over the years. Pity all those he terrorized when he was drunk. The fire insurance Bob bought at age 17 covered everything he would ever do. This gave him immunity from prosecution for all his debauchery.

It matters not that he did not attended church in the past 60 years. He never prayed; never read the Bible. In fact, he cursed God, hated God and lived as if there is no God.

But, at age 17…well you get the gist of the story.

It is time to honest, preachers. Hell doesn’t really exist, does it? For all your hellfire and brimstone preaching, when it comes right down to it everyone makes it in. Anyone who EVER had a momentary religious experience is safe.

Preachers, if you object to what I have written, why not tell the truth about the Bobs of the world? If your God be true and every man a liar, if your Bible is true, then people like Bob are burning in hell. It seems you can quite easily tell wonderful stories about people going to heaven, why not the opposite?

Personally, I do not believe in hell. If there is any hell at all, it is here and now. But, if you claim to believe the Bible is the Word of God, then speak as if you do. Don’t pollute God’s heaven by sending any more Bobs there.

Note

This post is written from the perspective of a person who believes in heaven, hell, and the afterlife. I don’t, but in the case of Bob, I sure wish there was a hell.

081116

Preachers and The Lies They Tell About Heaven

heaven and hell

Heaven and Hell

Several years ago, 3 young Ohio boys fell through the ice on the Sandusky River and drowned. What a terrible, terrible tragedy. Two of the boys were brothers.

The pastor of the church where their funeral was held said the following: (link no longer active)

A minister has told mourners that three Ohio boys who fell through ice and died together in a river are now playing together in heaven.

This statement is restated many different ways during countless Christian funerals.

  • Granny is running around heaven now with no pain!
  • Gramps is in heaven now and doesn’t need a wheelchair to get around any more.
  • ________is in heaven and there is no more pain, sickness, disease, suffering, etc.

Here’s the problem…

Statements like these are not true.

Historic, orthodox Christian doctrine teaches that when people die, they go to the grave. They are DEAD. The body remains in the grave until the resurrection. At the resurrection those who have died will receive a new body (1 Cor 15).

So why is it that preachers lie? Why did I lie?

Sentimentality.

Families are grieving. They have lost a loved one. They want to believe there is a divine purpose, and they want to believe that life continues after the grave.

So preachers concoct grand stories about heaven and the immediate transport of the dead from earth to heaven.

Belief in the afterlife requires faith. No one has ever come back from the dead to tell us the what lies beyond the grave (if anything). Anyone who says he has is a liar.

Even Jesus himself didn’t talk about the afterlife after his resurrection from the dead. His disciples did, the apostles did, but not Jesus. He told his disciples that wherever he was they too would be some day. He never mentioned one time any of the things commonly heard in Christian funeral sermons.

Even the notion of spending eternity in heaven is not taught in the Bible. Search all you might, it is not there.

What IS taught in the Bible is that followers of Jesus Christ will live forever in God’s eternal kingdom (on a new earth). On this point the Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably closer in belief to what the Bible teaches than many Evangelical Christians.

The same could be said about hell. Those who are not followers of Jesus will NOT spend eternity in hell. The Bible doesn’t teach that. The Bible DOES teach that unbelievers will spend eternity in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14).

Sentimentality allows preachers, who are supposed to be guardians of Christian doctrine, to ignore what the Bible teaches in favor of telling stories to comfort a grieving family.

I understand WHY they do it but let me be clear here…

Preacher, if you can’t tell the truth when it really matters the most, how can you expect people to believe anything you say? If sentimentality allows you to ignore what the Bible teaches about heaven (and hell) how do we know that you are telling the truth any other time? Not telling the truth in hard circumstances results in a loss of credibility.

As an atheist, I have serious reservations about the notion of an afterlife. At this point in life I lack the requisite faith necessary to believe. I am of the opinion that each of us had best get to living life because it is the only one we have. That said, if you are a Christian you are bound by what the Bible teaches. As a preacher you are obligated to tell the truth. In fact you owe it to your congregants to tell them the truth, even when it is hard to do so.

06/04/16