In spite of the fact I am a former fundamentalist Christian and ex-pastor, my minister son and his family think I am headed for Hell. This is my response to him. I use the pen name of August Stine to protect my son.
Different Family Beliefs
Your faith is important to you.
My beliefs are important to me.
We pray to the same God every day
For me, He is the Caring Creator;
Who cares about my well being
To you, He is the fearful God
Who demands obedience.
I believe Jesus was a spiritual man but not God.
I believe Jesus said some great words of wisdom
And I am sorry he had to die on the cross.
You believe Jesus died for the sins of man
And his salvation is a gift from God.
I do not believe this, but let’s suppose I did.
Didn’t you say salvation was a gift?
If it is a gift, why do I need to do anything?
You say I am going to hell unless . . .
You even give me the words I should say—
“Jesus, forgive my sins.”
Do people go to hell for not saying these words?
What if I wait until just before dying and then ask?
A guest post by Peter Fischer. Peter was a Lutheran Minister for over a decade before leaving ministry to become an Employment Counsellor. He lives in Vancouver, Canada and is the writer/producer.
The Buddha in question is a statue that sits under our living room window. It was a present from my wife—a welcomed gift. It’s a symbol of serenity, mindfulness, and non-attachment—meaningful values for us and our boys. For some in our extended family however, we fear our Buddha may signify a fall from grace with a not-so-soft landing in H. E. Double-Hockey-Stick. As such, our seated Siddhartha has become a symbol, a test, of our own differentiation vis-à-vis our (mostly) conservative Christian family of origin. How open and honest will we be about our progressive, inclusive, multi-faith-honouring views when they pay us a visit?
We have fun with this. Depending on who happens to drop in, the other spouse watches with a keen eye to keep score. We’re devils alright. Not too long ago, it was my turn to play judge and jury. “Should I get the Mr. Potato Head box?” I joked, as we chased dust balls out of corners and Windexed the mirrors before Linda’s sister’s arrival. “No, I’m good,” she laughed. “Really? No hiding?” “Yup,” she said with such a beatific smile, I’d swear she spent the day under the Bodhi tree. Sure, we’ll see, I doubted. I fully expected a last second avoidance of the third kind:
Buddha Differentiation Levels:
Level One: Buddha in plain view of visitors. Full disclosure—“Buddha boom, Buddha bing!”
Level Two: Buddha under window but pushed back behind the Christmas cactus. Moderate disclosure—“Yes we have a Buddha statue, but look at how much bigger our icon of Jesus is!”
Level Three: Buddha in Mr. Potato Head box. Avoidance. No disclosure—“Buddha? What Buddha?”
To my surprise, and Linda’s credit, the Buddha remained seated by the window. It wasn’t pushed back at all, though I did note a couple of branches of the Christmas cactus draped over his shoulders. Not bad. Incredible actually. I was jealous. I recalled my parents visit a few years back when I surreptitiously put the Buddha to sleep in a box of arms, lips, and a naked spud.
I’m writing this because I’m making strides. Two of my brothers are in town, and while they don’t carry the same psycho-social-religious weight as my parents, the thought “did I hide the Buddha?” hasn’t even cross my mind (until now). It’s a small, but significant victory for me. Introverted and reticent about my core beliefs that I am—even as I was paid to preach them for over a decade—it’s good to stretch my self-disclosure muscles; to say “this is the real me!”
Hey, I’ve even turned the spine of my copy of the Qur’an title-side out on our bookshelf. Can’t say the same for my Dan Brown novels. Some things, after all, just shouldn’t be revealed.
Thanks to Bruce for welcoming this guest post on his blog. I always enjoy reading Bruce’s blog, and I hope this guest post will fit. This post is a response to a request by Bruce for posts that address conversion from religion to atheism, in particular from those who may be a few years into the process, and how it feels to live without religion. I have written about my deconversion from Christianity elsewhere on my own blog, so you can read the details there if you wish. I may repeat myself a bit here just to make this post complete, but the point here is to describe my perspective since becoming an atheist. I hope that this post may help anyone who is going through a similar process or who is questioning their faith but afraid to give up their religion.
I have been an atheist for about eight years now. At least, 2007 is when I technically stopped believing in God, though the process was a gradual one that probably progressed throughout my adult life. The actual time point at which I stopped believing in God was surprisingly sudden and distinct. I would say that in early 2007 (as late as March) I still believed that God existed and that I wanted to relate to him although my view of God had shifted significantly since my coming of age two decades earlier. But, by May of 2007 I no longer believed that God existed. The final step was that sudden for me. In late 2006 and early 2007 I read a few books that looked at the character of God in a new light, including If Grace is True and If God is Love both by Phillip Gulley and James Muholland. More importantly for my conversion process I also read a book called Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. The book basically follows two stories: a general history of Mormonism and a specific case of murder in the 1980s by two Mormons who believed they were instructed by God to perform the murders. I knew virtually nothing of Mormonism prior to reading the book, but it served as a striking example of how religion can cause people to believe the unbelievable. The religion is clearly a fabrication from 19th century America, with roots that are distinctly American in culture. Yet, there are millions of followers around the world, in what I can only understand as blind faith. The book illustrated the strength of religious influence, and how humans clearly yearn for some meaning to their life, which often seems to be filled by instructions and commands by a person in power – or a religion. I had met a few Mormons, and they seemed as convinced that their religion was true as any other religious person, including the Christians I had grown up with. Yet there was no doubt in my mind that the entire religion was a fabrication. If a religion could essentially be constructed by one man in the relatively modern times of the 19th Century to a point that millions of people worldwide were followers, how much more possible was it that a religion could have developed 2,000 years ago in a time when the availability of information was incomparably lower than in the modern era? (Literacy was lower, formal education was rare, books [at least as we know them now] and newspapers were non-existent).
I then came across a number of the so-called “new atheists” including the most famous, Richard Dawkins. I had previously read a few critiques of Dawkins by Christians, but never read any of his own books or articles. In early May 2007 I was watching TV late one evening and saw Dawkins interviewed on the Canadian television show The Hour:
Contrary to the way he was viewed by Christian apologetics, he seemed down to earth, very rational and well-spoken, and what he said rang true. He was not the pompous arrogant and bull-headed demon that many Christian writers had made him out to be. I read his famous book The God Delusion. The house of cards came tumbling down.
Now, a few books and a television interview in early 2007 were not, of course, solely responsible for my loss of faith. I had occasionally asked myself the hypothetical question: “What if God doesn’t exist?” I sometimes wondered what kind of person I would be if I didn’t have God looking over my shoulder. But, up until that point it was simply a mental exercise I went through, I never for a moment actually doubted his existence. I had always known that God was there watching me, reading my thoughts. I find it hard to pinpoint why it was at this time that my doubts about God’s existence suddenly became more focused. Suddenly, instead of simply theorizing what it would be like if God didn’t exist, I started to realize that it is very likely that he does not exist. I think that Spring of 2007 was the culmination of a very slow march towards rationalism that had begun two decades earlier when I left home in my late teens. I had studied science extensively, and always accepted the science I learned, but also always somehow fit whatever I learned around the model of God that I had been steeped in while a child. This is an important point because I think it is very, very difficult for people who have been raised in religion to give it up. For me, there was always the nagging fear of my impending death and the threat of eternal punishment in hell if I doubted God’s existence.
In any case, at that time I finally realized that I no longer believed God exists. The final step was not really a conscious decision for me. It was more of a realization that the notion of a god was no longer a reasonable belief. It was as though I looked around and realized I still secretly believed in Santa Claus as an adult while everything I had experienced in the world around me screamed that he could not possibly exist.
So, like a child taking the butterfly wings off for the first time in the deep end of the swimming pool and realizing that it can indeed float without them, I considered that the world might work just fine without a god.Julia Sweeney has described a similar experience in her book Letting Go of God:
…as I was walking from my office in my backyard into my house, I realized there was this little teeny-weenie voice whispering in my head. I’m not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. It whispered, ‘There is no god.’
And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. ‘There is no god. There is no god. Oh my god, there is no god.’…
And I shuddered. I felt I was slipping off the raft.
And then I thought, ‘But I can’t. I don’t know if I can not believe in God. I need God. I mean, we have a history’…
‘But I don’t know how to not believe in God. I don’t know how you do it. How do you get up, how do you get through the day?’ I felt unbalanced…
I thought, ‘Okay, calm down. Let’s just try on not-believing-in-God glasses for a moment, just for a second. Just put on the no-God glasses and take a quick look around and then immediately throw them off.’ And I put them on and looked around. I’m embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, ‘Well, how does the Earth stay up in the sky? You mean, we’re just hurtling through space? That’s so vulnerable!’ I wanted to run out and catch the Earth as it fell out of space into my hands.
And then I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, gravity and angular momentum is gonna keep us revolving around the sun for probably a long, long time.’
I can relate to some of this description quite well. In addition to what she describes, my situation was complicated by the fear that I might die while I had the not-believing-in-God glasses on and go to hell for eternity just because I happened to die while I was trying out atheism for 30 minutes. It was a bit like coming up to a train track and thinking, ‘I need to cross the tracks, but what if the train comes along out of nowhere and mows me down just at the moment that I step across?’ When I finally overcame my fear of being annihilated in a moment of fury like an Efrafan rabbit (from Richard Adams wonderful novel Watership Down), and stepped gingerly on the tracks, my whole perspective changed. Instead of looking up the track in fear of an oncoming train, I looked down at the tracks in detail for the first time and realized they were decrepit and could not possibly bear a train. No train would ever be coming along those tracks and I could linger as long as I like quite safely. Once that was established, the opportunity to really open up my mind to some serious questions availed itself and it was not long before the whole house of cards came tumbling down. Indeed, once I had my Julia Sweeney moment, the whole ordeal was over in a matter of minutes. I was through with God instantly as I realized that the whole game was a farce. There was no desire at all to cling to a false god for comfort. I simply set god aside and moved on.
Once I moved into atheism, there were of course many questions to tackle. I wondered about the afterlife. I accepted almost immediately that the whole thing was man-made and that when I die I will simply not exist anymore. For some time after my de-conversion, I felt quite sad that the prospect of an eternal heaven was gone, but my sadness was also tempered by the realization that I no longer had to fear hell. I realized that there was nothing to fear about being dead any more than there was to fear about before I was born. That thought was a reassuring one as I left behind the indoctrination of fear that Christianity brands its followers with, often without them realizing just how much fear is used to maintain the faith. Do I ever still fear death and hell? Yes, occasionally. Those fears instilled in childhood are difficult to overcome. Very occasionally I do have a very brief moment of panic as I ask myself that ridiculous question: “What if I’m wrong?” Then I always recognize that I’m about as likely to be wrong about the god of the Bible as I am likely to be wrong in believing that we are not all living in some computer matrix such as that in the popular Keanu Reeves movies. These days my biggest fears are something along the lines of Rene Descartes’ evil demon – occasionally I worry that there is in fact a deity, but one that is malicious and malevolent, waiting to torment us all for eternity regardless of our choices here on earth. But then I recognize the absurdity of such ideas and the complete lack of evidence to support them, and that such beliefs and fears and bordering on the schizophrenic.
As I recognized that my existence would end with my death (such an obvious concept now), I very quickly started to value my life much, much more deeply than when I had been a Christian. My view when I was a Christian was that this life was just the preamble to something much greater, that I had all eternity to look forward to. All of sudden I realized that was not the case, and I realized that I’d better make the most of every day that I have in this life.
Another issue that is perhaps of interest to those Christians who are doubting their faith, or those who are cynical about people such as me who have de-converted, is the question of morality. Where do your morals come from, if not from God? As a Christian I would have asked this very question myself, but as an atheist it seems patently absurd. I believe that morality is a human construct, and therefore it does not come through revelation with the divine. Humans created morality. Morality comes from human society. Some human behaviours are almost universally considered immoral, such as murder, rape, theft. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand why these things are immoral. Human societies wouldn’t survive if they were all acceptable behaviours. But there are a lot of human behaviours that are only considered immoral from a religious point of view, for example blasphemy and a host of sexually acts such as pre-marital sexual intercourse. But, usually these types of “immoral” behaviours vary depending on the religion. In any case, I have not found that I’ve plunged into any sort of immoral abyss now that I’m an atheist. If anything, I am probably a more moral person now than when I was a Christian. Certainly I am a more responsible person in terms of contributing positively to society because I now realize that human society is not some temporary situation on the way to eternity in heaven. Rather, I now realize that human society is all we’ve got. It is precious. Things like protecting the environment for future generations have become much more important for me now that I realize the earth doesn’t have to end in an apocalyptic disaster as Jesus comes to establish his kingdom.
Another interesting phenomenon that I’ve recognized in my years since becoming an atheist, is a bit of a role reversal in my point of view on the world and society. When I was a Christian, I sort of looked down on non-Christians. I pitied them for not understanding the truth, for not being saved. Now I have to admit that I sort of look down on Christians. I pity them for not understanding the truth, for not living life to its fullest. I’m not proud of feeling this way, and it is probably just a natural pride in my personality that causes it, but I’m also trying to describe that there is an irony in the thought that I still find most Christians look down on me for not having the truth. But now the difference is that I feel sorry for them. It’s sort of like being looked down up on by a child. In fact,
The world seems much more fragile to me now that I am an atheist. When you believe that there is a God watching over the world, and that he has a long-term plan for humanity, you assume that things can’t go dramatically wrong. Sure, bad things like earthquakes and floods do happen, but the ultimate plan must remain intact. God isn’t about to let a large meteor collided with the earth tomorrow and end all human life because it doesn’t fit with his plan. (There is too much other destruction described in the book of Revelation that has to happen first!). But, now that I don’t believe in God, I realize that we are indeed alone on this rock floating through space. We have to be so careful to take care of both ourselves and nature because the whole thing could come crashing down and no God would be there to step in and keep us on course.
So, I had often wondered what kind of person I would be if I were no longer a Christian. I had wondered if I would be more selfish, I would lie more easily. The reality has been the exact opposite. I hope that I am a much more pleasant and selfless person now that I’m an atheist. The world no longer revolves around me. I am but a speck of dust in vast universe. While my life has great significance to those around me while I am alive, I am completely insignificant in terms of nature and the universe. It is not about me. I am just a cog in the great machinery of nature.
One thing that seems pervasive in relating to Christians since my de-conversion is a complete lack of understanding that I don’t actually believe in God anymore. Most Christians seem to think that atheists are rebelling against God, that we hate him for some reason. Perhaps we’ve been so hurt by religion when we were younger that now we feel hate for God and for Christianity and are like a rebellious teenager who goes off on his own in a huff. But I don’t hate God. I just don’t believe he exists. My position is exactly the same as the position a Christian is in when they consider the existence of something they don’t believe in, like unicorns or Santa Claus. I’m not trying to belittle Christians’ beliefs by making that comparison, it really is that way for me. I don’t hate unicorns, I just don’t think they exist.
In a situation I experienced in which a few atheists were discussing religion with a few Christians, a Christian friend of mine summed up the differences like this: “Either you believe in God or you don’t. That’s about all there is to it.” I very much agree with this statement, and I would take it further and say that you can’t really choose whether you believe in God or not. Either you do or you don’t. If you are a Christian who is finding that you doubt God’s existence, then you may already feel that you don’t believe he exists. You might pretend that you still believe he does exist, but deep inside only you know whether you believe it or not. If you don’t believe in God, there isn’t much you can do to choose to believe in him. I could pretend to believe in God, but at the end of the day I just don’t. It would be a dishonest act for me to pretend I believe in God. It’s not a choice I am capable of making any longer. Ultimately, we all owe it to ourselves to ask the really difficult questions about our beliefs and see where the chips fall. Ultimately the only person who suffers if you don’t is yourself.
Mom and Dad remained Pentecostal for a few years after I left home but Pastor Jesusjumper retired and my parents moved on.
So I guess the pastor was the point at that particular church.
Eventually my parents ran out of new churches to try.
But the vagaries of small-town godliness causes the leadership of those churches to change and change and change, and my folks finally went back to the church they’d attended when they first moved to their small town, First Christian. There had been at least four different pastors in the interim.
They were fairly happy there, my mom played the piano and organ for their worship services, and my dad helped with keeping books and was on the board.
They’ve always enjoyed being pillars of the church, my parents, and as a result, pastors are more than happy to take advantage of them.
Pastor Manna used to drive a bread delivery truck in our small town.
I guess he thought being paid to deliver the God message would be an easier job than delivering bread.
If you attended his church and they approved of you, you were asked to join the congregation after three services. If you didn’t want to add your name to the church roster, then it was suggested that you might want to go to church somewhere else, as ‘God requires commitment and we believe it.’
They were pretty selective about their members.
A wealthy guy retired to their small town and had them flummoxed.
He was a very nice man, my mom said, and always put a twenty in the offering plate, but people just weren’t comfortable with the way he dressed for church.
He wore Hawaiian shirts. Board shorts and deck shoes. Had a graying ponytail. Worst of all, he wore a single earring.
Pastor Manna and a couple minions had a conference with him. They explained that he wasn’t showing the proper respect by dressing so casually.
He moved on.
So once a person decided to join the church, the next requirement was to fill out a “promise card”.
This was a serious contract with God.
The card asked how much money a household earned and gave a helpful little equation to let a person know how much of that he or she was expected to give to God.
It started at giving 10%, but there were some questions on there designed to determine whether a family could afford to give more.
I wish I’d thought to keep the copy I saw on Mom’s kitchen counter.
My parents were quite happy to fill out the card, and it was a point of pride for my dad to give more than the minimum.
And important to him that other people knew it.
Religion is such a spectacle, isn’t it?
Pastor Manna was big on tithing. If you didn’t give what you were supposed to, he called you into his office for a shaming.
My brother Dick and his wife, Snatchie were having a hard time financially. They were very close to losing their property and their home and appealed to my dad for help.
My dad, who may be a little nutty in some ways, is always willing to help his family.
He maxed out his credit card to get them some cash. He also took the funds that were earmarked for his quarterly promise to Pastor Manna.. oh wait, I mean God.. and added it to the pot.
Dick and Snatchie were bailed out.
Pastor Manna called my parents into his office.
He was not a happy pastor. He told them that they’d made a promise to God and that they had LIED to him instead!!
That God was NOT happy with their disobedience, and he wanted to know how soon to expect the money they’d promised.
My parents didn’t tell him to get stuffed. They didn’t call him any names. They simply got up and walked out.
And after discussing it, they decided not to walk back in.
Of course everyone in town was curious. Mom was kind of excited about the whole thing, telling me on the phone that they were not going to be ‘unchristian’, so they’d merely told everyone that they had a “disagreement in doctrine” with Pastor Manna and had decided that God was going to use them somewhere else.
A few months later, I discussed the incident with Snatchie. I expressed my disgust with the pastor’s money-grubbing attitude and my anger over his treatment of my parents.
She turned to me and snapped, “Well Pastor Manna has been placed in authority over the church. That was BIBLICAL. He did no wrong.”
Considering that the money had been used to help her and my brother, I thought her attitude might have been a little different. Nope. Another demonstration of why Christianity and logic are mutually exclusive.
My dad was ‘called’ to the ministry about 10 years ago and took over (temporarily) for a pastor who needed some medical leave. Dad got some sort of internet certificate and started preaching.
The regular pastor was able to attend occasional services between medical treatments and one Sunday he stood and invited the congregation to rejoice with him because he was ‘completely free from all sin’.
That’s pretty funny coming from a guy who was the world’s second biggest asshole when I went to school with his kids, but hey, I suppose with God, all things are possible?
Pastor Sinfree and my father had a few disagreements, and Dad called it quits.
Dad wasn’t getting a salary or any type of monetary reward for his hard work. Add the distinct lack of appreciation into the equation… that’s probably why he decided that Pastor Sinfree could have his church back.
For awhile after that, my parents did a home church.
They gave that up a little over a year ago due to health reasons, and now attend church sporadically for those same health reasons.
I never have told them that I no longer believe in God.
I can think of no good reason to do so other than keeping it a secret offends my need to be straightforward with people. I don’t like dishonesty in myself or in others.
I have balanced that against what it would do to my mother if she found out.
And it’s not worth the anguish it would cause. It just isn’t. She would live the rest of her life in an utter panic over my immortal soul and it would significantly affect her health, I think. She’s in her late 70s and has lived her entire life as a Christian.
I can’t hurt my mom like that.
I’m out to some people, but I think the majority of people I encounter just assume that everyone is a Christian. Since I don’t have horns or a forked tail, I don’t fry cats or hurt small children and I’m just a regular person they assume I am a Christian.
Mostly, it never comes up as a conversational topic.
When the young people I work with bring up religion and want to know what I believe or have me settle an argument about God, I tell them that they’re called personal beliefs because that’s exactly what they are. Personal. And that each person has their own set, and that religious discussion is something that’s best left up to individual families.
I’ve finally decided after all these years that whatever elusive thing my parents and all their friends were looking for does not exist. And that’s why they never found it.
Sort of sad when you think about it.
I didn’t use anyone’s real name.
Butthump, Oregon isn’t a real town, although I’m pretty sure there’s a bit of butthumping going on there.
I grew up in a series of small redneck towns in the Pacific Northwest.
My family changed churches as often as some people in those little communities changed their underwear.
Actually, now that I ponder it and think about some of the people, we may have changed churches more often than some of them changed underwear.
I even have specific individuals in mind.
Let me tell you… if you’d been in some of those towns/churches, you might actually believe in Sasquatch.
I really don’t know what my folks were looking for, but they weren’t the only people searching.
My parents and their little circle of people pulled up stakes and moved to a new church about every six months to a year. Someone would have a philosophical disagreement with the pastor, or they’d learn that pastor so and so had gone out and helped a guy who didn’t even attend his church when his car broke down.
“A man who lives by the Word!!” they’d all cry.
And off they’d go en masse, to the new church.
Oh sure, there might be some stragglers, loyal to the old pastor, but eventually they’d all find each other again.
As a kid, I didn’t know what the inside of the (New! Exciting! Bible-based!) church might be like, but I mostly knew whose faces I’d see when I got there.
I seriously didn’t know then and don’t understand now what they were all looking for. I always thought that their beliefs should be the point, not where they exercised their religious side.
They didn’t find it at the First Christian Church.
We were new in town, so we weren’t aware of the migratory nature of the local religious population yet. We stayed at that church for about two years, I think.
My parents finally tuned in to the local Jesus dance and we started wandering around to other churches with the rest of the lemmings.
So whatever it was they were looking for wasn’t at the Baptist church, either. Pastor Boorish and his wife were ‘too judgmental’ for my parents.
And my dad didn’t like being at the same church as one of the people he worked with. “He’s a pompous pile of shit,” Dad pronounced. “I don’t like that son of a bitch.”
The Presbyterians didn’t have what my parents were searching for, although their music was really lovely as our high school choir and band director was in charge of it.
That’s why going to that church was my personal favorite. Almost worth not being allowed to sleep in on Sunday.
Of course after the music was over we had to listen to Pastor Stodgy for half an hour, but then we got to sing again at the end of the service.
For a couple of months my family took some lessons about Mormonism at someone’s house, but that was a little too weird for my parents.
I went to catechism and the Catholic church with a friend a few times, but Mom denounced that as a cult and decided I probably shouldn’t go there anymore. “Besides that, our whole family needs to be together in church on Sunday.”
That was fine with me, I was done with it. I found the rituals astounding. So many gestures and silly things that were sinful. Trinkets to wear and carry. Confessing one’s sins. Weird.
And the kids I was incarcerated with in public school weren’t any nicer to me when I was receiving religious instruction with them than they were in school.
Church and all the embellishments that go with it were the center of our existence. We were up early every Sunday morning getting ready for church.
The idea of doing something besides church wasn’t even an option. If we wanted to go fishing or have a picnic or do some other thing, it was always planned for after church services.
And as a girl, I had to wear a dress for church. I didn’t wear dresses any other time, but my dressing up for church was a requirement in my family.
I asked once why I couldn’t wear something comfortable like my brothers instead of having to wear a dress and nylons and be cold. “Why does God even care what I wear?” I asked.
The answer was, “You are disrespectful. Now hurry up, we’re going to be late.” from my harried mother.
Her curt response may have been due to the fact that she was still trying to brush one brother’s unruly hair and get shoes on my other brother while my dad sat out front in the car and honked the horn.
Anyone who visited our house could tell that we were holy.
We had tacky Jesus art and God stuff on the walls and a ton of really swell refrigerator magnets, too.
There was an open hymnal on the music stand on the organ in the living room, and a stack of religious sheet music next to it.
We had an ornate needlepoint wall hanging in the living room with the ‘as for me and my house’ verse from ‘Josua’.
Yes, it was spelled wrong, but Mom thought it was pretty.
No one had noticed the misspelling until I said something. My parents solved the problem by instructing me to stop pointing it out to visitors.
We had the family Bible on the coffee table.
We observed a sense of decorum in our family when we were out in public.
Of course our home life was pretty much like anyone else’s, no one was watching us then, so no need to keep up appearances. Dad swore all the time and ranted about the bastards ruining the country and the assholes he worked for. I can’t remember a time when my father wasn’t angry and bitter. He just didn’t show it to the rest of the world.
Indoctrinated from the beginning, I knew how to act like a Christian. I knew the bible verses and I knew what Jesus liked and what he didn’t like.
I went to Sunday school and weekly Bible studies and vacation Bible school and even had a mother-approved Jesusy friend or two to hang out with.
I went to church camp every summer.
I prayed when I was told to pray.
I went to all the potlucks and the gatherings and signed up for an hour during the 24 hour prayer vigil our church did when I was 12.
Of course God existed, hadn’t my parents said so?
And didn’t all the people around me believe it?
But I never felt the presence of God.
I really, really tried.
It was like standing out on the lawn looking through the windows at a big party going on inside the house. All those happy people, enjoying being part of a club.
I didn’t feel anything.
Through all the singing and the learning and the endless church services and the crowds of Christians all around me.
At night when I would get introspective as I was falling asleep I’d wonder if there was something wrong with me.
Despite all the indoctrination and the Bible studies and being forced to get up and put on nice clothes to go to church on Sunday every damn week from infancy until I was 17 and my dad said I could make up my own mind about going to church or not, I never felt it.
I witnessed to other kids.
I wore a ‘Jesus Never Fails’ necklace. To school.
I read the Bible.
I just always felt like… an observer.
I did not feel like I was a part of all the pageantry and the experience. It was like watching a movie.
I still believed in God, but I was becoming more certain that he didn’t believe in me.
Church was, first and foremost, a social club for my parents.
They talked about who wore what, who might be involved in little scandals, how shocking Mrs. Gams was with her short skirts, how her husband needed to ‘get right with God because why is he allowing her to dress that way?’ and other tidbits.
And if one wasn’t at the twice weekly Bible studies or one of the two Sunday services with a ‘fellowship and potluck’ in between there was always the telephone.
Which was in constant and heavy use.
The members of the ‘prayer chain’ called each other all the time with prayer requests which were really just orders to God… sort of like Sears or Santa Claus… “Please pray for us to get a new car/house/job” and gossip, under the guise of fake compassion, “Grace Landerer really needs our prayers, her husband Phil moved in with Miss Slutty last weekend!”
Now mind you, Grace may have only told one person and certainly hadn’t requested their prayers or their curiosity, but by the time she left her house and went to the grocery store 15 minutes later, there may have been three people in town who didn’t know about the situation.
Those three were quickly filled in by everyone else. “Did you hear? Phil Landerer left his wife!!”
With each telling, more details were made up. The more lurid, the better.
My mom would get on the phone and preface her remarks with, “Well I heard that____.” and pass on anything new she’d heard, ending with, “I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard it from Bettyjean Saviorette.” As soon as she ended the call, she called someone else and repeated everything.
When I was almost 13, we found the Assembly of God Church.
I guess my parents thought the Pentecostals might really have it, we attended there for several years.
Pastor Jesusjumper was really a good guy. A local rancher-turned-pastor-but-still-ranching. An energetic, kind man who would do anything for anyone at a moment’s notice.
Even *I* liked him.
That’s saying something by the way, as I’ve always had a healthy dose of cynicism.
You may have noticed.
We ended up at Pastor Jesusjumper’s church because my grandfather died. He passed away around midnight six days before I turned 13.
After my dad got off the phone with the hospital, my mom called the leader of our current church, Pastor Detached. He offered his condolences and promised to stop by ‘sometime tomorrow’ to see what he could do. He bid my mother goodnight and hung up.
Mom called one of the ladies on the prayer chain to pass on the gossip that Grandpa Jim had died. Oh. I meant to say she called to ask for their prayers during our time of difficulty. She passed on the information that Pastor Detached had plans to visit our house the next day, too.
And one of the people on the prayer chain called Pastor Jesusjumper.
He and his wife who lived about a half hour outside of town immediately got up and dressed and drove directly to our house. They told my parents to go to the hospital and take care of paperwork and take care of my grandmother (she was in the hospital at the same time and had not been informed of her husband’s passing.) They said go, we will stay with the children. Go.
My brothers slept through the whole thing, but I was awake and very sad at losing my grandfather.
I loved him a lot.
And Mrs. Jesusjumper sat on the sofa with an arm around me while I cried.
They really were very kind people, and if I had to choose someone from all the churches we went to and all the Christians we met during those years, they would be the ones I’d point to as actually practicing what they preached.
I can’t think of a single bad thing to say about them. They were just decent people. I think they would have been kind and giving and moral without religion, too.
But if you’ve never been to a church where they speak in tongues, dance in the aisles, wave their hands in the air and holler, “Amen!” (or 30 or so people whisper under their breath all at once, “Jesusjesusjesusjesus” until it sounds like wind in the pine trees) I highly recommend adding it to your bucket list.
It’s one of those things you have to see to believe.
A little more about speaking in tongues for those who are unfamiliar with it. A random person, usually one of the same four or five people every week, stands up during the church service and recites a long string of gibberish. Loudly. Often repeating similar syllables and groups of sounds. It ordinarily lasts for 20 seconds to a minute. Then that person will sit down. Funny, that person never interrupts the announcements or the sermon or the offering. It only happens during prayer time.
Many people in the congregation become quite exalted and call out, “Thank you JAYSUS!!” or “Hallelujah!!” Most of them have at least one hand in the air, praising their lord. They sway back and forth. Many of them weep copiously and unashamedly.
A few moments later, another random person will stand up and ‘receive the interpretation.’ This involves a recitation that almost always contains the same words and thoughts, repeated in different ways. Something like, “Lo! I am with you always! You are my people! I am here, among you! I love you and you love me! Here I am! Your Lord! I am with you always! I will be coming back soon!”
Sometimes they really get going in those services, and several people will stand up and babble. They must have some sort of prearranged signal, because no one ever interrupts anyone else. They all get to do their tongues and arm waving and still manage to take turns.
Like I said… add it to your bucket list.
I left home a little early, and that was the end of my regular church attendance.
I didn’t miss it.
I don’t think anyone with my upbringing could avoid feeling guilty, at least for a while, and I did.
It got a lot easier.
And every Sunday morning, when I was able to sleep in as long as I wanted to, I appreciated the absence of church a little more.
I was living in another state, but still in contact with my family at least weekly by phone.
I talked about what was going on in my life, and my family (mostly Mom) talked about church and other religious activities. Which makes sense, as that was and still is their life.
My mom was on the board of the local chapter of Women’s Aglow. When she wasn’t doing something for her church, she was doing something to help Aglow.
For a few weeks, my poor mom was in a bit of a quandary.
It seems that her good friend Stephanie Saintly, who’d been her friend for fifteen years, had applied to be on the board of Aglow.
And the other board members, my mom included, were not comfortable allowing it.
Why, because Stephanie had not received the baptism of the Holy Spirit!
She ::putting on sad face and doleful tone:: could not speak in tongues.
In case you didn’t get that, Stephanie Saintly, a good Christian woman who had been faithful to God her whole life, baptized in her local church, and a very nice person all around was going to Heaven when she died.
God had pre-approved her heavenly application because she’d done everything he asks of his followers.
She was good enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven… but not good enough to serve on the board of a small chapter of a women’s organization in Butthump, Oregon.
When I laughed incredulously and made the comparison out loud, “Seriously, Mom? God will let her into heaven but you won’t let her be on the board? Do you not see anything wrong with that?!?” Mom asked me how our weather was.
It wasn’t the first time I decided that Christianity and logic were going to remain strangers forever.
In case you were wondering, Stephanie was not allowed to join the board of the Butthump chapter of Aglow. She chose to resign from the group because of it.
I started to realize that God had never answered a single prayer I prayed, no matter how sincere.
I had done everything right. I’d gone to church and prayed and tithed and witnessed and read my Bible and wanted to do what God asked of me all the time… and there was no one on the other end of the line when I called him.
I finally admitted to myself, “I do not believe in any God.”
There were no feelings of anger at this non-existent being. It was actually a relief to figure out that he was as real as Santa and the Tooth Fairy. No wonder I’d never felt anything. No wonder I’d always felt like the motions and trappings of religion were pointless.
They were pointless!
I didn’t tell my parents that I’d stopped believing…