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Tim Minchin Addresses 2013 University of Western Australia Graduating Class

tim minchinIn 2013, atheist Tim Minchin received an honorary doctorate from the University of Western Australia (UWA). The video that follows is Minchin’s address to UWA’s 2013 graduating class. I hope readers will take the time to listen to Minchin’s address. In fact, if you have friends or family members who are graduating from high school or university, I encourage you to make them aware of this video. Minchin imparts nine simple, yet profound thoughts about life. Minchin, ever the comedian, challenges young adults to live life with passion, knowing that day will come when they will be dead.

Video Link

Transcript

In darker days, I did a corporate gig at a conference for this big company who made and sold accounting software. In a bid, I presume, to inspire their salespeople to greater heights, they’d forked out 12 grand for an Inspirational Speaker who was this extreme sports dude who had had a couple of his limbs frozen off when he got stuck on a ledge on some mountain. It was weird. Software salespeople need to hear from someone who has had a long, successful and happy career in software sales, not from an overly-optimistic, ex-mountaineer. Some poor guy who arrived in the morning hoping to learn about better sales technique ended up going home worried about the blood flow to his extremities. It’s not inspirational – it’s confusing.

And if the mountain was meant to be a symbol of life’s challenges, and the loss of limbs a metaphor for sacrifice, the software guy’s not going to get it, is he? Cos he didn’t do an arts degree, did he? He should have. Arts degrees are awesome. And they help you find meaning where there is none. And let me assure you, there is none. Don’t go looking for it. Searching for meaning is like searching for a rhyme scheme in a cookbook: you won’t find it and you’ll bugger up your soufflé.

Point being, I’m not an inspirational speaker. I’ve never lost a limb on a mountainside, metaphorically or otherwise. And I’m certainly not here to give career advice, cos… well I’ve never really had what most would call a proper job.

However, I have had large groups of people listening to what I say for quite a few years now, and it’s given me an inflated sense of self-importance. So I will now – at the ripe old age of 38 – bestow upon you nine life lessons. To echo, of course, the 9 lessons and carols of the traditional Christmas service. Which are also a bit obscure.

You might find some of this stuff inspiring, you will find some of it boring, and you will definitely forget all of it within a week. And be warned, there will be lots of hokey similes, and obscure aphorisms which start well but end up not making sense.

So listen up, or you’ll get lost, like a blind man clapping in a pharmacy trying to echo-locate the contact lens fluid.

Here we go:

1. You Don’t Have To Have A Dream.

Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams. Fine, if you have something that you’ve always dreamed of, like, in your heart, go for it! After all, it’s something to do with your time… chasing a dream. And if it’s a big enough one, it’ll take you most of your life to achieve, so by the time you get to it and are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you’ll be almost dead so it won’t matter.

I never really had one of these big dreams. And so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you… you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. Which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye. Right? Good. Advice. Metaphor. Look at me go.

2. Don’t Seek Happiness

Happiness is like an orgasm: if you think about it too much, it goes away. Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy, and you might find you get some as a side effect. We didn’t evolve to be constantly content. Contented Australophithecus Afarensis got eaten before passing on their genes.

3. Remember, It’s All Luck

You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.

I suppose I worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved … but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of going to lectures while I was here at UWA.

Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.

Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.

4. Exercise

I’m sorry, you pasty, pale, smoking philosophy grads, arching your eyebrows into a Cartesian curve as you watch the Human Movement mob winding their way through the miniature traffic cones of their existence: you are wrong and they are right. Well, you’re half right – you think, therefore you are… but also: you jog, therefore you sleep well, therefore you’re not overwhelmed by existential angst. You can’t be Kant, and you don’t want to be.

Play a sport, do yoga, pump iron, run… whatever… but take care of your body. You’re going to need it. Most of you mob are going to live to nearly a hundred, and even the poorest of you will achieve a level of wealth that most humans throughout history could not have dreamed of. And this long, luxurious life ahead of you is going to make you depressed!

But don’t despair! There is an inverse correlation between depression and exercise. Do it. Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run. And don’t smoke. Natch.

5. Be Hard On Your Opinions

A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like arse-holes, in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from arse-holes, in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

By the way, while I have science and arts grads in front of me: please don’t make the mistake of thinking the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid, and damaging idea. You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art, to write beautiful things.

If you need proof: Twain, Adams, Vonnegut, McEwen, Sagan, Shakespeare, Dickens. For a start.

You don’t need to be superstitious to be a poet. You don’t need to hate GM technology to care about the beauty of the planet. You don’t have to claim a soul to promote compassion.

Science is not a body of knowledge nor a system of belief; it is just a term which describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome.

The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated. The idea that many Australians – including our new PM and my distant cousin Nick – believe that the science of anthropogenic global warming is controversial, is a powerful indicator of the extent of our failure to communicate. The fact that 30% of this room just bristled is further evidence still. The fact that that bristling is more to do with politics than science is even more despairing.

6. Be a teacher

Please? Please be a teacher. Teachers are the most admirable and important people in the world. You don’t have to do it forever, but if you’re in doubt about what to do, be an amazing teacher. Just for your twenties. Be a primary school teacher. Especially if you’re a bloke – we need male primary school teachers. Even if you’re not a Teacher, be a teacher. Share your ideas. Don’t take for granted your education. Rejoice in what you learn, and spray it.

7. Define Yourself By What You Love

I’ve found myself doing this thing a bit recently, where, if someone asks me what sort of music I like, I say “well I don’t listen to the radio because pop lyrics annoy me”. Or if someone asks me what food I like, I say “I think truffle oil is overused and slightly obnoxious”. And I see it all the time online, people whose idea of being part of a subculture is to hate Coldplay or football or feminists or the Liberal Party. We have tendency to define ourselves in opposition to stuff; as a comedian, I make a living out of it. But try to also express your passion for things you love. Be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire. Send thank-you cards and give standing ovations. Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff.

8. Respect People With Less Power Than You

I have, in the past, made important decisions about people I work with – agents and producers – based largely on how they treat wait staff in restaurants. I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful. So there.

9. Don’t Rush

You don’t need to already know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. I’m not saying sit around smoking cones all day, but also, don’t panic. Most people I know who were sure of their career path at 20 are having midlife crises now.

I said at the beginning of this ramble that life is meaningless. It was not a flippant assertion. I think it’s absurd: the idea of seeking “meaning” in the set of circumstances that happens to exist after 13.8 billion years worth of unguided events. Leave it to humans to think the universe has a purpose for them. However, I am no nihilist. I am not even a cynic. I am, actually, rather romantic. And here’s my idea of romance:

You will soon be dead. Life will sometimes seem long and tough and, god, it’s tiring. And you will sometimes be happy and sometimes sad. And then you’ll be old. And then you’ll be dead.

There is only one sensible thing to do with this empty existence, and that is: fill it. Not fillet. Fill. It.

And in my opinion (until I change it), life is best filled by learning as much as you can about as much as you can, taking pride in whatever you’re doing, having compassion, sharing ideas, running(!), being enthusiastic. And then there’s love, and travel, and wine, and sex, and art, and kids, and giving, and mountain climbing … but you know all that stuff already.

It’s an incredibly exciting thing, this one, meaningless life of yours. Good luck.

Thank you for indulging me.

Nancy Campbell’s “Vision” for Her Children and Grandchildren

all about jesus

According to the Above Rubies website, Nancy Campbell is an “internationally known author, speaker, and authority on Biblical Motherhood and Family.” Campbell preaches the old-time Fundamentalist  gospel of patriarchy — a world in which women marry, obey their husbands, bear lots of children, and keep the home. Recently, in a post titled A Higher Vision, Campbell detailed her vision for her children and grandchildren. Here’s what Campbell had to say:

I want children who love God above all else.
I want children who are growing into the likeness of Christ.
I want children who love righteousness and abhor evil.
I want children who have a biblical mindset and stand for God’s truth.
I want children who will not compromise godly standards.
I want children who will not be tainted by the spirit of this world.
I want children who will not give in to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, but who will pursue the will of God.
I want children who love God’s Word and love to pray.
I want children who will blaze across this world with the gospel and message of truth.

Amen.

As you can see, Campbell’s vision for her progeny focuses on the Evangelical God and the Bible. Like many Evangelicals, her vision is singular and blinkered, making Campbell blind to the wonders of the world outside the narrow confines of the Christian box. All that matters to Campbell is that her children and grandchildren turn out to be good little Christians who follow the approved way of life.

I too have children and grandchildren, and like Campbell I have a vision for them. However, my vision is far different from that of Campbell’s:

I want children who think for themselves.
I want children who enjoy life.
I want children who treat others with respect.
I want children who love their families.
I want children who value hard work and enjoy the fruits of their labors.
I want children who aren’t afraid to stand against bigotry and racism.
I want children who will live every moment to its fullest, realizing that life is short.
I want children who value fun, pleasure, and relaxation.
I want children who will travel far and wide, enjoying the wonders of earth.
And most of all, I want children who are happy.

Amen.

Campbell’s vision is one of exclusion, whereas my vision is one of inclusion. Campbell’s vision focuses on right beliefs and obedience, whereas my vision focuses on embracing and enjoying life. Campbell’s vision sees the goal as a room in God’s celestial kingdom, where my vision sees the goal as a life well lived. Campbell envisions life as that of Pilgrim in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s ProgressTrudge on dear Pilgrim, remembering that Heaven awaits you IF you make it to the end. What a sad way to live life, squandering the too-short time we have on earth.

I have more of a Dixie Chicks way of looking at life. In 1998, the Chicks released the single Wide Open Places. I think the song aptly describes how those of us who are rooted in there here and now view life:

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

Many precede and many will follow
A young girl’s dream no longer hollow
It takes the shape of a place out west
But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed

[Chorus]
She needs wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes
She needs new faces
She knows the high stakes

She traveled this road as a child
Wide eyed and grinning, she never tired
But now she won’t be coming back with the rest
If these are life’s lessons, she’ll take this test

[Repeat Chorus]
She knows the high stakes

As her folks drive away, her dad yells, “Check the oil!”
Mom stares out the window and says, “I’m leaving my girl”
She said, “It didn’t seem like that long ago”
When she stood there and let her own folks know

[Repeat Chorus]
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes
She knows the highest stakes

Video Link

Wide open spaces, that’s what I hope my children and grandchildren find as the meander their ways through this life. Who knows what might lie ahead. Campbell wants to keep her children and grandchildren safe within the confines of the Evangelical box. (Please see The Danger of Being in a Box and Why it Makes Sense When You are in it and What I Found When I Left the Box) While there is great comfort and security that comes from knowing everyone is safely in the box, this is no way to live and enjoy life. That’s what Evangelicalism does. It confines people for life in Bible Prison, safe from the evil, sinful world. Humanism, however, opens wide the gate and says, You are FREE! Enjoy life. Embrace all that it has to offer, knowing that we don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Life is like the steam rising from a radiator on a cold winter’s day. It quickly dissipates into the air and then it is gone (James 4:14).  Solomon was surely right when he said:

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour
….
All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?
….
Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun.
….
For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun. Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

Let me conclude this post with the advice I give on the ABOUT page of this blog:

You have one life. There is no heaven or hell. There is no afterlife. You have one life, it’s yours, and what you do with it is what matters most. Love and forgive those who matter to you and ignore those who add nothing to your life. Life is too short to spend time trying to make nice with those who will never make nice with you. Determine who are the people in your life that matter and give your time and devotion to them. Live each and every day to its fullest. You never know when death might come calling. Don’t waste time trying to be a jack of all trades, master of none. Find one or two things you like to do and do them well. Too many people spend way too much time doing things they will never be good at.

Here’s the conclusion of the matter. It’s your life and you best get to living it. Some day, sooner than you think, it will be over. Don’t let your dying days be ones of regret over what might have been.

 

The Differences Between Evangelical and Atheist Reality

reality christian magazine
No this is not a fake magazine cover. There really is a Reality Christian Magazine.

Each of us has a worldview. For Evangelicals, the Bible establishes the parameters of their worldview. God said it, I believe it, and that settles it, the Christian says. Anything that does not fit within the pages of their leather-bound Bible is rejected out-of-hand. Secularists and atheists, while prone to their own delusions, tend to view the world from a rational, materialistic point of view.

Evangelicals Christians view reality this way:

  • God has a wonderful plan for their lives and nothing happens that is not part of God’s purpose or plan for their life.
  • God uses pain, suffering, financial reversal, sickness, loss, and death to teach them a lesson, get their attention, make them stronger, or punish them for sin.
  • For those who love God and are the called according to his purpose, everything in life works out for good.
  • God loves them and would never do anything to hurt or harm them.
  • It only seems that God is not involved in the day-to-day machinations of his creation. Behind the scenes, in ways that no human can comprehend, God is working, moving, changing, correcting, tearing down, and building up.
  • God hears every Evangelical’s prayer and answers it according to his will.

Of course, the Evangelical view of reality is for Christians-only. Non-Christians are under the wrath and judgment of God and deserve to be cast into hell this very moment. Non-Christians may at times enjoy the blessing of God (it rains on the just and unjust), but God reserves his blessings for those who are his children. Non-Christians are the children of the devil.

I have come to see that Evangelical reality is delusional. It requires a suspension of reason, a shutting-off of oneself to what can be seen, experienced, and known. It requires the rose-colored glasses of faith, glasses which allow the Christian to see a reality that is not visible with human eyes.

What does a secular, atheist view of reality tell us about our world?

  • There is no purpose or plan.
  • Shit happens.
  • Life is a crap shoot and there are no guarantees that it will turn out one way or the other.
  • Genetics play a factor in our lives, and far too often condemn us to suffer horrifying diseases.
  • Being at the wrong place at the wrong time can have catastrophic consequences.
  • Human powers outside our lives make decisions over which we have no control.  Their decisions can, and do, materially affect our lives, both for good and for bad.
  • Talking to ourselves might be helpful psychologically and make us feel better, but we are cognizant of the fact that we are talking to ourselves and not some sort of mythical being.
  • Inanimate objects have no power of their own. Kicking the car and swearing at it when it breaks down may make us feel better, but it is just a car.
  • We understand, despite what the promoters of the American dream might tell us, that we can’t be anything we want to be. It is not true that anyone can be President and it is not true that we are destined to win American Idol/The Voice/The Sing Off/America’s Got Talent.
  • There are things that happen that we can not explain. The secularist and the atheist know that there are likely to always be unanswered questions or explainable events. They know that luck or being at the right place at the right time is often the sole reason for something happening.

Atheists and secularists know that the world is fraught with danger, and it is amazing that any newborn lives to old age. Christians, on the other hand, know that the world is fraught with danger, but newborns live to old age because God is merciful.  God controls the keys to life and death, and it is he alone who kills us at the appointed hour. I wonder, does God pencil in a time next to our name when we are born? How does God determine this? Is there an annual birth lottery where, like the military draft, God pulls death dates for each newborn?

What comfort is there in having a God who controls your life from birth to death? I much prefer a life where I at least have some say in the matter; a life where my choices and decisions materially affect my future; a life where disaster and death lurk in the shadows; a life that is a game, a chance to outrun the Grim Reaper.

I have no place in my worldview for letting go and letting God. I have no need of putting my hand in the hand of the man (Jesus), or stilled the waters and calmed the seas. With irreverent, even violent gusto, I refuse to surrender to the will of a mythical deity. I shan’t embrace death because a book-bound deity promises me a room in his mansion in the sky.

Life is harsh. If we live long enough it will bruise and bloody us, and ultimately it will kill us. I don’t intend to resign myself to anything. As much as lies within me, I plan on running hard, fighting long, and when I check out of this grand experiment called life, I hope to leave behind a testimony of one who lived life to its fullest.

[signoff]

It Doesn’t Always Happen to Someone Else

why me

As a Christian, I believed that if I prayed God would take care of me and he would make sure calamity didn’t show up at my doorstep. In those rare instances when it seemed that God wasn’t answering my prayer and I was facing disaster, I thought that God was either testing me or chastising me for disobedience.

I was relatively healthy until the early 1990s. I played basketball in the winter and softball in the summer. In the fall I cut wood, spending hours sawing felled trees into wood stove sized pieces. I hunted in the fall/winter, walking for miles in the Appalachian foothills. I was, by every measure, a healthy, but increasingly overweight man. Today, I am a crippled old man, worn thin by chronic illness and debilitating pain.

I am still amazed by how quickly the circumstances of my life have changed. It seems that life is being sucked out of me ever so slowly. Gone are the days of strenuous physical activity. Now I am happy if I can do things of physical nature a few days out of the month. Our home is littered with projects in various stages of completion. I will get to these projects soon, I tell myself. The pile of unread magazines on the bedside table continues to grow. I stubbornly refuse to cancel the subscriptions because I just know I am going to catch up on magazine reading one of these days. The same could be said for the unread books that line the shelves in the living room.

Recently, I went over to my oldest son’s home to wire their new bedroom and bathroom. My coming over to help quickly turned into me taking extra doses of pain medication and sitting on a chair while I told others what to do. I was able to get the circuits where they needed to go, and I suppose I could make myself feel good over my son still needing my expertise, but I quietly wept inside as I thought about how much I have lost. Any attempt to do something physically strenuous is met with the screaming objections of my body. I push through the pain, knowing that I will pay a heavy price for ignoring by body’s vociferous objections. I shouldn’t do these things anymore, but the only thing worse than not doing them, is feeling that my expertise and help are no longer needed. We all want to feel needed by those we love.

One of the biggest issues that dominates my every-other-week counseling sessions with Dr. Deal is my unwillingness to embrace life as it is. Even my family doctor has talked to me about the fine line between giving up and embracing the reality of how my life is. There will be no more days of playing basketball or softball. There will be no more days of feeling the sweat run down my face and back as I cut wood on a crisp fall day. There will be no more days of trudging through the woods playing a game of hide-and-seek with a cottontail rabbit or a fox squirrel. No matter how much I want it to be different, I will never be able to read like I once did. While the voracious appetite for the printed page is still there, the ability to process it is long gone.  This is my life, and there is not one damn thing I can do about it.

As a Christian I believed that my physical afflictions were the result of God making me more like Jesus. I believed the way to heaven was paved with suffering. I can confidently say that God never answered one prayer of mine when I cried out to him for physical relief or deliverance. I came to see that I was like the Apostle Paul who prayed for deliverance and God told him no. (2 Corinthians 12:6-9)

These days I now realize that the diseases that are  ever-so-slowly taking life from me are the result of a combination of genetics, environment, and lifestyle choices with a topping of “who the hell knows.” When I whine and complain about my lot in life and say “why me?” the universe shouts back, “why not you?”

Bad things don’t always happen to other people. It is not always another family’s child that gets cancer or is killed in a car accident. It is not always someone else who has a brain tumor, goes through a divorce, or loses a job. It is not always someone else who loses everything in a fire, tornado, hurricane, or a flood. The truth is that life is a big crap-shoot: good luck, bad luck, at the right place, at the wrong place, good genetics, bad genetics, growing up on the right side of the tracks, growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, marrying the right person, marrying the wrong person. The list is endless.

As I peruse the ways of humankind, it is clear to me that very few people live to be old without facing trial and adversity. It is just how life is. If there really is a God, I might find some pleasure and satisfaction in saying DAMN you God  But since there is no God, I am left to shout at a universe that yawns at my death-defying struggle. If the universe could speak it surely would say, this movie always ends the same way. Dead. Next.

It is futile to see life other than as it is. Wishing for days that are long since gone only results in depression and despair. We must embrace life as it is while we go kicking and screaming into the night. We have two choices in life: fight or roll over and die. Yes, life is unfair and bad things happen to good people. Shit happens and it doesn’t always happen to someone else.

Let me end this post with a poem by Dylan Thomas, an early 20th century poet who died at the age of 39:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

An Evangelical Christian Asks: What Happens When We Die?

louis ck life after death

An Evangelical Christian asked me, what happens when we die?  Here’s my answer.

The power of religion rests in the hope it gives people concerning life after death. Remove this from religion and churches would be shuttered overnight. Hope, along with fear, is the glue that holds most religions together. What would religion be without the fear of hell and the hope of heaven?

The problem though is that there is no proof for the existence of heaven,hell, or life beyond the grave.  All we have to go on is the various religious texts that clerics use to “prove” that there is a hell and a heaven. No one has ever gone to heaven or hell and returned to tell us about it. The same goes for any life  after death, whether it be reincarnation or Christian resurrection. There is no evidence for life after death. Any belief to the contrary requires faith.

As a skeptic,I rarely appeal to faith. I try to judge matters according to what I can know. What does reason tell me about life after death? What do my observations tell me about reality? What do my experiences tell me about the prospects of eternal life beyond my last breath?

When we die we are dead. That’s it. End of story.  When my heart stops pumping and my lungs stop breathing, I am dead. Every one of us will come to this end. No one escapes death. I know of no one who has come back from the dead. I know of no one who is not right where they were planted or scattered after they died. As with God, there is no empirical evidence for hell, heaven, or life after death. Since there is no evidence, I must conclude that these things do not exist.

Now, this does not mean I don’t wish it could be different. Heaven, eternal life, a pain-free body, being reunited with my father and mother; all these things appeal to me. But then, so does having magical Harry Potter-like powers. Both are fantasies that have no foundation in fact.

Some day, sooner rather than later, I am going to die. It is unlikely that I will be alive 20 years from now. I hope I am, but my body and its slow, gradual, painful decline tells me that death is lurking in the shadows and some day it will come and claim me. Believe me, I want to live. I have no death wish like many Christians do. Take me Jesus, I am ready to go, many a Christian says. Not me. I have no desire to leave on the next boat or any other boat.  I hope the long black train that’s a-comin’ gets derailed in Hell, Michigan.  I want to live as long as I can. I want to be married for 50 years, see my grandchildren get married, and hold my great-grandchildren.

You see, we skeptics value life because this is all we have. We know, based on what the evidence tells us, that there is no hell, heaven, or life after death. This is it, and because this is it we want to wring as much as we can out of life. We are not content to off-load life to a mythical Sweet-By-and-By. Every day matters because every day lived is one less day we have to live.

I have lived about 21,288 days/510,912 hours. What is most important to me is how I spent my past, and how I will spend what days I have left. Have I lived life to its fullest? Have I made a difference? Am I a better person today than I was yesterday? This is enough for me; a well-live life. What more can anyone ask ?

Sadly, many Evangelicals view life as something to be endured so that the can get a divine payoff after death. I know this description sounds crude, but it is the essence of the Christian belief concerning life after death. Endure! Suffer! Be Patient! As the Christian song says, Some day it will be worth it all. Some day you will cross the finish line and receive the prize that awaits you, the Apostle Paul says.

I don’t fault the Evangelical for believing in hell, heaven, and the afterlife. The Christian Bible certainly says these things are real. The Bible clearly says who will be going to hell and heaven. However, as a skeptic, I see no evidence that these beliefs are true. I do not have the requisite faith necessary to suspend reason on these matters. I am unwilling to waste my life in the pursuit of that which, as best I can tell, does not exist.

 

If One Soul Gets Saved It’s Worth It All

polly and kathy shope 1965
Polly and her younger sister Kathy, Bay City, Michigan 1965

It’s a sunny, spring day, Memorial Day weekend.

Utica, Ohio is having its annual ice cream festival.  A woman and her husband decide to attend the festival. Hopping on their Harley, off they drive to Utica.

The  traffic is busy, and the husband knows he had better be careful.

But off in the distance, a woman grows impatient with traffic. She’s in a hurry, wanting to get home. She makes a decision that will have catastrophic consequences a few seconds later. She quickly makes a u-turn, and much to her horror there is a motorcycle coming right at her.

It’s already too late. The husband does what he can to avoid the oncoming car, but his wife, the mother of his three children, is thrown from the Harley and her head hits the pavement.

And just like that, she’s dead.

Every dream, every hope, and every opportunity of tomorrow is now gone.

Being a Christian family, we turn to our God and ask why. We pray for strength and understanding. The heavens are silent, and they remain so even to this day.

In a moment of anguished religious passion, someone says, if one soul gets saved through this, it is worth it all.

No, it’s not. How dare we reduce the worth of a life, this one precious life, to that which God can use for his purpose. A husband has lost his wife and his children are motherless. Her grandchildren will never know the warmth of her love. Her sister and parents are left with memories that abruptly stopped the moment their sister and daughter hit the pavement.

No, I say to myself, I’m not willing to trade her life for anyone’s salvation. Let them all go to hell. Give us one more day when the joy and laughter of family can be heard and the family is whole. One more day to enjoy the love and complexity she brought into our life.

One more day.

(In honor of my sister-in-law Kathy Shope Hughes who died on Memorial Day 2005)

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A Late Night Existential Experience with An Asian Beetle

asian beetlerepost, revised.

It’s late. I can’t sleep, so I’m laying in bed reading the latest issue of Astronomy Magazine. I need a drink of water, so I lean over to grab the water glass on the nightstand, and there, swimming in the water of my glass, is an Asian Beetle. (Harmonia axyridis) Those of us who live in the Midwest know all about Asian beetles. We have a contract out on the biologist who introduced this non-native invasive insect to our land. Every winter they do their best to survive until spring so they can reproduce. They hide in the nooks and crannies of, well, everything. Some people have such an infestation in their homes that they spend all winter killing them. Anyone who has ever done this knows the wonderful smell Asian beetles give off when flicked, smacked, or sucked up with a vacuum. They are very hard to kill, and even insecticides are often no match for their determination to live.

So when I found this Asian Beetle swimming for its dear life in my water glass my first thought was, Good riddance. Die!  I even tried to help the beetle die. Next to the water glass was a cardboard box which I recently emptied of its contents, a new prescription of Flonase. I took the rectangular box and pushed down on top of the Asian Beetle, hoping it would drown. I did this several times, but the beetle refused to die. And then  I stopped…

I began to admire the Asian Beetle’s fight to survive; its desire to make it to spring so it could procreate. For a moment I pondered the wonders of Evolution and Darwin’s theories, all in full display in the water glass on my nightstand. Then in a moment of irrationality, I put the Flonase box back in the water in such a way that the Asian Beetle could climb out of the water. In a few moments he did. I continued to watch him as he climbed higher and higher to get away from the water. The struggle to survive was evident.

Come tomorrow, I suspect I will continue my murderous rampage against Asian beetles. But, for a moment, in the stillness of the night, a water glass and an Asian Beetle spoke deeply to me and reminded me of the common existence I have with all living things.

Learning to Number Our Days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Personal Reflection: The Rhythm of Life

plant going to seed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bruce and Polly Fantasy Game

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

white birch clare michigan 2003-001
House we rented in White Birch, a wooded community north of Farwell, Michigan. At the time, I was pastoring Victory Baptist Church, Clare Michigan 2003
Depression Sea is roiling today, my mind is twisting, turning, and dying.

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

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

I’m at the doctor’s office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

bruce 1970 nova ss
Bruce putting water in 1970 Nova SS, March 1976, somewhere in Kentucky
Package these things together and magically move them to the eastern seaboard, to a small, out-of-the-way fishing community on the shore of the Atlantic.

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

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

This is Bruce and Polly’s fantasy.

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

All I want is for the pain to stop.

Is that too much to ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I want to live.

I want to die.

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

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

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

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

I’m still betting on playing the game.

Note

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

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

Who Comes Before What

who what

What are you?

What am I?

How can you know what I am until you know who I am?

Who I am explains what I am.

But we have little time for knowing who anyone is.

Labels please.

Declare yourself.

Christian.

Atheist.

Agnostic.

Spiritual.

Buddhist.

Muslim.

Republican.

Democrat.

Libertarian.

Liberal.

Conservative.

Shall I go on?

Busy. Busy. Busy.

Facebook.

Twitter.

Blog.

Texting.

Quick, immediate.

In a 140 characters or less what are you?

But I told you that you can not understand what I am until you understand who I am.

Who I am requires far more than 140 characters.

More than a Facebook comment.

Far more than a blog post.

Who I am requires time.

And effort.

And patience.

Too much work you say?

Then I feel no compulsion to tell you what I am.

The who comes before the what.

What is all people seem to want to know about me.

Pigeonhole.

Classify.

Categorize.

Label.

Dismiss.

I am far more complicated than your attempts to what me before you who me.

So  pigeonhole, classify, categorize and label me

but by no means know me.

The Funny Version of Almost Everything You Wanted to Know

questions

 

Updated May 2, 2019

Warning! What follows is not suitable for children or fundamentalist Christians.

If you have not read the serious version of Almost Everything You Wanted to Know About Bruce Gerencser, please read it here.

I have noticed in the search logs that people are looking for information (more likely dirt) on Bruce Gerencser. They are entering search strings such as Bruce Gerencser, Bruce Gerencser sermons, Bruce Gerencser bio, etc. Many times they misspell my name, spelling Gerencser: Gerenscer, Gerenser, or Gerencer.

In order to facilitate their search for the Kim Kardashian lowdown on my life, I thought I would write two posts, a serious one and this one.

Where can I listen to your old sermons?

There are no online sermons of me preaching. For many years, all of my sermons were taped. I am sure there are tapes of my sermons gathering dust in former parishioner’s closets.

All told, I preached over 4,000 sermons.

What is your shoe size?

10EEE.

What clothes do you wear most of the time?

I wear blue jeans and tee shirts 99% of the time.

I still have a tie I bought in 1976. I haven’t worn a tie in almost ten years.

I don’t wear shorts in public and I have not taken my shirt off in public in over 30 years. I know all the babes in Ney are just waiting for me to go strutting down the street with no shirt. I am sure they will think, what a stud. Or maybe they will call 911.

I always wear a hat in public. Usually I wear a Reds or Bengals hat. In the winter, I wear wool fedoras.

What kind of underwear do you wear?

Currently, plaid boxers.

What is your…?

Don’t even ask. I am told that it is big enough. But, the person telling me this has only seen one flesh and blood man naked. Compared to what I have seen, uh, well somewhere on the internet, I doubt I will become a porn star any time soon.

Are you on Social Security?

No. Thanks to listening to well-off, hate-the-government preachers, I opted out of Social Security when I was 24 (seemed like a good, money-saving idea at the time). By the time I realized those preachers were full of shit and opted back in, it was too late. While I cannot draw Social Security Disability, I will be able to draw Social Security based on my secular work in July 2019.

Do you have animals?

Yes, I currently have a dog that somehow stayed behind when my youngest daughter moved out. I also have a cat. Polly tolerates and sometimes loves the animals. Thanks to my mother, I am a hopeless animal lover.

Do you kill spiders?

No.

Never?

Never. It’s the Buddhist in me.

Are you afraid of snakes?

No.

I do wish the snakes that stand in fundamentalist pulpits Sunday after Sunday would climb into a hole never to be seen again. Dare we hope?

What kind of temperament do you have?

Why, just ask my family. I am quiet, meek, passive, and never get angry. Okay, I might be lying just a wee bit.

Back in the real world, I am temperamental and have a wry sense of humor. I can quickly become angry, but my anger rapidly dissipates. I don’t hold grudges and I am quick to forgive.

My humor has gotten more risqué post-Jesus. I blame this on my children.

Do you have any identifying marks?

I am circumcised. That sure as hell had to hurt. I don’t remember it, but it sure left a scar.

I have a scar on my nose from skin cancer surgery, a scar on my left hand from carpal tunnel surgery, and a scar on my hip from cancer surgery.

I have a scar on my leg from being bit by a dog when I was 11.

I have short legs, a long body, and no butt. I have spent most of my life pulling up my pants and tucking in my shirt. I wear suspenders lest locals someday open their newspaper and read Local Atheist Moons Christians at Meijer.

What was your greatest sports achievement?

As a 12-year-old, I won third place in the Deshler Punt, Pass and Kick contest. There were four kids in my age group.

Are you allergic to anything?

Bees and Republicans.

If you had to concoct one meal, what would be in it?

The Whopper from Burger King, French fries from McDonald’s, onion rings from Sonic, washed down with a super-sized Pepsi. And then, for dessert, a banana split from Eric’s Ice Cream.

Man, I wish I could eat this meal right now. Sounds like a dying man’s last wish.

Do you swear?

Hell, no.

Have you ever killed anyone?

Just myself, one fast food and junk food meal at a time.

Have you ever looked at pornography?

Really, you are asking this? I am a guy. Next question.

Have you ever committed adultery?

Yes. Jesus said if I look at a woman in lust I have committed adultery with her in my heart. I must admit I have an adulterous heart. My wife now says we are in an open marriage, so I can look but not touch. Touching will bring the death penalty.

Do you have any irrational fears?

One — flying on an airplane. I did it once and it ain’t happening again, ever! If my brother or sister in Arizona dies before me, they better keep them on ice until I get there. I will be taking the bus or Polly will be driving me. No planes. The good news is that I will likely die before they do, so I don’t have to worry about flying again.

Have you ever committed a crime?

Felony or misdemeanor?

I shoplifted clothing as a teenager, mainly Levi jeans. My Dad thought Rink’s Bargain City, also known as Bargain Shitty, and Twin Fair were fine clothing stores.

Years ago, I stiffed the IRS by not claiming cash gifts from parishioners as income. This is a common practice among clergy.

A teenage friend of mine and I stole his father’s 1955 Chevrolet and turfed a bunch of lawns. We made the newspaper the next day.

As a teenager I pelted cars with apples, water balloons, and snowballs. I now threaten to beat the shit out of kids who do the same to me.

I have had more traffic tickets than I can count, but none since 1985.

In 2014, I found $27 in a school parking lot. I thanked the Sky God for his blessing and put it in my pocket. I did look to see if anyone was nearby to whom the money might belong. My eyesight was pretty bad. After the game, I used the money to buy dinner.

What are your favorite sodas?

Pepsi, Suncrest Cream Soda, Jones Cream Soda, Big Red, and Faygo Rock and Rye.

I refuse to drink diet pop. Diet pop is like taking Vicodin without the Hydrocodone. Why bother?

What are seven things you hate?

Any team from Ann Arbor, Michigan that is playing Ohio State.

The Saint Louis Cardinals.

Fundamentalism, wherever it is found.

Rude, self-absorbed people.

Air conditioning.

Dentists.

Any fart but my own.

What is your favorite practical joke?

I put brown shoe polish on toilet paper and then came out of the bathroom screaming at my kids about who left the shitty toilet paper in the bathroom. Much to their horror, I proceeded to put the toilet paper in my mouth.

Have you ever used illegal drugs?

Never, but I sure would like a joint. I think it would help with my pain. Anyone from Colorado coming this way? Please, don’t send me pot in the mail. Front door deliveries only.

Have you ever had an affair?

Only with God, Jesus, and the church. They sure turned out to be lousy lovers.

What’s the oldest thing in your house?

You mean beside me and Polly?

Old photos of family are the treasure I hold on to. I have the baseball glove I bought at the age of 14 from JC Penny. I also have a knife my Dad gave me 47 years ago.

What are your favorite homemade desserts?

Pumpkin pie.

Cheesecake.

Vanilla pudding with vanilla wafers and meringue on top, but only if it is made exactly like my mom made it. Polly has finally perfected the recipe, so she no longer has to hear me say, “this ain’t like Mom’s.”

Anise cookies.

Oatmeal, raisin, and chocolate chip cookies.

Any cake my mother-in-law-makes.

Oreos — they are homemade, right?

What things do you refuse to get rid of?

Polly.

I’ve had the same metal desk and file cabinet in my office for 33 years. They were made in the 1950s, back when Americans made stuff.

What was the first car you owned?

My first car was a 1960 Mercury Comet. I let an unlicensed friend of mine drive it one day and he lost control of it. The car hit a ditch bank and flipped over several times. He ended up in the back with the seat on top of him and I ended up with my head sticking out of where the windshield used to be. The car was totaled. I paid $200 for the car. To hear my friend tell it, we were going 100 mph when he lost control. The car had a six cylinder 144 CID motor, with a top speed of 68 mph. He was actually doing about 40 mph when he lost control.

What magazines do you read?

I now subscribe to Apple’s $9.99 a month magazine service. I read the magazines on my iPad Pro.

I also read magazines when I use the toilet. If no magazine is available, I read the ingredients on whatever is nearby. Always learning.

If you could sit anywhere with Polly where would it be?

Okay Bruce, they want a romantic answer. The fifty yard line at the Super Bowl is not what they are looking for.

On the banks of the Blanchard River, Riverside Park, Findlay, Ohio.

The eastern shore of Lake Michigan when the sun is setting.

What are your toilet habits?

I put the seat up when I pee and I don’t put it back down — that is IF I make it to the toilet before my bladder screams PEE! I have no ability to keep from urinating. So, when it is time to go, it is really time to go, like n-o-w.

I don’t care which way the toilet paper roll dispenses the paper.

Do you have a reoccurring dream?

Yes, and it involves Pamela Anderson. Enough said.

I hope you have had some fun with this post. I have no doubt this will not satisfy those looking to get some dirt on me or discover who the r-e-a-l Bruce Gerencser is. Who knows, maybe they will find out I am really a cross-dressing, vegan, University of Michigan-loving man. After all, the lies told about a person always make for better news than the truth.

Bruce