True Christmas

Apparently the word “christmas” is a portmanteau of two words: Christ and mass for “Christ’s mass” or a Catholic church service celebrating the person of Christ, commonly called Jesus. Also, I’ve heard if you rearrange the words in Santa you get Satan, and both are sometimes seen as the enemy of Christ.

This is an essay about the phenomenon of Christmas, as I understand it, and some of the controversies that arise about Christmas every year in American popular culture. If that isn’t your cup of hot chocolate, feel free to stop reading and wait for my next treatise. Otherwise, let’s continue.

I think it is interesting that the color red is associated with Christmas, as it is also associated with the devil, who is depicted in paintings and other representations as wearing a red suit. You know who else wears a red suit? Santa “Satan” Claus. Coincidence? Probably. You see, I doubt anyone was paying close attention to things like that when they were designing Christmas iconography.

Santa, while having roots in Sinterklaas, a Dutch St. Nicholas who put gifts into children’s wooden shoes, and the 280 A.D. St. Nicholas of what is today Turkey, is actually more of a modern creation. The current vision of Santa Claus comes from the 1820’s in the United States when the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published and a popular image of the saint (santa being Spanish for a feminine saint, by the way – as in Santa Fe) was drawn. One hundred years later, in the early 1930’s, the song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was recorded, thus cementing the idea of Santa Claus as we know him in American culture.

What does this have to do with Christianity? Almost nothing, except that the basis of Santa, the St. Nicholases, were Catholic saints who helped poor children have food, clothing, and money during the cold winter months of Europe and West Asia. It certainly has nothing to do with organized Protestant religions. Nowhere in the Bible is such a figure represented, for example, though Christ certainly demands that his followers care for the orphan and the widow on multiple occasions, so the spirit of the saints may be Christian.

I’ve mentioned several times the association between Santa and Satan, which may seem weird given the history of Santa as a saint, but that is because Santa is vilified in certain Christian circles as the enemy of True Christmas. True Christmas, you see, has been and always was, about the birth of Christ, which occurred on, or near about, the 25th of December in a manger in Bethlehem as foretold by the Hebrew prophets. At least, that is the story many cling to. There are other Christian explanations for why we have a Christmas tree, and other common Christmas decor and trappings. (The tree representing the wood of the cross on which Jesus was destined to die to save the world from their sins, for example.)

But scholars put the birth of Christ near enough to September as to render part of that argument moot. So why the December rituals? Pagan winter solstice celebrations surrounding the Germanic/Norse god Odin, the All Father. The Catholic church had a unique way of conquering new geographic areas for religious purposes: they would very cleverly co-opt local deities and festivals, give them Christian names or associate them with Christian saints or events, and call the work of converting the locals complete. After building a few churches and making mass attendance mandatory under threat of punishment, the Catholic church suddenly had hundreds or thousands of new members (and lots more tithes for their coffers). Yule was a Germanic ritual holiday feast that occurred in mid-winter. Odin, the All Father, was lord of the feast. Call Odin “God” and Yuletide “Christmastide” and voila you have new converts and a new Christmas holiday.

Christmas is based on Catholic imperialism and pagan ritual. Jesus wasn’t born anywhere near December. The symbols of Christmas are purloined from local festivals. Where then is True Christmas? It seems that True Christmas is the myth and Santa and Christmas are the real reasons for the season.

With that paragraph I have enraged an entire swath of the Christian population that hold to their dearest of holidays with great reverence. You see, True Christmas, once again, has been and always will be solely about the birth of Christ come to redeem us from our sins and eternal death in hell, according to them. “Merry Christmas” is no mere greeting, it is a holy incantation meant to hallow the season. That is why these Christians are so enraged when someone, or an organization, fails to wish them “Merry Christmas” and instead substitutes “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings”. In fact, the simple act of trying to avoid offense greatly offends them.

America has been and hopefully always will be a pluralistic society. It was founded with the key goal of religious freedom, so that Catholics and Protestants and Methodists and Orthodox (and whoever else) could worship freely. That is what some of the Pilgrims were escaping in Europe after all – religious persecution. Therefore, in today’s America, recognizing that the stranger who orders a coffee in your local Starbucks may be a Christian, or a Wicca, or a Muslim, or a devout Jew and may be celebrating Christmas, the Winter Solstice, Hanukkah, or no holiday at all, some people choose to avoid the scandal of “which greeting is correct for your religion” and instead substitute a generic, secular greeting. Recognizing, quite correctly after all, that Christmas has nothing to do with religion whatsoever, especially in 2015, in fact “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” becomes the appropriate greeting.

Starbucks this year, which has traditionally used a red cup with generic holiday imagery to celebrate the fall and winter holidays, has decided to use no imagery at all and has apparently instructed their employees not to say “Merry Christmas” and has therefore come under fire from Christians who celebrate True Christmas for taking the “Christ out of Christmas” and perpetuating a cultural “War on Christmas”. These are the same Christians that become outraged when a public Nativity scene is removed from public property or when a Christmas tree is called a holiday tree and really the list goes on. They say that maintaining a Christmas without the True Christmas Christ is akin to blasphemy and they don’t care that they share an America with those of many faiths or no faith at all. This is why they also, traditionally, dislike the saintly Saint Nick. In their view, Santa Claus takes away from the central position of the baby Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem.

The reality, as I’ve said, is that America is a secular, pluralistic nation. You are free to create a Christmas holiday that is about the birth of Christ and celebrate it however feels appropriate, but that does not come with an inherent right to force others to celebrate your Christmas. By failing to wish you your preferred greeting, persecution or war is not being levied. This is simply America being America. Furthermore, you can create a Christmas holiday that is about the birth of Christ, but that doesn’t make it historical or Biblical. In fact, the Biblical Jesus, I believe, would have Christians emulate Father Christmas and care for the orphan and the widow and as widely as possible give food, clothing, and money to those less fortunate. That, in my view, is the True Christmas one should fight for, not Christmas iconography on disposable coffee cups or the cashier saying “Merry Christmas”.

With that in mind, I wish you Happy Holidays. Thanks for reading.

Confessions of an Atheist

I would say I am spiritual, but not religious.

I was religious once, and I never will be again. Too much pain and suffering has been caused at the hands of the religious for me to be comfortable identifying with any religious group ever again.

Is there a god? This is a good question which preoccupies many, many people. Even those who say they are religious and that they believe in a god ask themselves this question often. Christians, a group I am most familiar with, call it having faith. You don’t have faith in absolute certainties. Things you know you don’t believe in. There is no evidence for a god. If there were, I would know there was one. There is evidence for gravity, therefore I know gravity exists. There is no evidence for god, therefore I do not know he exists.

In my understanding, this is what makes faith necessary. God cannot be proven, therefore one must believe, through faith, that a god exists.

I am an atheist because I have no proof for a god’s existence. I am not a believer, not because I do not have a capacity for faith, but I lack belief.

Why do I lack belief? I have yet to see a need for a god in my life. A god, commonly stated, is an all powerful supreme being who rules, or who has the capacity to rule, humanity, by fiat of being a god. Many religions of the world believe in one god, some believe in several, a few believe in a pantheon of gods. Christianity, again, a religion I am most familiar with, believes in one God who rules because he created the universe (or multiverse, should it be proven there is more than one universe). This God is supposedly all powerful, all good, and all knowing.

So why do I not exercise my faith and believe in God despite a lack of evidence like many on the planet? Why should I? I have yet to find a compelling argument for why belief is necessary. This is an open question I have. Without proof of existence, why should I have faith?

I once believed in the God of Christianity; I once was devoutly religious. I am no more because the evidence I thought I had for God fell away as inadequate. I made the logical choice to stop believing just like I made the choice to stop believing in other mythical beings and creatures once I grew old and discerning enough to know that they did not exist.

I have no barrier towards belief and faith. I simply see no reason why it is necessary. If it could be proven how and why belief in God, or a god, or many gods, is necessary to my continued existence, I would happily believe.

I’ll put it this way. To date, there is no credible evidence for life beyond our tiny little planet. Intelligence life seems to be reserved to homo sapiens and perhaps a few lower forms of animal life. I choose to believe, despite the lack of evidence, that not only life but intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe (or multiverse). In the same way, I could believe that god, or gods, or God. But I see no reason why I should, why I must.

This is why I am an atheist.

There is something further. Most Christians, and other prominent religions that I am aware of, are not content with mere belief. There is an insistence upon subservience, upon obeisance to the god, or gods, or God. It is unclear to me why I should not only believe that such a deity exists, but that I should indenture myself to lifelong servitude to said deity.

These are the questions that I, as an atheist, have. Why believe and why indenture? I am sincerely open to answers, to discussion on the matter. I admit, that I, as a former Christian, feel that something is missing in my life. Consider it this way: a person who lives in a family of sports fanatics, who does not follow sports, may nevertheless feel a lack of something when they leave the atmosphere of fanaticism. I feel that sort of emptiness.

I am spiritual, but it is a quiet, non-specific sort of spirituality. I am moved by nature, by the beauty of human compassion; I lose myself in the sublime joy of a baseball game, in competition. The written word especially captures my heart, as does the emotion of an actor on a screen, lost in performance. But I don’t have anything more than that, and I can’t help but feel I should. I just don’t know why. I suppose that is a third question I could ask. Why do I feel compelled to have something more to my spirituality? Why do I feel the need to investigate the tenants of ordered religion? I don’t know.

So I ask for help. If you think you have answers, if you think you have understanding, come, let us reason together. I want to know. I want answers to my questions.

Confessions of an Atheist 2

Well, that was interesting.

I wrote earlier about being an atheist and my quest for answers to my questions about god. With few exceptions what I got were not god related answers. What I got were a bunch of people who I know to be Christians denying that they were Christians at all, or more to the point, denying that they were like other Christians.

I mention this because I am about to say that I am not like other atheists.

I am not like other atheists.

Well, I am, but only in two very basic ways: I am human. I don’t believe in god (or gods or God). There is no other defining characteristic of an atheist. In fact, it is a bit of a misnomer to call someone an atheist in the first place. Why does not believing in god carry its own moniker? I have a theory, which I will get to in a second. But first, there is no term for people who disbelieve in unicorns, dragons, Santa Clause or other mythical creatures/beings. Except maybe the term “adult” except even children can disbelieve in these things and frequently do. So why do atheists have their own inclusive group name? I think because of Christians, and the Christianity dominated world. The numbers vary, but the largest religious group on the planet is Christianity. Around 33% of the world is Christian. Another third is Islam and Buddhism combined. (I got my facts from a quick Googling. Don’t crucify me over inaccurate data. I’m not writing a scientific paper here. Close enough for gov’ment I always say.) Everyone else is some smaller religion or no religion at all.  So Christians name us atheists because they have a god dominated world view and define the world in terms of their religion. “Atheist” then is a Christian term, not a secular term. There is no secular term. We simply don’t believe. We call ourselves people.

It amuses me that Christians frequently deny being Christians, or deny being like other Christians. Look, I get it. Even I am lumping Catholics and Protestants together under the moniker “Christian” so I know there are differences there, but they all believe similar things, with only, being honest, minor differences. You believe in one God not named Allah, and his son Jesus Christ, you are a Christian. Pure and simple. Christians have churches and in America, at least, don’t pay taxes as a group. Sunnis and Shi’ites are both still Muslims (though I am not familiar enough with Islam to know the difference). For that matter, Muslims say that Allah is the same god as the Christian god. They also believe in Jesus. Practically speaking, from the “atheist” point of view, 2/3 of the world believes in the same god and that god’s son. To say otherwise is silly because the run of the mill atheist doesn’t bother about trivial doctrinal differences within or between religions. In the same way, each family that does the Santa Clause thing has their own little take on Santa, but they don’t really make a big deal when one kid says something a little different about the jolly old guy. (Or is he an elf? Some versions of the myth say he is. You get my point.)

Me saying I am an atheist is not an attempt to identify with any world group. I’m just a person. But I am helping my Christian friends know how to classify me according to their world view. I could just as well call myself an apostate or a non-believer, but technically, Christians are apostate to the other 2/3 of the planet. Ultimately, I use atheist as a convenient term. But it remains a religious term. I just prefer to call myself a person, really.

Of the people who didn’t immediately clamor “but I am not a Christian like 1/3 of the planet” one was a Christian and one was a fellow person. The Christian actually didn’t try to use any evidence to convince me of anything. She actually agreed with me that faith is believing in God outside of direct evidence, and that she believes because of her personal experiences with God. Fair enough, as personal experience is not evidence. The fellow person and I had a discussion about religion being a culture phenomenon (when you really get down to it) and that science should remain free of any religious bias. Again, fair enough. Religion typically is not provable or disprovable by science. It isn’t even in the same category of thing. There is not way to marry science and religion, really. I appreciated both view points, but probably loved the Christian’s more. It is so refreshing to have a Christian not argue from the Bible or some theological doctrine, but simply to say, “Yes, I believe and that is a personal thing. In order to believe, it must be personal for you as well.”

But I still want to know what compels a Christian, or a Muslim for that matter, to believe in a god at all, and why, if they believe, they feel the need to serve a god. I’m still asking those questions.

Tears of a Lost Sheep

“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” Luke 15, the Bible

“I’m the sheep that got lost, Madre.” – Creasy, Man on Fire

“Then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire, shut up in my bones; I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.” Jeremiah 20:9, the Bible

Sometimes I hate being me. Specifically, I’m a writer. This is not something I chose, that I ever wanted to be, that I ever looked for in my life. I wanted to play baseball. But, I’d have been a writer anyway. I can’t help it. I went to school, I’ve developed and honed my skill at writing. But no matter what I cannot stop. Things burn in my brain, and wind their way round and round my cranium, shouting at me. I can’t quiet them, I can’t shut them up, and I can’t ignore them for long. They must be let out.

So I write.

I say this to apologize for what I am about to say. It isn’t completely fair or nice, but I can no longer hold it in. I do not claim to be right, or without blame, but this is what I cannot keep silent about.

Ever since a madman walked into a school and murdered children, I haven’t been quite right. I tried to make sense of a senseless act. What kind of person, disturbed or otherwise, misconstrues a threat out of something completely harmless? Even animals tend not to attack when they are not threatened, or in need. But madness happens.

And then, as always happens, the murdering psycho is endlessly discussed, and analyzed, and researched. And then, before that is finished, the debate turns, as it should, to us, the survivors, we who stood by, even if we were given no choice, and watched it happen. What could we have done? we ask ourselves. How could we have stopped this? we wonder. Why could we not save our children? These questions burn most intensely in the minds of those who lost their sons, their daughters, their sisters, their brothers, their friends. Even people like me, who live hundreds of miles away and will never meet anyone associated with this tragedy can’t help but ask the questions. After all, my niece attends school. My sister visits movie theaters. My mother walks down the street.

Finally, the discussion gets muted into something political. The rage and the sadness turns societal. We blame, we turn on each other, we shout, and everyone concocts their own foolproof plan and clamors for it to be heard. This is only natural. We want to do something. Every single moment of every single day, people die. Right now, as I type, people are dying. Why don’t I feel outrage, sadness, why don’t I call for something to be done?

First, I accept it as a natural part of life. The human condition: 100% fatal in every single verifiable case. Second, it isn’t being thrust into my face. Most days, I don’t see death. I don’t feel it. I live in the false comfort that it has slunk off into the night and won’t come back. Until it does.

Then I want to beat it back into the night.

All of this is completely natural.

In a way, we are all still dealing with our grief. Our personal grief, our social grief, our national grief, our human grief. Therefore, I don’t condemn. I don’t blame, and I don’t seek to pass judgment. A person in pain, a person in mourning is not accountable for the outpouring of grief. They can’t be. It isn’t like they can stop it. Emotion is real, emotion is overwhelming, and emotion is valid.

What comes after the emotion, the grief, and the time to mourn the dead is the part I want to address. No, the part that I can’t help but address. I wish I could stop typing, but it isn’t that easy. Be angry at me if you must.

I lost my faith. I once was a Christian, walking down the straight and narrow path towards heaven, following in the footsteps of Christ. That is no longer my reality. I don’t necessarily live or act any different than I did, but I am less certain about truths I once held dear. And that is my cross to bear, my own particular road to hell if I am wrong and my childhood was right and if it is about right and wrong and not about something else. So don’t make the mistake of believing that I don’t know what I am saying or that I didn’t once believe as you might right now.

One thing that I began to see, and read, and hear much of in the wake of our dear children’s death was shouting about gun control. I’ve heard it my whole life. Ever since Columbine. That doesn’t surprise or bother me. If someone gets bitten by a dog, it is the dog that suffers, regardless of any circumstance, though that is hardly a fair metaphor. But I don’t hold guns responsible for acts of violence done by them. A gun is just an object in space, without will or desire. A gun never can or will act on its own.

Humans act. All to often: using guns.

And in this debate, I hear people talking about banning guns. About keeping guns. About hammers, cars, baseball bats, and Amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America.

I hear Christians shouting that we should be allowed to “keep and bear arms”. That I can no longer abide. It burns me up and sets my heart on fire. I weep, and I wail, and there is no one to listen.

WHY? Did not Jesus himself, in the face of angry mob which had gathered to murder him, say to the man defending him with a sword “whosoever lives by the sword shall die by the sword?” I have seen, my whole life, a country and a people that lives and dies by the sword. It is, without sarcasm or ridicule, the American Way. A cursory study of the history of America proves that we won our independence with guns, we shred our nation apart with guns, we lost millions in European wars by guns, we stopped Hitler with guns, we fought a pointless and for too long conflict in Vietnam because we could not put our guns aside, and not so very long ago a man with a gun ended the lives of innocent children. We are living and dying by the sword.

To anyone who names themself Christian, and yet calls for continued existence and ownership of guns: how can you? Are we not to live by faith, by love, peaceably with all men? Do you imagine that the only reason Christ refused to fight back in the garden was because he was destined to die? Do you think that if God Himself came to live among us for no particular reason at all, he would have fought for his life?

The cowardly and despicable National Rifle Association has said that “the only thing that stops a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun”. What utter folly. What sheer, willful stupidity. Have we forgotten Tiananmen Square? Have we forgotten that a man, a man whose name we do not even know, stopped a battalion of tanks with nothing but his body. Actually, his hands were full. But not of guns. Of shopping bags. A gun is far from the only thing that will stop a bad man. In fact, in most cases I know of, guns actually prove fairly ineffective at stopping bad things. Guns are nowhere near the best way to stop a bad man.

Love. Understanding. Respect. A determination to stop at nothing to avoid violence. These are the things that will stop bad men. I am not some hippy, nor a person who is naive. I know that not every madman can be reasoned with, can be hugged into inaction, or can be understood. But I do know that trying is the first, best thing.

By clamoring for your right to own a gun, to bear a gun, you are demonstrating a general refusal to believe an alternative exists. “My gun will protect me” is the most foolish lie I’ve ever heard someone believe. “My gun will make us safe” is an insidious lie I am sick of hearing. Our insistence on arming ourselves is what is killing us. Our guns are what are killing us. Guns were designed and ever intended to do one thing and one thing only: kill. Guns were not designed to kill animals. We were killing animals just fine. What we couldn’t do was penetrate armor. Animals don’t wear armor. People do. Wearing armor, generally, gives a person a better chance at surviving combat. A gun makes most armor ineffective. Guns were devised to kill people. That is their only reason for being created and existing.

Christian, how can you say that a gun is something you must be allowed to own, and bear? It may be American, but it is not Christian.

Jesus died to prove that death is the best final resort in the face of unreasonable violence. Love your enemy so completely that you let them kill you if they must.

I’m sorry. I no longer have the proper credentials to say this to many who call themselves Christians and expect to be heard. For the rest us who don’t identify with an ancient Jew, let me say that love is still the best option. You don’t have to believe the Bible to know that, because I know that, and there is much about the Bible I find hard to believe. I am not perfect, I do not have many facts, nor do I have a loud, persuasive voice.

But I do have a voice. And as an American, there is a First Amendment which gives me the right to use my voice. I chose to use my voice in place of a gun. I will always believe that a voice, a word, is the most powerful force in the universe. Does not even the Bible teach us the power of the Word of God? Words can be used to stop a madman from ever getting to the point of violence. Words can be used to stop armies from deploying for battle. Words can stop bad things from happening. And even if that is for one more moment, one more hour, one more day, is that not worth the salvation of blood? How cowardly must you be to weary of talking, of hearing another talk, so that you seek the most effective means of silencing their voice forever? Is not murder the ultimate violation of America’s First Amendment.

Also, seeing as how I am allowed to speak up, and I can’t keep quiet, though I wish desperately I could and avoid the inevitable arguments or counterpoints that may follow, I simply refuse to remain silent. To that end, you are certainly welcome to disagree. I am not hypocritical. You are allowed to speak. I am allowed to think you are wrong. Use your words. As God once said, “come now, let us reason together”.

Let us reason that an object which exists only to kill, unlike a baseball bat, is a bad thing, and the worst option for conflict resolution.

Right now, I feel pain every single time a person who claims to follow the Prince of Peace calls oh so loudly for a weapon of destruction to be theirs. This is part of why I lost my way. I couldn’t reconcile a lifestyle with what I knew to be true, or what an ancient book seemed to say in other parts of it that aren’t so nice. For all I know, Jesus was a rebel against God Himself, a God who calls ancient Israel’s King David, a mass butcherer, a man after his own heart. I didn’t know, I still don’t know, and so I stepped away to be true to what I did know. I lost my own way to better follow my conscience.

I’ve said what I had to say. I apologize it took so long. If you made it this far, thanks for listening.

Perhaps now I can rest. I so long for rest. And Peace.

KOTS: The Weight of Silence

I am going to knock on the sky and listen to the sound. – Kevin Flynn

I grew up praying to god.

My earliest memories were praying over food, thanking god for our meal. I prayed over cheerios, peanut butter and jelly, and green beens. In our house, in the early days, this simple religious practice actually carried real meaning: we were very thankful to have what we had. I don’t remember much of those times, but I know now that my father, a blue collar worker, didn’t always have steady work and a consistent income. I do remember some times when my dad was home during the middle of the week and not understanding why. But I never remember missing a meal, unless I was being punished for being rebellious me. And, because we were good Christians, we bowed our heads and thanked our ever-present benefactor.

I prayed in church, too. Of all the places I have prayed, that is probably the most typical. I said I prayed, but more correctly the pastor prayed what felt to be interminable prayers (to my young hyperactive mind, anyway). I would sit with head bowed, desperately trying to keep my eyes closed (as a good Christian should), and would resist the urge to pick at the padding that was sprouting from the seat cushion. My first church was actually a civic centre down the street, and we did not file into pews, but sat in big purple chairs, most of which were so worn out that they were becoming disemboweled, and bored three year olds such as myself probably helped with the active destruction.

After that, I remember praying with my family, whenever we had family Bible study time, or at church during Sunday school. With my family we would sit around the living room, and my father would read something from the Bible, and sometimes a supplemental book, and afterwards we would either divide up prayer “requests” and pray, or my father would simply pray himself. During Sunday school I remember our teachers asking for prayer requests and, as we racked our brains for things to pray about, she would write on the chalkboard what we shouted out. Then we would bow to pray.

Somewhere during this time, I began to pray on my own. As a Christian kid I was encouraged to read my Bible by myself, “a quiet time with god” it was called, and then afterwards I was supposed to pray.

Prayer is talking to god.

Or at least, it is supposed to be. I have never once, outside of the Bible, heard of anyone ever having god audibly talk back to a single person. He certainly never spoke to me. In my entire human existence, whenever I have spoken to another person, I have almost always received a reply back. Even passing someone in the supermarket, and murmuring an “excuse me” usually warranted a grunt response. God is perhaps the most tight lipped person I have ever met.

This puzzled me even as a small boy picking stuffing out of my chair. Why did god never speak to me? Later I was taught that god was definitely speaking to me: “through” the Bible. In reading those hallowed words I was hearing the words of god to me. That was fine for a little kid, and because this whole Bible and Christian thing was so new to me, it worked, because I hadn’t read much of the Bible yet before and there were exciting stories to be distracted by. But, as I got older, and read more (and most of it from the library, not the Bible) I realized that the concept of god talking to me through the Bible was a poor method of communication. For one thing, god said the same thing to everyone and what he said never changed, and was never supposed to. For another, he always spoke to people who lived two thousand years ago, or even older folks, and he tended to speak in metaphor and stories about giants and lions and kings. He never once had anything to say to me as a third brother who only had the black lab to play with most of the day and parents who seemed to fight about everything. He never once said anything to me when my heart ached, or my temper flared, or when I had a really good day. My parents would point me to the Bible. Sad? read a psalm or two. Angry? read some psalms or something. Happy? read some psalms. I never received one unique word from god. I never heard him speak my name, and talk to me.

I asked god for things, I begged him for things, I thanked him for what I had, material and immaterial. I talked to him. I told him how cool he was. All these things I was taught I was supposed to do, regularly, and the more insistently, the better. “The fervent prayer of the righteous man avails much” I was told time and time again when, in despair or confusion or frustration, I went to my mother to ask why I never seemed to hear from god.

Of course, Christians believe that god does answer prayer, just not in words. He performs miracles. He grants requests. He sends good feelings. Theologically there are three answers to prayer (I was taught): yes, no, wait. Yes is for every prayer request that you utter that has a definite object that comes to pass. My grandmother is sick. I pray about it. She gets better. Yes from god. No is the opposite, naturally. My grandfather is sick. I pray about it. He dies. No from god. Wait is for every prayer request that nothing seems to happen about, one way or the other. I need a job. I pray about it. I hear nothing from any job application I ever fill out and when I call no one seems to remember my name. Somehow this doesn’t mean no, but wait, keep praying, it will eventually come.

But I have problems with all of this. First, I could never, ever find a single answer to prayer that I could not logically reason would have happened anyway. I saw no direct miracles. I heard of them. I believed that they could happen. Logically, it even made sense: I was told that god was all-powerful, so a being that is infinite in his ability to influence the universe can do what humans consider to be miracles, I just never saw any. Second, I could not reconcile a need to pray with another of god’s attributes: god is supposed to be all-knowing. So, why do I need to ask him, or tell him, anything? He already knows, is aware, and if he is good and all that, working towards the answer. The Bible even says that god knows what we pray before the words are formed. So, what was the point again? Ostensibly, my own growth, in discipline, to be humble before my master and show that I was leaning on his understanding for my life, or was aware of how awesome he really is. Sure. But to me, that makes god a massive egotist and a jerk. If someone does me wrong, I want them to be humble about it and apologize, but I could never stand people who fawned before me to get something. Just ask, man. I’m happy to help, and really, the only reason I need you to ask is because I don’t know you need something. I, at least, am not all knowing.

Do I sound arrogant, or unwilling to be humble? Well, I am now, but I remember countless times of pressing myself into my bedroom carpet, or onto my bed, face down spread eagle – “prostrate before god” begging and crying and trying as hard as I ever knew how to be humble, and contrite, and properly presented before the sovereign god. I cried, I was quiet, I shouted, I cursed, I was controlled, I repented – literally everything I was ever taught I was supposed to be, or do, or say: I was, did, or said. “The fervent prayer of a righteous man…” Maybe I was never righteous enough, but then, god was supposed to meet me where I was, he was supposed to make me clean, he was supposed to make me righteous, he was supposed to be big enough to handle a little tarnish, because, after all, who is perfectly clean? All of this I was taught time and time again.

But beyond all that, any answer to prayer one “receives” is rationalizable. My grandfather dies. God said no to healing. Or, god said yes to ending his pain. Hitler survives World War I, and at least one assassination attempt. God said no to averting millions of deaths and horrible holocaust. Or, god said yes to Corrie ten Boom’s personal growth. Now, if you don’t know who Corrie ten Boom is, go read her story, and I don’t mean to diminish the strength of an extraordinary person who saw extreme evil up close, but my point is that god’s answers to prayer are subjective, and open to any interpretation one wishes to ascribe to them. “Ask and ye shall receive” is a popular verse, but of course it is taken out of context and doesn’t mean what most Christians most of the time think it means: god will give you what you want. You have to ask for the right things, in the right way, with the right amount of humility, without the wrong amount of sin in your heart, and so on. The small print on that verse goes longer than most cell phone contracts and most celebrity pre-nuptial agreements. God will never, ever give you a Ferrari. Ever.

Back to a personal conversation with someone I was told was a father, a friend who sticks closer than a brother, a lover, and a god with whom I was supposed to cultivate a personal relationship: he doesn’t do that anymore. In the Bible god speaks to people all the time. But that was before most of the Bible was written. Now that it is written, god thinks that is sufficient, or so I had been taught. Wonderful. Can I live in the time of Abraham, please? I really didn’t ever want anything from god. I just wanted to talk to him. To have a talk with the one person I was told comprehended me completely, who understood every single one of my pains. But god doesn’t do that. I have two options: I can read a psalm, or I can talk to someone who hasn’t got a clue, or is often the cause of my pain. Terrific.

This is part of why I have renounced my Christian faith, and have turned my back on what I have believed my entire life.
All I wanted was one, single word. Am I asking too much from an all powerful, all knowing, all loving deity?

I grew up praying to god. All I ever got back was silence. I’m done.

Knocking On the Sky

I really like the movie TRON: Legacy. My favorite line from that film was Kevin Flynn’s mantra: “I’m going to knock on the sky and listen to the sound.” I love the poetry of the line: the imagery, the emotion, the zen. I have adopted that mantra for myself.

It reminds me of my father’s conversion to Christianity in 1978. He was 18 and filled with despair at life. He wondered if all he experienced was all that life had to offer. In desperation, he wandered outside and gazed up at the stars. Being a ardent fan of science fiction, his mind was filled of fanciful tales of aliens, spaceships, and worlds beyond the small confines of earth. Not really expecting an answer he spoke to the black: “If you are out there, come get me, because whatever you have has got to be better than this.” It was not much later that a casual friend invited him to church and my father, finding value in what was said there, became a Christian.

I have heard this story many times throughout my life. I’ve lived all my life, unlike my father, in a home full of committed Christians. In particular, we were Baptists, which, if you know anything about Christian sects, is a fairly fundamental, conservative brand of the Christian religion. I grew up being taught everything there is to know about being a Christian, going to church at least three times a week, and I thought of myself as a committed Christian. I talked like one, tried desperately to act like one, and was ready to convert the world. But as I grew older, I started to question, to reason, to wonder. Now, as a young man myself, I reflect back on my life and I no longer call myself Christian. I no longer believe what I used to, or think like I used to. I don’t go to church, and I don’t read the Bible.

Anyone who has lived free of any religious entanglements might not really understand what I mean, and might have radically different thoughts about the nature of religion. I follow several admitted atheists on Twitter, and I routinely read disparaging comments they make about those who choose a religious path. At this point I am not an atheist, but having been a Christian myself, and being surrounded by a family full of them still, I know that Christians are not always as they appear, or are portrayed, and even general attacks on them is hurtful to me. Religious bigotry is no more right than racial or sexual or economical or political bigotry. Real people live everywhere, and some of them believe in one god, some of them believe in two, some of them believe in many, and some believe that the idea of god is absurd: but none should be mocked for their beliefs.

All my life I have let my spiritual beliefs be dictated by those around me, those I perceived as having authority over me, and those I respected and looked up to. Such a life has led me to live at odds with myself. Always I battled against my innate beliefs, my natural inclinations, and my thoughts. I was forced to reject or ignore what I felt in favor of what I was told was right. Even though I have been to college, graduated, and got married to the love of my life, still I found myself quieting my doubts and disbeliefs for the sake of those around me.

I can no longer do that. I can no longer keep quiet about what I truly feel. I can no longer let those whom I love and respect dictate what I believe, even passively. I must discover such things for myself. I do this as gently and as quietly as possible because I do not wish to upset or concern those who love me. I am unable to be callous and uncaring. Many care deeply about my well being and the state of my soul, and are compelled to do so because of their love for me and their sincere beliefs, and I will not begrudge them that.

As Shepherd Book says in the science fiction film Serenity, “I don’t care what you believe: just believe!” Book is a holy man, a part of a religious order traveling with a brigand Captain. Captain Reynolds used to believe in god, but an unjust, brutal war burned the belief out of him. As a result of believing in nothing, Reynolds was unfocused and haunted. Book didn’t care if Reynolds believed in his particular religion, but he knew that some sort of belief was essential to the human life.

Atheist or not, there is no denying that part of the human condition is a need to believe. A cause, a god, a purpose, a goal, a mantra: all people believe in something. The business man believes in business. The politician believes in social service. The soldier believes in battle. The mother believes in nurturing. The Christian believes in god. The writer believes in words. All of this is messy, blended, confused, and interwoven. There are no clear cut definitions. We are all of us searching and learning and assimilating and growing and every day our beliefs are reinforced, either negatively or positively or neutrally. It is human.

So, because I am especially confused and thoughtful and searching for some clarity in my spiritual life, I am going to knock on the sky and listen to the sound and find something to believe. I am doing this formally in my blog and publicly in my blog for two reasons: first, I find it very hard to write unless I have the illusion that someone out there is reading what I write, and secondly, I hope that something in my struggle and my process of working through what I believe can help someone out there somehow. Perhaps an atheist will realize that Christians are not self-deluded idiots willfully believing in what they know to be a fanciful and absurd make believe world, or perhaps some Christians will realize that it is ok to doubt, to question, and to think deeply about what they believe, or perhaps someone living somewhere in between the two will read one man’s exploration of belief.

Don’t mistake me: I don’t have any answers, but I do have questions. Back when I was learning ancient Hebrew in an effort to understand the Bible better, my professor told me that it was ok to live in the questions. So here I am, Brian: I am living in the questions, and they are many.

the Slave

the slave

shadows slant as the sun
arcs across the prison walls
he walks his paces
sinking to his cot and rising again
he pounds the iron walls in frustration
days come and go
without count and number
how long has it been?
will deliverance….?
falling into the corner
he sobs
running out of tears
his crime, his punishment
the love he showed
and the kindness given
for this they beat and mock
he waits in the dungeon
locked in a foreign land across the sands
by all but his God
but still this man
the Hebrew
footsteps come

I wrote this poem some time ago about the Biblical character of Joseph. This poem takes place in the middle his story, while wrongfully imprisoned on a charge of rape. Go read the story in Genesis 37 and the surrounding chapters. It is an interesting story.