Tag Archives: faith

Isle of Disbelief


islandHave you ever had questions that just bugged you, after reading something, and wanted to ask someone about it? Have you ever known asking those questions was just asking for trouble?- If so, than welcome to The Heresy Zone.

I’ve been mulling this over for a long time. I no longer identify as a Christian, or even a theist, but I find religion and its threads in the social fabric. I am still involved in my church and enjoy singing in a choir. I am on a board for an interfaith group that meets a unique niche in my local community. I have some dear friends who’s religious beliefs, some Christian, some not,  have been quite helpful to me,  as they have demonstrated wisdom, compassion and understanding in ways I couldn’t help but notice and try to emulate  I also have had questions all my life, most of which I’ve had to wait until my 50’s to pull off the shelf and re-examine, or just read something and find myself going, “hmmm.” My questions on faith are of the type that would likely get me kicked out of  Sunday schools, or Bible studies, mainly because I tend to look under the script and notice things people miss…like:

What did King Saul do with all those foreskin David paid him as a bride price for Michal?…and why foreskins?

Or

How did the children of Israel and all their flock not quickly succumb to Dysentery once reaching their first oasis?

Those of course are the sillier questions. It’s the more serious ones that I’ve wondered over that, once addressed, actually guided me away from religious belief rather than closer. I just couldn’t be satisfied with scripted answers or those that seemed to avoid the question all together. The answer, “God works in mysterious ways.” has long seemed to me to be a cop-out.  As questions led me to research history, sociology and the tenets of other faiths, I discovered that I am not the only one who’s wondered, questioned, and been left dissatisfied. That has led me to really want to know how others perceive deity, faith and how we live, especially those of us who have exited theirs.

Unlike many of my atheist friends, I’m not anti-religion seeing how faith can be an apt tool for people to deal with life, and for people to work together to help each other or those in need. Like many of my atheist and theist friends, I also see how faith has too often been used as a tool of terrible pain, destruction and horror. It is in that realm where so many of my questions lie.

I’ve always felt like a religious outsider, even when I was deeply embedded as a member of the religious community. I felt like I didn’t belong, and wondered, for so long why it was so hard to truly fit in. My writings on faith here at It’s a Misfit have helped chronicle my shift in beliefs, as well as my experiences in the Christian faith. Now I’m deciding to push on, and open a new chapter. You will notice a new category of topics from the list, called Isle  of Disbelief. It is there where I will share my questions, silly, philosophical or even angry. I’ve come to believe that questioning things, being skeptical, even dubious is healthy, at least for me. Maybe you’ll join me. If not, I’ve discovered something else. Being a religious outsider isn’t all that bad, after all.

 

My very First Christmas


charlie-brown-christmas-tree_watermarkI remember my very first Christmas. We had a very small table top tree that possessed  a few more needles than the one Charlie Brown had. There was a string of lights and a few ornaments, including a hand made cross  tree topper that was fashioned from two sticks gathered from the front yard. The tree and the trimmings were borrowed, the year 1994, and the guilt I was feeling over that dinky bit of fake pine was nearly palatable.

Its a difficult thing to decide to do something you’ve been told your whole life was wrong, that participating in such a ritual was a sure sign of apostasy and that to do was was to willingly turn your back on God. It’s rather terrifying, wondering if they, the religious leaders you are now ignoring,  were right all along, and everyone else, who is doing just what you are doing, is wrong. But then fear was a huge part of my religious construct.

Most of what I believed and practiced up until that year was because I was terrified of the consequences if I didn’t. I questioned the faith I’d been brought up in all the time. I just never voiced them. Fear kept them on a little shelf that resided only in my mind.

What did I know about Christmas? Oh the usual.

1.Jesus was not born on December 25. That day was a Roman pagan holiday and must be avoided at all costs.

2. Ancient Pagans had Christmas trees. Its right there in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 10:2-4)

3. Wise men, Mistletoe, Christmas trees, presents, Santa Claus, tinsel, carols, etc, are an affront to God and those who participate in those Satanic things will be thrown into the Lake of Fire

4. No true Christian kept such evil holidays, along with any other holiday that may remotely be attached to the traditional Christian calendar.

That naughty little list, along with the other teachings of my old religion held me back, kept me afraid, of God, of religion, of how others perceived me. But despite my spiritual and emotional terror, I have this one fatal flaw, stubborn curiosity. By the time my sad little tree was settled nicely in my living room, I’d spent a year in an ongoing comparative religion experience, splitting time between my old church, and a small Southern Baptist one that I’d been roped into playing piano for. That time helped me walk away from the faith that kept me in terror, and started me on a path that was brand new.

While my new religious path was initially terrifying, my fatal flaw went into overdrive. I began to understand the hows and whys that millions of Christians celebrate Christmas. I began to respect that there is a rich tradition and history to this holiday, and I began to realize that even the non-religious or people of other faiths can find some value in parts of this winter holiday. I also discovered that there are other major holidays that occur during the same period, practiced by people of different faiths, yet that get very little attention, outside those that participate. A comparative religions course I took a few years ago showed me that even though all faiths have their unique aspects, it is in what they have in common, that intrigued me.

Its been 20 years since that first Christmas and I enjoy this time of year, but religion has less and less to do with my personal celebration. I have never been able to go whole hog over it. I’ve tried, but the effort ended up feeling forced. I enjoy some of the holiday music that plays, leaning heavily towards the classics, Handel, Mendelssohn, ancient folk tunes and spirituals. I enjoy the decorations, but keep them fairly low key at my house. I love buying presents, trying to find the right thing for each recipient, but I’ve never been one to spend lavishly, mostly because our budget is small.

Yet my religious past, just doesn’t have me going whole hog over the religious aspects of it. I’ve tried, but just can’t make that leap. I find the story beautiful and endearing, and there is much depth and richness in the lessons of the birth of Christ. But my fatal flaw has me asking questions, that surround the religious tenets that surround this time of year.

But, I don’t have to be afraid anymore about how I celebrate a holiday. I don’t have to fear stepping out of the boxes of religious dogma. I no longer have to be in terror of questioning all things God. I can continue down the path, I embarked upon 20 years ago, at peace with where I am at as a skeptical mystic, who doesn’t quite fit within the boundaries of traditional Christianity. I wish at times, I still had that pitiful little tree. It represents a shift for me, a journey that began, even though has taken me a very long time, to discover that fear makes for a very poor aspect of faith, and is a terrible way to live one’s life.

Drawing Trees


 

decorated christmas tree clip artImagine being a little kid, sitting in class a few days before the Christmas break. The teacher passes out sheets of construction paper and instructs everyone to draw a picture of their favorite thing about Christmas. Now imagine that you have nothing to draw. You have no favorite Christmas anything. You’ve never celebrated Christmas. You, are the sole person in your class, quite possibly in your entire school that does not celebrate Christmas, or any other traditional religious holiday.  You are truly a religious minority.

That is my clear memory of Christmas as a kid, along with having to go to the library during school holiday parties, where I tried to find solace in the books I had all to myself. I would have much preferred eating cake and ice cream and singing Jingle Bells with the other children, but that was strictly forbidden by my father’s faith. It was a truly lonely time in my first few years of grade school, made even lonelier because my mother had passed away shortly after I began first grade.

I grew up in the Armstrong movement. The church founded by a failed advertising salesman took elements from various other denominations, including Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist and some aspects of Old Testament traditions and built a religion around it. It focused largely on end time predictions, strict adherence to church sanctioned rules, and taking great pride in being religious outsiders. Members were told that they were the one true church, the only ones that had a chance to be eternally redeemed by God, protected from God’s wrath when the end times came. They only had to remain diligent in the tenets of the faith, which were demanding. They rejected traditional Christian holidays in favor of a version of Old Testament Jewish ones with some interesting twists. Anyone who observed the traditional holidays, as well as other things deemed by the church to be offenses, was considered apostate and would feel the full brunt of God’s wrath for that sin.

I recently read an article on just this subject by a member of one of the many little groups that splintered off from the church Mr. Armstrong founded, titled Treasure Digest, The One Snowman  . Reading that piece brought back memories of being that little lonely girl, feeling lost in a culture that she was told was evil, being terrified of being found out for wanting some of the joy the other kids, and just being plain old confused by it all.

When I read the article again, I became angry at the tone and the theme of the piece. They acknowledged that their children endure ridicule and loneliness and even shunning for the faith of their parents. But they took that acknowledge as a matter of pride. They wrote:

“While I think we need to give our children credit for what they have endured for our beliefs, I also think there are important lessons that we adults can learn from the children and especially from the example of the one snowman.”

I don’t know if the writer of the piece ever stopped to consider that the reason why their child drew a snowman instead of Santa. They drew a snowman for the same reasons I drew what I did; because they were terrified not to. It wasn’t courage, or obedience or even faith that prompted me to not participate along with the rest of my class. It was plain old fashioned fear. We had a choice, to face the strange looks and whispered gossip from our schoolmates and the lack of understanding of our teachers and friends, or face the lectures and guilt heaped upon us by our parents, no matter how well meaning, and the ever hanging fear of what God would do to us for putting colored balls on a second graders rendering of a pine tree.

I don’t remember what I drew instead of little green pine trees with colored dots and sloppy looking presents underneath those trees, probably just a tree, a plain tree with no embellishments. Despite this negative experience, I eventually found a way to gain something positive out of it. One of the biggest lessons I learned was not to force my religious beliefs onto anyone, or to insist on putting a child in a setting where they feel fearful, anxious or alone because of my religion. I can appreciate more fully what it is like to be a child or even a grownup, who is a recent immigrant, or of another religion, or is just considered odd or different. I know well what it is like to be full of questions and not have an outlet to access the answers I seek. I know what it is like to be lonely, while surrounded by others. It makes me want to try to help keep that from happening to anyone else, even though I strive for the impossible.

I learned that one’s faith is only truly strong when it is willing to undergo scrutiny and to evolve organically shedding, adding, restructuring along the way. I learned that people have many ways of trying to worship God and that being respectful of that beautiful diversity is not dishonorable to my own methods of worship.

To allow our children to learn and find some value in the religious traditions of others is actually a healthy thing. There is less danger of a child “being led astray” and more of an opportunity for a child and for us to see that even though we may believe and do things differently, we aren’t really as different as we assume.

The little girl I used to be is all grown up. I have a pretty little Christmas tree in my home and gifts wrapped for my children and grandchildren. Since I have grown up, I have drawn lots of pictures of Christmas trees, and presents, and even really lousy renditions of Santa and his reindeer.. I sing carols and holiday tunes every year, and find wonder in the birth narrative. For me, I find peace and joy to be found in this season, the sharing with friends and family and the beauty of all those gorgeous decorations. The fear of displeasing God for anything I do, or not do, is long gone. That is what I want everyone to experience, an absence of terror when it comes to considering the divine.

Happy Holidays.

The Meeting


meeting Pastor Hennessy entered the small conference room, his face bearing his famous white toothed smile. Taking his place at the head of the table, he exchanged pleasantries with the others already gathered there. His secretary placed folders in front of each, then exited without a word. As soon as the door closed behind her, Hennessy cleared his voice.

“Shall we begin?” He queried.

Opening the folder in front of himself, Hennessy opened it and picked up a stapled sheaf of papers. “This, gentlemen, is our new mission field.” He then waited a moment while the group opened their folders and examined the contents.

“Its a report of how more and more Americans consider themselves not-religious.” said Cleve Johnson. The head usher, furrowed his already heavily furrowed brow. “How on earth is such terrible news, a mission field?”

“Its opportunity, don’t you see? These are the unchurched, just waiting on us to invite them into the fold and God’s graces.” Hennessy, adjusted his silk tie.

“But, George,” said Mitchell, the finance elder, recognizing what the tie adjustment meant. He wanted to get a word in, before the pastor started sermonizing. “I saw this last week. It says that more people are not interested in religion, any religion.”

“That’s because they’ve been lost. Its up to us to help them find the way.” Hennessy replied. He noticed a hand up, “I know you are new to the ministry team, Patrick, but you don’t have to raise your hand.” He waited while Patrick lowered his hand, “Do you have a question?”

“Actually yes.” Patrick said hesitatingly. The new choir director fidgeted with his folder, still unopened. “Just how, do we propose to do this?

“If you just look at page 12, its all right there.” Said Hennessy, adjusting his tie again.

Patrick quickly flipped to the page in question, glanced at the list presented, then raised his hand again.

“Yes, Patrick. And please stop raising your hand. This is not fifth grade.”

“Sorry,” Patrick quickly lowered his hand. “This list is stuff the church has been doing for decades. Do you think it will work?”

“These are proven methods Patrick. Of course they will work.” Ignoring the once again risen hand of the choir director, Hennessy quickly added, “Now if you all turn to page 27, you will see my proposed list of people to chair the committees, and a list of venues to consider for our inter-church conference.”

“Meaning no disrespect,” Said Mitchell, “but you are putting Bart Zimbrell in charge of the street ministry team?”

“What’s wrong with Zimbrell?” Asked Johnson, who almost always agreed with his pastor.

“We need new blood.” Said Hennessy, “Chase has done ok, but he hasn’t brought us any new converts in six months.”

“But Zimbrell is 90!” Mitchell retorted

“Just what we need, someone with experience.” Hennessy adjusted his tie again.

“Wait a second here. Why am I not on the usher committee for the convention?” Complained Johnson. “I’m always on that committee. You have me on the senior outreach team. I gotta go to smelly nursing homes?

“Now Cleve,” You know that our seniors are an important part of the church.” Hennessy, adjusted his tie. “Besides those old people, have kids and grandkids and nurses, who just may need a church home. You’ll be perfect.”

“I’m in charge of vacation bible school? Yelled Dorsey, one of the deacons. “I hate kids! How in the hell…”

“Watch the language Henry.” Hennessy warned. “Besides, you own four convenience stores. Your ability to reach people for God, by inviting their kids to VBS has amazing potential.”

“Well pick someone else. I don’t want more of those brats climbing all over the pews we spent damned good money on.”

“I’m with Henry.” said Mitchell. “We forked out a fortune for VBS last year, for food, and the bounce house that kept going flat. We had 60 kids, most of them our own, and only the Dawson kids came forward to be baptized. And…” shoving his papers back into his folder. “I have it on good authority that they were bribed to do so.”

“We need to remember our calling, our purpose.” Hennessy said, jerking his tie as close to his neck as he could make it. “We must reach people for God, We must bring them to church, We must …Oh for the love of Pete, Patrick. What is it?”

Patrick lowered his hand again. “Sir, I know I”m new and all, but I just don’t see how VBS, and street ministries, special guest speakers or concerts, or conferences where no one but church people care to attend will have any more success than it already has.” He noticed that everyone was staring at him, at least one in open mouthed shock. Patrick took a breath. “ I don’t think people want to be preached at, I think, and I know its a bit out there, but I think they just want to be loved.”

“Not want to be preached at?” Hennessy said incredulously, “How on earth do you think they will ever hear the gospel?”

The meeting dragged on for another hour as the group argued over the details of their God ordained plans. Patrick didn’t raise his hand anymore.

Why So Angry?


whyWhy so angry, child of God
What has you so irked
At the world, at others, at me
I don’t understand
What has made you that way?

Why derision, beautiful one
Why do those who worship God,
But not like you
Or maybe not at all,
Cause you so much irritation?

Why offended my sister, my brother
When someone sees different
In how to live
In who to love?
How does it bring you intimate impact?

Why the rants, dear friend
The loathing, the hatred,
Why the hopes of death Of destruction
Don’t you know, they’re no threat to you?

Why the fury, sibling of God
Why do you rail at me,
For wanting to know
What’s angered you
Why do these questions infuriate you?

 

My Holiday Love/hate List.


In a week, millions of people around the world will be celebrating Christmas. The traditions will be unique and diverse as each person, each family partakes in this seasonal event. Some will carry on traditions handed down from generation to generation, some will embark on a new way of celebrating the holiday. For some Christmas is a secular event, for others a most holy one, yet most agree that Christmas represents something special.

I grew up not celebrating Christmas. The religion I grew up in, didn’t recognize it as an acceptable Christian holiday. I was an adult with children before I put up my first Christmas tree, a tiny fake one that would have fit well in a retelling of Charlie Brown’s Christmas. It was difficult rethinking all I’d been taught about what was horrible and unholy about Christmas, but over time, this time meant more and more to me. It is now my favorite time of year, as it is for so many others.

There is so much I love about Christmas, and so much I hate. I love carols, listening to children singing, the opening strains of O Holy Night and trying to hit the high notes as I sing along. I hate hearing “Holly Jolly Christmas” before the Halloween candy goes on sale at the local Walmart. I love deciding on what gifts to buy my family. I put a lot of thought into what to get everyone. I hate the annoying ads, the clamoring cry to buy this and that, and while you are at it, that stuff over there, that’s 15% off. Which is why I am so glad I no longer work in an occupation that has any hint of the word “retail” attached. Besides most of my shopping is done by November 1.

I love the liturgy of my church’s worship service, seeing the poinsettias gracing our alter, the time of taking even more time to consider the less fortunate in our community, the time of sharing and reflecting. I hate the stupid fights over manger scenes, whether to call it a holiday or a Christmas tree, the silly discussions over “keep Christ in Christmas”. Just let people keep Christmas, or not, their own way, and stop being so damned pushy about it. K?

I love time with family. To get together with siblings, cousins, children, grandchildren, gathered around a table overladen with food that ruins your diet just looking at the jello…it to me is special, and doesn’t get to happen near enough.  what I hate? So many of us have gone through separations in our families. We’ve moved away, we’ve been deployed,  we’ve had divorces we’ve had deaths. Families experience rifts of all kinds, some of them impossible to repair. Some however, myself and my family included, are fortunate to build anew, to experience the joy of companionship, and home with new members. Others make family from neighbors and friends to help fill in the gaps for those who cannot be there.

I love the spirit of generosity and compassion that surrounds this time of year. So many agencies that help those in need depend on donations from this season to make their budgets for the next year. I hate that the generous spirit doesn’t last. We need to consider the needy, the helpless, the ailing, the forgotten every day of every single year. Their needs do not end on December 26.

I love the message of hope, of peace, of transition, of promise, found in the remarkable story of a young woman granted an amazing task, and the child who grew up to be a revolutionary, standing for the liberation of our hearts, our attitudes our actions and our souls. I hate that people spend what should be a time of joy and celebration in mourning the loss of one dearly loved, or spending the time alone because no one cares about them,  or  in a nursing home wondering if anyone will stop by to see them, or having to spend the holiday in, a battered woman’s shelter, a homeless shelter, a prison or in the streets. My heart breaks for them all, wishing I could do something to ease their pain.

The sage in the book of Proverbs discusses that there’s always a time for those activities which make up life, and constructs it in a poetic contrast. In that list, we can easily find that all those in the list can show up now.  The question is how do we help more find the positives in that list and eliminate the negatives? The possibilities are endless, and the needs are great.

My hope is that Christmas for all of us is a time of joy, of peace, of healing, of family, of renewal. My hope is that each of us looks beyond our little circle and sees others who need some of what we take for granted. My hope is that we extend our efforts, our love, our friendship to more and more members of our community, discovering the neighbor to love. My hope is that such activities don’t cease after the ham is consumed, the tissue paper crumbled and the empty boxes set to the curb, but that we decide to discover that what Christmas can represent is ongoing, that we help close rifts, heal wounds, dry tears, warm hearts, all year long.

Outside the Box: A Faith Journey, Part 2


I sat quietly in the audience as the violins began the opening measure of the of the Christmas themed music. It had been a long while since I had sat as an observer to a clearly classical musical performance, and I realized how much I had missed that kind of exposure. It was also the first time I had attended a worship service in several months.

As the choir added their voices to the small orchestra, I looked around the room at the other congregants. They were a blend of young families, singles and older couples, the latter of which dominated the people present. For some reason, I had a strong feeling that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. For the first time in a very long time, I felt at peace in a worship setting and was a bit surprised by feeling so.

As I mentioned recently, I had found myself at a spiritual crossroads. I had concluded that to remain Christian was the proper religious pathway for me. But I had also concluded that how I’d been going about it needed alteration, or at least, reconsideration of exactly what mattered to me as a person of faith. Where it left me however was adrift, burnt out on religion, yet knowing I needed something to help me rebuild. I had taken some time and began reading the thoughts of others in regards to opinion about faith, the bible and Christianity. I’d done this before, reading the works of people like Billy Graham, Max Lucado, and Joyce Meyers This time I read the writings of more progressive thinkers, who gave completely new perspectives on the subjects that they taught. It was in those authors that I felt more an affinity to.

They were not so concerned with speculations on the future in regards to biblical prophecy, the quest to get more people to become members of the faith or how certain groups or activities were sinful, and why they thought the bible supported that theory. Instead, I saw that the focus was on what Jesus had to say, how His message championed ideals like social justice, peace, and equality amongst people groups. Their topical focus often had the reader challenge long held beliefs, which I found refreshing. It helped me to consider if a concept was a belief that mattered to me as a Christian, if it was beneficial to my growing awareness of where I was heading, Often I found  that a concept was interesting, as how people may look at something, but it didn’t help me do what I thought I should be doing.

What I decided I needed to do was based on what was Jesus’s compressed version of the Ten Commandments.
Love god; love neighbor…profoundly simple, profoundly difficult in practice; profoundly worth every moment.

As I had already concluded that God’s love for me was so huge, that nothing I thought, I said, or did, would reduce that love, I felt that I had to try to at least attempt to try to be loving to others. I quickly saw how difficult that task would be and that my failure rate would be quite high. But knowing that I no longer had to question God’s love, the failure or success rate wouldn’t matter, the attempt would. I would be sharing love because I wanted to, and because I felt that God’s love shouldn’t be contained to just me. It just had to be shared.

Because of that personal epiphany, I decided to chuck anything from my faith that might hinder that oh so impossible task. I found myself growing more what people consider socially liberal, as I felt more and more that caring for the poor, the excluded, the different mattered, that they were as important as anyone. I found that discussions or sermons on topics like prophesy irritated me more and more. Part of that could have been from having it force fed to me in the church I grew up, but I kept feeling that such theology had serious problems, mainly because humanity has been woefully inept at accurately getting what God has up His sleeve based on any scriptural recording.,
.
Trying to get people saved also is not an issue. In reality, it never was. I’d decided long ago that being a Christian had little to do with what church one was a member of, or how many times one found themselves in church. As I examined the concept more, how someone else believed about religion was just not important. Spending a lot of time trying to get someone to change their minds about a religious concept just didn’t seem a good use of my time.

 Whether one made it to heaven or hell, the latter of which, I’ve still not decided is an actual concept or not, was something else I found problems with. If God’s love was larger than I could define, measure or even contain, then why should I worry about how God worked his love with others in my faith of choice or not? I felt it more important to simply be concerned with how I treat people as they live today then fret over a possible afterlife scenario.


Other concepts I deemed of value, or not as I deconstructed everything about what it was I believed. Some things mattered, others did not.  It became more and more obvious that my faith was clearly and purely individual, that it was about God first, how I interacted with others second, how others believed a distant third. I didn’t need to explain myself, accept without question a concept, just because someone said it was valid, worry or fret if someone thought I was wrong, a heretic or apostate. My faith was first and foremost, how I understood God and how I was to navigate life based on that understanding. It, being such an intimate thing, became a bit more difficult to define to others, but it mattered less to do so. Still its worth a shot now and then.

Coming to those conclusions had me want to return to a public worship setting. I wanted to belong to a church group again. This time, I wanted to be sure the place I picked would work on all points. I didn’t expect to end up in a Methodist congregation with a formal that sense of peace, as well as the warm welcome I received from the members. I learned that there was a variety of points of view represented in the congregation, but what mattered was the common goals of focusing on God’s love for all of us and community outreach, a great way to share that love.

Like anyone, my faith is completely unique to me. How I understand all things God, how I take that understanding and use it are mine alone. I find it silly to insist others to line up to my way of faith, just as I think it’s silly to have others insist their way is best. How anyone perceives the divine is unique to them. I find the beauty and value in diversity. I also feel it hinders us, as it is easy to use diversity to divide, discourage and condemn. We all have different approaches, different purposes, different strengths and weaknesses, different experiences, families, histories, cultures, hopes fears. We weren’t intended to be on the same page, but part of the multi-volume set God calls humanity. Unless I’m wrong, I’m guessing that we are God’s favorite reading material. He intended us to be different from one another, because it just makes us that much more fascinating, with greater potential and possibilities.

I feel, quite strongly, that in the future, I’ll be able to look back on my faith journey and see more alterations along the way. Faith to me is a journey, a process of discovery, learning, adjusting, figuring things out, considering a different way of looking at things, all for the purpose of learning about the God who made every bit of that journey possible. I plan on enjoying every minute.