Losing my religion

The first week of February marks the last time I attended Sunday service at our church, and although I have had many periods of up-and-down with regard to religion, I am finding myself less and less inclined to participate in anything having to do with it.

My whole life through, Christians have been telling me how to live, how to believe, how to love, how to encounter God. They have also told me on numerous occasions that I’m not doing any of those things correctly. Christians are usually the most vocal group against social justice, equality, gay marriage, science, peace, etc. Anything that pushes humanity along a more gentle pathway almost always seems to meet resistance from those who claim to be followers of Christ. Oh, the irony.

It has gotten to the point where I simply don’t want to be associated with it anymore. Maybe I’ve outgrown it, or maybe I have just hardened my heart over the years. Whatever it is, I can’t deny that I feel outright contempt for most things religious.

I still believe in God. I even believe in the message of Jesus Christ. I just wish modern-day Christians weren’t so concerned with the size of their congregation, the amount of money in the offering plate, and being entertained on Sunday morning. And why does it feel like Christianity has been hijacked by right-wingers who love war, revel in patriotism, and hate their fellow man? Maybe because it has been.

I might feel differently on down the road, but for now, I’m content sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

Imagine no religion

I am not a deeply religious person. I was reared in a home that attempted to be very Christ-centered, but I left the majority of those beliefs behind as I grew into adulthood.

Even though I have been attending church regularly for a few years now, I do not consider myself a person of faith. I don’t even identify as Christian, since I consider the meaning of that word to be Christ-like. I do my best, but I’m far from being anywhere close to the seemingly unattainable character of Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament.

Whenever something comes up the news pertaining to religion – whether it be something as horrifying as Muslims killing one another over cartoons or movies, or something as inane as Chick-fil-A’s donations to organizations fighting against same-sex marriage – I find it embarrassing to even consider myself part of an organized religion.

Although my church is a member of a very progressive denomination, that fact isn’t always evident to outsiders looking in. Someone driving by our church would have no reason to believe it to be any different from the multitude of ultra-conservative churches in the area. Why would a woman or a gay person have any reason to believe that our congregation supports equal rights for both?

During times like these, I wholeheartedly believe that religion is at the root of the world’s problems. Sure, poverty and class warfare play some role, but religion almost always seems to be the catalyst for violent uprisings, terrorist attacks, and various other forms of human rage. Let’s not forget the corruption and sexual perversions that are running rampant through the world’s biggest Christian denomination.

Although certain religions seem more prone to violence than others, the phenomenon certainly isn’t exclusive to any one religion. Christianity still has its fair share of extremists running around calling for the deaths of those considered to be sinful, so to say being a Christian is more peaceful or God-like than any other religion is fruitless.

So, basically, I am embarrassed to be associated with any organized religion. I love my church and many of those in attendance, but it causes me great discomfort to realize that most of the world assumes our congregation is no different than all the others. How can I ridicule other churches for their archaic views when my church is part of the same machine?

Religion isn’t all bad. It helps fill a desperate need that mankind has to be a part of something larger, and provides peace to people in times of suffering. It just seems that far too often, religion is the cause of the suffering.

Many years ago, John Lennon asked us to imagine a world with no religion. I don’t think he was asking people to become athiests; I think he was referring to the way we use religion to divide people and create untold agony. Perhaps he was onto something.

Out of order

mose_gingerich_out_of_order
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CHANNELS/ STICK FIGURE PRODUCTIONS

I recently began watching Amish: Out of Order on the National Geographic Channel. The reality show features Mose Gingerich, an ex-Amish man who is struggling with issues pertaining to faith and family. Because Mose left the faith of his childhood, he is shunned by his family and considered damned for eternity. I can empathize with him on many levels and had a very visceral reaction to the show.

Like Mose, I was brought up in a strict religious home. My family worshiped at a small Pentecostal Holiness church that placed much emphasis on appearance and behavior. Our church leaders were able to pick verses out of the Bible to back up all of the strict rules we lived by. Women were required to have long hair (most wore it up in a bun), long dresses, and no makeup. Both sexes were expected to wear long sleeves and no jewelry… wedding bands included. Our pastor went as far as preaching against women shaving their underarms and legs.

Like the Amish, Holiness people didn’t fit in very well with the outside world. This “outsider” status wasn’t considered a negative attribute, but was actually taught as part of God’s plan for his people. Verses like the following were often used to explain why we were supposed to be different.

“If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” - John 15:19

As I grew older, I began to question many of the things I was being taught. On one hand I was being told the world was bad, while on the other I was hearing how God loved the world so much he sent his only son to die for it.

It didn’t help matters that my sister and I were attending a Baptist school where we were learning things that contradicted what we were hearing at our Pentecostal church four times each week. The differences weren’t huge but large enough to make me realize religion wasn’t so black and white. My Baptist teachers were reading the same verses but coming away with a different meaning. I began to understand reading the Bible and creating a belief system based off of it was completely subject to interpretation.

As I grew into a young man, I parted ways with organized religion – although it wasn’t so much a conscious decision as a slow weaning away. I didn’t feel like there was a place for me anymore in the little concrete block church where I spent countless hours as a child, so I simply quit attending services.

Although pulling away from the church community alienated me from most of my friends and family, I don’t think I was prepared for the rejection I was to experience after coming out as a gay man. While I may not have been shunned to the degree of Mose or other ex-Amish, I have had my share of rejection by members of the faith of my childhood.

I have now been living my life openly for almost 18 years. I have a wonderful partner, and I have been attending a loving and accepting church since 2006. Regardless of how stable and normal I might consider my life to be, I realize most of the people I grew up going to church with believe I am deceived and damned to hell.

Like the Amish, most of my family believes the only possible path to spiritual reparation for me would be returning to the Holiness community. Like Mose, I have no desire to participate in a denomination so encumbered by dogma and tradition and so separatist that they relish in their alienation from the rest of humanity.

It’s that simple

I believe in the Bible and I try to follow the Bible. I know I’m an imperfect person… I’m not making myself an angel because I’m not an angel and I’m not a devil either. I try to be the best I can and I try to do what I think is right. It’s that simple…I don’t just pray at night. I pray at different times during the day. Whenever I see something beautiful, I say, ‘Oh, God, that’s beautiful.’ I say little prayers like that all through the day.

- Michael Jackson

Choosing compassion over condemnation

I have watched with great interest over the past couple of weeks as Whitney Houston went from being perceived as a washed-up addict to a veritable saint in the eyes of the public. As tributes began pouring in from celebrities and fans, many expressed their belief that she was finally at peace in heaven. Family and friends said they knew without a shadow of doubt that she was with Jesus. Where she had been ridiculed only days and hours before, she was now being proclaimed the newest angel in paradise.

We tend to do that when people pass away. It becomes much harder to pass judgement on someone when they are no longer around to defend themselves. Death also reminds us all of our own mortality, and of our desire that other people not be too harsh in their judgment of our lives.

The morning of the day she died, I spent several minutes perusing photographs of her looking rather disheveled as she left a recent event and thought to myself that she probably wouldn’t live long. I was heartbroken when the news came in later that evening.

I have been a fan of Whitney for several years, and although I wouldn’t describe myself as a “fanatic,” I did purchase her albums as they were released (I actually have over 20 compact discs of her music), watched her movies, and always rooted for her to overcome whatever demons she was fighting at any particular time. Even though I liked her a great deal and followed her career, I don’t think I realized just how important her faith was to her until this weekend.

As I watched her funeral on Saturday, Whitney’s personal friends and family members recounted over and over how she prayed constantly, read her Bible, and quoted verses. Her bodyguard said she refused to go anywhere without her tattered Bible, even leaving clothes behind in order to have enough room for it in her suitcase. In a television interview, a minister friend recalled how Whitney recently laid prostrate on the floor as she prayed and spoke in tongues while begging God for deliverance from her addictions. Even the last song she sang publicly just two nights before she died was “Jesus Loves Me.”

On Sunday night, Oprah rebroadcast the interview she had done with Whitney a couple of years ago. Whitney had just revealed her obviously painful battle with drug abuse and the dissolution of her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown when Oprah asked the poignant question “Who do you love?” Without a moment of hesitation, she replied, “The Lord.”

So, what I know now is Whitney Houston had an astonishing love for God. She might not have been living what some would describe as a “Christian lifestyle,” but she certainly didn’t have a problem with faith. She wholeheartedly believed in Jesus, salvation, and the hereafter. Despite many shortcomings in other areas of her life, no one can accuse her of not taking her faith seriously.

As society replaces its condemnation of Whitney with a more compassionate understanding, I wonder why we have to wait until someone dies to show them any mercy and respect. Maybe if we would look a little deeper, beyond the image projected on people by a ruthless and merciless media, we might see how each person we take so much joy in building up and tearing down is still just as human as we are. We all have flaws, we all make poor decisions, and we are all worthy of a little grace and compassion.

If I should die this very day
Don’t cry ’cause on earth we weren’t meant to stay
And no matter what the people say
I’ll be waiting for you after the judgement day

- lyric from “Your Love Is My Love” by Whitney Houston

Gotta have faith

Like most people, I go through ups-and-downs in my spiritual journey. There are times when I am excited about being part of a church family, and there are periods when attending church doesn’t interest me in the least. I am now firmly entrenched in one of those low periods.

The thing is, I have good friends at church who worry when I don’t attend. Although I completely understand their concern, attending church simply doesn’t feel like an authentic expression of faith to me at this time. My lack of faith is so overwhelming and all-consuming that I feel like a total hypocrite when I mouth the prayers or sing along with the hymns.

So, I just don’t go. I sleep in on Sunday mornings and revel in my laziness. I meet my church friends for lunch or dinner on other days of the week, and catch up on church news through word of mouth or bulletins I receive in the mail.

Even though I feel like a big phony when I do occasionally attend services, I still miss it. It is nice to have a church that truly accepts me for who I am, and I know there aren’t many religious organizations in the area who would give me the same amount of respect. That has got to count for something.

As in the past, Honey keeps encouraging me to go. I bring up my lack of faith, and he says God would probably rather have the faithless in church just in case they come across something to believe in.

You can see why we are so perfectly matched.

Through the valley

I have been going through somewhat of a valley spiritually-speaking over the past few months. We have only been to church twice since Honey’s accident, and we are currently trying to decide which direction to take on that front. Being part of a congregation over the past few years has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, but I also enjoy lazy Sunday mornings at home. Even more so since some of our closest friends are no longer attending services.

One thing I’ve learned over the past several weeks is that many of the fellow worshipers I thought were true friends, actually aren’t. No cards, phone calls, emails, text messages, Facebook pokes… nothing. I realize friendship is a two-way street, but a simple “We miss you!” can go a long way toward easing feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Religion has never been an easy thing for me. It often feels like a handicap that must be struggled through in the hopes of attaining some eternal reward. I don’t like the monotony of religious tradition or the arrogance of doctrine. So much of it seems elementary – a jagged little pill I must swallow every week. I’m much more content to figure it out for myself, rather than allowing someone else to tell me which path the journey should take.

I read too much, question too much, and believe too little. I keep hoping a light bulb/aha moment will wash all of my hesitation and fear away, but the older I get, the less likely it seems that such a thing will occur.

For me, God has become a concept; a way to explain how everything my senses reveal came into being. I refuse to deny His/Her existence simply because it might not make logical sense to believe. Nothing really makes sense if you think about it long enough (space, for instance). Religion certainly falls into that category.

I take nothing lightly; in fact, I agonize over these things. It just seems like I keep coming back to the same conclusions time after time, which means that I have to eventually be honest with myself about what I believe – or don’t believe. Unfortunately, those moments of realization usually include a mixture of anxiety and sadness.

This post isn’t really going anywhere, but I just needed to get these thoughts on screen so that they might be a little easier for me to organize. I’ll try to write something a little more coherent next time. ;)