From the heart

I went to church today. No, I am not a Christian—I don’t even have an unreservedly high opinion of Jesus—but I enjoy studying religion. I also enjoy being in groups in which people speak from their hearts. So, I go to church sometimes, or at least to Sunday School. If a church has two services and Sunday School during each of them, I go to Sunday School twice and skip church. In Sunday School, I learn; in Sunday School, I contribute; in Sunday School, I hear other people’s stories; in church I am just another member of an audience that is listening to a speech, and I am probably bored.

Joanne is 75 and goes to First Christian. I met her two weeks ago, and right away she loaned me three books. People who loan out books without even knowing where to go look for them are different cats than I, and I love them for that difference. I also love Joanne for other reasons. I love her because she is impish, sprightly, speaks her mind, punches the preacher on the shoulder when they disagree, has a sense of humor that goes right over most people’s heads, and most of all, because Joanne loves me.

Today’s lesson was from the Psalms. I’ve read that there are monks all over the world who get out of bed every morning at two a.m. and stand on marble floors in unheated chapels just to chant from the Psalms, but I don’t know why. Granted, it is a book of praise, but much of that praise was a thinly veiled attempt to persuade God to grant the speaker health, wealth, and happiness while annihilating his enemies; and the praise was interspersed with warnings that God would look awfully bad if he didn’t do these things. Today’s text was from Psalms 19:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God… Day and night, they keep on telling about God. Without a sound or a word, silent in the skies, their message reaches out to all the world. The sun…moves across the skies as radiant as a bridegroom going to his wedding, or as joyous as an athlete looking forward to a race. The sun crosses the heavens from end to end, and nothing can hide from his heat.”

Parts of the Bible, I abhor; other parts touch me down deep. Even when I don’t believe the Bible’s words, I cannot escape its power.

Peggy grew up much as I did. We both went to fundamentalist churches three times a week, only it was her parents who took her, while it was I who took me. The day she left home was the day she left church. I’ve never left. For years I tried, but I always went back, so I finally stopped fighting it. When I’m in the mood to go, I go; when I’m in the mood to stay home, I stay home. Mostly I stay home, but when I do go, I take my heart with me, sometimes to one kind of church, sometimes to another. My only requirement is that people feel free to speak openly. The participants in a recent class were asked to summarize what they thought about the Bible in one sentence, and one woman said, “The Bible is bullshit.” I thought it an odd statement, standing alone as it did, but I liked the fact that no one blanched.

During our study today, Joanne talked about how, years earlier, she came home from a wedding to find that her husband had packed up half of everything they owned and left. She didn’t know what else to do, so she started getting up early each day and reading from the Psalms. The ancient writer seemed to be expressing the misery that she felt in her own heart. Morning after morning, she would read and cry until, after many months, she was all cried out. I pictured Joanne, alone in the wee hours in her half empty house, crying, and I started to cry. Wanting to hide my tears, I searched the Bible in my lap for verses that might help me understand what Joanne had found that comforted her.

“In my distress, I screamed for the Lord…and he heard me…
The Lord is my fort where I can enter and be safe…
The Lord is my rugged mountain where I can hide…
The Lord is my rock where no one can reach me…
The Lord is my tower of safety…
The Lord is like the strong horn of a mighty fighting bull…
The Lord gives me the surefootedness of a mountain goat…
The Lord leads me along the tops of cliffs…
How I love Him!”

The second class today only had eleven people and started with a check-in. Martin, who had been in the Bataan Death March said that last week, for the first time, he had been able to bring himself to hug a Japanese. I thought of how that must have felt to him after 65 years of suffering, and I started crying again. The only other visitor was a woman who was seated beside me, and she too started crying, noticeably so. Someone asked her if there was anything we could do for her, and she said that her marriage had just ended, and that she felt as if her world was falling apart. Two more people now had tears in their eyes.

When the class ended, everyone held hands in a circle. Someone thanked God that I had come. Someone else asked God to heal my shoulders. I knew that both classes had been more meaningful because I was there, and that felt really good.

Part 2

I grew up in the fundamentalist Church of Christ. When I was twenty (I'm going to be rounding off a few numbers), I joined the Episcopal Church. A few years later, I joined American Atheists, wrote articles for their magazine, and was named non-resident editor. When I was forty, I became a Unitarian. When I was fifty, a Catholic. When I left the Catholic Church, I saw that my relationship to churches was as much of a joke as Elizabeth Taylor’s relationship to marriage, and I vowed to stop pretending that I had it in me to be faithful. I had imagined that the simple act of joining would open me to some insight or experience that I couldn’t otherwise obtain, but it never did.

The advantage of growing up in the Church of Christ is that I learned far more about the Bible than most churchgoers. In a recent class at First Christian, everyone was given five obscure stories and asked which ones were from the Bible. I was the only one of thirty people to get them all right. The Church of Christ didn’t use literature about the Bible: all we studied was the Bible. Kids were drilled on it. We would work our way from the front to the back, and then start over again, year in and year out. It didn’t hurt any that I also studied the Bible in college. I haven’t looked at it much in decades, yet I learned it so well that I could pass for a clergyman, which is what everyone expected me to become.

I can only attend very liberal churches. Fundamentalist Christians aren’t free to express doubts in church just as fundamentalist atheists aren’t free to express doubts in their organizations. People who belong to liberal churches are all over the board regarding belief so the concept of heresy is nonexistent.

I washed out of my first Catholic confirmation class because the priest didn’t welcome my questions. I went across town to a church that had a liberal priest, and I did okay there except for my relationship with the sponsor who was assigned to me. He quickly decided that I had no business being a Catholic, but he didn’t stand in my way. In fact, he did everything I could have expected except to put his heart into our time together.

I had wanted this most ancient of churches to show me a side of Christianity that I had overlooked, and I had wanted it to accept me, but I saw nothing new, and my acceptance depended upon how well I kept my mouth shut. After my confirmation, I left the Catholic Church.

Most churches are like political parties in that you only belong if you believe the same things that everyone else believes. I can see the sense in this, but it contradicts any promise of inclusivity. Because they agree among themselves, church people have no idea how exclusive they appear to someone like myself.

I am a pantheist. The reason a lot of people object to pantheism is that pantheists don’t believe that the universe contains any more or any less that what atheists believe it contains; pantheists just call the universe God whereas atheists simply call it the universe. The difference, for me, is a matter of reverence. I find within myself an implacable impulse to worship, and this impulse makes me constitutionally unable to be an atheist. Yet, most versions of theism leave me cold. Theists typically believe that God hears prayers, performs miracles, provides guidance, and cares about justice. These are comforting ways to look at the world, but I see no reason to think they are true. I am nonplussed as to how anyone can think they are true. Yet, most theists are no better able to doubt than I am to believe.

The books that Joanne loaned me were from the Cotton Patch Version of the Scriptures. It is a serious translation from the original languages, and was made by Vernon Jordan in the 1960s. The thing that Jordan did differently in his translation was to use Southern U.S. vernacular, and to substitute Southern locations and groups for Biblical ones. For example, in the Cotton Patch version, Jesus preferred the company of bootleggers and black prostitutes to that of the white elders at First Church; Pilate was the governor of Georgia; and Jesus was “lynched” in Atlanta.

I was a teenager in the South during the ‘60s. I watched crosses burn in the yards of “troublemakers,” and I saw groups of men standing guard in the doorway of my church “to keep the niggers out.” Had some white preacher called the church elders “white-washed tombs,” and said that he preferred the company of Yankees and whores to that of “Good Christian White People,” his life most certainly would have been in danger. Just as the Jews of Christ’s time believed that Gentiles were unclean, I grew up believing that sinners and black people (but especially black people) were inherently stupid, filthy, immoral, and germy. I sanitized the sinners of the Bible while standing in self-righteous condemnation over the ones in my own neighborhood. I was a Pharisee, and I didn’t even know it.

Something else struck me about Jordan’s translation. In fact, it figuratively knocked me to the floor. I am speaking of the difference between Jesus and Paul. If Jesus can be thought of as an itinerant hippie who wore tie-dye and spoke of love; Paul can be considered an IBM executive in a white shirt and black tie. Jesus was directly accessible to his followers; Paul erected a hierarchy that still stands between Jesus and his followers. The church might have died without his organizational skills, yet much was lost because of them. Thomas Jefferson made his own New Testament by throwing out everything that Jesus didn’t personally do or say, and I can see the merit in that.


Me said...

"Paul erected a hierarchy that still stands between Jesus and his followers"

Just curious. Could you clarify here as I struggle in understanding what you mean here. Are you talking about the Pauline spirituality or the teachings contained in the Pauline epistles on faith and such? If so, then that makes sense. Not to say that I would agree, but can at least understand to some extent.

Reuben said...

From one stranger to another, I find myself endlessly interested in your posts, and this one is no exception.

Anonymous said...

Intersting. There are as many stories about the church as there are congregants! Each persons relationship to the church is different and personal. Yet for most of us, the common denominator seems to be that it is a place where, for whatever reasons, we seek refuge.
Lots of food for thought in this one.

Natalie said...

That was a beautiful post, thanks for sharing your special experiences with Joanne and the gang.
I think I fall in to the same category as yourself. I enjoy church when I can, and don't go when I can't.I definitely believe there is something 'out there' but I don't think it is an old guy sitting on a cloud.xx

Snowbrush said...

Bill, Paul came from a highly regimented, black-or-white background, and my impression is that he tried to reproduce that in the rapidly growing church. I can see the last 2,000 years of church structure starting with him rather than with Jesus--or Peter. Does that make sense?

Thanks Reuben. Do you have any impression regarding WHICH of us is stranger?

Audrey, refuge is the right word, at least for me.

Natalie, you do, however, believe in a spirit world and in a universe that is basically benevolent, and this is where you and I differ. Is this not correct?

Unknown said...

I agree with Reuben and will declare myself the strangest of us.

You're going to be fine Snow, hang in there.

Joe Todd said...

John Calvin is Turning 500!
July 10th for what it's worth

Reasons said...

"Most churches are like political parties in that you only belong if you believe the same things that everyone else believes." This has always been my problem and especially with the Catholic church that doesn't even recognise my 20 year marraige (I'm Church of England and hubby's Catholic. I think that's why so many people opt out, never having had the chance to form a true, informed opinion about so many aspects of religion - myself included. Joanne sounds great, I think you should persuade her to start a blog!

Snowbrush said...

Joe, my congratulations to Calvin. I suppose he wasn't the first to preach predestination, but he is certainly the best known.

I don't know if Joanne is online. I do know she's swamped with volunteer activities. I saw her last night with a little green derby and a green lai (sp?). She looked awfully cute.

"...many people opt out, never having had the chance to form a true, informed opinion about so many aspects of religion."

Yes, and what might they think if they read the following:

"When two men are fighting and the wife of one of them intervenes to drag her husband clear of his opponent, if she puts out her hand and catches hold of the man by the genitals, you must cut off her hand and show her no mercy." Deuteronomy 28: 11-12.

You've just got to wonder how often this was a problem. The Mosaic law contain scores of pages, not hundreds or thousands, yet it contains some of things that's it hard to imagine happening much if ever.

In another place, it says that if a soldier has a wet-dream that he has to leave camp until sunset the next day. Then there is the law about having your children stoned if they're disobedient; men taking their brother's widows for their own wives (and what is to be done to them if they refuse). Deuteronomy is really quite a read.

Natalie said...

Not always,Snow.
I had a severe crisis of faith some years ago, which almost cost me my life.
In truth, I just don't know what to believe, but in order to keep going for my kids, I choose to believe there is benevolence.

Unknown said...

i beleive but find it hard to pin down exactly what.
i beleive in cycles, nature and that energies effect different people in different ways.
i belive in personal power to create change, that we are born with a plan and that faith and gratitude are the keys to happiness.
it works for me
it just does xx

Renee said...

Excellent. Absolutely excellent.

You are a wonderful writer, your words flow effortlessly.

That patch work book is that supposed to be a joke or a legitimate version of the bible?

We are on the same page, you and I in many ways. If you are up for it check out a blog post I did on March 3rd this year. 'God Versus His Representatives.'

Let me know what you think.

Renee xoxoxo

Snowbrush said...

Renee, Yes, it is a serious translation that was made by Vernon Jordan, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, from the original language (Aramaic, I think it was). Vernon Jordan founded an interracial, cooperative, farming community in Georgia, USA, during the 1960s. They endured years of furious persecution including being shot at.

I will read your post.

Renee said...

Thanks for your views.

I don't at all think that you never listened or doubted that you tried to hear his voice. Not even for a moment do I doubt it.

More important to me however is that you heard Joanne's voice and you heard the lady whose husband was leaving her and that you helped to comfort her.

That is the only thing that matters to me.

Cheers to keeping it real.

Renee xoxoxo

Snowbrush said...

Well, there you go. That's kind of my opinion about it--God is in all things. The trouble is that this means he is in a lot of really bad things too.

MarionL said...

Now you've gone and done it... I've been on a self-imposed diet and NOW I have GOT to have these Cotton Patch translations. I'm appalled that I haven't heard of them until now! Better late than never, I guess. What a wonderful, uplifting, healing and positive post. Makes me almost want to head back to the Pentecostal church so I can jump a few pews and do some of those fun little dances we used to do.

I was born into the Cat'lick religion and then went to an Independent church as a child (as I posted a while back on my blog, whichever church offered the most candy---my sisters and I attended on Sunday mornings so my mother could sleep---she was a bartender), also went to the Baptist, Methodist, Assembly of God, Church of Christ, Pentecostal, Latter Day Saints and the---did I say Methodist? It didn't hurt me at all. In fact, some of my best memories are from attending a little country church where most of the members were "old". (I redefine what "old" is the older I get. LOL!) Your post made me nostalgic for the people and for reading the Psalms, my favorite book of the Bible. I have about 15 translations and now I'm headed to buy more. (I have no less than 15 translation of 'The Tao' also...must be a magic number...)

One can never have too many books, especially THE Book, I always say. Thank you for sharing your heart....Blessings---

Unknown said...

i can spell 'believe'by the way. groan.............its the keyboard !!!!!

Snowbrush said...

Marion, I too love books, but at sixty, I'm finding that the print in a lot of mine is just too darn little to read comfortably. Funny how I NEVER thought of such an eventuality when I bought them.

Rob-bear said...

Snowbrush, I appreciate this gutsy post.

I'm a little puzzled about why you find the study of religion interesting, if it had no relation to who/what you are as a human being. But maybe I'm missing something here.

Being a Celt by temperament, I recall the old Celtic notion of the two books of revelation -- the big book (the Universe, Creation) and the small book (the Bible). the Celts thought of God as being alive in all things. I believe the term is "panentheism."

I don't believe the universe is benevolent. I believe that it just is. Nature can be beautiful, and also "red in tooth and claw." People can be wonderful; people can be terrible. (i am where I am today because of some horrific dealings with terrible people in a church.)

I've been familiar with Clarence Jordan and his work since the 1960s. Great stuff! I have my own notes about the Bible on my "Desert Epiphanies" blog. ( context.html)

Snowbrush said...

"I'm a little puzzled about why you find the study of religion interesting."

It's a deeper question than I can fully answer. Early religious training, temperament, a desire for greater guidance than my equals (i.e. other people) can provide.

"...the old Celtic notion of the two books of revelation -- the big book (the Universe, Creation) and the small book (the Bible)."

I wonder what the small book was prior to the Bibl, if there was one? Masonry (I am a Mason) speaks of lesser lights and greater lights, lesser lights being real lights and greater lights being the Bible or some other supposedly holy book.

"I don't believe the universe is benevolent."

I agree.

I will say hi when I visit your epiphanies site. You have read the writings of the early desert fathers, no doubt.

Snowbrush said...

P.S. The page link didn't work, although I reached the blog itself. context.html

Rob-bear said...

Sorry to be so slow in responding to your comment. I have some fairly significant health issues, and they've been dragging me down recently.

I'm honestly not sure where to begin in replying to your very extensive comment. I understand something of what you've been through -- emphasis on the word "something."

The one thing I might suggest is in an old post of mine. context.html You may have already discovered that.

I wish you peace and joy.

Snowbrush said...

Rob-bear, I am very sorry that you've been ill, and I hope you are bushy-tailed real soon. I still can't get that link to work. Maybe if you just give me the publication date, I can run it down from there.

Rob-bear said...

Right: Technology is amazing when it works, and utterly horrid when it doesn't.

The blog link again:

The story link again:

If neither of those work, send me you e-mail address, and I’ll e-mail my post to you.

C Woods said...

As I read this post, at nearly every paragraph, I thought of something to comment on, but decided to use one of the last thoughts you expressed:
You said, "I grew up believing that sinners and black people,,,, were inherently stupid, filthy, immoral, and germy."

This seems to be a universal response to other cultures or races. In "Gold Mountain" a woman traces her Chinese family from the time her great-great grandfather became a herbalist for Chinese railroad workers, when the Chinese didn't trust western medicine and thought white men were dirty. Meanwhile, the Chinese were considered by the whites as unclean. In Henry Louis Gates' memoir "Colored People" his mother thought whites were dirty, whereas whites thought blacks were dirty. A few years ago at work a friend and I were discussing the Iraq war over lunch (we were against it) when a coworker at another table piped up to tell us that the Iraqi people were such filthy scum that they actually ate excrement. She was dead serious. Some Arabs probably say the same about us. These stereotypical ideas are born from ignorance, fear, and hate and seem to be universal.

I still don't get your interest in Sunday school. I read about religion and non-religion all the time, but I never have the desire to go to Sunday school. Maybe there is a fear that if I expressed my true beliefs there( or rather lack thereof) I might be stoned. Those religious types in the Bible were ready to stone anyone who didn't agree with them, on God's orders, of course..

Snowbrush said...

"I still don't get your interest in Sunday school."

I'm honored by your interest. You are one of only two people who have gone through the old tomes, so to speak to learn more about me, and both have done so this week.

I did think about your question some more after I last wrote, and can add somewhat to your reading. There is a friendship making element in church for me. Maybe you've read about my recent shoulder surgery, my wife going out of town, and me being unable to exercise our two dogs during her absence. A couple who I met at the Congregationalist Church have come over every day, rain or shine, and taken the dogs for an hour long walk. These people know that I'm not a Christian; they know that I will never join their church; and they don't care. I don't have a lot of opportunities to meet new people (esp intelligent new people who think about things profoundly), and church is one. Most of the others I could attend would be dedicated to some special interest, and I have few of those.

"Maybe there is a fear that if I expressed my true beliefs there( or rather lack thereof) I might be stoned."

At First Christian where I've been going off-and-on lately, there are two Sunday school classes. The first is composed of older people and is quite liberal overall. The second is composed of young middle aged (if that makes sense) and is more traditional. I'm starting to feel rather silly in the second class because the people are clearly there to reinforce their beliefs rather than to examine them and the Bible openly. So, there is something to what you say. People don't so much get mad as they just start to look at me as if to ask, "Why in the hell are you here?" When that happens, I wonder too. But it doesn't always happen.

The local Quaker meeting accepts atheists into membership. You can in no way say that it is even distinctly Christian, and I think you might begin to see more of the old mainstream churches going in that direction. Once a church opens its arms to everyone, well, if they mean it, they have to include people of all beliefs.

Anonymous said...

"Parts of the Bible, I abhor; other parts touch me down deep. Even when I don’t believe the Bible’s words, I cannot escape its power."

Wow, wow, wow. I just keep getting drawn back to this quote. Do you feel that way about any other books??

I could start commenting on all the interesting things in this post but I'm not sure that I've got enough time. :) Definitely intriuging...