Atheist Church. Seriously. (Part 1) I Believe I Don’t Have Beliefs

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You know life is getting tough when atheists start having church.

In an article posted on CNN.com on June 22, 2013, titled “Church without God – by Design,” the author reports on a “church” started by atheists in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  I originally read the article way back in June, but I found it interesting for so many reasons I kept finding myself thinking about it again.

The Humanist Community, as it’s called, meets at Harvard University on Sundays.  Songs are sung, the offering plate is passed, and they even call those gathered there a “congregation.”  Greg Epstein, the founder and “chaplain,” states the church “doesn’t require and it doesn’t even imply a specific set of beliefs about anything.”  The article continues, “Humanists boast a proud freethinking streak, and some at the Harvard event said they don’t want to be associated with any sort of dogma or belief system – or even a system based on disbelief.”  Eventually, Epstein says, they want baby-naming ceremonies, funerals and weddings to be part of what they do. Concerning reflecting a traditional church, Epstein said, “We can learn from the positive while learning how to get rid of the negative.”

The motivation behind starting this “church” is an admiral one: to build community.  The founders see the positives found in faith-based communities and want to give atheists and other non-religious types a place to go to find that quality of community.  In this time of rabid individualism, fractured families, and social media, it’s hard to criticize something that wants to build face-to-face fellowship.

If it’s possible to have church without God, the Humanist Community has done it.  Yet, it probably will not come as a surprise to you, the reader, that I, a Christian, find all of this undeniably ironic.  Despite what the author claims, a godless congregation is, in fact, an oxymoron.

To be fair, it doesn’t appear from the article that Epstein designated the Humanist Community a “church.”  “Church” appears to be the article writer’s label.  But — to keep in the spirit of fairness — it was Epstein — not the author or me — who made the decision to call the Humanist Community a “congregation” and Epstein a “chaplain.”

That being said, let’s look closer at a few ironic claims of the Humanist Community.

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#1 – I Believe I Don’t Have Beliefs

Can an atheist church really be one that doesn’t “imply a specific set of beliefs about anything”?  The article certainly implies that all are welcome no matter what their standing is on religion, but that’s nothing special; it’s the same with Christian churches.  The author even notes that the messages given at their gatherings are not about bashing God or religion.  But the name the Humanist Community itself clearly implies a set of beliefs, as does all the information about the Humanist Community the article reports.  I think it’s admirable that Epstein, the founder, wants to build a positive community, but let’s state the obvious: his vision stems from beliefs, and to create such a community, it must be based on a set of beliefs.

My only point here is that if you take a position about anything, you are communicating an opinion and, thus, a belief.  It may not be a religious belief, but it’s still a belief.  Many people try to paint only people who hold to specific religious faiths as having beliefs and atheists as free-thinkers who don’t subscribe to any beliefs.  This is not just false, but impossible.

Simply, having any belief means a person has decided certain things are good and others are bad.  Thus, the nature of belief is to say anyone with a contradictory belief is wrong.  Even if a person says, “I accept every view of every person on the earth as valid” that is still a belief, and that person is saying everyone who does not accept every belief of every person on earth as valid is wrong.  This doesn’t mean disagreement has to be in a confrontational or rude manner, but disagreement is the logical outcome of all beliefs and opinions.

So, let’s get away from this mindset that Christians and people of other faiths are the only ones with beliefs that conflict with others.  Let’s be honest: those who criticize Christianity do so because they don’t agree with it (which they have every right to do, and at times have good reason to do), yet to say Christians are judgmental, close-minded, self-righteous, unwelcoming, or unsympathetic simply because they have unwavering beliefs on certain issues is self-defeating because in order to make that statement one must have beliefs and pronounce a judgment.

In my college-aged years, I was heavily involved in the underground hardcore/punk music scene.  I spent most weekends traveling to punk shows all over New Jersey, Philadelphia, and even Boston and Washington DC.  Some of the bands I was introduced to through this scene are still some of my all-time favorite bands.  I also played in bands and wrote a ‘zine.  (If you have never heard of a ‘zine, think of a blog made with material called paper, ink, glue, and staples.)  The scene was in total rebellion to anything embraced by mainstream America or seen as traditional, whether it be politics, music, fashion, or gender roles.  This group of diverse individuals created their own music scene, which included a whole subculture.  Anti-racism, anti-sexism, and animal rights were favorite subjects for songs.  Social justice was good; government and religion was bad.

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One would look at this community and definitely think this is a scene of extremely tolerant, accepting, and open-minded individuals, and, in many ways, it was.  But it also contained some of the most intolerant, judgmental, and close-minded people I’ve ever known towards those who didn’t live up to the standards of their scene.  Of course all groups have their less radical and more radical individuals, but if someone would’ve walked into some of these punk shows handing out Republican or even Democrat publicity, Bible tracts, or Britney Spears CDs, I would’ve been honestly scared for their safety.

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Every group of people that hold shared beliefs forms a figurative fence around themselves.  This figurative fence, by nature, keeps others out.  These communities are made of individuals, and some in these communities are more open to those outside their fence, and others are not.  This is not a characteristic of only the religious, but it’s even a characteristic of a free-thinking music scene populated predominately by atheists and agnostics that value individualism over anything else.

That being said, Epstein, the founder of the Humanist Community, says they got “rid of the negative” of regular churches.  Clearly, the only “negative” they can really be rid of in their “church” is God since the other negatives Epstein could mean have nothing to do with God but human nature.  So, in order to get “rid of the negative” he would need to have a congregation without people.  The issue isn’t God.  It’s us.

Moreover, unless the Humanist Community stares wordlessly at each other for their hour-long gatherings on Sundays, it’s impossible to have a “church” that doesn’t “imply a specific set of beliefs about anything.”  I’ve heard this argument dozens of times from atheists – the claim that they don’t have beliefs, and because they don’t have beliefs they are the beacon of tolerance, compassion, and understanding.  Maybe their beliefs are not traditional religious beliefs, but they are philosophical beliefs that form a view of the world; thus, they are beliefs just the same.  This sort of language from atheists is so prevalent it has become downright Orwellian.

NEXT:  Atheist Church.  Seriously. (Part 2) Random, Meaningless Morals

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God: Who Cares? (Part 3) Reasons for the Non-religious

To wrap up the “God: Who Cares?” series of posts, here are some other rapid-fire reasons for looking into God, religion, and Christianity:

SOCIOLOGICAL/ANTHROPOLOGICAL:  There has never been any people group or culture discovered on earth that doesn’t have some form of religion and spirituality.  Most, if not all, of these cultures have a belief in a creator, an afterlife, a sense of their own sins being offensive to their creator, and a need for reconciliation.  Coincidence?

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PHILOSOPHICAL: The existence and nature of God has been one of the most discussed and debated subjects among philosophers for as long as anyone can remember.  Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes all gave a lot of thought to the mystery of God, and both theistic and atheistic philosophers today continue to debate it.  In fact, once considered by many to be an atheistic pursuit, the number of respected Christian philosophers in academia has grown considerably in recent years, with Alvin Plantiga and William Lane Craig among the more recognizable names.

HISTORICAL:  Jesus is easily the most influential and controversial person to ever live, and 2,000 years later he still is.  Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and Gandhi are all amazing, inspiring men, but they’ve still got nothing on Jesus of Nazareth.  (In fact, Jesus definitely influenced two of these men and maybe all three.)

All legitimate historical scholars agree that Jesus of Nazareth lived.  So who was he?  After he was crucified, why did his disciples continue to follow his teachings, even to the point of death, unlike other followers of men who claimed to be the Jewish Messiah and were executed by the Romans?

LITERARY:  The Bible is the most widely read and influential book in the history of the world.  Not only that, but it spans thousands of years – written by many authors in different time periods – and has been collected into one cohesive story.  Any one of these books that compose the Bible can be studied for a lifetime (as some scholars in the academic world do).  Also, it includes various types of literature including historical narratives, poetry, prophecies, proverbs, and letters.  Being an English teacher, I have to ask: How can anyone not consider the Bible an important piece of world literature that should be studied?

UNIQUENESS:  As I argued in my last post, Christianity is unique from other religions because it teaches that God’s salvation and favor are not earned through our own efforts or work.  The story of Jesus of Nazareth is a story like no other, and Jesus did all the work for us on the cross.  All we have to do it believe in this gift and accept it.

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Further, despite efforts by skeptics, there are no myths similar to the story of Jesus from Egyptian, Roman, or other pagan cultures.  Their arguments amount to the equivalent of claiming that Forrest Gump and Jaws are the same movie because both have people on boats, someone running, and a guy with a beard.  (Plus, Christianity clearly originated from Judaism, as any legit historical scholar would attest to.)

 

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THE ULTIMATE PURSUIT OF KNOWLEDGE:  During seminary class one weekend, my systematic theology professor said, “I have the greatest job in the world: I get to teach people about God.”  It’s hard – impossible many would say (myself included) – to think of a subject more worthy to study, explore, discuss, examine, analyze, share, or contemplate than God.  Likewise, if God exists, he’s the creator of all things; thus, there is no area of study that doesn’t involve him.  Moreover, you can’t ask for a bigger, more fascinating mystery to investigate than God.

LOGICAL:  To be an atheist and wrong has a considerably greater risk than being a Christian and wrong.  To illustrate: Say I am a Christian (which I am) and the atheist is right, then when I die I become worm food – and so does the atheist.  On the other hand, if I am a Christian and I’m right, then when I die I live in God’s presence for eternity.  The atheist does not.  God gives the atheist what he chose: separation from him, which is worse than worm food.

So, a Christian, right or wrong, has two possible outcomes: worm food or eternal life.  The atheist, right or wrong, also has two possible outcomes: worm food or eternal separation from God to a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  If you were on a game show and you had the choice between DOOR #1 with a 100% chance of not winning a trip anywhere good or DOOR #2 with a 50% chance of winning a trip to Maui, which door would you choose?

To be clear, I don’t think this is an appropriate argument for why someone should become a Christian.  Believing in Jesus Christ is not something you do as if you’re gambling.  You can’t be a C­­­hristian by playing the odds any more than a person can be forced or tricked into becoming a Christian.  My point is simply to say that looking into Christianity isn’t illogical when you consider what’s at risk.  Even if you are 95% sure Christianity is wrong, isn’t it worth looking in to even if there’s a 5% chance of it being right?

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God: Who Cares? (Part 2) Give Me God, But Not Religion

Of course, we can believe in God and not religion.  As Americans, we value independence and individuality, so the idea of being part of an “organized religion” isn’t attractive.  (Plus, the phrase “organized religion” is redundant!)  Or many Americans might believe in some sort of higher power, but they pick-and-choose their beliefs, basically creating a religion of their own.  (Is this “disorganized religion”?)  I remember once, many years ago, thinking of my own beliefs as a mix of Christianity, Buddhism, and Jedi.  Yes, “Jedi” as in Star Wars.

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But from a Christian point of view, there is a critical reason for not just believing in any god or higher power, but believing in Jesus Christ.  Christians believe eternal life can only be acquired from believing that Jesus of Nazareth was God in the flesh, and he willingly died on a cross as a sacrifice for our sins.  Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can make a choice to no longer be separated from God and only by accepting Jesus Christ’s gift of salvation can this be accomplished.

Thus, the Christian faith claims exclusivity.  Of course, Christianity isn’t the only religion to claim to be the lone, unique way to God.  Further, some think it’s arrogant for any faith to claim this, but the simple fact is that all religions can’t be right.

Many times people with good intentions will make statements about how all religions are basically the same.  Often people say things like this to avoid arguments and disagreements, which may feel like the right thing to do at that moment, but if we’re going to be honest, we have to admit that different religions teach different beliefs and those beliefs contradict each other.  For example, after I die I can’t be reincarnated (as Hindus believe) and become one with the universe (as some New Age faiths believe) and go to paradise (as Muslims believe) and be reborn on my own planet (as Mormons believe) and cease to exist (as atheists believe).  Furthermore, Jesus can’t be God incarnate as Christianity claims and at the same time not be God as Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons claim.  Since Christianity’s claims depend on Jesus being who the writers of the New Testament say he is, if these other religions are right, Christianity is clearly wrong.  Where there are contradictions, everyone can’t be right.

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Moreover, there is something about Christianity that does make it truly unique: God’s salvation is not earned.  In other religions, a person must earn his or her way into God’s good favor through performing certain acts.  Some churches, including the Catholic Church, don’t always present the good news of Jesus Christ in this way (which is one of the reasons the Protestant Reformation happened hundreds of years ago).  Salvation through our own actions is not what the New Testament teaches; Jesus of Nazareth did all the work on the cross.  All we can do – or need to do – is believe this and accept the gift.  Prayer, baptism, being involved in a church, partaking in the Lord’s Supper, and doing good works are all essential in the life of a Christian, but none of those things earn salvation.

I once had a friendly discussion with a Muslim about the Bible and the Koran.  The many similarities were eye opening for both of us, but once I explained how Christians aren’t saved by their own works but only by accepting the gift of Jesus, who did all the work, it became clear to him that these similarities were only on the surface.  My Muslim friend responded in surprise, saying this Christian teaching was “the exact opposite” of what the Koran taught.  This unique Christian teaching is truly contradictory to what other religions teach.  If salvation can be earned through our own efforts, then Jesus was tortured and crucified for nothing.

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Because of this teaching, some Christians even argue that Christianity is not a religion at all.  Of course, if we are talking about religion as a set of ideas built around a belief in God, then Christianity is obviously a religion.  But if what we mean by religion is a system of beliefs where following certain rules can gain us God’s favor, then Christianity is certainly not a religion.  God’s favor cannot be won nor can God be manipulated through rituals, ceremonies, or even good works.  This is why Christians often speak of their faith as a relationship, not a religion.

The type of religion where someone only hopes to win God’s favor is not a relationship and often a selfish endeavor.  This type of religion often leads to a person, whether he or she is keenly aware of it or not, trying to manipulate God for his or her own benefit.  As we know from our relationships with friends and family, any time one participant seeks only his or her benefit in the relationship (especially through manipulation), it really is not any sort of relationship at all – not in any positive sense anyway.  Christians should do, for example, good works not in hope of manipulating God, but because they understand the love God has shown to them, and they want to honor and share that love.  Christian action is the result of Jesus’ free gift of salvation; salvation is not the result of Christian action.

Let me be clear that though I don’t believe in pluralism when it comes to knowing God, this doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be respect, forbearance, or true friendships between those of differing faiths.  Enough strife and utter nonsense has been committed in the name of religion.  Christians should take the lead in learning to express “I believe my faith is the one true way to God” and even “No, all faiths are not the same” in a way that honors the God who valued Jew and Gentile, freeman and slave, and male and female equally.  All of us must understand that disagreement – whether on the receiving end or giving end – doesn’t necessarily equal disrespect.

Of course, we can also ask, “What if no religion is right?” and of course, this is a legit question.  But if God wants us to know him, is it unreasonable that he would reveal a way to do so?  If God didn’t want us to know him, frankly, we wouldn’t.  And then there would be nothing we could do about it (and nothing we’d have to do about it, I suppose).  But I believe in a God who wants us to know him because there are ways to know him.  If there is a God, it’s the most important thing in the world, universe, and all of eternity.  But knowing what is the true way of knowing God is equally important.

NEXT: God: Who Cares? (Part 3) Non-religious Reasons to Care.

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God: Who Cares? (Part 1) Stifling Identity

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     Belief in God: What’s it Matter?

If we can’t answer why belief in God matters, there’s no reason to go any further than this one sentence.  One of the first things I learned as a high school teacher is that whatever we read in class had to first be made relevant to my students.  What’s the point of reading Shakespeare or Chaucer or other difficult things written hundreds of years ago if it has nothing to do with our lives today?  Likewise, why should we care if God exists or not?

I find exploring the mysteries of God so engrossing that I often forget that many people simply don’t care.  The more-recent parts of the Bible were written about two-thousand years ago, and the not-so-recent parts of the Bible were written about a thousand years before that.  So, what does it have to do with us today?  Does believing or disbelieving in God change anything in our day-to-day lives?  What’s the point in wasting time thinking about God if you’re pretty certain he doesn’t exist?

I once tried to explain to someone I care about very much why I am a Christian.  The person shut me down immediately, saying in effect, “I have no idea which religion is the correct one and I’m OK with not knowing.”  The person’s abrupt defensiveness let me know to back off — an argument wouldn’t do any good — but what I wanted to reply was this:

You should care because, if true, it’s the most important thing in the world.

     I’ll admit, that’s a pretty lofty statement, but to be honest, it’s bigger than that:

You should care because, if true, it’s the most important thing in the world, the universe, and all of creation, and it will affect you for all of eternity.

      Still, who cares?  How does that affect us today?

It’s fairly common knowledge that Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth died for our sins and by accepting this gift we will not experience spiritual death but live forever, but there are also many misconceptions about this teaching.  Unfortunately, the way some Christians have handled this subject has led others to think that (1) fear of hell is the only way to convince someone to become a Christian and (2) Christians don’t care about the present world because they’re so focused on heaven.

My quick responses to those misconceptions would be (1) hell is an essential teaching of Christianity, but Jesus’ work is called “gospel” and gospel means good news.  So, it appears, the writers of the New Testament understood a positive approach bears fruit more often than a negative one.  And, (2) yes, a Christian has his or her eyes on eternity, but eternity begins now, and Jesus never tells us to retreat from this grungy, chaotic world but to be right in the midst of it.

So, forget hell and heaven for now.  (We’ll discuss it at some other time.)  Forget eternity – what does Christianity have to do with life today?  What does knowing God have to do with life on this side of death?

I’m also not going to launch into some infomercial-like sales pitch on how following Jesus of Nazareth will improve your life.  In fact, though I am certain it will improve your life in many ways, Jesus is very clear about how following him will lead to many hardships.  (We’ll discuss this some other time too.)

What we are going to focus on here is your identity.

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As a high school teacher of over thirteen years, one thing that continually grieves me is the amount of teens in our school that don’t have fathers in their lives.  When I was in high school myself, I knew a girl like my students today.  In our creative writing class, all of her writings she shared were laments over her father’s abandonment.  Though she barely remembered the man, his absence had left a giant hole inside her.  The grief in her words was clear as she struggled with trying to understand his absence.

Another friend — one I made in college — carried around a lot of anger towards his father.  The father didn’t live far, but made no effort to be involved in his son’s life.  My friend’s anger manifested in cutting humor about his father, and I could see there was a lot of pain, especially since his father had a new family.  My friend carried these feelings of resentment and rejection into manhood, and they never lessened.

I know people now who are grown adults who yearn for repaired relationships with their parents.  These are grown people — some with spouses or children of their own; some with successful careers; all with true friendships.  Why do they yearn so much for a relationship with their parents, even after all this time?

The answer is obvious: it is destructive for children to not have relationships with their parents.  In fact, it’s unnatural.  If there is a God, he is our creator.  If it is so important for a person – child or adult – to have a relationship with his or her parent, how much more important is it for us to have a relationship with our creator?

If God is our creator, he did not just pass on the genes that formed us as our parents did.  He formed every microscopic part of us.  He didn’t just create our bodies, but our personalities, our minds, and our souls.  He knew us before the womb (Jeremiah 1:5; Psalm 139:13).  Not only did he create every aspect of us as individuals, but he also created every aspect of the planet that sustains our lives, as well as the whole universe our planet floats in.  Our very identities are interwoven in God more so than even our parents.

Considering all this, how can it not be important to know God?  If God exists, everything we are is because of God and connected to God.  Our very lives and identities are defined by God.  In fact, we could say there is nothing more unnatural than to not know God.  Think of the hole left in people’s lives because of an absence of a parent.  How much bigger is a hole left by not knowing God?

Someone may answer honestly, I don’t have a relationship with God and my life is fine.  But has any person who reconnected with a parent, healed a broken relationship, and had a healthy relationship thereafter ever regretted it?  A person who has been given up for adoption and grew up in a loving family may have no yearnings to find her birth mother.  But if one day her birth mother found her, and their relationship grew into a friendship, would her life not be enriched?  Further, I have a close relationship with my parents and my two sisters, but if I discovered I had a long, lost brother, would I say, “Who cares?  I’m fine without him?”  No, I’d want to meet him, learn about him, get to know him, and though I didn’t feel I needed him before, having him in my life would no doubt benefit me.

From the Christian perspective though, the problem isn’t that God, our heavenly father, has abandoned us, but that we have turned from him.  Just as my friends mourned the lost relationships with their fathers, God mourns his lost relationships with his children.

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NEXT: God: Who Cares? (Part 2) Give Me God, But Not Religion

The 1st Rule of Giving Your Testimony: You Don’t Talk About Fight Club.

An inclusio is a literary device used by many of the writers of the Bible.  Simply put, it is when a writer begins and ends a section of text in a similar fashion, whether it be with the same exact words or a similar event, to “frame” or “bookend” the section.  Since they didn’t use punctuation and capitalization like we do today, nor did they separate blocks of text into paragraphs (as modern English translations do), an inclusio serves as a clue to the reader that a block of text is a single unit where a certain theme is emphasized.

Instead of writing out my testimony in a standard way, I’ve decided to use an inclusio.  I really have no good reason for doing so other than I thought it would be fun.  My “bookends” for my inclusio will be the movie Fight Club.

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That being said, here we go…

So, she says something to me about packing all our DVDs.  She says she split them up into two boxes one for me and one for her.  She says I should look through them to make sure I was cool with how she divided them up.

I mumble something about it not mattering to me and I didn’t need to look through the boxes.  Shortly after, she leaves, leaving me alone.

I wander aimlessly through what had been the apartment we shared.  She had ended our marriage about two weeks ago, which was about one week shy of what would’ve been our three-year anniversary.  We lived together for several years before getting married, and we were a couple for eight years all together, from the time we started dating to the day she ended the relationship.

Who cares about some DVDs?  My marriage was over.  The woman who was still my wife only in legal terms had made this quite clear.  We were living separately, and the last place we would ever live together was being packed up and emptied.  What did it matter what stupid DVDs she took?

But after I mope around the apartment, the anger returns.  My emotions had become a pendulum, swinging back and forth between deep sorrow and injured anger.  I think about how she ended our marriage over the phone.  Yes, over the phone.  I think about how she blindsided me, never talking to me about whatever feelings she was wrestling with.  No discussion.  Not even arguments or fights.  Just a sudden phone call from Maryland telling me she was leaving me and moving away.  I tried to convince her to go to marriage counseling before making any big decisions; she refused, and then said she would, and then she refused again.  My marriage was over, and I had no say in it whatsoever, and I still wasn’t any closer to understanding what had happened.

So, the anger came.  And suddenly DVDs did matter.  Well, they didn’t really matter.  But they did matter at the same time – in principle.  Understand?

I open the boxes and rifle through the DVDs.  To be honest, I was surprised she did such a good job of giving me the movies I would’ve chosen.  But when I go through her box, I find a movie that had slipped my mind: Fight Club.

Fight Club is essentially about a group of men who feel emasculated by modern, middleclass life in America and start getting together regularly to beat the snot out of each other.  The movie is violent and crude and not for the faint of heart, but it’s also a great social commentary on materialism, commercialism, and masculinity with great lines like “The things you own end up owning you” and   “…an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars.  Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy [stuff] we don’t need.  We’re the middle children of history, man.  No purpose or place. We have no Great War.  No Great Depression.  Our Great War’s a spiritual war.  Our Great Depression is our lives.”  It was a movie I could relate to in many ways, especially since I had been doing martial arts for several years.  Of all the movies in the two boxes, this one was undoubtedly mine.

I even laughed to myself and said in my head, “Oh no, you’re not taking my Fight Club.”  You can destroy our marriage and throw my whole life into turmoil.  But you’re not taking my Fight Club.

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     This all started when my (now ex-)wife was hired by U.S. Customs and Homeland Security and they sent her to Maryland for two months for training.  Shortly after we were married, she had gone to Africa with Rutgers University, so we had been through something like this once before but at least Maryland was only a six-hour drive away.  But something felt askew this time.  She didn’t seem all that upset to be away from me for so long as she did when she went to Africa.  Once she was gone, I had a hard time getting her on the phone.  When I visited one weekend, she acted distant.  I had been sensing this for what I would guess was about a year, but it’s hard to say exactly.  When I would try to talk to her to understand what was going on, she would say she was upset about her brother, who had drug problems and had been doing some jail-time.  But after I visited that weekend, things grew worse.  I felt like a high schooler getting blown off by a girl he had taken on a date or two.  I called and left messages and would not hear back.  The few times I did get her, she was terse and quickly got off the phone.

Then I received the call.  And my marriage was over.  I drove the six hours to Maryland to confront her.  I returned home as the sun was rising, having no more insight into why my marriage was over, though sure she no longer loved me.

I lied on the floor staring at the ceiling for a while, and then I called my older sister.  She came and picked me up and brought me to her house.  I was a mess.

My sister wanted me to stay with her family for a while, and my brother-in-law said he would drive me to a teachers’ workshop in New Brunswick I was suppose to attend for work the next day.  I tried to get out of the workshop by telling my boss (who was also a friend) what had happened, but he encouraged me to go any way.  He said the last thing I needed to do was sit around pondering things, and we would be going out in the evening and it would be good for me to be around friends and colleagues.  I reluctantly agreed.

Along with the obvious reasons, my reluctance was due to that my ex-wife had gone to Rutgers University, so we had spent a large part of our early days hanging around New Brunswick.  New Brunswick is where we became boyfriend and girlfriend.  New Brunswick is where I first told her I loved her.  I couldn’t be in New Brunswick now, I thought.  I would die.

I remember sincerely believing that.  I was not suicidal, but I remember feeling that I was going to die.  I would simply lie down on the bed at my sister’s house or crumble to the ground somewhere and never get up.

Sometime before my brother-in-law dropped me off at the hotel in New Brunswick, my sister reminded me that she and her husband would be going to Mexico with their church to build houses for poor families the following week, and she invited me to go along.  She said they would even pay for my plane ticket.  She thought it would be good for me to get away for a week and do something positive.  It was an attractive invitation, and I appreciated it, but the idea of spending a week with a bunch of Christians was not appealing at all.

My father was raised Catholic but had nothing to do with any sort of religion anymore.  My mother’s father was a pastor, and she brought us to a Baptist church growing up, but she struggled with her faith, and other than Sunday School and church, totaling only two hours a week, I had little Christian influence in my life.  Most of my friends were Catholic who went to weekly mass and CCD, then acted however they wanted the rest of the week.  Simply, I was not close to any Christians strong in their beliefs, and I knew no one who was living out his or her Christian faith.  I listened in church and thought about how God wanted me to live, but there was little reinforcement anywhere in my life.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was (which illustrates how casually I took it), but in middle school, I went on a church retreat with other preteens and our pastor broke down the good news of Jesus for us.  He explained how all humans have sin, and this sin separates us from our perfectly good God.  It was a hopeless situation, so God became man and took the punishment we deserve and served as the supreme, final sacrifice as Jesus Christ dying on a cross.  This gift from God was exactly that: a gift.  It couldn’t be earned, but it had to be accepted, like any other gift.  I liked what I heard, and not long after, I came forward in church to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, and I was baptized.

But shortly after that I started doubting the stories in the Bible, and by the time I was out of high school, I strongly doubted the existence of God.  I was quite sure all religion was absurd.  Throughout college and my twenties, I was unbending in my views that religion was nonsense and God was a myth.  I wavered between agnostic and all-out atheist.  On some days, I was confident there was no God.  On others, I was sure if there was a God (a very big “if”), there was no way we could know anything about him (or it), so why bother debating about it?  My cousin and I had a hardcore/punk band, and the opening lyrics I wrote for a song said, “Our true selves have been smothered by the son of a virgin mother and other fallacies promoting mental lethargy.”  This gives a pretty good summary of my opinion of Christianity at that time.

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My dislike of Christianity and religion was nothing original or profound; I had all the usual objections most atheists and agnostics have.  I also had a lot of inner anger towards Christians (and a lot of anger about a lot of other things too) because of their hypocrisy.  Mostly, I felt like I was surrounded by people who said they believed in God, yet lived like they didn’t.  Then, these same people would give me dirty looks and shake their heads in shock when I said I was an atheist.  I often thought it was ironic that I was more moral than them.  At least I’m honest, I often thought.  They say they believe in God, but they don’t live like it.

To compound this, I came into contact with two people who helped put two more bullets into the dead idea of God in my mind.  The first was a coworker when I was a part-time stockman at K-Mart.  He said he was a Christian, and he would talk to me about God, Jesus, and going to hell, but he could also be one of the most negative, spiteful, and trifling people I’ve ever known.  One example of this was how he would talk harshly about people behind their backs.  He was just another hypocritical Christian to me.  The second person was the college professor of my Intro to the Bible class.  He said he was a former pastor, and based on how he taught the Bible it was clear he no longer believed it was the Word of God.  Even as a skeptic at the time, loving the fuel he was giving me to dismantle Christians, I was keenly aware of how this man’s whole purpose was to sow the seeds of skepticism to my classmates and me.

Sometime during this period, my older sister began going to church again and became the only true Christian in the family.  And though we had polar opposite views on God, we had always been close and honest with each other, and anyhow, after just having my wife end my marriage, I was in no mindset to be subtle.  So, when she invited me to Mexico with her church, I basically said, “You know how I feel about Christians.  I don’t think I can be around them like that.”

I can’t tell you what the workshop in New Brunswick was about.  I do remember one of my co-workers realizing I wasn’t acting like myself.  He whispered to me in a concerned tone in the middle of a presentation, “Are you all right?”  I answered honestly: “No.”

In the evening, since we were all staying overnight in the hotel, we headed out into New Brunswick for drinks.  At the first bar, a stylish lounge, I sat feeling miserable as a friend went to get us beers.  As I sat there going through everything concerning my marriage in my head yet again (I could think of nothing else) I did something strange: I talked to God in my head.  It was something I had done when I was a kid – hold conversations with God in my head – but it had probably been about fifteen years since I had done that or did anything closely resembling prayer.  Prayer was as much a practical option to me as someone telling me I should invent a time machine and go back in time and save my marriage.

But, as I sat there, pondering what had happened to my life and wondering what was to come, I said something to God in my head.  It just happened.  I didn’t think, “I’m going to reach out to God.”  I just said it in my head, and immediately I recognized the oddness of it.  I remember clearly thinking, “That’s weird.  I just talked to God in my head like when I was a kid.”

This is the part the story I used to rarely share with anyone because I didn’t want people to think I was crazy.  Immediately after speaking to God in my head, I felt a presence.  I know now that this was the Holy Spirit, but we’ll call it the Presence.  This Presence came upon me so powerfully I could not ignore it.  It brought me immediate comfort.  It felt familiar, like an old friend.  It was as if the Presence was telling me, “Look, Steve, you been denying me all this time, but I’ve been right here all along.”  I understood God’s sense of humor through this event.  I also felt unworthy.  It made me want to laugh and cry at the same time.  The Presence remained with me throughout the night as we walked from bar to bar, the whole time this Presence comforting me.

The first thing I thought when I woke up in the morning was, “Is the Presence still here?”  It was.  My brother-in-law had told me to call him after the second day’s workshop so he could pick me up, but after the workshop I felt the Presence urging me to take the train to my sister’s instead.  I had been living in southern New Jersey near Philadelphia when my ex-wife was attending Rutgers and we were dating, and I took the train up many times to see her.  I felt the Presence telling me, “Take the train.  If you can make it back to your sister’s without breaking down, you’ll be okay.  You’ll get through this.”

Just like I did not want to be in New Brunswick, I did not want to take the train.  But I walked up to the platform and put money into the machine for a ticket.  I had almost exact change but I was short ten cents.  I also had a twenty-dollar bill, but if I put it into the machine, I would receive a pile of change in return.  So, I had three options: (1) Use the twenty or (2) walk back down to the street and see if I could find a store to break my twenty or (3) call my brother-in-law for a ride.  I didn’t want to go on the train anyway, and this was an excuse enough not to do it.  This whole idea of the Presence telling me to take the train was ridiculous.  I was going to call my brother-in-law.  But then I felt the Presence telling me to look down.  I did.  At the tip of my sneaker on the ground, sat a dime.

I picked it up, put the dime in the machine, and caught the next train.

I realize that the preceding paragraphs make me sound crazy.  Let me just say that the fact that I would confess them here is a testament to how sincerely I understand these events to have taken place.  If you don’t know me, it will be easy to dismiss these events.  If you know me, I hope you know me well enough to know that I would not make something like this up.

Returning to my sister’s, I told her I would go to Mexico with her and her church.  God had gotten my attention, and though well over a decade of hardcore skepticism would not disappear overnight, God was no longer something I could ignore.  I had to look into it.

In Mexico, I saw for the first time Christians truly living a Christian life.  These people spent their own money, traveled hundreds of miles, and sweated for hours in the grueling Mexico sun to love these families they built homes for because Jesus Christ loved them first.  I saw firsthand what the love of Jesus Christ propels people to do, and what true Christianity looks like.  One evening, as we finished pouring the concrete for the front step of one of the houses – what would be only large sheds to a middleclass American – my brother-in-law had the idea of pushing some rocks into the wet concrete in the shape of a cross.  Later, when we would hand the keys over to the single mother, she would look at that cross in the step and weep, thanking God because she understood where her new home had come from.

I bonded with people while working with them, and one night I was brutally honest with one of them about my skepticism.  She gave me perhaps the best advice I’ve ever been given: She said, “Just because you have doubts, it doesn’t mean you can’t read the Bible, pray, or go to church.”  It made sense to me, so when I returned home, I started doing all of those things.

Once home, another friend I made in Mexico, Rich, invited me to the weekly Bible study he held at his apartment.  As I said, years of doubts (and harsh feelings towards Christians) don’t disappear over night.  I accepted the invitation but had plenty of hesitation and unease about going.  Having never even gone to a Bible study, I didn’t know what to expect.  Rich seemed like a cool enough guy, but I still barely knew him.  All the negative stereotypes of Christians swirled in my head.  How are they going to react if I’m honest about my skepticism?  What if someone asks me if I’m a Christian? – I’m not even sure yet if I am ready to call myself one.  What if this is excruciatingly awkward?  What if they’re judgmental jerks?  What if Rich is really a weirdo?

Rich had told me to walk right in, so I did.  It was one of those apartments on the second floor, so after entering the front door, a person has to immediately climb stairs right into the apartment’s living room.  I walked up those stairs feeling like I was walking blindly into trouble.  I could hear voices.  Some people had already arrived.  What would I find at the top of those stairs?  Would they all be staring at me?  Would I get grilled as the new guy?  As I reached the top of the stairs, the first thing I saw was a rack holding Rich’s DVD collection.  The first DVD I spotted was Fight Club.

I was going to be all right.  I was in good hands.

This all happened in the summer of 2005.  I’ve been pursuing Christ ever since and have only found more reasons to continue to do so.

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