SKEPTIC

One of the assignments this week in Atheism for Lent was to watch a video called “Messiah.” In a nutshell Illusionist Derren Brown convinces people with various belief systems that he has supernatural powers. He poses as a medium who can speak with the dead, someone who can see another person dreams, an alien abduction survivor, a psychic and an evangelist who can cause people to believe in God with just a touch. 

It was fascinating to watch people accept his story and his [false] abilities no questions asked. If anyone had simply said “Is this a trick?,” he would have confessed it was—but no one asked.

In a scene straight out of a Christian revival meeting, Brown invited a room of people to stand. After just a few words and broad arm motions from Brown these people fell as if they were struck by a supernatural force (back in the day we’d say “slain in the spirit”). What was even more fascinating was these people just a short time before they had identified themselves as atheists. He’d converted them and convinced them of a supernatural worldview in just minutes. It was amazing to watch. 

It struck me how vulnerable we are to suggestion. Looking back on my time in the church, I recall multiple times when things seemed off. But, I put my trust in a pastor or saw others have an emotional response to something deemed supernatural. I abandoned my skepticism and went along with the crowd. Because this is the way church is, right? 

When I began asking questions I was told that I needed to pray or that the spirit moves in ways we don’t understand. If I persisted the responses became a bit more intimidating. My faith was called into question and I was encouraged to join a discipleship group with people more mature in their faith than I was. I was offered private meeting with the pastor and told not to discuss  things with anyone else in the church. Ultimately,  I just learned how to say the right things and know the right passages to quote. But, the questions persisted. 

We can be convinced of almost anything. Be vigilant on what you are being told and don’t believe something just because you respect the messenger. I used to hear things like “Come to church each week expecting an encounter with God,” or “God has revealed to me…” Statements like these set us up for manipulation. Perhaps these statements are spoken innocently, but the expectation is that whatever happens and whatever is said should not be questioned. After all it’s directly from God.

So what should we do to protect ourselves? Let’s encourage one another to ask the tough questions and continue to ask until the answers make sense. Focus less on emotion and more on what is being asked of us. A little skepticism is a good thing.

 

P.S. You can watch Derren Brown’s “Messiah” on YouTube. He also has a special on NetFlix called “Miracle.” Both are worth viewing.

ATHEISM FOR LENT

The season of Lent begins Wednesday, March 6. Observing Lent is actually a rather new practice for me. I’ve only become aware of the tradition over the past five years or so. In a nutshell Lent is the 40 day of reflection prior to Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

Most people see it as a time of giving something up; chocolate, desserts, alcohol, etc. More trendy is the promise to do without Facebook, the internet or Netflix. Last year I did something different. I studied something. 

I answered the challenge from philosopher/theologian/author Peter Rollins to dive into Atheism for Lent. I have to confess, it came at a time where my faith was in a turmoil and I wanted to have nothing to do with traditional spiritual practices. Looking at Atheism was a great way to do something radical and test my beliefs.

The study is intense and requires a bit of a commitment. A different theme guides each week and readings, audio recordings and video are provided for each day. At the end of the week is a live video presentation by Rollins who also answers questions from the previous week.  Everything is online and can be completed at your own pace. 

There is also a very active Facebook group that can be joined to discuss the work with other course participants. This helps a lot when you get a bit stuck and you don’t want to wait for the live aspect of the course.

I plan on taking the journey again this year. Registration is now open. For more information visit peterrollins.com and click on Atheism for Lent.

Do something radical and join me for Atheism for Lent.  

 

BELIEF

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the power of belief. What we choose to believe—or disbelieve—has significant influence on how we see the world. I know in my case I’ve picked up some pretty odd beliefs. Things that at the time seemed right but upon closer scrutiny turned out to be an obscure opinion or twisted understanding rather than fact.

Let’s consider cults. I’m fascinated by groups of people who follow strange teachings that offer enlightenment. They claim be the only correct way to find peace, perfection, happiness, fulfillment, God…i.e whatever is missing in your life.  What ultimately drives these groups is a type of group-think or brain washing.  

Belief in a cult  is communicated through separation, isolation, paranoia and rules and affirmation. This is done through the teaching of one leader and a host of others who enforce the adherence to the belief and reward those who act appropriately.

What fascinates me most is how even the newest believers throw themselves so fully into their role of defender and evangelist. Perhaps it’s because our society  has taught us to put out head down, do what we’re told and wait for the reward.

There’s nothing wrong with doing well, following rules or being part of something bigger than us. Goals are healthy, passions should be followed and dreams should be chased after. The problem comes when we set aside our suspicion and lay hold of unquestioned beliefs. (Kinda like Multi-level Marketing but that’s a different post.)

I see a lot of practices used by cults are used within the evangelical church. Fostering and atmosphere of absolute control is unhealthy. Telling followers “we are the only ones with the truth—even among other Christian practices” is dangerous. The fear of losing faith can drive people to do and believe some very sketchy things. Being shunned is used as a weapon against those who disagree.

As an example (I know I’m grabbing at low hanging fruit here) are end times beliefs. I spent several years in a church where the pastor was revered as a prophet, writing dozens of books about the end of the world. We were told we were the only ones who knew the signs and the time frame—the pastor denies ever setting dates but he did. The interpretations didn’t pan out. Political, economic  and natural disasters didn’t come. We woke up. We were lied to.

More recently, in a small group I led, several members were convinced the world was coming to an end because of the four “Blood Moons.” Nothing happened. Yet these men persisted in looking for the end because they were taught to believe it was just around the corner.

What troubles me today is not end times hogwash but the refusal of the evangelical church to accept the possibility of differing viewpoints. We have access to great amounts of information. We should be wiser than we are. Why is it that open discourse is so distasteful to some Christian leaders? Perhaps they understand in order to control people you need to control beliefs. 

Here’s a list of documentaries I’ve watched recently on cults (and some scary practices within the evangelical church). Most can be streamed. Google them for more information:

Wild, Wild Country (Bagwan Shree Rajneesh) 

Holy Hell (Budafield)

Going Clear (Scientology)

Scientology the Aftermath (TV series)

The Cult Next Door (Bill Gothard—Institute for Basic Life Principles)

Jesus Camp (Evangelical church kids)

 

Just for fun here are some recent fictional representations of cults on TV and film:

The Eternal (Science Fiction)

The Master (Drama)

The Path (Drama series on Hulu)

Apostle (Supernatural Horror)

The Invitation (Suspense/Horror) 

TO A FRIEND

I’m sorry you had to go through this.

I’m sorry your “community” has shunned you. 

I’m sorry you had to endure the gossip, lies and half-truths. 

I’m sorry something you meant for good was twisted into something ugly by people trying to cover their own mistakes.

I’m sorry the leadership team is scared by generous, intelligent, caring people like you.

I’m sorry you committed to, supported, prayed for and helped heal a community that doesn’t have your back.

I’m sorry your “pastor” chose to cast you out rather than answer your questions.

I’m sorry that the leadership of your “community” told everyone you had not been kicked out when in fact you had.

I’m sorry some people are far more concerned with optics than the truth. 

I’m sorry this “community” can sit together on Sunday mornings and be ok with this situation.

I’m sorry for the unnecessary pain and abuse inflicted by these “brothers and sisters.”

I’m sorry you haven’t found compassion, mercy or justice.

I’m sorry you spent two years jumping through hoops for a chance at reconciliation only to be told by a third party that your “pastor” refuses to speak to you.

I’m sorry you may never get the answers to your questions. 

I’m sorry these “Christians” have been such assholes to you. 

I’m most sorry that you’ll never hear the “pastor” say the words that start this post.

WALKING AWAY FROM WHAT?

The phrase “walked away from the faith” seems to be getting a lot of traction recently. I get it. Churches are seeing a downturn in attendance and need some sort of explanation. I wonder if “walked away from the faith” is a bit of a smokescreen and possibly a warning to congregants who remain, kind of an us (truth bearers) vs. them (those who turned away from the truth).

I think in many cases, probably the majority of cases, those who leave are actually leaving the institution of the church not the faith. In fact I think they take the faith with them, just not the unseemly parts of religion that lay just below the surface like sexism, racism and discrimination.

I’ve heard that recent data actually points to younger generations having a stronger sense of morality than their older counterparts. It also points to their stronger sense of spirituality even without the formal structure of an institution. They have little need of the rules, fear, control, guilt, divisions and “culture wars” so prevalent in today’s Evangelical church.

I can sympathize.  

I didn’t grow up in the church. I discovered Christianity in my twenties. Both my parents had left the churches they grew up in—Episcopal for my dad and Catholic for my mom—because the “church” did not approve of their relationship. Thus, I and my siblings were raised without spiritual training. There was still a very strong sense of right and wrong but without the religious underpinnings. Looking back that was probably not a bad approach.

Later my siblings and I each found our way to some sort of spirituality, discovering Catholicism, traditional Protestantism and in my case evangelicalism. 

Now I’ve left. Not my faith, but the belief system that has seemed to almost weaponize that faith. It troubles me that over the past 40 years the churches I attended seemed less and less likely to reflect Jesus. I constantly heard about who and what we were against and “end times” nonsense and seldom heard about truly caring for the poor, the marginalized or the immigrant (all very important groups to Jesus). Perhaps it’s always been like this. Perhaps I was naïve. I’ve always said the church should be the most welcoming, accepting and affirming place anyone could hope to be. It’s not.

I hope to eventually find a community that is all it promises or is at least honest about its failings. But, for now, don’t say I’ve walked away from the faith. The truth is I walked away from the church.

HEADING HOME

“It doesn’t matter which side of the continuum you’re on—if you still have to contort yourself to keep from getting kicked out, you aren’t yet home. You need a space in your life where you don’t have to prove your belovedness to anyone. Where you can just be.”—Jonathan Martin

 

I share the above quote to encourage those who find themselves in spaces that have become uncomfortable and unwelcoming. Whether you’ve already been on a journey of rediscovery or are feeling it may be time to move on, please know what you are experiencing is not uncommon. Many of us have been there.

I hope you will ask tough questions and dig deeper into what you really know to be true. Don’t settle for the easy way out. Above all trust yourself.  

You may sense a need to separate from a relationship or institution that has become toxic. Perhaps it’s time to find a place you can just be. I know it feels scary to face the possibility of deep change. Breathe. Then take a step toward home.

Be encouraged. There is “home” for each of us. Keep moving toward it. 

REBEL REMNANT

Back in the day, when someone walked away from church we called them “backslider.” It was about the worst thing you could call someone within the Evangelical culture. I don’t hear the term often anymore and I’m glad that slur has fallen out of popularity. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we’ve learned to accept people who no longer hold to our belief system or view their spirituality differently than they once did. We’ve just found other ways to label them. 

Recently, I was on the receiving end of some online bullying. Accusations of lying, not wanting to hear “different facts,” hiding behind this blog and—apparently the most egregious—being unwilling to reconcile were thrown at me. All this from someone I haven’t had contact with for well over two years.

Best I can gather from the conversation, if I don’t do what this person thinks I need to do I will eventually be compelled to do it in heaven. According to them Jesus will forcibly reconcile everything including the “Rebel Remnant”—of which I was now part. I’m pretty sure this is a twisted understanding of a scripture passage with the ominous Rebel Remnant tacked on to frighten me. I’m not going to spend time here going into the theology, but a quick internet search returns no references to this sort of thing in the Bible.

My concern is why someone who has never asked me about my departure or checked to see how I was doing or even emailed to say “I miss you” feels the need to berate and harass me, slap a label on me and warn me of my future judgement. Clearly there is no relationship here to reconcile.

Bullying, public shaming and blame shifting do nothing to draw me back. Quite the opposite. All these things do is paint a picture of a person whom I would not want to be around. 

It appears a new mindset is necessary. Perhaps we should set aside ego and perceived rightness and see others as valuable human beings loved by the Creator and not problems that need to be fixed. 

So, please don’t label me. In the long run what you call me says more about you than me.

AFTERSHOCK

When I started this blog I promised myself I would be honest about my experiences as I reexamine my faith. If you’ve been following along you know I left a church just under two years ago and the struggles I had at the time. This space has been a great help in working through issues in the aftermath of that decision.

I had envisioned that my new year’s post would be an update on how I’ve worked through the pain and was ready for the next chapter. Unfortunately, a recent series of communications has put me right back where I was 20 months ago. It shook me. 

In a nutshell I was accused of not telling the truth, bashing people and being an all round jerk (my words). I’m sorry I engaged the original message. I should have known better. I shouldn’t have let my guard down. I am now aware how important it is for this person to prove that I am wrong and they, of course, are right. 

What troubles me is that it felt as if the person I communicated with not only spoke for themselves but for the leadership team of the church as well. I was also taken aback by how freely they shared details of someone else’s struggles. This was information that I never requested to know and I suspect should be considered confidential. I realize now it’s highly likely the personal information I shared will be treated the same way.

Apparently this blog is not appreciated by some. In truth, I knew that would be the case. I take great pains not to use names and to be protective of people’s own stories. I only share my experiences and my personal opinion. 

Hopefully my feelings will pass and things will blow over quickly. I look forward to more positive posts as 2019 gets rolling.

P.S. I feel a little vulnerable right now so, I’ve chosen to not accept comments on this post. Feel free to email me if you like.

GOOD THINGS FROM 2018

As 2018 grinds to an end I’ve been looking back over the past year. It’s hard not to focus on the negative with government shut downs, ridiculous tweet storms and the aftermath of wildfires that decimated California for the second year, but there were good things too.

shared here are a few personal bright spots. Following is a list of things that made me happy or encouraged me this year. It’s a random list to be sure—including music, film, podcasts, food…anything that for a moment gave me a sense that things could be better and hope is still alive.

In no particular order:

 Favorite movie: FIRST REFORMED— a priest in a historic church sees his congregation dwindle then meets an environmental activist and begins to rethink his faith. Amazing acting from Ethan Hawk. Worth a mention are two films I found compelling, Annihilation and Hereditary. This first is a philosophical sci-fi film. The second is straight-up horror and not for everyone. 

Favorite television programs to binge watch: FOOD COMPETITION SHOWS—I’ve found that when I’m craving a little solace all I need to do is turn on a show like Final Table, Top Chef or the Great British Menu and troubles seem to melt away. I love getting lost in the contestants personal stories and of course the cooking. These show have become a not so guilty pleasure and an escape. 

Favorite song: RING THE BELLS by Johnny Swim and Drew Holcomb. A call for change that resonates with me.

Favorite podcasts: THE LITURGISTS and THE FUNDAMENTALISTS. These two podcasts are tough to describe. Both of them bring new light to what Christianity could be and often address topics not discussed in the church. Liturgist episodes deal with everything from depression and body issues to Biblical inerrancy. The Fundamentalists can be more fun but still thought provoking. One episode dealt with why people believe in conspiracy theories and touched on “end times,” lizard people and the Berenstain Bears conspiracies. 

Most memorable meal: THE GATHERING TABLE at Ballard Inn, Ballard California. The best meal my wife and I shared this year was in a B&B in Central California. The food was adventurous and delicious. Chef Budi Kazali leads the kitchen at this beautiful little restaurant. 

Favorite weekly event: FAMILY DINNER. I get to cook every weekend for family. We enjoy time together around the table then it’s off to the studio with my grandsons for drawing and painting. 

Best book: SINNERS IN THE HANDS OF A LOVING GOD by Brian Zahnd. This books has stuck with me. It challenged me to rethink a lot of what I believed about God, Jesus, the cross and end times theology. 

Best online course: ATHEISM FOR LENT with Peter Rollins. This Lenten study blew me away and stands out as one of the high points of my year. Rollins uses writings from theologians, philosophers and atheists to challenge preconceived beliefs. There are weekly readings, audio recordings or video to work through at your own pace then a facebook live talk by Rollins every Sunday. There’s also a private facebook group for members to interact and discuss the weekly assignments. The 2019 course has already been announced and will include new material.

I could go on, but should stop here since this post has become a bit long. Thanks for reading if you’ve made it this far. My post next week will contain some of my thoughts for the new year.

LEARNING TO DRAW CIRCLES

Recently I attended a lecture by Rob Bell. It was the last date for the Holy Shift speaking tour which started in January of this year.

I’ve followed Rob for a while. He’s a compelling writer and a brilliant communicator. He presents spirituality a way that compels listeners to see the world differently and be better people because of it. If you are a regular reader here you know that his book “Velvet Elvis” is on my highly recommended list.

The goal of this post is not to debate Rob’s work. Some in the evangelical church have labeled him heretic. Perhaps that’s why I sought out his writings. I needed to see what others would prefer I not read or listen to. That’s a discussion for another time. In this post I’ll share a little of what I learned last Saturday.

My biggest take away was the notion that “the holy“ continually crashes into the mundane areas of our lives and calls us to see creation’s interconnectedness. It’s never us versus them. It’s always we. If we take the time to observe the moments we share, the times we interact with others—like us and unlike us—we will see glimpses of the holy.

During the lecture Rob shared story after story about moments that felt “set apart.” He encouraged those in attendance to pay close attention to spontaneous flashes of beauty and sadness, compassion and strength, joy and perseverance. He talked of noting things that were especially odd and didn’t seem to fit. These could easily be glimpses we needed to pay attention to.

What do we do with these moments? His recommendation was to let them be. Not to impose our will on them, not to manipulate them to our benefit but to let them play out. These moments are holy. He said to (figuratively) “draw a circle around it,” and don’t violate the circle. That resonated with me.

Too often we careen through life zig-zagging from one thing to another. Let’s slow down and observe. Let’s live in this moment, taking the time to see the holy in a smile, laughter or tears. Let’s stop and breathe and see the glory of creation and the work of a creator. Let’s learn to draw a circle around the moment and hold that moment as set apart and full of meaning.

The beauty of thinking this way is that we don’t need all the answers, we don’t need the full analysis of what’s transpiring. The moments can change us and show us how to value others more deeply and find the divine in our day to day if we let them.

The more we see acts of kindness and compassion the easier it is to respond to others with kindness and compassion. Moments of comfort and sacrifice can spur those actions in our lives.

It’s my hope we begin understand our interconnectedness and start to be people who not only see the holy but lean into caring for and valuing others.

BOOKLIST

I’ve found that some books have more of an impact than others, and often the most influential writing shows up in unexpected spaces. The written word has become an indispensable medium for my learning and growth. I love the spoken word, classes, lectures, sermons and podcasts, but I am most challenged/changed by reading.

I go through periods where I read one book after another for weeks at a time, then seeming dry spells where I read far less. The dry spells tend to be a time where I reflect and mull over what I’ve learned—Is what I read valuable, does it contradict an assumption, do I need to reconsider a belief, where does this information lead, does it make me a better person?

The last question is the most important. Does this writing change me for the better? That’s where the value lies.

As such, I’ve complied a short list of ten books that have changed me for the better. I wholeheartedly recommend each of these books. I feel each has made me a better person and helped me to separate from some misplaced beliefs I’ve held along my faith journey.

Here’s the list:

Divine Nobodies by Jim Palmer

Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell

Sin Boldly by Cathleen Falsani

The Furious Love of God by Brennan Manning

The Rapture Exposed by Barbara Rossing

The Divine Magician by Peter Rollins

How to Survive a Shipwreck by Jonathan Martin

Unclobber by Colby Martin

Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God by Brian Zanhd

There is some deep water here and some ideas critics think are downright heresy. Keep in mind, these are just books. Books containing words that are up to you to accept or ignore. It’s completely up to you what you do with them.

P.S. If you need a bit more info. on a particular book, drop a line in the comments and I’ll get back to you.

WHAT A LONG STRANGE TRIP IT'S BEEN

Back in 2006 I came across a book that set me, unknowingly, on a journey of deconstruction and discovery, The book was “Divine Nobodies” by author Jim Palmer.

Some of you may recall this book from a small group I lead. We studied each chapter together and marveled at the way Palmer could find the best in anyone he met. How each encounter was seen as a learning experience that only enriched his life. I didn’t know it at the time but this book deeply marked me and would act as the impetus to take a hard look at the life I was living and the type of faith I was proclaiming.

Over time I questioned much of what I had been taught in the evangelical church. I grew less and less comfortable with the “us versus them” tone and the “group think” mentality of the church I was attending. What was called discipleship looked very much like (not so) subtle brainwashing. I found that questions were not only not welcome but targeted me for “special attention” from those in leadership. I was invited to be part of closed accountability groups with people I hardly knew and to special “one on one time” with the pastor.

Having not grown up in the church I didn’t understand that my questions were considered dangerous and that my faith was in question. Honestly I was kind of terrified by the idea that somehow, after 25+ years that I was not actually “saved.” But, I needed to know what real faith was about and followed my heart. I didn’t know then it but my long path of deconstructing and rebuilding my belief system had started.

The process has been exciting, humbling, empowering and draining. I looked deeply at what I believed and found maybe things weren’t as black and white as I was taught they were. The process is frustrating and more than once I felt I had been lied to. I began to feel a pull (or perhaps a push) away from the church.  

It’s been a long strange trip. I’m not done, don’t think I ever will be. Faith is probably the simplest and most complicated thing I’ve ever encountered. There is so much more I could say about this process, but I think the one thing I want to do at this point is thank Jim Palmer for writing “Divine Nobodies”. Your book, sir, has certainly impacted my life in ways I never expected.