I grew up with quite a patchwork of church experience. My grandpa was a “preacher” (I always want to add “man” on to the end of that, just so I can say my dad was a son of a preacher man…) who spoke in tongues and led us to many “tent revivals”. The best way to define a tent revival is to say that it’s people learning about hell in a tent in the middle of July in Indiana with the promise of air-conditioned eternity.
When I was a bit older, I went to church regularly with our elderly neighbor lady, who would teach me piano lessons at a discounted price in return for my eternal soul being committed to the Baptist church. She was the church organist, and I would go with her to the church across the street on Sundays and for one week of Vacation Bible School in the summer. They had delicious snacks at VBS, and so it made sense to me to partake in the delicious snack one Sunday during church. I was sitting alone in the front row munching on a communion wafer when the minister called me out. “It’s a shame nobody taught this child to respect the body of Christ,” he shouted. I was humiliated. It was the last Sunday I went there, and consequently the end of my piano lessons.
I spent my teenage years worshiping other gods, like George Michael (with and sans Wham!), purple eyeliner, and a pothead boyfriend I just knew I could rehabilitate. I received spiritual guidance from movies such as The Seventh Sign and The Omen. At 17, I was pretty sure I was going to heaven because I knew The Lord’s Prayer and I hadn’t gotten pregnant out of wedlock.
For all of my childhood, I solidly believed in Sunday School Jesus. You know him. He’s in that picture in your grandma’s house. He wears a white robe, and is surrounded by white kids and baby rabbits. Long brown hair, but not ethnic in any way. He pretty much looks and sounds like a young Kris Kristofferson. (Go ahead. Google him. I’ll wait.) Not to be confused with Christopher Cross, who sang “Sailing”, or Kris Kross, (jump, jump) which was 2 guys, not one, but one guy is dead. FYI.
Fast forward ten years, I was in the midst of a crappy marriage, but trying to maintain some kind of image of a family for my kids, my parents, the neighbors, Martha Stewart, and the Republican Party. I listened to Dr. Laura and Rush Limbaugh, spoke tirelessly about “family values”, made handmade Christmas ornaments, and Jesus wore a shiny suit and tie, flashed a million dollar smile, shook hands and kissed babies on his way to an anti-abortion rally. He was political, he was homophobic, and he certainly didn’t believe in divorce. And neither did I. Republican Jesus and I were shocked when my marriage fell apart. My ex got custody of him.
I used to think that when I became an adult, I would have all the answers. What I’ve realized is that when I really, truly, honestly grew up, I had all the questions, instead.
In my 30s, I began feeling the need to read something besides Danielle Steel. I decided that since I had always called myself a Christian, maybe I should actually read the Bible instead of just throwing out verses that I had memorized and used against people I disagreed with. So I read it. My response was an overwhelming, “What the hell? Did I miss something?” So I read it again. This time, I went to a Bible study at my church so that I could ask the minister about things that were plaguing me (like the plagues.) My questions to him were very in-depth. I wanted to know the social contexts of what was said. I asked about the various contradictory passages. I wanted insights about the violence and the misogyny. He was flustered by my questions. He left his wife and kids and took a two year sabbatical, and no one heard from him again. (I’m serious. This actually happened.)
After my divorce, I enrolled in a fantastic private Catholic college, and throughout the eight years I studied there (I also worked full-time and raised two sons alone, so ease up, man, I was busy) I took many theology classes. They left me with a) a respect for world diversity; b) student loans; and c) many more questions.
I would say I know nothing for sure about religion anymore, but that’s not exactly true. As time has passed, I have gained an appreciation for the life I live, and for the people in it. I worry much less about an afterlife. My desire to believe that God will solve our problems, or that there’s even one thing called God, has been replaced with a desire to believe that humankind will find humanity within ourselves and solve problems with love and compassion. I believe in what Christ taught. But so do Buddhists. So do Muslims (in fact, “compassion” is the most frequently occurring word in the Qur’an, according to the World Community for Christian Meditation.) Fighting about who is right and who is wrong about what to call “God”, or what to wear, or how to worship, or whom to love, is a monumental waste of time. You want it boiled down, people? Come to my church.
I go to the First Church of Don’t Be An Asshole. The church’s doctrine is very simply, don’t be an asshole. Love your neighbor. All of them. Don’t hate. Love. Show compassion to those who need it, even if they don’t know they need it, even if you don’t think they deserve it, or even if you don’t know who “they” are. Put things back at least as good as you found them, if not better. Be faithful and true. Say nice things or shut up. Let someone else go first at a 4-way stop. If you see trash on the ground, pick it up. Be nice to animals. Don’t abuse yourself or others. The 10 Commandments generally apply, as killing, stealing, being dishonest, cheating, and being a jerk to your parents, basically make you an asshole. If love is patient and kind, then it can be patient and kind between a man and a woman, 2 men, 2 women, or whatever. Love is not hateful or lewd. Being hateful and lewd is to be an asshole, so just don’t.
It doesn’t take a degree in theology, nor does it take being even moderately intelligent, to listen to the place inside you that can determine asshole vs. not asshole. What it does take, sometimes, is stripping away what you might have learned all these years about religion and society. You might have learned it from your closed-minded relatives or from your church that doesn’t let you wear pants if you’re a woman. You might have learned it from TV or movies or crazy orange politicians. It’s hard to let that stuff go, but if you do, you realize that at the core of all religions, at the core of all humanity, is the premise that if we want to be better people, to have a better world, to live RIGHT NOW in a place without war and hatred, we all have to start being nice to one another. I think Jesus, whoever he is, or was, or shall be, would agree.
Title photo source: ClipArtKid.com