Monday, July 25, 2005

Hitting the fan

Once I decided to opt out of being a Christian, the questions started coming in droves.

For instance, why do we pray? In times of tragedy everyone says that they’ll pray for you. But what’s the point? Is God listening? If God is listening, why doesn’t he answer? I’ve had people say to me that “sometimes God answers yes, and sometimes no, and sometimes wait”, and my response to that is that it’s a load of crap. If God (supposedly) answers no or wait, then he didn’t answer. Ignore my son’s autism for a moment. Let’s say that I ask him to take the garbage out on Wednesday night, because the trash collector comes Thursday morning. He takes it out Thursday night. Did he answer my request? No, he did not. It doesn’t matter that he did the job, the job needed to be done at a certain time and he didn’t do it. Same with praying to God. If someone is down on their luck and prays to God for a job, a request born not out of selfishness but out of necessity, and they do what needs to be done to seek a job, and said job doesn’t come for a year and a half, then God didn’t answer that prayer. Or at best you can say that the evidence is inconclusive.
How about prayers for healing? Why do we have to pray over and over again for someone to be healed of cancer, for instance? What’s the point? Doesn’t God hear you the first time? And suppose you pray and pray, and the person dies anyway? Your prayers are wasted. Already I can hear people saying “but the person did get healed…they aren’t in pain anymore…they received the ultimate healing…” blah blah blah. My answer is no, they did not get healed and God did not answer the prayer. To answer any other way is to dance around the issue. You’re playing semantics. God then becomes a divine Bill Clinton who dances around the obvious meaning of a word. If I pray for someone to be healed, my intention is obvious. I want them healed in this life. Any other twist on the statement is just making excuses for God.

And what is up with Christians, anyway? Why do they have to behave like such a** … err … “orifices”? Bunch of arrogant (illegitimate children) who think they’re always right and mock those they believe are wrong. Mercy? Grace? Forgive your enemies? Yeah, right.
And why does church suck so bad? If I want to attend a pep rally I’ll go back to high school. Church is as scripted and fake as any pro wrestling match. If I want to encounter the divine I have a better chance sitting at the ocean listening to the Indigo Girls, or grabbing some breakfast at Burger King and reading the Bible there.

The Bible. I’ve never stopped digging the Bible. But geez, can Christians make this thing say anything they want. Democrats are going to hell. Republicans are going to hell. Catholics… Baptists… Pentecostals… everyone has a spin on this book. “Oh, but we just go by what the Bible says, and not any man.” You know what? That’s crap. No one goes just by what the Bible says. Everyone goes by the Bible as filtered by their pastor or favorite media preacher. No one wants to be Biblical; everyone wants to be comfortable.

And what’s up with denominations? Why do people cut themselves off from the wide variety of ways in which people choose to worship God? And why do people insist that they aren’t a denomination when that is in fact what they are? Are all of these religious groups in fact that different?
What’s the point?

These are the kinds of questions I was finally allowing myself to ask. Once I permitted myself to step away from the cookie-cutter Christian responses I found myself lost in the wilderness with no way out. I wasn’t sure I could ever be a Christian again, and even if I did find my way back, things wouldn’t ever be the same.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

It's starting to get ugly in here

I told myself that I wouldn’t make this a political blog. I just wanted to map out my spiritual journey, not discuss my political beliefs.

The two streams crossed in 2003.

Through most of my Christian life I held a pretty conservative outlook. The preachers I listened to, the books and magazines I read, they all preached conservative politics along with their Christianity. In 1984, when I voted for the first time, I couldn’t believe that a Christian friend of mine wasn’t going to follow my lead and vote for Ronald Reagan. I proudly cast my good Christian ballot for Reagan in 1984, Bush in 1988, fell off the wagon in 1992 and voted for Perot, but hopped back on in 1996 and voted for Dole. In 2000, when the results of the election were in doubt for 30 days, I was horrified at the thought of Al Gore as President. Christian=conservative, specifically conservative Republican. That’s what I believed.

But there were cracks in the armor. The man I respected more than anyone in the world, my grandfather Stanley MacNair, was not conservative. During World War II, instead of receiving the minister’s exemption he was entitled to, he chose to file as a Conscientious Objector, in order to stand with members of his congregation who also filed this way. I have a lot of admiration for his stand. I began to develop an anti-war stance of my own

In 2003 George W. Bush declared war on Iraq. Even though I had developed some stances that were pretty radical compared to the people I was hanging out with, I wasn’t against this war at the start. And I’m not against war outright. We were attacked in 2001. We had the right to defend ourselves. What I was against was the utter glee which Christians took in seeing the Iraqis “get theirs”. I was against a pastor praying that the bombs would hit the right targets. I was against people praying that Sadaam Hussein’s sons would be killed. War may sometimes be necessary, but it is something to be entered into soberly, not joyfully.

The 2004 election was when things started to get ugly. On one side you had George W. Bush with all of the conservative Christians who thought he could do no wrong. After all, he’s a man of God, and no man of God would ever sin, right? (wink, wink) On the other side you had the antichrist, John Kerry. (Don’t laugh, I know people who called him that.) Anyone who supported Kerry couldn’t possibly be a Christian. After all, he’s a… Democrat! He was seen at anti-war rallies in the 70’s with Hanoi Jane! We all know who the terrorists would want to see elected! The gloves were off and the fight began, and Christians on both sides behaved in ways that Christians never should. Name-calling, mudslinging- it was disgusting. When Bush was elected for a second term, normal intelligent Christians gloated, uttering statements which were the equivalent of a five-year-old thumbing his nose and saying “na na na na na na!”

I finally had enough. I had been saved for 22 years in the fall of 2004 and had seen many things. I had put up with a lot of crap and I was finally tired of it. I wrote a short e-mail to my friends and said that if this is what a Christian is, I was done. I could not call myself a Christian if it meant being glad when people died, kicking homosexuals to the curb and supporting politicians who used Christianity for their own ends. I gave a collective middle finger to the whole Christian movement, left and right.

I wanted out.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Fantastic Four(square)

We were on the march again, searching for a church that would fulfill my vision of what a church should be, both theologically as well as practically. Laura just wanted a place to plant roots. This time we didn't have a plan of what we wanted, I just had a vague notion, so we sampled quite a few. We took about six months to visit churches, question their pastors, spy out the childcare setup, and see how they treated visitors.

After several months we compared lists. My top three looked like this:
1) The Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Cleveland. This church was a good half hour drive away, but easily made the top of my list. I like Vineyard churches. I like the casual atmosphere, I like the music, I like the expectancy that God can and wants to move at any time. They are charismatic but not overwhelmingly so. The people at Vineyard churches have always been friendly to me. The pastor, Rick Evans, had been involved with the Vineyard for 25 years. He was easygoing and friendly. How do you describe a vibe? I just felt at home there.

2) Family Fellowhip Foursquare church of Amherst (OH). They are part of the Foursquare denomination founded by Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1920's, Pentecostal in their theology. The church is pastored by Bill Mouer, one of many Foursquare Bill Mouers, a man who had held many positions in his denomination and had been pastor of Family Fellowship for 20 years. The music was pretty good, the preaching pretty mellow. Pastor Mouer was not a screamer.

3) House of Praise International Church of Lorain (OH). I had known people at House of Praise for several years. My sister was going to the HOP at the time. Laura was attending a small group Bible study sponsored by House of Praise. The church is pastored by Gilbert Silva, who can preach like nobody's business. The theology leans heavily on "word of faith" teaching, as taught and practiced by Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, etc.- God wants you healthy, God wants you prosperous, God is a good God who wants to meet your needs. The music on Sunday mornings was OK, I could take it or leave it, but the music on Friday nights during their youth services was slamming. It was awesome. Move that band to Sunday mornings and I'm writing a completely different blog entry.

Laura's list had the same three churches, but the order was reversed. She had the HOP on top, Family Fellowship no. 2, and the Vineyard last. A compromise had to be reached. Family Fellowship seemed to be a good, non-threatening choice for a woman who had never been a part of a Pentecostal church before, so that's the one we chose.

Family Fellowship was a positive experience, for the most part. I didn't really care for the 40 Days of Purpose campaign- I've never cared for fads, of which this is definitely one, and our small group leaders were pretty bad at it. Apart from that, I don't really have anything bad to say. We were there for three years, which was longer than I've spent at any other church. And after three years I didn't feel any closer to any person at the church than when I started going there. My fault? Their fault? Hard to say. I made my effort- we went to a 40 days small group, we went to a home group for a year, we were at church every Sunday- and yet no friends.

I was going through some changes at the same time, changes that were unknown to everyone but my wife. My dear wife watched this conservative Christian who loved the Lord turn into a person she didn't recognize.

Next time.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Matthew Stanley MacNair

I had a brilliant plan. I knew that with the dawning of the year 2000 just around the corner, any child lucky enough to be the first baby born in their communities would make out like bandits. There isn't anything a manufacturer of baby-related goods loves more than to get their name out before the public. So... Laura and I were planning on starting a family anyway- why not make it our goal to have the baby on January 1st, 2000?

Laura's biology didn't cooperate with my material desires. We found out we were expecting in June of 1999, with an E.T.A. of February 2000. Man, a guy just can't cut a break :)

I've already told the story of how the pastor's wife at Victory Baptist Temple was disappointed that we hadn't consulted her husband before making this decision. Throughout the pregnancy my thoughts came back to the environment at Victory and how my son would be raised there. And it made me increasingly uncomfortable. I was taking this fatherhood thing seriously. I wanted to be a person my son could respect. I didn't want my son to hear one thing from the pulpit and another thing at home. I especially didn't want my son to be a blind follower of anyone. I wanted him to think and reason things out, something that wasn't likely to happen in an independent Baptist environment where the preacher did no wrong. So we left.

We had decided early on that if we had a son we would name him Matthew. His middle name, Stanley, is in honor of my grandfather Arthur Stanley MacNair Jr., specifically, as well as my great-grandfather and my father, both of whom had the middle name of Stanley as well. My grandfather was an American Baptist minister for over 50 years. He was a compassionate man, an educated man, an important man who always had time for his family. There aren't that many people in my life who have earned my respect, but Grandpa Mac will always be one of those people. He has been dead for 9 years but I haven't stopped missing him. If my son grows up to be half the man that his great-grandfather was I will be a happy man.

Laura went into the hospital on Monday night, January 31st, 2000. The plan was to induce labor on Tuesday morning. Seeing how nothing was happening that night, I went home to watch wrestling and came back in the morning. All vestiges of Laura's modesty were stripped away, and the waiting began. Contractions came, contractions went...but no baby. February 1st came and went- the first day.

Second verse- same as the first. Hours went by. Finally, after 30 hours of labor without a baby to show for it, they decided to do a C-section. The baby would be born on Groundhog Day. I cracked a joke to the effect that if the baby saw his shadow there would be six more weeks of pregnancy, but it didn't go over very well. They wheeled her away and came to get me an hour later.

When I went into the operating room my wife was on the table, her arms stretched out, a curtain hanging just below her chest. Her abdomen had been cut straight across and the skin stretched open, and there was blood. The Discovery Channel had not adequately prepared me for how cool this would be. I mean, you think you know your spouse, but you really don't know her until you see her guts, you know? A short while later the doctor pulled this purple, rubbery looking human out of the depths, and my first thought was "oh my God, there was a baby in there!" Matthew Stanley MacNair entered the world at 2:25 PM, out of a window instead of the door.

Out on the ocean sailing away
I can hardly wait
To see you to come of age
But I guess we'll both just have to be patient
Yes it's a long way to go
But in the meantime
Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is just what happens to you
While you're busy making other plans
Beautiful Boy
---John Lennon, "Beautiful Boy"

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Cut to the Quick

First Baptist Church of Elyria is a large church, part of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. I never could get an answer as to what makes them regular. (Maybe I don't want to know.) The church is pastored by Bradley Quick. We chose this church because... you know, I'm not exactly sure why. We never had any super-spiritual reason. God didn't tell me to join, we didn't have a theophany upon entering the premises- we needed a church to join and this one seemed decent. Baptist without the bite.

I have been a sermon junkie ever since I got saved in 1982. I love to hear preaching on the radio, I go to sleep with a preaching tape playing, and thanks to the Internet I have amassed a large collection of sermons. I love good preaching, and Pastor Quick had that. He was an expositor in the style of John MacArthur. He wasn't flashy, he wasn't a screamer and a spitter, he just communicated God's Word to the best of his ability. And I liked that. He was also a Michigan fan, holding the blue and gold flag high in a sea of scarlet and gray. I really liked that :)

Whereas Victory had the air of a country church with simple people, First Baptist was an affluent church and looked it. There were a lot of lawyers and doctors in this church. A lot of people with positions of influence in the denomination. And I wasn't one of them. I was a warehouse worker, and shortly after we joined the church I became an unemployed warehouse worker. I never felt accepted, never had close friends there, never felt like I measured up to the people around me who had better lives than I.

Being a Baptist church obviously means that they weren't charismatic or liturgical. They had a certain style, a certain interpretation of decency and order. I began to chafe under that interpretation. Pentecostal beliefs were never directly preached against, but barbs were tossed and jokes were made. And I couldn't stand it. Pastor Quick and I had several talks about "getting my doctrine straight." We never came to a consensus. Getting my doctrine straight, to him, meant jettisoning charismatic error. Getting my doctrine straight, to me, meant nothing, because it was a never-ending process. No one would ever be satisfied. Baptists believe Charismatics are in error, Charismatics believe Catholics are in error, Catholics believe the whole lot of them are screwed. If "getting my doctrine straight" meant rejecting another believer for whom Christ died, then no thanks, I'm not interested.

Where this post is going is no surprise to the three of you who are actually reading. We left. We were a part of First Baptist from February 2000 until mid-2001. When we left, we were forgotten. No one called, no one wrote, no one even seemed to notice that we were gone. And that's exactly why we left. Two months later someone called us about being a part of the church directory. They didn't notice that we hadn't been there.

Wait- I have to correct myself. Pastor Quick did call my wife, once shortly after we left and once a few months later. Both times he tried to get her to turn away from fleshly charismatic errors. Neither time did he try to discuss the subject with me.

I was in no hurry to join up with another church. Laura wanted to, not just for our sake, but for the sake of our first child, one Matthew Stanley MacNair. My son. My flesh and blood.

My next post :)

Sunday, July 10, 2005

All Because of You

I was born a child of grace
Nothing else about the place
Everything was ugly but your beautiful face
And it left me no illusion
I saw you in the curve of the moon
In the shadow cast across my room
You heard me in my tune
When I just heard confusion

All because of you
All because of you
All because of you
I am...I am

I like the sound of my own voice
I didn't give anyone else a choice
An intellectual tortoise
Racing with your bullet train
Some people get squashed crossing the tracks
Some people got high rises on their backs
I'm not broke but you can see the cracks
You can make me perfect again

All because of you
All because of you
All because of you
I am...I am

I'm alive
I'm being born
I just arrived, I'm at the door
Of the place I started out from
And I want back inside

All because of you
I am

---U2, "All Because of You"

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

You can check out any time you like....

Laura and I were having our first major conflict of married life. She didn't want to leave Victory and I was feeling increasingly constricted by the rules and traditions that were part and parcel of independent Baptist life. And make no mistake- fundamental Baptists have holy traditions too. Ties on the men. No pants for the women. No rock music. I sold my soul for the acceptance I craved, and I had had enough. The acceptance I received wasn't worth the price I had to pay. I still liked going to Mass every once in awhile. Charismatics were no more "fleshly" than Baptist pastors who demanded unquestioning obedience.

We decided that once the baby was born and they threw us a baby shower, we would leave. I began to scout out other churches, found some I liked, took Laura to some of them. The baby was due on February 3rd, the baby shower would likely come a couple of weeks after, and then we would fly. A simple plan, if it hadn't been for my conscience. We were going to use these people for what they could give us and then leave them. That wasn't right. Finally, with the ETA of the baby two weeks off, we just decided to go. It wasn't a popular decision, of course, and we faced the scorn of people we thought were our friends. But we stuck to our guns. We stayed Baptist, joining First Baptist Church in Elyria a few weeks after leaving Victory.

Why was this such a hard decision? Because independent fundamental Baptist churches are very close-knit, at least within themselves. New families are lavished with attention. I was an especially prized trophy because I had been to so many churches and had finally "seen the light". And quite frankly, I dug that. I liked the attention. I liked being the door-to-door partner of the pastor. I liked hearing my name from the pulpit. To admit that this wasn't heaven on earth was a hard thing to do.

It has been five years since we left Victory. After we left the bleeding began, and Victory lost close to 100 members before the wound closed. And I am not happy about that. People left for valid reasons, for the most part, but for me to dance on Victory's grave would be wrong. I have made my amends with Pastor Smale and I consider him to be a friend. He has gone through a lot. His daughter was born with Down's Syndrome and died when she was four years old. His wife had brain surgery a few years ago. He has my respect because he has stayed faithful to what he believes even in the midst of heartache.

It's too easy to place a label on someone and say that you know them. Fundamentalist. Liberal. Democrat. Republican. But the labels don't make the man.

Monday, July 04, 2005


Shortly after we were engaged Laura and I began to think about where we wanted to go to church. We had radically different church backgrounds, so my idea of what makes an acceptable church and her idea were travelling along slightly different tracks. The first church we went to was Church on the North Coast in Lorain, OH; a charismatic church if ever there was one. I had fond memories of the place going back to the earliest days of my salvation, so it was natural for me to think of it first.

Laura didn't like it.

In retrospect I shouldn't have shoved her into a wild Pentecostal atmosphere after a lifetime of being a good Baptist girl. After the service was over, as I drove her home, we had a long talk about it. It was during that conversation that a lightbulb went on and I had the revelation. I knew where we should go next- it was in Elyria, it was Baptist, it was similar to what she was familiar with at Chippewa.

Victory Baptist Temple is on the outskirts of Elyria; technically they reside in South Amherst. They boldly advertise themselves as an old-fashioned, independent, fundamental Baptist church, and they lived up to the billing. They sang old hymns, the men wore ties and the women wore skirts instead of pants, and the preaching fulfilled the definition of "fire and brimstone." We went once... we went twice... we were hooked. We even had the pastor and his wife as guests at our wedding.

Dr. Jeffrey Smale graduated from Hyles-Anderson College in the mid-80's. The school was founded by a man who could rightfully be considered as the Baptist pope, one Jack Hyles. When Hyles spoke, people listened. End of story. If you wanted to buy a house, you talked to the preacher. If you wanted to date, you talked to the preacher. In retrospect the whole set-up bears more relation to a cult than a church, but I didn't see it that way. All I knew is that Pastor Smale believed in right and wrong and wasn't afraid to proclaim it. He also took interest in me and my questions. And as usual, I had a lot of them. We went out door to door witnessing together. I went out on Saturdays to visit newcomers with him, a spot that any man in the church would have loved to snag. I relished the attention and expected to attend Victory Baptist Temple for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately, real-life had other plans.

The first snag came within the first year when I wanted to visit old friends at Metro Church South. Laura and I didn't have a problem with it, but being the good Baptist that I was becoming, I asked Pastor Smale about it. He said I shouldn't go. We exchanged several e-mails about it. I'm not sure if he was used to someone questioning him after he gave his view, but we didn't agree. Laura and I made plans to go visit. Pastor Smale's wife made plans to talk to Laura about it. The next thing I knew, Laura didn't want to go. My first taste of the dark side of independent Baptist life. I went anyway, without Laura, but a wedge had been driven between me and the church.

In June of 1999 Laura and I discovered that we were expecting our first child. An exciting announcement was tempered somewhat by Mrs. Smale's disappointment that we hadn't consulted "the preacher" first. We were supposed to consult our pastor about such a personal decision? Another crack in the wall.

Other things started to bother me. When we first started attending I gave up a sizable portion of music because Pastor Smale said Christian rock was of Satan, and I wanted to fit in. I wore ties to church every Sunday- to fit in. I asked Pastor Smale's advice about everything- to fit in. And it was making me crazy. I was becoming someone I hated. I finally cracked when I realized that my future son was going to be hearing one thing from the pulpit, and another thing at home, because I certainly wasn't going to tell my son that charismatics were demon-possessed and Catholics were going to hell. I may not have known anything about fatherhood, but one thing I did know- I had to be a person that my son could respect. And he couldn't respect me if I didn't respect myself.

I had to leave.