Category Archives: Proselytizing

Funerals and Flowers

Every morning my dog and I walk through my backyard, across the neighbor’s yard, into the church parking lot, and then through the cemetery, to get to a quiet development where we encounter very few vehicles or people in the stillness of the early morning. He needs the walk. I need it. It’s peaceful. And then my mother died.

Since moving here in February, I became accustomed to walking past my grandparents’ graves. In fact, I learned to find some comfort in it. Now, walking past my mother’s grave every day has become a grief exercise. Grief is a day-to-day thing. Some days are better than others. Some are not. I was there when she died, just like I was there every day for a month when she was sick, in the hospital then hospice, and every week for the two years she was in nursing care. When I was a hospice volunteer, the nurses taught me that the only way over grief is through it. No shortcuts. Still, watching the flowers die on the casket spray that stayed on her grave has been so very sad, as is her absence. The permanence of death still stops me in my tracks.

I am not always great at sending sympathy cards, and I always wondered if it mattered. It does. At least it has helped me and my family. The flowers were so much the better.

Researching funeral flowers was not easy. I had to resort to Wikipedia. Originally, flowers were used to provide a pleasant fragrance to distract from the pre-embalming odor of the deceased. After that, flowers were sent by those who were unable to attend services. Now, in most obituaries, we have the regrettable “in lieu of flowers” phrase to send money to some charity. I am a nonprofit fundraiser and enthusiastic about it, but some occasions need flowers. My mother loved flowers. We encouraged them and the family bought extras. They made the funeral less miserable. I’m not sure if there’s a rational reason; I just know I felt better seeing them.

After the funeral we each took flowers home. It’s been two weeks and the last arrangement is dying. The arrangements with plants have found permanent places around my home. The casket spray wasn’t what we ordered so I robbed some lilies and roses from another arrangement just before the funeral started. One of the lily stems had buds that didn’t open until days after the funeral. I know it is probably not miraculous, but watching new buds opening while everything else was dying gave me some relief from grief. It was a reason to smile. What doesn’t make me smile is the stupid things people say.

For no reason I can explain, when my mother was in hospice, so many people had to start sharing their own dead relative story. Here is a clue: it doesn’t help. Shut. Up. Grief may be shared in some ways, but it is deeply, deeply personal. It feels like a pain no one else can possibly understand. And then came Mother’s Day. Here’s another clue: if someone’s mother died a few weeks ago, maybe don’t run your mouth about spending all day with your mother on Mother’s Day.

One of the best of the stupidest comments was: “she’s in a better place.” Well, what a relief she has escaped from her loving family. The thing is, when she was lingering and in very bad shape, and when she and I were alone, I did tell her that she could just let go and fall asleep and she would be in a peaceful place. I do believe she has crossed-over to a different reality, and a good one. But I don’t want some stranger with a juvenile religion spewing that crap to me when I am standing next to my mother’s coffin. I did tell that insensitive idiot that “I don’t see it that way.”  I said that because I wanted to fire off something jarring that would make him think before he speaks at the next funeral. I doubt he heard me. He didn’t strike me as much of a listener. Death does bring-out the religion in people, doesn’t it? Even with atheists and agnostics, death and funerals give one pause in reflecting on one’s perspective on whether anything comes next.

My parents have both always been excessively religious. The church we were raised in started fundamental Christian then de-evolved to evangelical. It always leaned to Biblical literalism; now it is a hard and fast dogma. There is no room for social justice or even compassion for those who suffer. There is only room for talking and judging. I love words, but the evangelicals use words and the Bible like weapons. I delivered my mother’s eulogy at my father’s request. It contained much more god-speak than what I like, but I was trying to fairly reflect who my mother was. I have been to at least three other funerals in this church where the clergy said, “[the deceased] accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.” In two of these cases I know it was pure bullshit. Liar, liar pants on fire. Situation ethics. The evangelicals can’t survive without it.

My mother and I weren’t close. I wasn’t her favorite, but I think I understood her. I did love her. Especially at the end, I worked hard to see her in the best possible light. I was not going to let some self-serving preacher man (of course it was a male) redefine my mother or propagandize with his own theology. I have been to more than one funeral that tried to exploit the emotional vulnerability of the situation for religious recruitment.

The thing about my parents’ evangelical church, is that when my mother went into “skilled nursing” apart from the apartment she and my father previously shared, she struggled with depression. She had had difficulty throughout her life, but geriatric depression is the worst because you can’t say it will get better. It won’t. It didn’t. Our family was devout, but she yearned for other company. Yet for those two years, she had very few visits from either church people nor from the relatives and other self-described “missionaries” to whom she sent extraordinary amounts of money over the years. By way of context, she sent many thousands more than was ever contributed to my college education (largely paid with student loans). My parents believed in a literal “tithe” of 10 percent of their net income. While they were physically able, they were in church at least three times a week. Now shouldn’t all that dedication and tithing have earned them a little better treatment? I certainly think so.

This is the problem with a religion of talking instead of doing. The only thing they find remotely sacred is their own words. I heard an evangelical co-worker say of the Notre Dame fire, “Who cares? No one died.” There is no appreciation for history, architecture, culture, art, or aesthetics. People in need are at fault themselves for not having enough faith – or worse, suffering is the consequence of sin. The only thing that matters is their own words and judgement of others less pious than themselves, which includes pretty much everyone who is not going to their own church, and some of those are suspect.

If you are struggling and plagued with the existential conundrums of a limiting religion of your own or those in your life, then it’s time to read an old classic: When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold S. Kushner. It’s written by a very wise Rabbi and even my Old School non-Jewish father has found comfort in this book.

Although the church I was raised in exemplified many of the reasons people reject organized religion, my own parents were more the doing type than the talking type. And for this I give them both great credit. To the rest of their not-so-loyal congregants, I will say, if your prayer chain doesn’t inspire you to get off your knees and help someone, then it’s just gossip. In lieu of prayers, send flowers. -J.B.

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Born Agains Be Gone

When I’m flipping through the cable TV channels, sometimes I catch a few anecdotes from Wayne Dyer with his latest book pitch, “Excuses Begone.”  When I hear him trying to make it sound so easy, I picture Samantha on “Bewitched” just wiggling her nose to make anything appear or disappear.  Well, that’s what I’d like to do with those Born Agains.  To be clear, I’m not wishing them dead, I’m just wishing their behavior (and attitude) would be gone.  And I know I’m not the only one.

Here’s how one person described it (p.24):  “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.”  When I heard that quote I had to buy the book.  Well, that was an unfortunate impulse, but I’ll share the few things of interest here so you don’t make the same mistake.  (Don’t even check it out from the library.)

unChristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity, is written by David Kinnaman aunChristiannd Gabe Lyons.  They researched what 16-29 year-olds think about Christianity with a few statistics about all adults throughout.  Though this research was clearly biased, I found their conclusions interesting because they were so unflattering to the authors’ own orientation – as the book flap says, “Christianity has an image problem.”

In 16-29 year-olds, 57 percent know “Evangelical Christians” and 49 percent have a bad impression (p.23).  The three most common perceptions of Christians by this age-group are anti-gay/91%, judgmental/87%, and hypocritical/85% (p.25).  These “perceptions” are based on interaction with Christians, as the authors describe, 85 percent of young “outsiders” say they have had significant exposure to Christians.  In other words, these are not just random perceptions, but a result of personal experiences.  That makes it much more than an image problem.

The authors start on page one by characterizing folks of other religions/no religion as “those outside of Christianity” and then shorten future references to “outsiders.”  I was repeatedly disturbed that they didn’t see this distinction as demeaning.  Throughout the book the consistent assumption is that not only are other religions wrong, but so are other kinds of Christians.  The Born Agains see themselves as the sole moral authority for the world and the only acceptable interpretation of Christianity.

In case you dozed-off, here’s how I would summarize this book: the Born Again authors are shocked and dismayed that there are so many people who think that their exclusive club is hypocritical and judgmental.  They want to learn from their “data” so they can do a better job of converting more of us “outsiders.”  Even as they write about arrogance, their underlying assumptions have tremendous hubris.  Here are examples of the authors’ rationalizations: “Keep in mind that part of the reason Christians possess a bad reputation is because our faith perspectives grate against a morally relativistic culture…Christians are known as judgmental because we address sin and its consequences…Christians should identify homosexual behavior as morally unacceptable because that is what Scripture teaches,” (p.34).  In that last sentence the authors leaped from interpreting data as the Barna Group (which Kinnaman runs) to interpreting the Bible, and without attribution, neither on Biblical scholarship nor Bible passages.  (I remind you that on the gay issue, Jesus did not say one thing in the Christian Gospels.)

Born Agains are so sure they are right and the rest of us “outsiders” are wrong that some of them turn their arrogance into full-time jobs, fund-raising from each other to proselytize the rest of us.  One couple, now middle-aged, has done this with relatives for over 30 years without ever having to work for a living.  They still make regular visits to an elderly retired couple, a school teacher and a tradesperson, who donate more money every year than they spent on the education of their own children.  One of the donors is now exhibiting signs of dementia – but that doesn’t stop the tireless fund-raisers from asking for additional support, above and beyond the regular amount.  They have even sent one of their children to fund-raise for a “mission” trip to Paris.  Nice work if you can get it.  I will take a Secular Humanist’s ethics over these Born Again exploiters any day of the week.

I have written before (link below) about a more compassionate Evangelical, Rob Bell. who reminds us that whatever happens after death is “speculation.”  Two amazingly intelligent and compassionate Evangelicals are Bill Moyers  (public television) and  Jim Wallis (Sojourner magazine), so those folks do exist.  It seems that there are fewer of them and their voices are not as loud and intrusive.  They are willing to express their faith, but respect the faith of others, regardless of what shape that takes.  Faith is a part of life that can’t be proven, by definition, and so there are no absolutes.  The only ultimate truth is the one we choose for our own life.

“What the Hell?” and Rob Bell

By way of contrast, and to leave you with something more positive, I want to ask you to think about the Pueblos.  These Native Americans lived an apparently peaceful, agrarian life for over 2,000 years.  They didn’t have a word for religion because the lives and religion of the people were inseparable (“Treasures of the Past: Mesa Verde,” Mesa Verde Museum Association, Inc., 1993 video).  They minded their own business.  They lived their lives.  They didn’t need to convert anyone to anything.

Here is how I would pray to an inclusive, loving God.  Perhaps it will remind you of another famous prayer, after which I modeled it. – J.B.

Mother and Father, in heaven and earth
Making all things sacred
Your riches fulfilled, your preference for us
On earth, the same as heaven

Your providence meeting
Our earthly needs
Teaching forgiveness by forgiving

Guide us from fear
Protect us from harm
That we not forget all is connected

Your Spirit
Our Spirit
Forever
Amen

© 1999 J. Good

Atheists in Foxholes

As it turns out, there are atheists in foxholes.  As reported in an AP story that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the U.S. Army has 2,500 soldiers who describe themselves as atheist, and 101,000 who report no affiliation, out of approximately 548,000 (11/8/2009 “Faith and furor: Muslims say Ft. Hood gunman does not define Islam”).

When I mentioned to someone that I was reading a book about atheism she said, “Oh, it’s good to know the enemy.”  I admit it was my mistake for trying to have a sensible conversation with a Christian fundamentalist, but calling someone with different religious views an “enemy” is simply not very Christian.  I will return to the vitriol later, but I want to address what I believe are the essential issues first.

I finished reading the late Christopher Hitchens’ book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  I am struggling to finish The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Both of these books were New York Times best sellers. Since I am a person with a life-long interest in religion, I never felt compelled to study atheism before now and reading both of these books was both challenging and disturbing, as I believe both authors intended.

Hitchens’ book was a brilliantly written page-turner while Dawkins’ book is occasionally amusing but primarily tedious.  For people of faith, or those even mildly interested in religion, it doesn’t make sense to be afraid of, or worse – hate, atheists.  Faith is the opposite of fear, so how intelligent, well-read atheists think should provoke consideration not anger.

The Hitchens’ book builds a convincing case for the negative impact of religion on social history and individual experience, especially in the treatment of children and when connected with politics.  Ordinarily I enjoy sarcasm, but the Dawkins’ book is so relentlessly facetious it was nearly impossible for me to appreciate his perspective.  While Hitchens hoped to influence readers, Dawkins’ was shameless in attempting to convert the faithful into godless.  I found Dawkins’ attempt at proselytizing no more or less offensive coming from an atheist than a born-again Christian.  (See my blog column “Missionary Go Home” 8/25/2010.)

I don’t see value in arguing over the existence of God.  That is ultimately an individual question.  No panel of theologians can prove the existence – nor can a panel of atheists disprove it.  I see theologians denying science or atheists disavowing the possibility of anything mystical equally non-productive.  The intersections that matter are when theologians try to dictate to science or atheists want sanitize culture of any presence of religion.  That time would be better spent by theologians speaking to their own followers and leaving the rest of us alone, and atheists limiting their arguments to the inappropriate influence of religion in this secular society.

Atheists make an important contribution to our culture by being the conscience of religion.  Religion does enjoy too much societal protection legally, financially, publicly, and tacitly.  For example, in a capitalistic country, tax breaks are an enormous practical advantage as well as a demonstration of governmental approval.  There is no real reason why churches should be tax-exempt any more than social clubs.  This will be a future column, but my short answer is that if churches or religious organizations are not contributing social services to those outside of their own group, there is no reason for exemption from taxes.  Locally, I see very little difference between the YMCA and LA Fitness, except that the Y has a better swimming pool and is tax-exempt.

I would distill these issues to a few basic questions.  Primarily, the pivotal question is: Do you believe in the supernatural?  If not, then any god arguments are irrelevant, as well as any discussion on humans having a soul or spirit.  Dead is dead.  That is not a subject that is possible to debate.  As impossible as it is to debate, it is pointless to be angry because that is someone’s point of view.  Both books had stories of hate mail and death threats.  There’s no excuse for any person of any religion to stoop to bullying atheists.  You discredit your own religion.  If someone else’s view is that threatening, then your faith doesn’t really amount to much, does it?

Often I conclude these columns with what I personally believe, and I am tempted to do so this time, but I resist that temptation because it is irrelevant.  I read an amazing book by Hitchens that deeply disturbed me in many appropriate ways.  He influenced my thinking but did not change my point of view.  I am grateful such a great thinker lived among us and was unafraid to ask difficult questions that make us uncomfortable.  I would like to say, rest in peace, but that would be disrespectful.  So, Mr. Hitchens, I celebrate your life and contribution to this planet by encouraging tolerance of atheists and promising to read more of what you wrote.

To the religious, I would say that a faith unquestioned is just stupidity.

-J.B.

Missionary Go Home – No Just Go Away

One of my favorite scenes from the “Sex and the City” TV series was when Charlotte wanted to convert to Judaism and the rabbi slammed the door on her.  That’s my kind of religious leader.  The Dalai Lama said, “You should be devoted to your own religion while nurturing a deep respect for other religions.”

I had a distant relative go to China on a “mission” to convert the heathens to Christianity.  This was organized by some group in the business of proselytizing on a regular basis.  The catch here was that they had to deceive the Chinese government into believing they were offering some social service.  I never heard what service that was.  Is there anyone reading this that also finds it ironic that these Christian missionaries were so willing to lie systematically about their intentions and activities in order to fulfill their “mission”?  From what I can tell, this did not for one moment create any ethical dilemma for those involved.  Deceit does not strike me as a Christian value.  Premeditated deceit is so much the worse.

Aversion to conversion is difficult for zealots to understand, but trying to impose your religion on someone else is just arrogance.  Working to convert people of other cultures is imperialism.  The other misguided and connected activity, which is necessary to support this scramble to convert, is the need for fund-raising.  Don’t kid yourself, being a missionary is profitable.  Since God doesn’t have a payroll for cash in this lifetime, the missionaries have to convince the faithful to support them financially.  They go to family, friends and churches to ask for money.  The faithful are happy to chip in because it’s all about God’s work, now, isn’t it?  I know of one church-going couple who spend more on missionaries every year than they ever spent on the education of their children in total.  These same folks are quick to judge the poor for being on welfare.

There is a difference when the faithful make a statement by taking action.  Public television’s Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly (“Season of Service,” 10/16/2009) had a story that demonstrated a mission of service that is indicative of compassion and respect.  I would say it is mission in action, and actions that are needed and welcomed.  More than 26,000 Christian volunteers cleaned schools, organized and operated dental and medical clinics, and offered many other services including free veterinary care.  Watch or read the story on the link below.  You’ll feel better about humanity – I promise.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/october-16-2009/season-of-service/4589/

This has been a news week when the raging controversy is whether or not there should be an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center site.  The Pew poll was also released indicating how many people think the president is Muslim.  On weeks like this, it seems the Stupids are winning.  It is sad that not only is the rumor about the president untrue, it shouldn’t matter.  This is not, by design, a Christian nation.  It is a secular country designed to allow the free practice of any, all, or no religion(s). We would be better off with no missionaries except the likes of the “Season of Service” or Habitat for Humanity.  Show me what you believe and just stop talking about it.  True Islam is about compassion, and Christianity is the same.  If you define a religion by the fanatics, then all religions look bad.

So, missionaries, go home and stay away from mine.  Unless you want to roll up your sleeves and really make a contribution, we just don’t need you.  There is already enough judgmental arrogance to go around.  And if you want to offer social services as an example of the best of your religion, then come on.  Whatever religion you are and wherever you want to be, there is not one single spot in this world that couldn’t benefit from more compassion – especially Ground Zero.

Sex and Sports and Religion

Religion is not the only means for determining morality.  Religious folks don’t always understand that people without religious affiliation are still capable of being moral people.  The reverse is obviously true as well.  Religious people are capable of a complete absence of morality and frequently demonstrate lapses from ethical behavior.  In fact, it is essential to have a secular moral code so people of all religions (or no religion) living in the same society can survive each other.  The law isn’t always right, but it is a starting point.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s based on the “10 Commandments” or English Common Law.  It matters that we have a code of conduct that prevents us from killing each other.  Just short of killing each other, where should we draw the line?

Prostitution just doesn’t have to be illegal.  It’s all in the definition.  Is selling your soul a little bit every day to work in a cubicle while telling your lazy boss that she is a genius to protect your job prostitution?  How about having sex with your date only after an expensive dinner?  And then, of course, what about trying to barter sexual favors for sports tickets?  (A 6/24/2010 online story link is posted below.)  It’s time for “All Things Religious” to weigh in on this topic because of the newly launched blog by my friend who was convicted of attempted prostitution.

http://www.philly.com/philly/news/breaking/96991164.html?cmpid=15585797

I’m not going to comment, or base my friendship with her, on what she did or how she has reacted since.  I do want to comment on the rest of us.  I don’t think any of this would have been newsworthy if the tickets had been to the opera.  Sports enjoys a religious status that many people take for granted.  How many times have you seen people crying over a lost game?  How about street rioting from a team’s win or loss?  I have been researching the content of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Stories with religious content in the Sunday paper average less than five percent, which is roughly less than a quarter of one page for the front two news sections.  By comparison, the Sunday sports section is usually 15 pages.  Yet, there are more people in religious services every Sunday than attend all sporting events taking place in an entire week.  (I have a citation on this.  Comment below if you want to know more.)

The CNN article by John Blake (link below) asks better questions and has more examples than I have time for here.  This culture’s reverence of sports and the unholy mixing of religious proselytizing with sports attempts to elevate the temporal to the metaphysical but in fact demotes the divine to the trivial.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/wayoflife/05/25/God.sports/index.html?iref=allsearch

The only thing more potent than sports and religion is sex and sports.  That it is even possible to establish a blog on the topic is absurd – though I predict it will be well read.  Because we have the technology for Facebook and the opportunity for free blogs, doesn’t mean we have to talk about every Henry Miller moment that crosses our subconscious.  (For the record, I like reading Henry Miller.)  My erudite response to the sex and baseball blog is: YUCK!