About Me

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Baptized as Assembly of God, raised in a strict Penecostal tradition by a very religious family, left God behind at 17 after questioning beliefs and realizing all the hypocrisy inherent in any dogmatic paradigm. Studied Buddhism, Judaism, Satanism, and Wicca before declaring myself a pantheist, and then ultimately, an atheist. The death of my wife on Sep. 15, 2009 has cause me to rethink and challenge many of my beliefs. This blog is a reflection of and a reaction to those challenges.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Week 2 - Evangelical Christian

This week's church is New Vintage Church at the Wells Fargo Center, just north of Santa Rosa. It is an evangelical congregation – an offshoot of a traditional Baptist church, in fact – whose core beliefs are that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and therefore without error and that God exists in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The mostly youthful 1,000-member congregation markets itself as "the church for people who don't like church". The services are raucous, often accompanied by high-energy rock music and hip, upbeat messages relevant to modern daily life, though still steeped in the infallible word of God.

While the services are drastically different from what I was exposed to as a child, the core beliefs are pretty much identical, so I doubt I will hear anything I am unfamiliar with. While I am trying to approach this project without prejudice, bias, or expectation, my feeling is there will be nothing I see or hear this week that will convince me that my decision to leave evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity was the wrong choice.

N.B.: The Wells Fargo Center, where New Vintage is based, was originally the Christian Life Center, a 5,000-member, 140,000-square-foot mega-church founded in the 1970s by the late Rev. A. Watson Argue, Jr. The building was sold for $4.5 million to local civic leaders at auction in 1981 after Argue filed for bankruptcy and his church collapsed in a financial scandal. 

After the sale, it was transformed into the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, a concert and entertainment venue. Today, it is the Wells Fargo Center, home to the Santa Rosa Symphony and the premier concert venue in the North Bay that has hosted nationally- and internationally-renowned musical artists, comedians, and other entertainers. The Center also rents space to a professional theatre company, a private school and church groups, New Vintage among them.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

REVIEW: Week 1 - Sept. 19, 2010 - Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Santa Rosa

I had not planned to undertake this thing until I could give myself a little more prep time and really allow myself to plan out exactly what I wanted. I had told a few people about it and all them thought it was an intriguing idea that I should really explore. One friend I mentioned it to was my very good friend, Scott. Among his other talents and interests, Scott runs a website and discussion forum called Rational Theology, which seeks to combine theology with critical thinking and reasonable debate and explores theology within the bounds of scientific rationality.

A few days after telling him of my idea, he sent me an email that said his church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Santa Rosa, was delivering a message on "Love And Loss". Given what I have gone through the past year, I thought there was a little bit of destiny, serendipity, or – dare I say it? – divine inspiration behind the timing of that particular topic. I accepted Scott's invitation to join him and his fiancée, Cathy, at this past Sunday's service. Another of my friends, Donna, heard about the topic and also wanted to attend the service, so we made plans to meet. Scott also pointed out that my friend and former professor, Eric, and his wife, Ellen, were also members of the congregation and would be there as I began this spiritual quest. I hurriedly set about planning this project, creating this blog, and bracing for the start of my journey into the unknown (or is that unknowable?).

As I mentioned in my previous post, the congregation occupies the building in which the UA 5 Cinemas was housed for many years. This is significant because I worked at that theatre for my entire senior year of high school, so I wonder if there isn't a bit of serendipity to this fact, as well. The building had changed but it was interesting to see how they transformed the old, dark, atmospheric design of the theatre into this bright, open, cheerful setting for people to worship. I could feel the ghost of teenage me in the walls and in the essence of that building.

We all met about 20 minutes before the service was to get underway. Everyone wore name badges; some professionally printed, others handwritten. Donna and I were asked to write our names on a badge and wear it for the duration of the time we were in the building.

As we waited for the service to begin, I meandered around the lobby and read some of the literature they had there. There were pamphlets and posters that explained the Unitarian Universalist Principles & Values and touted support for civil rights (including LGBT rights); social justice; gay marriage; community involvement; dignity for all people; open-minded encouragement of one's search for truth, meaning, and spiritual growth; and the respect for the diversity of people and our planet, amongst other causes.

The Unitarian Universalists draw from the Judeo-Christian traditions, but use no one book from which to derive lessons. They use the Bible; it is not taught as the literal word of God but rather a book of important parables, moral teachings, and a basis of culture and history. Other religions are taught, respected, and incorporated into the UUs' vision and dogma. Their teachings and lessons are embraced, as each congregant is free to seek God, Divine Providence, or the Inner Source of Light, in his or her own way. Interestingly, the minister of this particular congregation, Rev. Christopher Bell, is a practicing Zen Buddhist!

A bell was rung, indicating that the service was about to begin and we were to make our way into the sanctuary. Above the sanctuary doors were written the words, "Enter In Peace". As we entered, we were handed programs and welcomed by name by the greeters. We all found our seats and enjoyed the prelude music performed by a wonderful pianist.

Reverend Bell greeted the congregation and made some announcements. We were then led in song, followed by opening words and the lighting of a chalice at the rear of the pulpit. The chalice burned throughout the service.

A testimonial was given by one of the congregants, after which we were led in what is called The Unison Affirmation:
"We are Unitarian Universalists, People of the open mind, the loving hearts and the helping hands."
The children of the church were then called to the front of the sanctuary and we were told what they would be learning: Some would learn about John Murray, founder of the Universalist movement in the United States; an older group would learn about covenants and inner-connectedness amongst religions; the oldest group of children would be taught the first principle of Unitarian Universalism, dignity of all people and the cohesive spirit. At that point, the congregation sang to the children as they were led to their respective classes:
"How could anyone ever tell you you were anything less than beautiful? How could anyone ever tell you you were less than whole? How could anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle? How deeply you're connected to my soul!" 
A short reading centered on "the conscious act of letting go with love". Following this, we were asked to sit in silence for 5 minutes to meditate or ruminate or pray. All that was required is that we be perfectly still. The choir broke the silence with a song called, "The Spirit Of Life".

After the choir's performance, a member of the congregation spoke of her loss: her son going to college on the East Coast. She talked of how part of what it means to be a parent is to realize that, at some point, you will have to let your children go. It's a loss, but that is the price one pays for loving something or someone so deeply.

Another choir performance followed: "Bridge Over Troubled Water". I choked up a bit during this due to the fact that my late wife was always my bridge over troubled water and I realize that, in many cases, I now have to navigate those rapids on my own. And it's inevitable that I will get wet and maybe even occasionally go under.

After the choir's performance, Rev. Bell began his message. He talked of loss and how we deal with it. Grief is centered around suffering, disorganization, yearning, guilt, and anger. He relayed his own story of dealing with the death of his stepfather and how, most times, it's the person who is closest to death who is most comfortable with the thought of dying. It is those of us who are facing the prospect of a life without those we love that are most vulnerable to the pitfalls of grief.

He labeled things like a child going to college, the loss of a job or home, or drifting apart from friends as "little deaths". He said if any of us were familiar with French slang, the term "little death" should cause us to chuckle a bit inside. He then explained the term to the uninitiated. Indeed, it was the first time in my life that "orgasm" was even referenced in a church, let alone uttered.

He expanded on his point by saying that pain, pleasure, sorrow and happiness all dwell in the same place within us. They are different sides of the same emotional base but it is impossible to experience all of them at once. But we cannot experience one without inevitably experiencing the others.

Other points of his message were: 

  • Pain is the result of love and attachment; 
  • All love inevitably ends in loss;
  • We need to think of the Divine (in whatever form He, She or It may take) not as a manager, but as a consultant when we are faced with grief and loss;
  • Grief is the price we pay for love and we mourn not only for those we've lost but for the love that we are unable to give which seemingly lies dormant and unused within us;
  • And, finally, in order to find peace, we must not only strive to give the love that resides in us to others, but to also accept the infinite love that is given to us by family, friends, and the Divine Source of Light that dwells within us and all around us.
When Rev. Bell concluded his message, he invited us to sing the hymn, "Precious Lord" but keenly opined, "If the word 'Lord' makes you uncomfortable, please feel free to change it to 'Love'". 

An invitation to come forward and light a candle followed, as did the offertory, or tithing. The choir sang once more and then closing words were offered. The entire congregation then sang the following benediction:
"Go Now In Peace, Go Now In Peace, May The Spirit Of Love surround you, everywhere you go!"
At that point, the service ended. Postlude piano music followed, during which time some congregants left the sanctuary while others (my group included) sat and listened.

I spoke briefly with the Reverend afterward, but only to relay my personal experience and how he was able to touch on a lot of points I had been thinking about. He truly tapped into a lot of what I was feeling and I wanted to let him know how grateful I was and thanked him for allowing me to be a part of his congregation that day during such an important message. I didn't let him know my other reasons for attending, nor did I feel I needed to.

As an aside, I wanted to mention that there was little or no applause. Instead, the congregants rubbed their hands together at the conclusion of a musical piece or presentation. In no way do I mean to be disrespectful or irreverent, but it reminded me of beatniks in a coffee house who might snap their fingers to show their approval. I mean all of this in a nice way, though. However, it's something I wasn't used to and, should I decide to return, might take a little getting used to.

Overall, I had a fantastic experience. A lot of the Unitarian Universalist beliefs certainly gel with my core beliefs and world vision so I didn't feel as out of place as I would have at a church with political or dogmatic beliefs contrary to mine. The people I met were welcoming, friendly, non-judgmental and caring. There was a peaceful continence I felt the entire time I was in the building and I could really feel the sense of community, sharing, pureness of spirit and desire to do good in the world that all the members shared.

Before leaving, Donna and I returned our name badges and they were filed away so they will be available to us on subsequent visits. I don't presume to speak for Donna, but I get the feeling I will be using mine again somewhere down the road.

Many thanks to Scott, Cathy for inviting me, Eric & Ellen for helping me out and directing me during the service, and Donna for joining me as I took that first step on that proverbial journey of 1000 miles. Or in my case, 52 churches.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Week 1 - Unitarian Universalist

At the invitation of my friends Scott and Cathy, my first service will be at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Rosa, 547 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa, CA.

(Coincidentally, this congregation's building is located at the site of the former UA 5 Cinemas where I worked as a teenager, right around the time I began questioning my religious upbringing).

The topic this week is "Love & Loss":
"Loss is an inevitable part of life. Even the luckiest and happiest of people knows loss as an inevitable quality of this ever-changing Universe. Some losses can severely test our faith and our spirit, such as divorce, the death of a close loved one, or our own departure from this mortal coil. There is also a way, too, that such losses can often reveal just how precious and amazing life and love really are. We’ll help each other find that way today."
Sounds perfect. :)


Additional topics for different services at the Santa Rosa Congregation can be found
The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
Wikipedia's entry on Unitarian Universalism

What's God Got To Do With It?

"Religion is a solace to many and it is even conceivable that some religion, somewhere, is Ultimate Truth." -Valentine Michael Smith, Stranger In A Strange Land

Religion, and the leaps of faith required to adhere to a particular belief system, is something that has fascinated me for years now. I was born to an extremely religious family and my earliest memories involve prayer, hymns, the family bible, and Sunday school. 

I was baptized in the Assembly of God church that my dad helped build as a teenager, and attended that church for the first 10 or so years of my life. For the next seven or so years, I bounced around from church to church, all of which were heavily steeped in fundamentalist, Penecostal traditions: Sunday was the Sabbath; no dancing or alcohol; women had to wear dresses and were not allowed to cut their hair; men were the heads of the households and thus superior to women; animals do not go to Heaven; we are God's ultimate creation. Things like faith healing, speaking in tongues, baptism by the holy spirit, literal interpretation of God's holy word, and the threat of eternal damnation for those who didn't accept God's infinite love loomed large in my childhood.

I was a bright young lad and I remember questioning things. Things like, "Where did Cain & Abel's wives come from?" and "Why does this stuff from the Old Testament no longer apply?" and "Why is it okay for David to kill Goliath even though God said, 'Thou shalt not kill'?"

Each time I dared question or seek to gain some insight to these puzzling quandaries, I was given some runaround answer designed to confuse and stall me while they mixed up more pious pabulum to shove down my throat.

At 17, I discovered marijuana, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, and the scourge of all scourges, sex. I began questioning things I had been taught. I began seeing the hypocrisy inherent in such fundamentalist viewpoints. I began looking for other answers, other opinions, other world views, and other interpretations of God. This is a great big universe, I reasoned, and my little insignificant sect of Christianity couldn't be the only one that held the key to salvation, spiritual insight and the meaning of life, could it?

Over the next several years, I attempted to read anything I could about religion. Everything from Native American shamanistic traditions to Japanese ancestor worship to Satanism. I studied Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism for a couple years, but grew tired of that sect's Amwayesque emphasis on recruiting and its underlying "prosperity gospel" tendencies.

I considered a conversion to Judaism, but I could not fully convince myself that God was still there. That tends to be a problem in cases where not only one's faith hinges on the belief and acceptance of one God, but where that God is the main character in the great cosmic play.

I delved into Wicca at the insistence of an ex-girlfriend and grew to like its themes of communion with nature, the god/goddess dichotomy, and their famous Rede, An it harm none, do what ye will. I couldn't buy into it completely, however, because I couldn't swallow the hocus pocus aspects of their belief system (the magick traditions, animism, et. al.).

For years afterward, I tended toward pantheism, the belief that god is everywhere and, by logic, we are ourselves god. God is not anthropomorphic and is not interventionist. He/she/it is simply Nature or the Universe or a Force that keeps all the chaos in order. I liked that idea and for many years identified as that privately (though publicly I would admit to being an agnostic, since it was much easier than trying to explain what "pantheism" is).

In time, I became more skeptical of anything that could not be proven scientifically. I valued logic, the scientific method, and observable phenomenon that could be explained through rigid testing and sound collection and analysis of data. As I became more of a skeptic, I began to identify as an atheist. God no longer existed until proof to the contrary could be provided.

Then came September 15, 2009 when my wife of 9 years died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. Aside from the obvious tailspin it sent me into, it caused me to begin questioning my strongly-held beliefs. She, too, subscribed to no particular religion or spiritual practice. In the absence of religion and faith in our lives, I didn't want to believe that this was all there is. I wanted to believe that my wife was still here, or somewhere. I wanted to believe that it's possible for there to be an afterlife without accepting the existence of a Supreme Being. Most of all, I didn't want my Christian guilt creeping back in trying to convince me that she is now in Hell, simply because she had not been "saved".

All of this got me thinking. Where does the Universal Truth - if any - lie? What are the secrets to life, death, and perhaps afterlife? If there is a God, what does He/She/It want us to believe? Why do we all view the same God so differently? Why are there so many differing belief systems and, more importantly, what do these myriad belief systems have in common?

I decided to go searching for answers to these and many other questions. The best way to do that is not to read, or debate, or to stand outside the chapel while the choir sings inside. The best way is to live it, experience it, to grok it. 

So for the next year, I will attend a different religious service each week to try to learn and understand all I can about what we as humans have in common when it comes to how we view our spiritual sides and our beliefs in higher powers. One week, one carefully chosen, and well-researched denomination, be it Catholic, Scientology, Jehovah's Witness, Sunni Muslim, etc. Each Wednesday or Thursday, I will post the chosen service and location I will be attending along with a brief history and overview of that sect or denomination. The following Monday, I will post a recap of my experience, what was taught, and my overall impressions of the congregants, the clergy and the place of worship. 

Whenever possible, I will attend with someone who is either a member of that particular religion, or someone who has sufficient knowledge of its particular rituals and core beliefs. I will avoid revealing myself to the clergy or other members of the congregation, in order to not influence teachings, answers to my questions, or the way I am treated when interacting.

At the end of the year, I will try to come to some conclusion about what I've learned. What are the differences? What are the similarities? Can there ever be any overlap in spiritual beliefs? What can one religion, denomination, or sect learn by listening to and embracing the teaching of others? Most importantly, was there compelling enough evidence for "God" to sway this skeptical atheist?

This is not intended as a political blog so I will only mention the following as a way to tie all of this together. It could be argued that every war was fought, not for a flag, but for a deity. Perhaps by answering some of my aforementioned questions, I can find out if all that fighting has been in vain because all these millennia, we have been fighting in the name of the very same person, entity, or cosmic consciousness.

Or maybe we have been fighting over nothing at all. Wouldn't we feel silly then?