Autumn – at least the kind of autumn from my childhood – has finally arrived.
It rained through most of the last two days, and the temperatures dropped like a rock. When it wasn’t raining, the skies were overcast and threatening. Summer breezes have a gentleness to them – like a loved one, casually patting your cheek. Autumn breezes have a cruel sharpness to them, a brisk warning that – as Shakespeare wrote – “something wicked this way comes.”
I love it.
I’d been waiting for today all week long. I hate doing that, because you’re literally wishing your life away when you target some date in the future: “I can’t wait until Thursday,” and “Please Thursday, come quickly!” The days before Thursday are just as magical, you know, and just as fleeting. I dislike wishing my life away like that. But today was kind of special if only because I got to run some errands I’d been looking forward to doing. They took me to the other side of town, and that put me near some shops I’d been wanting to visit. Since I had to be in that neighborhood to do some chores, it was easier – and more justifiable – for me to use that visit to stop by these stores and shop. A win-win, if you ask me.
While out on this Magical Mystery Tour, I stopped at a Barnes and Noble bookstore. I don’t stop by very often, probably because I have too many unread books piled around my home. No, seriously – I’ve got piles of books that I’ve yet to address. Maybe if I quit wishing away my life, I’d have that time, but I digress. As I thumbed through the sales bin, I came across two books that caught my eye. One was an academic book on religion and magic, and since I have always been interested in the historical development of both, it should surprise no one that I quickly tucked it under my arm for purchase.
But the other book – which you’ll be happy to note, I did not purchase – really made me think. It was a book on modern Christianity by a clergyman. I only read a few pages, but in the section I read, he was expressing frustration with those whose “Christianity” only appeared when they found something with which to be outraged. He argued that they see that which offends them as being oppressive and intolerant of their religious identity, yet are oblivious when they apply that same oppressive intolerance towards others. Again, I only read a few pages – I mean, I knew that I wasn’t going to buy both it and the other book (which I had no business buying in the first place), but there’s a part of me now that wishes I’d gotten that book, if only to see the rest of the author’s argument. I didn’t get the name of the book or its author, but maybe if I’m back out that way again soon, I’ll try to locate it.
I can’t say that I agree with the author because I was literally eavesdropping in on one of his thoughts. If I hadn’t been self-conscious about my standing there and reading – hogging the clearance table, if you will – then maybe I’d have at least finished the chapter. But the little bit I did take from that book reminded me of my own issues with my faith. Issues that have affected me for far too long, I’m afraid, that came to the fore as I was driving home.
You see, I grew up in the Church, originally because my parents took us (avoiding Sunday Service was not an option in our household). In time, it just became routine – it’s what we did, I guess. I’d always loved Bible stories, and the first book I remember reading was in fact, the King James Version of the Bible.
When I joined the military, I had fellow soldiers, and two sergeants in particular, devout men both, who would regularly invite us to their respective churches. The first sergeant’s church was pretty generic ecclesiastical fare; nothing spectacular, but then again, nothing that screamed out, “Please come again.” They were nice, but . . . bland. I think I went to his church just once, but I would have gone again, had he asked.
The second sergeant’s religious home was different. Although they claimed no specific affiliation, the sermon struck me as Pentecostal in nature, and had I known that going in, I would have found somewhere else to be when he came by the barracks to give us all a ride there.
Semi-relevant Tangent Time: I have no anger towards the Pentecostal sect, but I have had some really strange experiences with people who identify themselves as such. I grew up with a guy who was being groomed to take over his father’s Pentecostal church, and that whole family was just plain strange. Arrogant and self-centered, they acted as if the world had done them wrong. The worst moment – as in, “How in the heck am I not wearing a county jail jumpsuit” moment – occurred a month after the death of my mother. The Pentecostal grandmother of a woman I was dating declared that my mother (whom she knew from childhood) was “a lovely lady,” before adding this little tidbit:
“It’s just too bad that she burning in Hell right now because she didn’t go to the right church.”
Have you ever watched The Hulk? No matter what he’s got on, once that change happens, he’s always wearing the same thing – a pair of shredded purple pants. Well, at that comment, my pants were a nice, rich shade of lavender. I still don’t know how I got out of that meeting without tossing that old lady through a window. I’m mad now, just having typed that, and the event itself happened over twenty years ago.
But I digress. This sergeant’s church was of that vein: We’re right, everyone else is wrong – no ifs, ands, or buts. That was enough for me to say, “Buh-bye.” From that point on, I only attended military churches – about as bland and generic as you can get.
After the military, I returned to the church of my youth, but this time with the wisdom of a young adult. I was active within the church and attending weekly. But I began noticing things. Like whenever a certain lady at church was challenged, she’d respond in a not-so-joking tone that, “God’s gonna get you.” Or how another lady took some sort of bizarre pleasure in hearing that an atheist family was met with violence and death. Another member was quick to call attention to their own church activity, even when that involvement was literally just showing up. I started to resent what I came to call Vindictive Christianity, the very notion that God was someone’s hit man, ready to avenge whatever grievances that person could list.
That’s what’s been on my mind the most since reading those pages – the idea of invoking Divine vengeance. I don’t understand this mentality, to be honest. I’ve not – as best as I can recall – ever looked upon God as my lackey, someone to settle scores for me so that I can keep my hands clean. I think my real issue is the insistence so many people have that they are in the right, and that there is no room for discussion or debate. Their interpretation, their viewpoint, their idea is correct; there’s an absoluteness that cannot be challenged. I notice this a lot nowadays when people interject their religious identity into a discussion, regardless of the topic. God will get you, they say, all with the conviction of someone who’s absolutely certain of their rightness.
I know this might come off as anti-Christian, but trust me – it isn’t. I still have my faith, which hasn’t changed much despite so many challenges to it. I still pray every chance I get, and while I have a lot of fear and anger in my heart – I am by no means a perfect vessel – I do find a sense of solace in religion. But I do question the nature of the vindictiveness I see so often expressed by fellow Christians. Where does that come from – and better yet, what does one hope to gain from it?
I stopped going to my childhood church several years ago; for a number of reasons, I moved to a new community less than a hundred miles away. Once, while visiting the old neighborhood, I stopped at a Walmart to grab some things for dinner. Yes, there are Walmart stores in my new town, but I was there and it just made for an easier trek home. Turns out that one of the store greeters was a woman I only vaguely knew from church. We spoke for a few minutes, quickly catching up, when suddenly, she asked (rather loudly), why I hadn’t been to Sunday Services. I was more shocked and embarrassed than angry, but I pointed out that I didn’t live in town anymore and was only here to visit someone.
“Well, if you can make the trip to see someone, you can make the trip to church,” she proclaimed. I’m pretty sure that half of the people in that Walmart heard her, too. I won’t lie – I was mortified, but she stood there with a proud smirk on her face.
Maybe my unwillingness to be so rigid comes from the fact that I’m painfully aware of my own shortcomings. I try not to judge – not only because we’re told not to do that – but because even if it were permissible, I’m just not in the position to do it.
I think that if time allows, I just might go back to Barnes and Noble and try to locate that book.