Sunday, May 2, 2010

Where Do You Belong?

As a kid growing up in the Bible Belt, I often heard the question, "Where do you belong?" It was a simple question, asked usually in an early conversation with a new acquaintance. It was not a philosophical question. It was quite simple and direct and it meant, where do you go to church, or more directly, where is your church membership. The answer would be, "we belong to the Baptist Church."

In our small town and lightly populated county, the churches were primarily Baptist and Methodist. There were a very few other denominations, usually "holiness" or Church of God. These were assumed to be the "holy rollers," who shouted and were yelled at by their preachers. The preachers would "honk" every few sentences to get their breath and give the listeners' minds and ears a slight respite from the din. At the same time, if the listener were trying to make sense of what the preacher was saying, he might use that few seconds to try to figure out what was just said.

In our church, the Methodist Church, the preachers calmly brought their message on Sunday morning, occasionally raising their voice to make a point. They were normally well educated in seminaries and their sermons were well organized and delivered. Emotional outbursts from the congregation were unknown. The choirs wore robes and the pianists played classical preludes prior to the service.

Whatever the case, it was assumed that you "belonged" or at least attended a church. Only the lowest of the lowest did not at least darken the doors of the church occasionally. Our church would be packed at Easter as the married children and their families came home and a few husbands made their annual visit to the church. Some people "belonged," but only came to church at major events, such as the aforementioned Easter, Mother's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

As most did, I went to church and Sunday school regularly. As I got older I had to be coerced by my mother, on occasion. Poor dear, she had an awful time, between my not wanting to go and my sister getting up and ready at the last minute. We gave her fits some Sunday mornings, but we got there on time and sat in the obligatory Sunday school class, then through the sermon. My sister made it through easily because she loved music, and ultimately became a music director of several large churches.

Today, I rarely go to church. I don't "belong," although my wife continues to try to get me to help her find a "church home." Frankly, in the last few months as my therapist has gotten me to look inward, I have begun to think about what I believe and who I am. When it comes to religion, my beliefs probably do not mesh with the majority of Christians. At least I do not think so. My guess is that there are many out there like me who never really question themselves as to what they truly believe. Many are probably afraid to question their own religious beliefs, fearing that they will be condemned to hell or worse, ostracized by their peers. Others simply do not think to ask questions. Religion is something they have grown up with and were expected to accept. They assumed it to be the absolute truth.

As a realist and, even as a historian, I have problems with much of the Biblical story. Did Jesus exist? Surely. Was he crucified? Surely. Did he arise from the dead? I rather doubt it. Did he perform miracles? I rather doubt it. The Bible tells us these things, but it was written by men well after the fact. They had a religion to spread and a man to deify, much like authors such as Samuel Weems, who concocted stories to create the early American heroes. In Weems' case it was George Washington. In the case of the writers of the New Testament it was Jesus.

At the same time, I cannot positively say that all those things did not happen. I just do not believe in the supernatural. How did these things happen one time, but never again since? Because there has only been one Jesus? People often ascribe happenings to God. Certainly miracles seem to happen on occasion. But, on the other hand, many happenings that are explained as God's will are far too inconsistent. How does God tragically take this child, but spare this one. Both are just as precious. Because their parent's "sinned?" Because there was not enough prayer? Why punish the child for something the parents did or did not do?

Jesus' teachings, as described in the Bible, are wonderful lessons. They are, if truly followed, a fine prescription, for living one's life. Yet, they are often used to condemn and ostracize. Preachers preach eternal damnation and condemn people with whom they do not agree or do not understand. Religion is often used more in a negative way than in the positive way that Jesus taught. Words taken out of context, either in ignorance or in spite do great harm to the Christian religion and to the memory of Jesus. I belong? Probably not, at least in the minds of many who might read this. I believe in some of the Biblical happenings. Others are not proven to me. Do I say they absolutely did not happen? No. Do I say they absolutely did happen? No. It has not been proven to me. Agnosticism is what it is called. Those who condemn would say it is Atheism because they only see black and white. You are either "saved" or condemned to Hell. There is no middle ground for them. It is my life. I try to live in a good and positive, some would say Christian, way. I will deal with the consequences...if there are consequences. If not, then does it really matter?


Anonymous said...

This post helps me see where you are coming from and makes me sad. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, but through Him. No one comes to the Father unless the Spirit draws Him. We are asked not to harden our hearts. I hope you have not.

Doug B said...

I really enjoyed reading this. My background was of being raised among the "holy rollers." As a youngster I noticed how different the real world I lived in away from church was from the Biblical world I heard about in church. For me it was a slow evolution from Bible believer to honest seeker. At times it was a painful evolution - both for me personally and for family and friends who refused to move beyond and hated to see me do it. My mom, who is still alive, probably spends a lot of time worrying about my soul. On the other hand, I've seen how much mental anguish her religious views have brought her as she tried to reconcile them with reality. But fear will cause one to continue to believe the unbelievable. As you know, at my blog it isn't religion as such that I attack, but rather those bad elements within it that cause inner turmoil and which cause strife and division among humans. Some people, I fear, miss that distinction. I believe a religious humanism is more beneficial.

Georgia Mountain Man said...

One can live a Christian-like life without all the baggage...the guilt, the fear, the anger, the hatred...

Doug Robertson said...

I also enjoyed reading this a lot, thanks for sharing this. It's always interesting to learn someone's back-story for insight to understanding better who and where they are now.

Unlike Anon, I didn't get at all why anyone would take away from this that you have "hardened your heart" toward Jesus, you seem to if anything give him more credit for his teachings than some others, "Religion is often used more in a negative way than in the positive way that Jesus taught."

Anonymous said...

Christianity is about a relationship, not living by the law, which no one can do. If we choose living by the law, we have to keep every one, every day and believing in Jesus Christ frees us from the law. Jesus paid our sin debt on the cross, once and for all. Our faith is displayed by our works thereafter, or else it would seem that we are ungrateful for the great sacrifice Jesus made for us.

Diane J Standiford said...

anon, the mother of Jesus obviously was pure through God's eyes, and Moses, Noah, all in God's favor, Jesus was not necessary to "come to the father."
I belong to the church of inclusion. I hope everyone will join me, as I have joined you.
I believe in possibilities. I leave judging outside of my world. GMM, any man who looks inside himself is brave; and courageous is the man who speaks what he finds.

Anonymous said...

Diane, my source is the Bible, the inspired Word of God. What is yours? Without faith it is impossible to please God. Faith cometh by hearing, hearing by the Word of God.

Georgia Mountain Man said...

Anon., not sure what prompted the "living by the law" comment. I'm sure you mean well with all of the Bible-speak. It appeals to many, of course, and it is fine for them. I never have responded well to that because it just isn't that realistic, and I can't relate to it. If you talk to me about treating your neighbor as yourself or the Ten Commandments, I can relate.

Gene Scarborough said...

I like your take on things religious. I see we have a Bible Believer who has to have it exactly like it reads without considering the things you have discovered about the nature of the Bible.

I am a Baptist Preacher's Kid who can't quite forget I had to go to Prayer Meeting rather than watch Superman without faking sickness! My dad even wrote a nasty note to the football coach about how church was more important than practice. He made me return my new cleats and quit--it pissed the Coach off seriously!

Most of our good Sourthern church going is to a "glorified social club" rather than real followers of Christ. We didn't exactly cotton to integration. I served one in a small SC town which still had the framed and printed offer to "show you to a church of your color." Sad, but I quietly ditched it within a few weeks of finding it.

The "real deal" of Christianity is more often found in small southern churches though. You don't have to organize a "Benevolence Committee" to take food to a bereaved family---they just do it!

The greatest problem with most country churches is that their favorite pastime is "confessing the sins of others." No churches seem to want to confront openly any conflict with the Pastor--you find out about such at the Deacon's meeting where the discussions have already taken place behind your back.

Dispite our human failings, enough of Jesus' teachings seem to get through so that some offset their worldly ways with a degree of real caring. The preachers who get in trouble are stupid enought to tell people EXACTLY what the Bible says in terms and illustrations even a child can understand!

foxofbama said...

Would be grand if somehow you could audit a course with Barbara Brown Taylor at
I have many of the reservations you have. As a Baptist Preacher's son whose Father had a stay in Hayesville, I realize what a strong word "Belong" is.
Even so, the words of most of the hymns are strong and have the weight of time with them. Singing with the fundamentalists is the title of a short essay by Annie Dillard. You don't have to buy the whole farm to enjoy the blessings of a community of faith. If not too dogmatic, there is much to be said for sweet fellowship.
Even JD Salinger enjoyed consistently the mid week church suppers at his parish in New England.
Hope you can work something out, cause a community of faith, a local church as my Dad called it is ultimately a good thing.
But take comfort there are many folks like you who resist some of the cookie cutting that comes with it. Sing with the congregation and read Barbara Brown Taylor, Kathleen Norris and Marilynne on the Side.
Jarsolav Pelikan has a good word for you too, in Jesus Through the Centuries, but I don't have it close at hand at the moment.
On the heels of this I intend to share Ron Rash's great poem Sunday Morning 1959.
I think you will find a sense of belonging there.

One of your better blogs and with the others I thank you for it.

foxofbama said...

August, 1959: Morning Service
Ron Rash
Beside the open window
on the cemetery side,
I drowsed as Preacher Lusk gripped
his Bible like a bat snagged
from the pentecostal gloom.
In that room where heat clabbered
like churned butter, my eyes closed,
freed my mind into the light
on the window's other side,
followed the dreamy bell-ring
of Randy Ford's cows across
Licklog Creek to a spring pool
where orange salamanders swirled
and scuttled like flames. It was
not muttered words that urged me

back to that church, nor was it
the hard comfort of pews rowed
like the gravestones of my kin,
but the a cappelia hymn
sung by my great-aunt, this years
before the Smithsonian
taped her voice as if the song
of some vanishing species,
which it was, which all songs are,
years before the stroke wrenched her
face into a gnarled silence,
this morning before all that
she led us across Jordan,
and the gravestones leaned as if
even the dead were listening.

Georgia Mountain Man said...

Thanks to all for the comments. They are very meaningful. This was something I felt a need to write. It is healthy to have doubts and question life. How else can we really know ourselves? For me I have just now at 59 years of age begun to look at myself and think about who I really am. Gene, I appreciate what you say and I must say that after I wrote this post, I thought that I should have discussed the "social club" aspect of churches. Fox, always I appreciate the comments and the poem, as well.