Saturday, August 1, 2015

In the beginning....

I grew up as an atheist.  Well, actually, it was probably more like an agnostic – but atheist had such a stronger kick to it – especially when talking to Christians.  

My family didn’t like anything religious.  I was raised to “choose” my own way, but if I ever got too close to any one religion – especially Christianity – my mom would pull me back and warn me to not get brainwashed.  “Christian” was sort of a swear word in my family circle – on par with retard, fool, idiot, and @$$hole.

This turned out to be beneficial later on because I began to see Jesus as something different than his followers.  I never had any negativity towards Jesus as a person – just anything to do with religion.          

I was a military brat.  Well, sort of.  I was not like my brothers.  I came into the family late in the game (youngest son) and my dad retired when I was six or seven.  My oldest brother went to around 20 different school districts.  I went to one.  

We moved to California near the end of the 70’s.  We briefly lived in Oakland with my Aunt until we could move to our new place in the foothills.  This was right around the time of the Jim Jones scandal.  Jim Jones was a cult leader who murdered nearly a thousand people with cyanide laced kool aid.  This was all over the news when we moved away from the Bay Area and was my first impression of religion.  Religion scared the hell out of me.

My family didn’t really have much love for religion before I came into the picture.  My mom’s parents got in a divorce in the early 1940’s, which was sort of unheard of at the time.  My grandma was pretty much excommunicated from her family because of the “scandal” – she got married young and then got a divorce.  She came from a really uptight religious family and they condemned her behavior.  My mom told me a story once of staying with her aunt, and the whole time she was there, her aunt just badmouthed her mom.  Religion left a really bad taste in my her mouth.

My dad had a different experience.  His dad (my grandpa) was the son of a pastor (Great Grandpa).  He was a real fire and brimstone kind of preacher.  If you don’t know what that is – let’s just say that there are a lot of references to hell in the preaching.  It’s kind of a “scare you into heaven” type of theology, which still exists today (unfortunately).    

I think my grandpa wanted to be different from his dad, so he didn’t push religion onto his kids - not that I know of anyway.  My dad had an experience with Young Life as a teenager – which is a lot different than hellfire preaching - but other than that, he was left on his own.  

My parents met, got married, had a son, and my dad joined the military and they traveled the world.  They had three kids, besides me.  One of their sons (my brother) died of a brain tumor.  I never got to meet him, but I’d hear stories about him all the time.  His name was Jon.  His short life and the tragedy of his death was a shared experience for my family.  Many times I was the audience for their stories.  He battled with his disease for around two years and doctors and nurses did everything they could to keep him alive.  He lost the battle at age 7, the year before I was born.  My family was heartbroken.   

From what I’ve heard from my mom, religion did nothing to console my family.  In fact, one “Christian” told my mom and dad that they hadn’t prayed hard enough – they didn’t have enough faith – to save their son.  Basically, in a roundabout way, they were given the impression by religious people that my brother’s death was sort of their fault. This did a lot to reinforce the already negative feelings toward the church and God.  

So, then I came into the picture.  My first memories are of strawberry fields, baseball diamonds, and an apartment in Germany.  We moved to California when I was almost five, where my dad was stationed at Beale Air Force Base – the place he later retired.  We first stayed in the Bay Area for a very short period of time, and then moved to the foothills between Sacramento and Tahoe.  

I had a lot of mistrust towards religion.  One time, I remember getting suckered to go to a church on Sunday with my next door neighbor.  I was probably in fourth or fifth grade.  We got these little booklets and had to read out loud.  It reminded me of school – but on a Sunday!  The stories weren’t like the ones at school – they had crazy miracles and God talk.  It sounded kind of ridiculous to me.  

I was the type of kid that liked reality.  I never played with GI Joes because they weren’t real.  I’d rather act like I was a GI Joe and play war games in my back yard than play with stupid plastic little men and act like they were alive.  We’d build real forts and have home bases and make real bow and arrows.  I never understood how people liked playing with army dolls (no offense to those of you that did).  I just liked to play in reality.

It’s not that I didn’t love imagination.  I totally did!  Just within the boundaries of reality.  I remember in first grade, playing with toy cars at recess.  We would build race tracks in the dirt and drive the cars around the tracks.  My friends would hold onto their cars and would fly their car in an impossible way when they went off a jump.  It used to really annoy me because it wasn’t real.  Gravity wouldn’t allow that sort of thing.  I would stop playing when they’d do that. 

I did love cartoons.  However, I remember going to a theme park and being very disappointed when I saw the real life cartoon characters.  They weren’t “real” to me.  They weren’t like the cartoons.  They were impostors!

So you can imagine how I felt listening to people talk about miracles and God at Church.  Even at a young age, I remember wondering what they were trying to get me to do.  And some of the words that were used seemed to be in another language.  I didn’t understand most of it, and I was too intimidated to ask questions.  It all seemed so absurd to me. 

I went to Jr. High and High school in the mid 80’s and early 90’s.  My impression of religion didn’t get any better as I grew up.  The 80’s were known for tele-evangelists – preachers who used TV to get their message out.  The message was usually this: give money and your prayers will be answered.  What a joke!  Huge scandals broke over some very prominent preachers of the time.  There were money issues, sex scandals, and really bad haircuts.  Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker are two that come to mind.  I actually had a hard time understanding how people could be fooled by these scammers.  I mistrusted any “God” message that came through the TV.

I’m not gonna lie – I hated Christians growing up.  I thought they were judgmental uneducated self-righteous jerks. My first serious girlfriend in High School was a Catholic.  She seemed to live with a lot of guilt and never allowed me to have sex with her.  That made me angry at religion even more!  She begged me to go to church all the time.  My impression of Catholicism was not good.  One of my defenses against anything “Christian” was the troubles in Ireland.  Catholics and Protestant (Christians) – both in the name of Christ – kept murdering each other over the stupidest of reasons.  I didn’t see love from Christians – I saw war, murder, and scandal.  The pope didn’t help much either.  I thought Jesus was all about loving poor people, and yet, the pope would wear ornate costumes laced with gold.  I’d heard that the Catholic Church was one of the richest organizations on the planet.  It seemed to me that Jesus and the pope probably wouldn’t hang out – that was my impression anyway.

I went to my first “grown-up” church service (Catholic service) because of my girlfriend.  I was a love sick teenage boy, so I followed her anywhere.  It was awful.  It scared me to death.  The scariest part of the service was when everyone recited religious words in one loud communal voice.  Star Trek was a popular TV show at the time, and there was an alien race in which every member was connected through their minds called the Borg.  They would say as one, “We will assimilate you” to their enemies – pretty much everyone that was not a Borg.  Every unique race that they encountered would either become a Borg (assimilation), or they would be killed.  This reminded me of the Church (especially in regards to the Inquisition and Crusades).  

Sitting in that Catholic service, I felt like the congregation was saying “We will assimilate you!”  It made me think of brainwashing and cults.  It made me sad for those who were walking blindly into the manipulation from a small group of men.  It made me angry at the leaders who were controlling people from the pulpit.  I hated every minute of it.  

To me, religion was all about the control and manipulation of people to get money and power.  I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Yet another problem I had with religion is that it was so unimaginative.  The first “real” novels I read were Tolkien’s trilogy “Lord of the Rings” way back when I was in sixth grade.  The adventures of Frodo, Gandalf, and their unlikely band of friends blew my mind away!  There were ancient mythologies, dragons, magic, treasure, battles, and so much more.   There were other races besides men (elves, dwarves, hobbits) and there was a defining line between good and evil.  Everything seemed so exciting!  I devoured story after story from that point forward – reading most of the fantasy section in our local bookstore.  My imagination went wild. 

I actually attempted to read a King James Bible around my eighth grade year.  I started at the beginning and read the creation story.  It was lame, because I believed in evolution.  So I opened it up to a book somewhere in the middle of the Bible.  Not only did I not understand it – but what I read was BORING!  It seemed to repeat itself a lot, and there wasn’t much of a story.  Not like the other books I read anyway.  And the names were impossible to pronounce.  I just didn’t understand what the big deal was.  How could anyone believe any of this stuff? 

Christians hated a lot of things about me.  They hated my music, my imagination, and my friends – it seemed like they hated everything that I loved.  I think that’s part of the reason why I ended up hating them.  I always felt judged by them. They seemed to hate sex too, yet the scandals of the church always seemed to revolve around sex.  Hypocrite was a word I used a lot when talking about Christians.  Little did I know that it was it was Jesus who coined the term.

The big change factor for me was when I stopped looking at people and actually started looking at the person of Jesus.  I started to listen to His story.  I began to investigate Jesus apart from my perceptions of His people.  The first thing that intrigued me was His love and care for the poor.  He was always talking about them.  I noticed that the outcasts in society were always included.  In fact - there really were no outsiders.  He seemed to accept everyone.  I also noticed that He was often criticized by religious people - mainly by a group called the Pharisees.  He was actually condemned to death by the religious elite.  Religious people didn’t like Jesus - they actually hated Him.  This was good news to me. 

The love that He talked about was in stark contrast to what I saw Christians doing - at least the loud vocal group of Christians.  As I said before, I mostly saw hate, judgment, and scandal coming from that group.  I later came to find that there was a group of Christians that walked a lot like Jesus - but they tended to blend into the background of life, not hoarding the spotlight.  

I began to really have some serious questions about this guy named Jesus.  I started checking out the church - but got only more questions.  I’d hear words like - cross, lamb, sin, hell, salvation, sanctify, reconcile, heaven, atonement, holy, righteous - and want to run the other way.  These words were intimidating to me, and I didn’t really understand them.  I later came to find out that most people don’t understand them - even those that had been listening to church services for years! This actually put me at ease - but was a little disturbing at the same time.  

The word that kept holding onto me was love.  I couldn’t shake it.  I couldn’t escape it.  All other words seemed to bow down before that one.  It was the most non religious word - yet had everything to do with Jesus.  After many years, I began to understand that Jesus was the walking definition of love “the word became flesh and dwelt among us...” and this led me to investigate what all the fuss was with the cross - and all that other religious stuff.

I’ve spent years learning.  The first three or so years of helping out a Christian group - I still considered myself an atheist.  Especially deep down inside.  But I was intrigued by love.  My eyes slowly opened up - and my life really did change.  I found purpose.  I found contentment.  I found the love I had been seeking.  I found hope and joy.  

I had been so scared of religion that I almost missed God.  I was so intimidated by the “religious” sounding words, I almost missed the good news of scripture.  I guess that’s why I’m writing.  I want to make it a little easier for some of the “scary” and “intimidating” words to not be so scary and intimidating.  I just want to speak plainly.

The “Christian” language is hard to understand – the words are so difficult to grasp that many people just turn away.  What’s even worse is that many people act like they know what the words mean, but inside their heads, they have absolutely no clue as to their significance or meaning.

I want to help change that.  I truly believe that if people really get a good picture of some of the building bricks that help one get to know Christ – their eyes will open up and they’ll not only be amazed, but absolutely grateful.  So, this is my attempt.  

Incarnation.  Sin.  Atonement.  Lamb.  Cross.  Blood of Jesus. Trinity. Resurrection. In Christ.  These are some great concepts that cause quite a lot of confusion, especially for people that are completely new to Jesus.  If you’ve ever been confused by these words - maybe you should keep reading.  I'm going to try to tackle some of them, if possible.  That's not an easy task...  

I hope you stay on your search for God, because it’s good stuff.  It can actually be life changing.  With understanding comes enlightenment.  With enlightenment comes transformation.  With transformation comes the image of Christ - Love personified in you!

May God guide you as you seek Him - and may you not get distracted by the messed up people that point to His goodness - people like me.


I hope you will find Him!  He's waiting to be found...

Thanks for reading a tiny bit of my story.

Have a great day!


Jer  

***published at an earlier date as 3 posts - condensed now into one...

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