I Don’t Know Who My Real Father Is

[Word count: 922. Approximate read time: 4-5 minutes]

IDontKnow

Father’s Day is always weird for me. I never met my father. He died before I was born. My sister and I used to debate which is worse: a bad dad or none at all. I would argue, “At least you have one!” She would counter by reminding me hers was a lying, abusive, philandering absentee. And really, that won the argument. But I would still smirk to myself, “At least you know.” I hate not knowing.

In a way, I know my father well. I’ve studied everything about him. I have his personal items. Old records, military effects, and photos from infancy to adulthood. I know the sound of his voice from audio letters he sent while stationed in Okinawa.

I’ve interviewed countless family, friends, and co-workers about him. Cousins told me of his wicked sense of humor. An aunt said he was always kind. My mother said he was even-tempered and accepting. Former co-workers lauded his intelligence. Friends told me he had a way with the ladies.

I know him as well as one knows the complex flavor of a truffle when they’re too expensive to afford to taste. I know him as well as one knows brain surgery after having read about it and passed the written exam. I am fully an expert. Also, I know nothing.

Like my mother’s advice on taking tests: “Don’t leave the answer blank. If you don’t know, just make something up. It might be right.” So I spent my life making my father up. I even got help once.

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Am I An Atheist Yet?

[Word count: 681. Approximate read time: 3-4 minutes]

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We live in a society that forces you to take sides. One-drop rule says if you’re “part Black,” you’re ALL Black. Hypermasculinity says if a man wears a pink shirt, then he’s probably wearing women’s lingerie underneath. Similarly, there are extremist Christians that believe in all or nothing; if you’re not 100% with us, then you’re 100% against us.

[By the way… Jesus himself preached against this in Mark 9:38-39. When St. John told an outsider, “you can’t sit with us,” Jesus told him, “Chill. Whoever is not against us is for us.”]

People act like there’s a hard line between Christian and not, belief and doubt, like you’re either on one side or the other. I approached the question from one angle in a post called “Am I Still a Christian.” Now I approach it from the other: How indifferent do I have to be toward Christianity before I am effectively an atheist?

I talked to my mom recently and she asked, “Have you been praying?” I said, “Not really.” She laughed and said with a lighthearted finger wag, “Okayyyyy! When you don’t pray, you get what you get!” Only faintly amused, I told her that’s the same thing I get when I do pray which is why I stopped.

Speaking of stopping, it’s been a year since my last blog post and that one was pretty low on faith. The subject hasn’t been high on my interest list. I attend church largely to maintain relationships that began there, but nothing in me wants to go back. Relentless in her mission to shepherd me back to the foot of the cross, mother incessantly asks whether I’ve gone to church and when I’m going again. This is like someone asking, “Whatever happened to [ex-significant other] ? You should get back with them again!”

Why in the hell would I want to do that? I was in that relationship. It didn’t work at all. Neither of us were happy. So why would I want to repeat that experience twice? (However reluctantly, Mom understood the comparison.)

Do you want to be an atheist?

Of course not. I’m probably a bad Christian, but I wouldn’t make a much better atheist. Quiet as it’s kept, I still like God! I want to believe in a force that maintains some semblance of order in our chaotic world. And I specifically reject new atheism. That sect gets so obnoxious with shaming and ridiculing people of faith, that the practice ironically becomes a religion itself. If you go that far, you’re not dissimilar from the fundamental Christians who get so overzealous Jesus doesn’t even like them anymore.

If someone asks my religion now, I usually tell them Christian agnostic. If I were to believe anything, I’d like to believe in Jesus, but I don’t know. I want to believe, but honestly, I still have some doubts as to whether he’s real.

Well what do you want then?

Whenever I express my truest feelings about my faith (specifically the lack thereof), I feel my mother’s disappointment wrap around me like a shawl or a boa constrictor — I can’t tell which. Mother has, for over 30 years, centered her life around church activity, personal devotion, evangelism both domestic and abroad, intercession, fasting, studying the Bible, living the Bible, preaching it, spreading it. Granted, my mother’s faith has helped stabilize our immediate and extended families, but it has also consumed her focus. I see her devotion and I respect it. But that’s not what I want for my life.

At a climax in the movie Spanglish, the lead character asks her child, “Is what you want for yourself to become someone very different than me?” The answer is yes. What I want is to continue working to be a better person, but I don’t want Christianity to be the sole method to achieve it. And I don’t want to be termed an atheist because of it. I just want to be. And be at peace. And I want both these warring sides to take a break… and let me.

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Super Christian Superstition

StevieSuperstition
[Word count: 988. Approximate read time: 5 minutes]

When I was growing up, I often had déjà vu. I’d walk into new places and distinctly feel I’d been there before. My mother’s mother held many superstitions, so when she found out I was “having visions,” it spooked her. I was no longer allowed in her house after 6pm. Who knows what that was about?

The list goes on. Throw salt over your shoulder. Knock on wood. Don’t split the pole. If you dream about fish, it means somebody’s pregnant. If a bird flies into your house, then somebody’s gonna die. None of these things made sense then and they’re still crazy now. They seeped into the groundwater of our family’s faith though. It only made sense that when they were taught to live by the Bible, they lived it out superstitiously.

There’s a name for that: Syncretism. It’s the combining of different, and even contradictory beliefs. For instance, Voodoo is the syncretism of West African Vodun with Catholicism and other beliefs. Personally, I think my family mixes Christianity with any number of things, but they still only call it Christanity. This irks.

Memory Foam faith

Once I asked my Mom if she enjoyed Minnie Riperton back in the 70s. She said, “yeah, but I stopped listening after she died.” When I inquired why, she said with a nod to how silly it sounded, “I guess I didn’t want to die.”

Of course that’s ridiculous, but I understood the association. When I pack for a flight, I purposely exclude Aaliyah from my iPod playlist. Ridiculous, but still— no Aaliyah music on plane trips. It’s as if science had proven “Rock The Boat” causes crashes.

Yet, if I was a fan of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, or The Big Bopper, I’d have no problem playing them from L.A. to New York and back. Superstition is subjective: solid where we need support, flexible where we need comfort. It’s the Memory Foam of belief systems.

What is superstition?

Superstition is a pejorative term for belief in supernatural causality: that one event leads to the cause of another without any physical process linking the two events, such as astrology, religion, omens, witchcraft, etc., that contradicts natural science.

Stevie Wonder sang, “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, you suffer.” If you embrace a belief without even Googling it, you should at least feel a little uneasy. We run into problems when we do things without questioning them. If we do so for too long, we get “used to” that and a tradition is born.

Tradition is a belief or behavior with symbolic meaning or significance that has been passed down within a group of society. Traditions aren’t bad; they mark our history and give our cultures identity. But when we pass them on without knowing their origins, we may pass them past their expiration date. “We’ve been doing it like this forever. Why stop now?” People are creatures of habit and will keep doing things because they’re comfortable and familiar, even if they stop being functional or sensible.

Iyanla, fix my faith

My faith was once rooted in superstition and tradition. Though I know the fear in those practices is not biblical, it still persists. I’m now tasked with the work of rooting out those old habits out in order to have a purer faith.

Though any faith can be categorized as superstition, the goal is not to eradicate it, but reevaluate it when it gives rise to fearful practices like these:

  • Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” The scripture is ketchup in my family. It gets slathered on everything. I wouldn’t object had it not overgrown into such a trip-line to communication. “Honey, don’t say you are tired. Say you feel tired. We don’t want to declare that over ourselves.” Ironically, hearing this correction makes me tired. That’s what’s taught at their church, but I reject it for myself. It hinders more than it helps.
  • A pastor at the family’s church recounted an example of some unfortunate happening. He began, “If my kids were to—“ and stopped, “no, I don’t want to give the devil a foothold.” If you look at Ephesians where that’s mentioned, its use here is out of context. It’s equivalent to saying, “Don’t say that. It’s bad luck.” I hate that no one recognizes this.
  • An uneasy premonition made me think playing Stevie Wonder’s “Too High,” a cautionary tale about drug use, would cause a relapse in my best friend’s addiction. That’s neither sensible nor biblical. My friend’s been clean for years now. He’s a successful father with a promising medical career. Much like the irrational Aaliyah fear, Stevie’s music didn’t send my guy’s life down in flames either.

Conclusion

One useful scripture my mother drilled into me was: “In all thy getting, get an understanding.” If not for that foundation, I might not have the courage to challenge these interpretations of the Bible. In 2011, I left my church. Two weeks later, I lost my job. If I believed God was spiteful and vindictive, I’d have run back to church cowering. But I know God’s grace doesn’t work like that.

As the Bible says, “work out your own faith with fear and trembling.” Even people from the same religious denomination may have drastically differing rules they live by, though they all affirm these rules come from the Bible.

How about you?

  • How do you decide how far is too far to stretch for a belief?
  • Where do you draw the line between what is “walking in faith” vs. what is absolute lunacy?
  • Were you taught any practices or beliefs as a child that you’ve had to abandon in your adulthood for sanity’s sake?

Please share your experience in the comments below!

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The Miseducation of the Worship Leader [1/5]

The Miseducation of the Worship Leader
[Word count: 653. Approximate read time: 3-4 minutes]

I guess I thought worship was “magical.” A strong talisman to ward off evil spirits. Friends’ divorces. Death and disease. Organizational discord. As long as I lifted my hands and gave reverence and deference to God, everything was supposed to be okay.

“Life is not always what it seems. Even the best will fall.”
—Crystal Lewis

Not quite so. Several of my most worshipping, most Jesus-believing friends all caught divorce like a common cold. Robin developed a brain tumor and didn’t survive. Gossip and distrust tore at the fabric of our friendships. I thought worship and prayer would protect us from that. When it didn’t, I was stunned… like “which one of y’all kicked me?”

 

When the structure of this music ministry collapsed on top of me, my healthy relationship with Jesus got trapped under the rubble. I used to be passionate about this stuff. Then disappointments broke me. Church culture frustrated me. Hurt changed me. I started to hate everything about gospel music… about church… about God… and even my own talents. Continue reading

Maya Angelou Taught Me Too

[Word count: 429. Approximate read time: 2 minutes]

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“I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me. Black, White, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American, gay, straight, everybody. I say, ‘Come with me. I’m going on the stage. Come with me. I need you now.’ Long dead, you see? So, I don’t ever feel I have no help.

I’ve had rainbows in my clouds. And the thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so that you can be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud. Somebody who may not look like you, may not call God the same name you call God, if they call God at all!  You see? And may not eat the same dishes prepared the way you do. May not dance your dances. Or speak your language. But be a blessing… to somebody. That’s what I think.”

—Dr. Maya Angelou
(April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)

Continue reading

Low Self-Esteem and One Other Option

Neo in The Matrix Revolutions
[Word count: 597. Approximate read time: 3 minutes]

Having low self-esteem isn’t so bad. It’s no worse than sharing a bedroom with your worst enemy. If you don’t mind a sadistic killer trying to dissolve you from the inside all day long with acidic mind chatter, it’s a fine life. I had a minor disagreement with co-workers over where to have lunch and here’s what happened.

The negative voice started out slight:

  • “They don’t like you.”
  • “They don’t want you around.”
  • “You’re so difficult.”
  • “Why can’t you go with the flow?”

But if left unchecked, that trickles to a flood of:

  • “You’re always the problem.”
  • “Nobody wants you.”
  • “Nobody likes you.”
  • “That’s why your girl left you.”
  • “Who could love you when you act like that?”
  • “You’re going to be alone for the rest of your life. And that’s what you deserve.”

Isn’t that a little over the top? In fact, it’s ridiculous. But that’s what I’m dealing with—a constant stream of hateration and holleration in my dancerie. The problem is… it’s not all untrue. Sometimes I am difficult. And I usually won’t just go with the flow. The voice isn’t a total liar, but—like a tabloid—it exaggerates so much, I don’t know WHAT to believe. Continue reading

How Titties Almost Got Me Saved

[Word count: 578. Approximate read time: 2-3 minutes]

Titties

I don’t know why I went to church this morning. Usually, I wake up on a Sunday and I just know, “today is not the day.” But I decided to drop in on a small church near me. When I arrived, the music was great, but I wasn’t interested in the pastor’s pleasant banter, so I tuned out to engage friends on social media.

“You know how you automatically tune in
when someone mentions something you care about?
I’m waiting for that. It’s not happening.”

“If the Lord really wanted to speak to me today,
he would make the pastor
work the word ‘titties’ into his sermon.”

(Between this and the hilarious responses, I’m just trying not to disrupt the service with an out loud guffaw.)

“I swear if he does it,
I will walk down the middle aisle and
rededicate my life to the Lord TODAY.”

“If God can speak through an ass,
I don’t see why he can’t
deliver my soul through titties.” Continue reading

The Darkest Night

[Word count: 721. Approximate read time: 3 minutes]

“Skepticism is the beginning of faith.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

What if, some glad morning when this life is over, none of us fly away? What if the lights go out and our stories just end?

More than a few occasions in 2012 found me devolving into a non-violent, slow-motion panic—mostly over my God and his perceived absence. Enough flummoxed descriptions of my mounting crisis of faith and someone finally put a name to it: the Dark Night of the Soul, a temporary spiritual crisis marked by doubts about the afterlife. Reportedly, Mother Theresa was a notable sufferer, having spent nearly 50 years of her life in this state. Though technically correct, nothing that lasts 50 years should get to call itself “temporary.”

For someone outside Christianity, a more accessible term may be existential crisis. Whatever you call it, I’m just glad it’s identifiable. If someone recognized it, then it wasn’t some new mystery disease with no treatment, no cure. Someone lived to tell the story. Continue reading

Worship, Unconscious

[Word count: 596. Approximate read time: 2 minutes]
DISCLAIMER: I wrote this August 8, 2012, but decided to sit on it until now. In light of my friend Robin’s recent illness and passing, it carries extra significance.

Imagine someone you love—a mother, father, sibling, cousin, or close friend—unconscious and unresponsive. You don’t know what caused it and you don’t know how long it’s going to last. But the doctors say, “Keep talking to them, they can hear you. They may also respond to touch.What would you do? How often would you visit? How long would you stay?

If it was someone I loved, I would become protective. I would be watching to make sure nurses and orderlies treated them right, kept them clean and comfortable. If it was my sister, I would sing our favorite songs to her. I would have DVDs of Good Times and The Jeffersons playing around the clock like she does most days.

If it was my mother, I would recite encouraging and empowering scriptures to her; she might respond to that. If it was my papa, I would massage his feet and make sure his toenails didn’t grow too long and uncomfortable. If it was me, I would want someone to touch me; hold my hand or stroke my forehead. For the love of God, make sure my lips aren’t chapped. I hate that.

And if it was your God, what would you do? Continue reading

Believe in a Mystery

[Word count: 933. Approximate read time: 3-4 minutes]

“If you want my love, well, you’ve got to get closer to me
I don’t understand why we can’t get close enough.”
—Jars of Clay, “Closer”

Access denied

I met an interesting girl online recently. She was the holy trinity of smart, talented, and beautiful. But, to my chagrin, she was very furtive and dodgy. If she was playing coy, she was playing to win. My curiosity was piqued because she kept her thoughts and feelings so hidden. Typical of me, I’m always fascinated by what I cannot understand.

I decided I wanted to get to know her better, but that wasn’t happening fast enough. So I worked up my nerve and expressed interest directly. The response I received was dusted with sugar. I imagine she giggled and shrugged her shoulders as she essentially told me, “you know enough about me already!” Fierfek.

The response landed like a playful punch on the chin, with the indication that a less-playful punch could follow if I didn’t pick up the first hint. Access firmly denied. She has decided to remain mysterious and aloof, the way she wants to be.

My ego was chapped over her polite refusal. But before I could get about the business of licking my wounds, I had déjà vu. The way I felt about her is the same way I feel about God. Well hot damn. Look at that. Continue reading