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

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[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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Train’s Comin’

[Word count: 316. Approximate read time: 1-2 minutes]

The C Train at 168th StreetI dig New York. And as crowded and filthy as they can be, I dig their subways too. I usually like flying by the seat of my pants when I catch the train, but I needed to get to midtown Manhattan in a hurry. My friend Scott was in town while I was visiting last summer, but he had to catch a flight out in about 2 hours.

My directions said to catch the C train going downtown. So I got into the subway at 125th Street in Harlem. Clamoring down into the station, sweat-glazed, and looking around with meager luggage in tow, I found I’d rushed for no particular reason. The A train came. And then the E. And then another A. I got anxious. I started to think my C train wasn’t coming. One more E came rushing through, picked up some passengers, and left behind an intimidating silence.

“Maybe I’m waiting on nothing. I heard there was some kind of modified service on the weekends. Maybe they were talking about this C train. I don’t think it’s coming. The A and E trains both head downtown though. Maybe you should board one of those and at least you’ll have gotten somewhere.”

It’s the same discouragement I felt after hearing too much “Jesus is on his way.” “The Word is true, you just have to keep at it.” All the while, no one has broken through the clouds. The promises have proved empty and nothing supernatural has transpired.

I thought, “I’m gonna miss Scott. Forget this. I’m just gonna board the next train that comes and figure something out when I get near 49th Street.”

Just then, another train emerged from the dark, green lights spelling out C. I laughed at myself. I felt foolish and elated, and I could hear Jesus saying with a wink, “See? I told you I was coming.”

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Hopsin’s Song of Lost Faith Hits Close To Home

[Word count: 464. Approximate read time: 2 minutes]

Rapper Hopsin in "Ill Mind of Hopsin 7"

“O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether.”

—Psalm 139:1-4

In a post on JFuzion.com, I discovered a music video for the recently released “Ill Mind of Hopsin 7” from former Ruthless Records rapper Hopsin. The Los Angeles native became a born again Christian 2 years ago, but now finds himself doubting his beliefs. With its starkly honest lyrics, a video set against a barren desert panorama is only appropriate.

If you can wade through the expletive-heavy verses without grimacing from offense, you’ll find the song is essentially a mournful prayer. Similar expressions of disappointment and lost faith might be found in Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Job, or Lamentations.

An orthodox Christian might declare this irreverent and unacceptable, but if Psalm 139:1-4 is true and you’ve ever prayed while in anguish, your distressed prayer probably sounded to God much like Hopsin’s may sound to us. Beneath the bared teeth of his words is a heartbreaking expression of hurt. Continue reading

Why Do Christian Artists Need To Lie?

Tim Lambesis of As I Lay Dying

[Word count: 577. Approximate read time: 2-3 minutes]

Billboard reports that Timothy Lambesis, lead singer of Grammy-nominated Christian metal band As I Lay Dying, now admits his band faked Christianity to sell records. Lambesis, who became agnostic while in college, says the ruse is not uncommon. “In 12 years of touring with As I Lay Dying, I would say maybe one in 10 Christian bands we toured with were actually Christian bands.”

How did no one notice? I suspect a familiar naïveté helped this to happen. Worship leader Michael Gungor described it in a viral blog post:

We really want the people on the stage…to have it together more than we do. Because we are messed up, we need them to be a sort of savior and hope for us. The result of this is…the people who are really good at pretending that they have it all together…make it to the stage and the book or album cover and the radio stations…

Rather than just being honest about where we are at and what we all struggle with…we look to our gatekeepers to…live morally vicariously for us.”

If you were to ask why Christian artists need to lie, the answer would be because Christians require it. When a believer asks you if you believe too, a plaintive puppy-dog-eyed “please say you do” is always implied.

The What Not To Say section of SuicideIsPreventable.org warns you not to ask questions in a way that indicates which answer you want to hear. It nearly invites dishonesty to say, “You’re not thinking about committing suicide, are you?” You might as well say, “This is what I want to hear. Please don’t tell me anything else, even if it’s true.” These are the things we like Christian artists to say… Continue reading

Maya Angelou Taught Me Too

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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

Am I Still a Christian?

[Word count: 561. Approximate read time: 2-3 minutes]

“Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!  Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you— unless indeed you fail the test.” —2 Corinthians 13:3-5

Remember when I told my mom I wasn’t going to church or looking for a new one, and she asked, “Are you still a Christian?” I was annoyed at the question, but I need to revisit it. My adopted grandma says, “You don’t have to go to my church, but you do have to go to my god.” So I ask: Have I gone to God recently? Is my heart still there? Is there a Google Maps app that can tell you how far away you are from God? (First person to say The Bible gets punched in the face.)

From what I told you I believe, things get cold sometimes. Things get dry. But the relationship is not dead. Living things have been frozen solid, but cold does not mean dead. Anyone who didn’t know my background might look at my relationship… frosted, unmoving, and deathly still… and deduce with good reason that it is dead.

If my mom sees someone call themselves a Christian while living below the expected standard, she’ll say, “But they’re not a real Christian though.” Ma might snatch that membership card away quick if you don’t pay your dues. Continue reading

Let Them Eat Cake: How to Fail at Christianity

MinistryFail
[Word count: 651. Approximate read time: 3-4 minutes]

“Alone in a room
It’s just me and you
I feel so lost
’Cause I don’t know what to do…”

Initially, when my mom heard this opening line from Yolanda Adams’ “Open My Heart,” it turned her off. Apparently Yolanda’s confession wasn’t positive enough. Having weathered enough trouble for two lifetimes, I understand the aversion. But I disagree with dismissing someone’s truth as “negativity.”

“So I need to talk to You
And ask You for your guidance…
That’s why I open up my heart to You.”

Had she stuck around for the rest, she would’ve noticed ministry happening. But it didn’t sound positive, so it got passed up. The preoccupation with positive confessions is a byproduct of the Word of Faith doctrine, which since its 1980’s prominence has come under fire. I’d like to fire a couple rounds into it myself. Continue reading

The Devil Made You Do It?

[Word count: 589. Approximate read time: 3 minutes]

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My family attended a COGIC church when I was young. One Sunday morning, I saw an old man with peculiar features. Darkish gray, wiry hair that radiated upward like flames leaping from fire. His eyebrows were rugged, metallic and sort of mounded up. He had angular features and a browned, narrow, stern face. He probably didn’t like children. I was about 5 at the time, but I leaned over to the woman next to me and asked, “Is that guy The Devil?”

She laughed heartily. It was an earnest question though. He fit the description, only missing a pitchfork and horns. Maybe Sunday was his day off and he decided to come to church. “The devil is busy.” “Ain’t nobody mad but the devil.” “The devil don’t want me to sing this song.” If that was him, he was sitting in the place where he gets talked about the most.

Who stole the cookie?

Once I was at a family gathering, playing games and we decided to do something for the kids and sing “Who Stole The Cookie From The Cookie Jar?” You sit in a circle, point at someone and accuse jokingly, “You stole the cookie from the cookie jar!” They respond “Who? Me?” “Yes, you!” They say “Couldn’t be!” We shout back “Then who?” and the song starts over again.

We go around the circle singing, smiling, and laughing, and then we get to the littlest baby girl and sing “Crystal stole the cookie from the cookie jar!” Crystal came completely out of the song. She saw 13 people pointing their fingers and accusing her. So she just cried.

No one likes to be at fault. Usually when confronted with wrongdoing, our first instinct is to lie and deny it or accuse someone else. That’s where the devil comes in. Everyone agrees the devil is bad. So if you say he did it, people will believe you and the police will stop dusting your house for fingerprints. Continue reading