Wednesday, October 24, 2018

You don't have to be Christian to be a good person

My dear friend Laurie Gerloff shot this "God photo" during a foggy morning walk near Eugene, OR. Like countless other non-Christians, Laurie is a kind, thoughtful, principled person whose "church" is without walls or ceilings. 

The parking lot at my popular health club was packed and I was late for Zumba. I picked the only spot I could looked too tight, but having an unwarranted faith in my parking chops, I went for it.

The sickening sound of metal against metal was followed by a string of expletives. Mine.

A quick look confirmed that I'd dinged another vehicle, and my Subaru Outback had scratches. Such a stupid thing that could mean excessive repair costs, insurance hassles and inconveniencing an innocent stranger. I was kicking myself.

The car's owner was nowhere in sight. I wrote a note with my contact information and slid it under a windshield wiper. 

After my class, seeing that my note was still unread, I made a quick visit to an auto body shop for a damage estimate. The estimator guy took a peek at the scraped paint and the invisible, to me anyway, minor damage to the bumper.

"What's it going to cost me?" I asked, steeling for the worst.

"You could go to a Subaru dealership and buy some paint," he said. "Bring it back, and we'll apply the paint for nothing."

I restrained myself from hugging him as I expressed relief and gratitude.

I asked if I could send the victim of my errant parking to him as the damage to her vehicle was also minor.


That afternoon I  got a call. The woman was cordial but miffed.

"Well, I guess I should get your insurance information so I can start dealing with this," she said.

I enjoyed telling the woman that she, too, could avoid insurance hassles. And, of course, I would pay for the paint.

She got right on it. Later the same day she called to report that the repair was done, and the local car dealer even had a sale on touch-up paint.

I mailed her a $10 bill and a friendly note

She called the next day when the note and money hit her mailbox.

The first thing she said: "You must be a Christian."

Silence on my part.

I was thinking of my friends and relatives, a few of them Christians, but most, not. 

All would have done the same thing I did. 

Well, no, I told her, when I gained control of my tongue. "I was raised a Lutheran, but it didn't take."

Silence on her end.

But, I continued, after the uncomfortable pause, "You don't have to be Christian to do the right thing. Or to be a good person."

The rest of our brief conversation was awkward. It was as if the idea that a non-Christian could be a good person had rendered her mute.

Like too many people in our sadly fractured culture, she's stuck in an us-versus-them, if-you're-not-a-believer-you-can't-be-a-decent-human-being-let-alone-be-my friend mindset.

Son Chris Korbulic captured this "God" image in the California redwoods. Another beautiful photo by a thoughtful man whose spiritual well is filled by the natural world.
On the other hand, I know people, good people, most of them friends and family, who have little if any tolerance for Christians, especially evangelical ones. They want nothing to do with them and have all kinds of preconceived notions that evangelicals are ignorant, bigoted, uneducated narrow-minded saps.

How do I know?

I learned the hard way during my thirties when I was immersed for three years in an evangelical church, an episode that shocked and/or dismayed most of my friends and family members.  

The majority of my people stuck with me, but one couple distanced themselves from my Christian self and no longer included me (us) in their monthly group discussions/potlucks.

How did I stumble into Pentecostalism?

This glowing lenticular cloud near Mt. Whitney looks inhabited by a UFO with a giant LED beacon on top. God is there, too, I think. Shot in the Alabama Hills just outside Lone Pine, CA in 2015. The Alabama Hills are magical and can't help but inspire thoughts about the greater picture - the Universe and our place in it. And God's place.

First a quick personal faith history. I was raised in the Midwest in a strict Lutheran church. Getting all dressed up and attending Sunday services was just what my family did. I did not question. But I did not enjoy. Every service included reciting the Nicene Creed, singing mostly joyless hymns, and enduring droning sermons that were too long.

I abandoned what passed for faith soon after leaving home to attend college and didn't revisit it until I was 33 years old, a newspaper reporter, wife, and mother of a two-year-old. A cooperative childcare situation brought me into contact with evangelical Christianity, and I attended a service out of curiosity. What the hell were these people doing attending church three times a week?!

I was blown away at a Pentecostal hands-waving-in-the-air, speaking-in-tongues, being-slain-in the-spirit, foot-washing kind of church.  This was in the tiny town of Rogue River, Oregon, where I still live. This was not the dull and dusty church I'd experienced as a kid, but a worship experience that flowed with emotion and fervor. There was not a dull moment, and the openness of the congregants with one another dazzled me.

I attended this church for three years, participated in a pastor-led Bible study, which I found enormously interesting, and joined the choir. I studied the Bible in classes and on my own. After about a year, I finally went forward during a Sunday service to accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.

Yes, I did that.

My come-to-Jesus moment elicited much excitement. People hugged and congratulated me. I was embarrassed by the undeserved attention. The pastor, however, was not impressed.

"You came forward" he acknowledged, as I was leaving the church. "But... do you believe?"

He guessed I didn't. He was right.

But I wanted to. So I continued to lift my hands and sing praises to God and to witness actions and interactions among the congregants that touched and astounded me.

I was stirred by Jesus. I ignored all the fierce, mean, judgemental jealous God stuff in the Old Testament and focused on Jesus's teachings.

He was harping always about love and forgiveness. Snippets of Bible verses: (Don't skip!)
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • God hath not given us the spirit of fear - but of love.
  • Love by serving one another.
  • It is good not to do anything whereby thy brother stumbleth or is offended, or made weak.
  • Love suffereth long, and is kind.
  • Be ye kind, tenderhearted, forgiving one another.
  • Let us not love in word only but in deed and faith.
  • Forgive, be merciful. Let not mercy and truth forsake thee; Write them upon the table of thine heart.
Imagine what the world might be like if those professing to be Christian, as well as those who don't, took these teachings to heart.  I know many who are and do. I love my Christian friends.

On the other hand, my beloved friends who are NOT Christian? They are also kind, forgiving, generous, loving people.

Some, however, do have a blind spot when it comes to Christians, again, the evangelicals especially. I wish they would get over it. We're all trying to the right thing. Aren't we?

The Sierra Nevada mountains near Mt. Whitney as seen through the Mobius Arch
 in the Alabama Hills. God is there, all over the place.

So back there in the 1980s I was reading the Bible and thinking about Jesus and how I might be a better person.

Forgive. Love. Be kind. Write these words on the table of your heart, Jesus instructed.

I tried inscribing the ticker without worrying so much about whether Jesus was God. He did not need to be God for me to believe that being kinder, more forgiving and loving was an all-around good idea.

Then along came Jerry Falwell, Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, Pat Robertson, and other revolting and corrupt televangelists. Sleaze, fleas, and blasphemies.

They were as far removed from most of the Christians in my lively little church as teddy bears are from grizzlies.

But some locals had contracted the Moral Majority fever being spread in the 1980s by Falwell, an activist preacher.

Falwell founded the Moral Majority, which helped establish the Republican fundamentalist Christian right as a political force. The organization opposed civil rights, women's rights and gay rights among other things. Sound familiar?

During the Moral Majority's heyday, a traveling preacher came to deliver messages to young people in my community at the church I attended. Somehow, the church was packed, and many of the youth were whipped up by the traveling preacher's rhetoric. Dozens of young people came forward to accept Jesus as their savior, even after the preacher bellowed about the immoral nature of popular music.

The next night, at his exhortation, teens brought their sinful CDs to be tossed into a bonfire built for that purpose on the edge of the church parking lot.

Yes. It was an air-and-spirit-polluting music-burning night in Rogue River, OR.  No different from burning books.

I was disgusted. I couldn't jibe the words and deeds of the Moral Majority crowd with the love and caring I witnessed and received in church.

Now, nearly 40 years later, I still love deeply the friend whose example made me curious enough to attend church in the first place. I appreciate the structure for doing good that churches provide and the love wattage that can blaze through a congregation, for God and for one another. And maybe even us heathens.

I have no regrets that I spent nearly three years immersed in the evangelical world. Instead, I am grateful to have some insight.

But I wish that Christian leaders would stick to preaching and steer away from politicizing.  It can be done.

And I have to admit that I am perplexed that so many Christians appear to be Trump groupies. Seriously folks, what would Jesus do?

I can't picture Jesus in a red ball cap railing at the desperate and dispossessed at the US/Mexican border.

"God" is in the vibrant leaves, the clear rushing water, the pristine
  air on the Upper Rogue River. 

Most Thursdays during cold wet months, a handful from the local congregation, people I met all those years ago, can be found dispensing homemade soups, sandwiches and Christian love to the homeless in our community.

Like me, they're getting old now, and some have serious health issues. Still, they're making vats of soup, loaves of bread, hauling it all to a parking lot, setting up a shelter, unloading everything onto tables, and going all out to do what Jesus commanded:
Love your neighbor as yourself.
                    Love by serving one another. 
Let us not love in word only but in deed and faith.

That's what real Christians do.

And, by the way, what many good-hearted non-believers do as well.