Thursday, January 19, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Born Again again

One fateful evening in 1988, I was working the prep line in a popular, high-volume restaurant in Albuquerque. For some reason that I cannot remember, I was in a particularly foul mood. One of the waitresses, who always seemed bubbling over with joyful exuberance needed some food item from me. I had to ask,

“How is it that you are always so happy?”

I should have known better. Her reply:

“It’s because I have Jesus in my life.”

Damn. Me and my big mouth. And as trite and childish as that answer seems to me now, at the time it made perfect sense. I was still a Christian. I was the Prodigal Son. I was ready to return home to my Father.

She attended a church that I had never heard of before, a place called Calvary Chapel, and she invited me to go on Sunday Evening. It was just a mile or two from the restaurant I worked at, so I hitched a ride with her. I was a little nervous. I had not been to church in over six years.

The building that the congregation met in was huge, and I quickly learned that it was a newly purchased and renovated indoor soccer arena. The pastor could not have been much older than myself - a young, tall, slender, handsome man named Skip Heitzig. I was struck by his boyish charm and obvious charisma. He looked less like the Pentecostal preachers of my youth, Grandpa Wagner and Pastor Jack, and more like a California surfer dude who just wanted to catch some sweet waves. I noticed that Pastor Skip favored casual wear over jacket and tie. He bore no resemblance to the stuffy Baptist ministers I knew in high school. The several hundred people in attendance were all dressed casually. Some of the younger men had long hair, beards and tattoos, and probably all the women wore pants. This brand of Christianity certainly did not follow the Biblical standards of dress that my old Baptist School did. The congregation and pastoral staff seemed to have no care about our outward appearance. These people bore more resemblance to the Jesus-hippies that wandered in and out of San Ysidro when I was a boy. Well, at least modern, spiffed up versions of Jesus-hippies. I felt more comfortable. I would not be harassed for my long hair or beard.

Pastor Skip’s sermon was very different from anything I had ever heard. He had no pulpit. No notes. He simply walked alone out on stage, sat on a stool, opened his Bible to the Book of Acts Chapter 13, and spent the next hour reading and commenting. There was no single subject or theme to his sermon. He was simply going through the Book of Acts, verse by verse by verse. He had been doing this during the Sunday Evening services for several months previous, and would continue for several months more, slowly commenting over every single verse of the Book of Acts, until the book was complete. Even though he was discussing Acts of the Apostles, he would frequently refer back to the Old Testament, from obscure passages in neglected books like Habakkuk and Malachi. He seemed to be doing what I had seen no other preacher or pastor do. He appeared to me to be taking a complete and systematic reading of the Holy Scriptures. He was doing what my childhood friend E---- once told me I had to do, treating the entirety of the Bible as an integrated whole, and an answer book and guide to every facet of my life.

Pastor Skip’s style was easy. He spoke calmly, unlike the ranting of Grandpa Wagner and the forced exuberance of Pastor Jack. He used pop-culture references to illustrate his points, including Star Trek, something unheard of in my legalistic past. He was funny, smart, good-looking and incredibly charismatic. This was not at all the Christianity that I had known up to this point.

The whole experience was very inviting. It spoke to me. It beckoned me to return. Jesus had shed his old, dirty, musty, unfashionable garments, took a bath, and put on new, clean and fresh clothes. I recognized Jesus again. He was the new Jesus for the 1980s.

I returned the next Sunday Evening by myself. The congregation was so large that I did not see the waitress that I went with the week previous. It did not matter. When the final worship song was over, the service was ended and the crowd was mingling about, I walked to the front of the auditorium to the stage. I kneeled. I knew what I had to do.

A very young assistant pastor put his hand on my back and kneeled with me. “Do you need prayer?”

“I need to give my life to Jesus.” I was already crying.

The young assistant led me to a small meeting room behind the stage. There were a few other people in there, praying quietly over private matters. I got on the floor, crouched on my knees rested my face in my hands and sobbed. I was curled over so that my face nearly touched the floor in front of me. I began crying like I had never cried before.

I don’t remember if I said anything in particular to the young assistant. I just remember crying. My face hurt. My red eyes swelled. My tear-drenched hands smeared through my wet hair. My nose was clogged with snot. I thought of all the years of rejection, abuse and heartbreak over my short life. I remembered that I had left Jesus when I needed him the most. I thought of all the trouble I had recently gotten into with the law, with my few friends and with my mom. I knew that I was miserable and that I was trying to solve my problems through running, hiding, running again, and pretending after each move that this time, THIS TIME, my problems would vanish, and my life would mend itself. In my foolishness, I was running from God. I could not hide. God wanted me home, and I needed to meet Him there.

I hated my worthless life of tragic failure. I hated my wretched self. But I wanted, so desperately, to love again. To live again. To finally do what was right, and to know how to do what was right. I repented of my pitiful, hopeless life. I repented of all the stupid, selfish, childish things that I had done up to that point. I wanted to turn my life around. I wanted to be good. I knew that to be happy, to be moral and to find some purpose in my life, I had to accept Jesus into my heart, and allow Him to perform radical surgery on my Spirit. I remembered what my step-dad Michael Wagner learned in AA when he was trying to quit drinking. Like him, I had to admit that I was powerless, that I had no good thing in myself, and the only thing that could possibly give my meaningless life hope was my Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Please Lord Jesus! Take me just as I am! I give my whole life to You!”

I remember the assistant leading me through some sort of Sinner’s Prayer. The only thing I remember about that whole episode was that I was crying so much that my words were barely intelligible to the assistant. I remember that he wanted me to repeat the prayer after him, and that I was having trouble saying it. I KNEW deep inside what I had to say, so I was barely paying attention to him.

“Say this – Dear Jesus, I repent of my Sins”

*sob* *cry* *sob* *sob*

“Jesus! Say ‘Jesus’”

*cry* *sob*

“Say ‘JESUS’! Are you having trouble saying that word? JESUS!”

So I collected myself enough to repeat his incantation. “Jesus, I repent of my Sins”

“Oh, good. You said it.” It was only later that I understood what was going on. The assistant thought I might be possessed by demons, and they were holding my tongue and preventing me from speaking the name of the Deity. The reality was that I was just choking and crying too much. What a marvelously medieval idea! This kid believed that an evil creature was somehow keeping me from invoking a Deity with a benevolent magic word. Amazing. That evening, in admitting that I was powerless and desiring to live virtuously, I entered into another world of invisible powers, creatures, forces and agendas. I was swept into the Real World, where our physical reality is a mere shadow for the true actions of the Spiritual Realm. It was a world that I would be forced to believe in if I wanted to repent of my miserable life, and change myself for the better.

And this was all true. My repentance was genuine. I wanted to follow Jesus because all my life I had been taught that this was the only way to have genuine happiness and fulfillment in life. I did not convert for fear of Hell or for any coercive pressures from my peers. I simply wanted a real life. I wanted to do good to my neighbor and to feel the sense of peace and contentment that I had never before really known. I wanted to turn my life over to Jesus, and allow Him to make me a new creature. So I prayed to Jesus for the first time in years, curled up on the floor in a near fetal position, and cried the pain and hurt away. The emotive force of handing my life over to a Deity for His control and will was unbelievably powerful. It is a moment I don't think I will ever forget.

“We have a new Brother in the Lord!” A smattering of applause and congratulations from the small number of people in the prayer room followed.

“Actually, I am a Christian. I just fell away for a long time.”

“Welcome home, Brother.”

I peddled back to my apartment wondering what to do next. All I knew was that, for the first time in years I felt guiltless. I felt forgiven. I felt clean. I could not sleep that evening. I knew my life would never again be the same.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - The hazy years

Entering the Air Force in September, 1982 was the biggest transition in my life thus far. My unruly and unfocused life was suddenly conformed to strict discipline. I certainly did not come from a military culture. I was the first person in my family since WWII to enter the military. I enlisted as a matter of desperation. I had no skills beyond those that could get me a job flipping burgers. Due to a variety of factors, both self-induced and not, my high school education was worthless. I had no incentive for further education. School and education, according to my immature and rotten attitude, was inaccessible to me. My parents were themselves uneducated, and did not give me any incentive, desire or ambition to continue my education. They could not communicate the merits of continued education since that was not on their horizon. They knew no better than I did. Since college was unattainable to me, I viewed concepts like a better future and personal ambition as character flaws of vapid yuppies. In my rebellion, I relished imagining myself as the downtrodden outsider. You can keep your stinking college education. Take your nice paycheck and shove it. I am the outsider. I am the oppressed. I am better than those of you who care about things like continuing education, starting a career or anything involving personal maturity, growth or responsibility.

I was angry, confused, emotionally immature and incredibly ignorant. I left high school completely unprepared for the challenges of adulthood. I was headed straight for a life of failure.

During Basic Training, we recruits were allowed to worship in chapel every Sunday morning, although it was not mandatory. Lakeland AFB, if I remember correctly, had two chapels, one for Protestants and one for Catholics. I went to the Protestant chapel. Twice. The service was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before. There was no sign of the Holy Ghost anywhere! Nobody spoke in tongues. Nobody showed any sign of possessing spiritual gifts. Some kind of liturgy was recited, but I don’t remember the particulars. I do remember feeling very uncomfortable practicing my religion in such unfamiliar surroundings.

So this must be what a dead church looks like. Pastor Jack used to warn us about dead churches that lack the indwelling of the Holy Ghost. They were ‘lukewarm’ Christians, if they were true Christians at all. Jesus would just as soon spew these churches out of his mouth.

So I rebelled. In the last article, I mentioned how the spiritual life of all my acquaintances had eventually changed for the worse, and I began to see the Christian morality that I had witnessed was a glossy veneer over horse dung, with all show and no substance. Mom divorced Michael Wagner while I was in the Air Force, soon after my younger brother had graduated from Cape Baptist Christian School. When I quietly realized that mom had married Michael solely to take care of us, and divorced him as soon as that need was fulfilled, I viewed even my mother as a Christian hypocrite. Her first divorce from my dad, even as abusive as he was, hurt deeply. The second divorce hurt in a different way. It made me understand that even Holy Christian Sacraments took backseat to selfish exploitation. I was burned out, fed up and frustrated.

Many years later, I view all these events of my young life with more maturity and understanding, but as a selfish and naïve youth in my late teens and early 20s, I was deeply hurt by the hypocrisy that seemed to come from all corners. I rebelled in the only way I knew how. I stopped going to church. I was sick of my life, and I was sick of God.

I became a Christian backslider. I became the stereotype that every preacher speaks about. I did not leave the Faith. I just needed to rebel against everything that I knew, and that included God.

So I forgot about God, Jesus, Church, Religion, and my brand new Thompson Chain Reference Bible for about six years. Since this is not an autobiography, but a recollection of my spiritual journey, I will quickly skim this period of time in which, not only religion, but curiosity, learning, science, ambition, or any other kind of growth, had no part of.

I only lasted in the Air Force for 3 years. I spent most of that time stationed in Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. I was too ignorant and immature to appreciate the opportunities that I was given. Instead of taking advantage of the benefits that the military gave me, I mostly spent my off-duty time drinking. I had rarely had liquor before, and even when I did, I did not care for it. But raucous partying seemed to be the thing to do in the Land of the Midnight Sun, so I rebelled by doing what all the other enlisted airmen I knew were doing – I partied. Suddenly, after years of being a misfit, I was the life of the airmen’s dorm. I got into my fair share of trouble, and it is a miracle that I did not get an Article 15 or at least a Letter of Reprimand. I was discharged after 3 years of a 4-year enlistment. Instead of investing in the GI Bill to pay for further education, I spent nearly every penny of my earnings on alcohol, cigarettes and music LPs.

I left the Air Force and moved back to Missouri, simply because I had nowhere else to go. Brother Bert, one of the volunteers at Cape Baptist Christian School gave me a job selling vacuum cleaners door to door. By this time, he was also smoking and drinking. Christians. They all backslide eventually. What a joke.

I never sold a single vacuum cleaner. Desperate for money I asked Brother Bert for an advance of 50 dollars on my income until I could sell one. He reluctantly agreed, and that night I left town. I used the money to drive back to New Mexico, where my mom, brother and sister had moved back to while I was in the Air Force. I never paid back my advance to Brother Bert, and never again returned to Cape Girardeau. I had lost my moral bearing. God? What God? Sinning was ok, and I felt unaccountable to any parent, employer, drill sergeant or teacher.

I drifted in and out of one dead-end job after the other for the next six years. I smoked and drank heavily. I had toyed with marijuana, but never developed a taste for it. I occasionally got in some small trouble with the law, mostly for harassing tourists who visited the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. Since it was a National Forest these tourists were visiting, it was Federal Law I was tempting by harassing tourists. I somehow got away with it. I got very, very lucky.

I eventually moved to Albuquerque and moved from one crappy, roach infested apartment to the next. My jobs were mostly in food industry as a dishwasher, line cook, prep cook, or waiter. It paid my meager bills, but the wages were low and no future was to be had in it.

By the late 1980s, I was again miserable. I was starting to mature emotionally, and I was not making an intentional nuisance of myself. I still drank, but I had stopped drinking myself into a stupor every evening. Yet, I felt like I had no direction, no hope, and no purpose. I felt like life was a joke. I was angry, bitter, depressed and lonely. My self-esteem had not really improved, and I had still not worked up the confidence to ask an attractive girl out on a date. Worse yet, I had mostly lost my curiosity and love of reading that had carried me through my high school years. And yet, during all this time of rebellion and misery, deep down in the core of my mind, I still believed. Why shouldn’t I? If I would have been asked, Was there a God? Was Jesus God’s only Son? Is there a Heaven and a Hell? or similar questions, of course, I would have answered YES to all those things. I had not rejected my religious beliefs. I had not critically studied them and knew enough about them to be able to reject them. No. I had simply ignored them. But I knew they were still there, as miserable and depressed as I was.

In other words, my emotional and mental state was such that I was a perfect candidate for a life-shattering, world-shaking religious conversion. And that is exactly what happened.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Too much information

About the time I was forced to repeat my senior year of high school was the first time I began to doubt my Christian Faith. I did not doubt the truthfulness of Jesus, but I did doubt what role, if any, he really played in our lives. It was also a time of great adolescent insecurity and confusion for me. I was physically leaving childhood and becoming a young man, but I was emotionally still a very young child. Nearly every Christian who was involved with my life had a failure of Faith during these years. Either they left the Faith, revealed themselves to be hypocrites in their Faith, or failed in some profound way in their walk with Jesus. I did not understand how the Holy Spirit could fail in his empowerment of all our lives, but in the end I just chalked it up to our own human faithlessness. I graduated from high school in 1982, thoroughly confused about every aspect of my life, not just my Christian Faith.

Cape Baptist Christian School was located in the three-room basement of Cape Baptist Christian Church. When I enrolled, the student body consisted of 35 youngsters in grades 1 through 12. To keep things simple in my family, my younger brother and sister enrolled at the same time that I did, although their grades were much better than mine. The school followed the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, which in the years since has become very popular with Fundamentalist homeschoolers. At the time, ACE was a new and revolutionary method of education, which incorporated Holy Scripture into our learning environment. The entirety of my ACE education consisted of me sitting in a small study carrel, reading selections from my student workbook, and answering quiz questions at the end of each section. Each workbook, called a PACE, contained a reading assignment, written from the perspective of Christian Fundamentalism. In hindsight, it was the most ineffective form of education imaginable. Not only were the assignments in history and science heavily slanted to favor Fundamentalism, but the questions were designed to be answered by merely repeating something we had just read. The education I received at this school was nothing but the chore of repeating what I had earlier read. It was nothing but call and response. We were taught no better than parrots. We had no teachers to give us lessons. Everything we needed was contained in the PACE. The ACE curriculum was nothing but glorified homeschooling. If I had a question, I would raise my little American flag over my study carrel, and an eager and untrained volunteer would come to answer our questions. There were 3 or 4 volunteers who helped us with our PACEs. I have forgotten most of their names, but I do remember Miss Betty, Brother Bert, Brother Dave and the school Principal, Brother Ed. The education and instruction was inane, but when I enrolled and learned about the workbooks, all mom and I thought at the time was, “this seems easy. I should be able to graduate from here.” It astounds me that the school was in fact recognized and accredited by the state of Missouri, so my diploma was valid.

Cape Baptist Christian School was my first encounter with the Baptist Church. The Jesus Movement of southern California heavily influenced my family’s earlier Pentecostal beliefs, and we were not at all used to all the rules that we suddenly encountered. First, I had to cut my hair. So much for that Peter Frampton look that most of us young teenage boys were going for. Second I had to shave every day. So much for that patchy peach fuzz I was becoming proud of. I had to wear a uniform. The boys wore a blue shirt with an American Flag clip-on tie, and the girls wore blue, ankle length dresses with white blouses and blue vests. I actually grew to appreciate the uniforms and short hair, because I had learned that much of my school bullying came from class distinctions brought on by clothing, hair and fashion. As much bad as I have to say about Cape Baptist Christian School, I will give them this to their credit – the constant bullying I encountered in public school vanished, and I actually grew to like nearly all my fellow Christian students.

We were not allowed to listen to secular music. I think this rule affected me the most personally. I could understand why they did not want us listening to KISS (Knights in Satan’s Service), Donna Summer (love to love ya, baby!) or God forbid, the Village People (disgusting homosexuals). But I did not personally enjoy most of those forms of popular music. At the time I was paying regular visits to the local used record shop, and learning about jazz, classical and British progressive rock – not exactly sensual music that you could grind your hips to.

I don’t know how many times I argued with Brother Ed regarding music. He told me that rock music was evil because African tribes pounded their drums with the same rhythmic patterns that were used in rock music during their Satanic human sacrifices! I told Brother Ed to hide all his kitchen knives. Since they were used to carve human hearts out of innocent victims of African human sacrifices, those must also tools of Satan!

Brother Ed told me that I could not listen to jazz since it is purely secular and not glorifying to God! I told him that by this logic I could not do anything – play sports, read a book, watch a TV show, or go for a hike, because these did not glorify God either! He told me I was right. Ooops - that argument sure backfired.

I also loved Handel’s Messiah. I had the complete oratorio on a 4 LP box set. Fortunately, I was allowed to listen to that! Of course, I listened to whatever I wanted when I was in my own bedroom, even though I could be expelled if I was caught. Mom certainly did not care what I listened to, and even enjoyed most of the same music I did. Michael mostly enjoyed country Gospel music and had many LPs in that genre.

Girls were not allowed to wear pants or make-up. Some girls belonged to a very strict denomination that did not allow their women to cut their hair at all. I remember one young girl, cute as could be and a year younger than myself, who had hair to rival cousin It from the Addams Family. She was allowed one pin to hold it all in place, since more pins than that would have been too ostentatious a display of feminine wiles. My younger sister hated wearing ankle length dresses, especially during Missouri’s cold winter months. The school was so emphatic about their students following Biblical standards of dress both on and off campus, that she nearly panicked when she saw brother Ed at the grocery store while she had her pants on! Brother Ed did stress that Christian values must be followed outside of school hours or we could be expelled.

We were not allowed to go to the movies. We could not even see ‘Disney’ movies, as family friendly movies were called back then. Everybody knew that movies were sinful and not glorifying to God, but even viewing Disney movies would fund movie studios with more money to make what they really wanted – movies that mocked God. Movies were out. Mom did not like us seeing movies either, although she did allow us to see some family friendly fare. And of course, she did cave in and allow us to see Star Wars. Television was also becoming a sticky point, and there were many television programs we were not allowed to watch. It was a different time and the boundaries that were being pushed back then are trivial compared with our modern shock and awe media. I still remember the hot flushed embarrassment I felt one evening while watching MASH. In a dramatic moment, Hawkeye Pierce called an evil Korean soldier a ‘son of a bitch”. I really was shocked, which I am sure was the program’s intent. Such language coming from the television really concerned my mother.

At Cape Baptist Christian School, my classes included New Testament Survey, Old Testament Survey, Collectivism (a sample test question from this class: “Where is Mao Tse Tung at this moment?” The answer, which I got correct, was “Hell”) and the subject I dreaded most – algebra. The algebra PACE was nothing but page after page of algebra problems. All I had to do was solve for x several thousand times and I could earn my high school diploma.

It was around this time that most of the Christians in my life had some failing or another in their Faith. My spirit empowered stepdad Michael Wagner began to drink. His drinking got heavier and heavier, and he would occasionally do stupid things like lock mom out of the house and threaten us if we opened the door for her. I remember what alcohol did to my real dad, and although Michael never physically harmed me, his drunkenness sometimes frightened me. He started going to AA, and had mixed success with that fellowship of struggling alcoholics. Despite our weekly prayers for him when he missed church, Jesus seemed to play no part in his recovery.

Mom was clearly backsliding. Her Holy Ghost inspired worship and daily devotionals vanished in the home. She prayed only on Sunday mornings, and although she still believed that Jesus was the only way to her salvation, it was clear to me that the fervor of her Pentecostal years in New Mexico were gone.

The members of the Wagner Family church were scattered about southeastern Missouri, and were all in some kind of trouble. All the children from that church, all the kids who used to roam the New Mexico desert with me, were growing older. We sometimes went to visit my friends, the Johnsons, who lived in a tiny farmhouse outside of Perryville, Missouri. The oldest daughter in that family was becoming a real beauty. Not quite an adult, but clearly not a young girl anymore. I knew there was trouble when I saw that her dad playfully let her sit on her lap, wrestle and giggle with her as if she were a toddler, and clearly ooze hormonal lust as she wore her Daisy Duke shorts around the house. This man, who I remembered from New Mexico as a fire breathing hellfire preacher was, to my disgust, clearly showing signs of lusting after his own daughter. I struggled with my own sexual sin, but he did not think us teenagers could pick up on his.

I occasionally spent the night with them. It was not unusual for us to sleep in the same bed together (I grew up with 3 of us crammed in the same bed). The oldest boy, E----, was teaching me about a great new fantasy dice game called Dungeons and Dragons. He told me not to play it around anybody from church, and he had already seen his fair share of trouble from it. Paradoxically, E---- sometimes placed convictions on me to take the Bible more seriously than I did.

“The Bible is like God’s answer book. I know you are having problems with school, with girls, things like that. But the Bible is the only book you need. You have a problem, you just look up the right passage in that book, and God will have an answer for you right there.” I found him convincing, and did my best to read and learn the Bible on my own.

Once when I was spending the night with E----, as I lay in bed with him, the lights were out, and were talking about things boys talk about. Then he asked me, “Have you ever heard about how the French people kiss? They place their tongues in each other’s mouths when they kiss. Sounds weird huh? Do you want to try it?

I told him “no”. I remember not being shocked, just confused.

“Can I rub my dick against your butt? It feels good. I know it sounds weird, but you will never know if you will like it until you try it.”

Again, I rejected his advance. It is strange that I did not move out of his bed. I just lay and went to sleep. He never spoke to me like that again. Perhaps it was just adolescent curiosity, I don’t know. Perhaps he was just a confused teenager, who spoke about the truth of the Bible from one side of his mouth and anal sex from the other. But his Christian convictions, and those of his Spirit empowered family were certainly not what they used to be.

I saw it again and again. Professed Christians, many of whom I had grown up with, were betraying their Faith. I had seen the miracle working power of Jesus in action! I had seen, with my own eyes, people being healed of all manner of sickness and deformity! I had seen people speaking in tongues, and being Slain in the Spirit! All these Signs and Wonders seemed to vanish as I grew older. It changed my own Faith. For the first time in my life, I doubted. I did not doubt Christianity, or the Salvation brought by Jesus, or the “plan” that he had for my life. I doubted the true power of Jesus to keep us under his protective wing. I doubted his power to give us the strength necessary to overcome temptation. Was it our failing human faithlessness? I had previously seen the evidence faith in all these people, even my own mother, and yet we were forgetting Jesus. At the time, I did not know who or what to blame for the hypocrisy.

I had my own hypocrisy to deal with, my own sins, and my own struggles. I know that I struggled mightily with my own sexual sin. I know I did my best to be Faithful to Jesus, and to allow his Spirit to empower me in the face of temptation. But like my friends and family, I could see the power of Jesus wane even in my own life. As faithful and as prayerful as I tried to be, I always submitted to my lustful thoughts. I was taught that it was never the fault of Jesus. He was giving me the strength. Rather, it was always my own fault. I believed that the fault always fell on my shoulders when I could not resist sexual temptation. But I simply did not know how to be any more Faithful! I prayed, I read my Bible, I meditated, I gave to the church from my meager lawn mowing earnings, I did everything I could think of! Yet it never seemed to be enough. The guilt and shame that continually ran through my mind during this time was a terrible burden.

At school, we boys were allowed to talk to girls, but we could not touch them or sit near them on the bus. If we had to take a bus to a school function, usually a basketball game, and sitting near a girl was unavoidable, we had to place a bible between us so as not to make physical contact. Sex was never discussed, only dismissed. This school never educated us about Sex, they only wished it away and pretended that it did not exist. We were told that sex outside the bounds of matrimony was Evil and Sinful, and that lust of a woman’s body was a grave sin and something for us to be shameful of. That was about the extent of our sexual education. But these rules and attitudes about sex were being pushed into my head when I was 17 years old – a time when my body was changing, a time when I was craving the attention of girls, a time when I needed that education the most! Since I had come from a background of hippie communal living, I had a better understanding of sexuality than most, yet it was still something that was never discussed in our home, church or school! I was at that age when I would long to talk to unreachable girls, to attract their attention and get to know them. When I could not, I had to go home and try not thinking about them – which was easier said than done when I was 17. But this led me to think of avoiding the temptation to commit the most shameful sin that I could commit as an adolescent, one I fought mightily to control, and nearly always lost.

“No. I will not. I will not. Lord Jesus give me strength. Give me strength. Give me strength against this temptation!”

I would imagine Jesus, looking down in disapproval from his Heavenly throne.

“No. I will not. Please give me strength Lord Jesus!”

I knew Jesus hated my Sin. I could not get the thought out of my head though. I know that Jesus told me that to look upon a woman with lust was already to commit adultery with her, and I knew that just thinking about her, pondering, entertaining the idea of being with her was just as sinful as fornication. I also knew that masturbation was simply the act of giving in to that most heinous temptation. I might as well be a rapist!

This act of shame and disgust happened very frequently in my high school years. Every time it was the same. I would pray for strength. I would ask Jesus for strength against temptation. I would wash my face. I would try thinking of something else. Eventually and inevitably my raging hormones, conditioned by millennia of evolutionary processes, would finally win. I would ultimately just give up, and give in to temptation while alone in my bedroom, and commit the most foul of lustful Sins in the presence of the Savior of my soul. Sometimes while wiping up the resulting mess, I would cry in shame and disgust. I prayed for forgiveness. “Jesus, I am sorry, I am sorry. I repent of my lust. I repent of my lust. I ask that you give me strength to never do it again, never do it again.” I would feel a sudden surge of moral strength that would usually last about two days before temptation struck again.

What was I to do? It was a terrible catch-22! I figured that I was losing to temptation because I was not Faithful enough to Jesus. But I did not know how to be more Faithful, except by praying to Jesus empower me with the Holy Spirit. But I did not think that Jesus was honoring that prayer because of my continued sexual sin!

It was this never-ending cycle of lust, sexual sin, guilt, and repentance that kept me in a state of religious anxiety. I remember once when a special guest was to come visit our church. It was said that he was a prophet, and some people told me, in awe, how he could look into a person’s eyes and discern all their secret sins. I somehow managed to skip that Sunday service. I feared being called out in front of the entire New Hope congregation.

I was not the only one. Again and again, I saw Christians give in to sin. Some continued to profess Christianity, others did not. In the surrounding years, I think I saw everybody fall to some extent. Our Christian summer camp, Camp Penuel, was a sanctuary for Bible reading and prayer by day, and a hotbed of teenage Christian sex by night. The dichotomy confused both my brother and me. One of our teachers at Cape Baptist Christian School, Brother Dave, was fired for inviting some of us teenagers to a party at Cape Rock. It included rock music and alcohol. Not that our principal Brother Ed was innocent, he was just more subtle in his approach. He practiced corporal punishment on only two girls during the time I was there, both were by paddle, and both were 18 years old. In the years since, both women have told me that he made a habit of paddling them, alone, in his office. They knew it was strange and creepy, but it was allowed by school policy, their parents had signed a waiver which allowed paddling, and the young women were left powerless to his obvious but secret fantasies.

Christian morality was crumbling in my mind. Sex was an abomination, yet it was everywhere. It was pervasive, yet it was never discussed. Everybody seemed to be engaged in it, yet it was wished away and repented of. It was only allowed if it was kept quiet and subtle. It seemed to be allowed if we were just sneaky enough.

I finally graduated high school in 1982. I had a graduating class of 3, the two aforementioned girls and myself. I never did finish my algebra PACE. Brother Ed gave me my diploma, on the condition that I would finish my algebra PACE over the summer, a condition I never fulfilled. I was conditioned to think that I would never be good at math, so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mom and Michael gave me a Thompson Chain Reference study Bible for a graduation gift. I loved it! It had a brown leather cover, with my name, in tiny gold print, embossed on the lower right corner. I still own my Thompson Chain Reference.

I had no prospects for the future. I had no skills, no desire, no direction. I had heard of college, but I was never directed towards it. That was something that rich kids did. Other kids got scholarships, whatever those were, and went to college. My dad was a lumberjack. Michael was a house painter. Mom picked up whatever odd jobs that she could. I was doomed to a life of low-wage manual labor, and I never questioned that destiny. I spent a very difficult summer with dad in a logging camp, and decided that logging was too physically demanding for me. I took the only route I could see open to me. I enrolled in the Air Force and became a telecommunications operator.

To my shock, mom divorced Michael. The drinking became too much. Mom told me that there were many things I did not understand. She told me that she did not know if she ever really loved Michael Wagner after all. It was then that I realized that she had married Michael, not for love, but just for the sole purpose of taking care of her children. She married him at a time in her life when she was penniless and desperate. Still, in my young adulthood, in my naiveté about the world, I did not understand. All those sermons I had heard over the years, all that talk about Christian marriage, the sinfulness of divorce and Holy matrimony was betrayed. I remember crying when mom gave me the news of the divorce. The last time I saw Michael was in 1985. Apparently, this Holy Ghost filled preacher’s son was running from the law. He had hit his new girlfriend with a hot iron and was attempting to skip on his bail. He somehow found me and asked for money. I had none to give, so he left. I was stunned at his hypocrisy! He drank too much, he was divorced from my mother, he beat up another girl, and he was trying to get money from me so he could hide from the law. I was so angry at bogus Christian morality, at Michael, at mom, at my own frustration, that I kicked the first thing that I saw. Unfortunately, the brick wall was harder than my foot, and I had to drive myself to the emergency room with a broken toe. I never saw or heard from Michael Wagner ever again.

OH! I nearly forgot to mention this. It was also about this time that I last saw the cute girl with the huge mop of religiously required hair. I did not recognize her. She had a pixie cut, modest makeup and looked as happy as could be!

This was a particularly difficult article for me to write. Dear Reader, I hope you will excuse my ending it with that happy memory.

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Losing the fire, the spirit and innocence

So far, I am enjoying writing about my Conversions and De-conversions. I am noticing certain trends, and piecing together aspects of my young life that would lead to my continued entrenchment into religion, and my ultimate de-conversion from religion.

What, in my story so far, has led to my de-conversion?

My parents were not rooted in a strong religious tradition. They were just as spiritually adrift as I was.

I had an early, if undeveloped, exposure to evolution, paleontology, and astronomy.

I loved to read, even at an early age. I loved picture books, but I was not afraid of reading more advanced material – even if I did not understand it all.

I was already critiquing the very human nature of worship by seeing the artificial patterns in it.

I was inspired by personalities on television that were unlike anybody I knew in my real life. Television scientists seems so much more interesting than our ranting pastor, Grandpa Wagner.

But there were also things adrift in my life that would eventually lead me deeper into religious belief:

I was becoming increasingly aloof, alone, depressed, confused, and even angry.

I was raised in a stifling environment. I knew no other perspectives or points of view. Unlike my desert isolation in New Mexico, I knew alternate religious traditions were out there. I was aware of Methodists and Unitarians in Cape Girardeau. But they were not in my sphere of influence, and I had no compelling reason to investigate them. I had my Truth. My religious destiny seemed forced on me by a channel of ignorance.

Those were the ‘Seeds of Change’ in my young life. Each of these items would only intensify after my family moved to southeast Missouri, and I entered my high school years. One more item would be added in those years, and I am not sure if it caused my de-conversion from religion, or my entrenchment into religion. Probably both. I will discuss that in my next installment of this series.

I never felt more out of place, I was never more a fish out of water, than when I was living in Southeast Missouri. I still remember my first morning there, as I woke up in a tent Grandpa Wagner had pitched on somebody’s farm. I remember the smell of freshly cut alfalfa, rolled into giant circular bales, unlike the square bales I was used to seeing in New Mexico. I remember an intense humidity unlike anything I had ever experienced. I remember the peculiar Midwestern food, which was completely absent of beans, red chile, or corn tortillas. Nobody spoke Spanish, and there were no mud brick homes.

There were no long-haired Jesus Freaks who wore patched bellbottoms and ill-fitting, hand-sewn, embroidered vests. Except us.

The whole reason the entire Wagner family and church followed Grandpa Wagner in his move to Missouri was to spread his vision of Pentecostal Christianity. But the church that Grandpa Wagner wanted to start never materialized. Grandma Wagner, ‘Old Toothless’ as my dad called her, had died sometime around our move. In hindsight, I suspect she was the quiet glue that held the whole church together. She seemed to be a Christian relic from another time. She was a haggard, humorless, stern, frightening woman, and upon her death the whole church, along with the Wagner family disintegrated. Grandpa Wagner eventually married a younger Midwestern woman (‘younger’ meaning mid-40s), and retired to a life of selling his woodcrafts in local art shows. I don’t think he ever preached again.

The Wagner family and church split and went their separate ways in the southeastern Missouri region. Michael Wagner and my mom spent the next couple of years moving from one tiny farm town to another, looking for some kind of employment. We eventually settled in Cape Girardeau, Missouri where I was enrolled in 7th grade. My grades in school had already started to deteriorate before we left New Mexico. In Missouri, they completely tanked. The school bullying increased to an almost unbearable level. The classes in my new school were much larger than the tiny school rooms I was used to in Jemez Valley Elementary, and because I had earlier advanced a grade, I was still the youngest and among the smallest in my class. I was viewed as an outsider, an oddball, and a complete misfit in the Midwest. Public school, for me, was a complete and utter waste of time, and most of my time was just spent trying to avoid trouble. I am ashamed to admit that in being bullied, I sometimes, rarely but sometimes, became myself a bully. In my frustration, I sometimes beat up youngsters who were even weaker than I was – most of those with some kind of mental disability that we all did not mind laughing at. What a miserable and depressing time! In hindsight, I can honestly say that my high school years were by far the worst years of my life.

Those first few years were especially rough. I would sometimes skip school altogether, and instead of taking the school bus, I would walk to the public library and spend the day there. I still loved to read, and the library was my escape portal to the outside world.

July 20th 1976 was a monumental day for me. I had hoped that Viking, the giant probe then orbiting the planet Mars, would land on the planet’s surface on the nation’s Bicentennial, but it eventually landed on the 20th of July. In September, I saw the first pictures from Viking, when a photo of the planet’s surface made the cover of National Geographic. I was astonished. That photo I was looking at was the surface of another world! That tiny red dot in the sky, the wanderer that was named after the Roman god of war looked just like Death Valley in California! The photo I was looking at was of an alien world that no human had ever spoiled with a single footprint or had ever once been gazed upon. The Viking Lander absolutely astounded me in my youth. I desperately wanted to be a part of it, to be associated with something that immense, but had no idea how. Instead, I spent my time skipping as much class as I could get away with.

From what I remember, the religious culture of Cape Girardeau was quite diverse, but was mostly made up of various Pentecostal denominations and some Methodist churches. Of course, everybody in town claimed to be Christian, but I had been taught that most of the churches, especially the large ones that rung bells every day at noon, were dead, lifeless and without the Holy Ghost. They were no better than Catholics. They relied on dry liturgies, formulas, and ritual. My family looked for the smaller churches, those with little organization, and that got their power straight from the Holy Ghost. We found that in Missouri, especially in the backwoods areas, this could be carried to amazing extremes. We visited churches that were frightening even by our own ecstatic, tongue speaking standards. I remember one tiny country church, where a young man, completely out of control while he screamed in tongues, almost lost grip of his baby, which he held coiled in his arm like a football. Such chaotic displays were too much even for my mother. We eventually found a small, but growing ‘non-denominational’ church that was to our liking. I will call it the New Hope Church, led by Pastor Jack. I remember Pastor Jack and people of New Hope to be all very good people. Mom and Michael met many people there in the years we spent at that church, and my mom still has nothing but good things to say about the people there. New Hope welcomed us into their congregation, and most of the friends we made in Missouri were associated with that church. New Hope certainly manifested the spiritual gift of Other Tongues, along with interpretation, and Pastor Jack could certainly get excitable. But the chaos of being Slain in the Spirit and the frightening rants of Grandpa Wagner were over. New Hope seemed much more stable then the tiny, unhinged church that we left in San Ysidro.

My religious beliefs started to fully mature during this time. Jesus was becoming less of my invisible, magical friend, and instead becoming more of a god whom I must learn to obey and worship. It was at New Hope where concepts like the Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, Justification and Sanctification began to find their definition in my mind. The infallibility of the Bible was more emphasized than I had ever heard from Grandpa Wagner. Jesus Christ was God Almighty from eternity past, and was the creator of our Universe. Jesus was the second member of the Trinity, which was the sole nature of God in three Persons, being God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Ghost. The Trinity was analogous to water being in the forms of vapor, liquid and ice – not quite, but good enough a model for a teenager. Adam and Eve were the first humans on the newly created planet. Because of their rebellion, mankind was lost in Sin, and were thenceforth forever separated from the Holy nature of God. But the only Son of the Father, Jesus, because of his love for us, became fully human while somehow still remaining fully divine. Actually, Jesus was sometimes said to have humbled himself and stripped himself of his divinity, and other times was said to be both simultaneously divine and human. Confusing, true, but I did not at the time worry myself with those technicalities. Jesus descended to planet Earth, and as the sinless and perfect man, sacrificed himself to his vengeful Father, to redeem and justify mankind from their Sin. Our human obligation was to repent, turn to God, and accept the sacrifice of His only Son, thus rejecting our own inherent sinful nature, so we could become fully acceptable to His holy nature. The Bible was the sole authority of our knowledge of God, our sinful nature, and his gift of Salvation. The Bible was inspired and inerrant, meaning it was without error, and above doubt, question and critique.

Quite what this all meant, I don’t think I was fully sure. But I fully believed it all. I had no choice but to believe it. I might as well have tried not believing in my own Being as to not believe in what I was taught about God, Jesus, the Bible, and the predicament of His creation. It was the only paradigm I knew. I was vaguely aware that other religions existed, including dead and heretical Christian denominations and Catholicism, but I had little reason to consider them, at least not until my curiosity got the better of me in my last year of high school. My Christian Beliefs were the only Necessary Beliefs and there was no need or desire to question them. If somebody had asked me why I believed what I did, I don’t know what my answer would have been. I suspect the very question would have puzzled me. Why ask? The thought of even asking for reasons was beyond my religious horizon. I lived the life of pure Faith. There was no reason. It simply Was.

We continued to believe in the near return of Jesus in the form of the Rapture, and the beginning of the Great Tribulation, which was the seven-year reign of the Beast, popularly known as the Anti-Christ, upon Earth. A popular and amazingly influential writer named Hal Lindsey was becoming well known during this time. Nearly everybody read, or at least owned, his books The Late Great Planet Earth, Satan is Alive and Well, and There’s a New World Coming. These books, which were Lindsey’s interpretation of the Apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation and implausibly read into newspaper headlines, formed the backbone of many of Pastor Jack’s sermons. Instead of Grandpa Wagner’s hellfire rants, Pastor Jack calmly lectured us, with the aid of an overhead projector, the confusing interpretations of the bowls, seals, trumpets and other bizarre apocalyptic imagery. I did not understand much of it, except that the imagery of impending Holy War and the End of the Age was very frightening. I remember one sermon in particular, that I thought demonstrated the amazing prophetic vision of the Bible. Pastor Jack, with the aid of maps and hand drawn pictures on his overhead projector, showed how the blessing of Moses:

And of Asher he said, [Let] Asher [be] blessed with children; let him be acceptable to his brethren, and let him dip his foot in oil. Thy shoes [shall be] iron and brass; and as thy days, [so shall] thy strength [be]
– Deut 33:24-25.

was actually a prediction of some newly discovered Israeli oil wells located somewhere near Mt Tabor, which amazingly enough was in the ‘toe’ portion of the boot-shaped Asher. Most maps show Zebulon and Issachar to be where Pastor Jack included Asher, and I am not sure if oil was ever found near Mt Tabor, but we were quite impressed nevertheless. Driving home I told mom I was amazed by Pastor Jack’s sermon and demonstration that the Bible could predict the future so accurately. She agreed.

I owned a comic book, which summarized the popular apocalyptic beliefs of New Hope Church in the late 1970s. Surprisingly enough, it was made by the same people who put out Archie Comics, and I was shocked when I saw it again on the Internet. This comic, which I must have read a million times, is a good synopsis of my view of the impending world, and how to avoid being damned in the crossfire, by our loving Savior Jesus. I also find it quite nostalgic. I owned lots of these Spire Christian Comics, including The Hiding Place, Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys and Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. While not as horrific in worldview as Chick Tracks, they accurately represent my Fundamentalist beliefs of that time. Like Chick Tracks, I probably got the majority of my theology from memorable comics like these. Check them out.

Looking back, and comparing my young years of Christianity in New Mexico to those in Missouri, I can detect very subtle changes in our spiritual lives. Life in Missouri was immensely more complicated than the relatively simple, yet primitive desert life of New Mexico. As Fundamentalist as New Hope was, Grandpa Wagner and his home Pentecostal church offered a life of unquestioned absolutes. Things were simple when there was a single Holy Ghost, Fire Breathing, Tongue Speaking, Miracle and Healing Pentecostal church and a single heretical Satanic Catholic church in the town. Things were uncomplicated in the desert, where we made a simple living by selling goat milk and cheese to the hippies who came down from the Jemez mountains to our humble, mud-brick home. We were Holy Ghost empowered because we could be. We could sing and dance to homemade Gospel songs all night, with not a care in the world. Our penniless, Jesus Freak, hippy lifestyle was a temporary life in an alternate universe. Things were different in Missouri. Suddenly, family obligations became more demanding. Mortgages and bills had to be paid, and laws requiring children to be in school were enforced. Somehow, the Holy Ghost Fire that we had in New Mexico vanished. There were more outside influences from the larger population of Cape Girardeau, more religious diversity to contend with and alternate points of view. Mom and her three children were getting older. Our religion, though still Pentecostal, was becoming even more formulaic. The wild Jesus Freaks from New Mexico were becoming domesticated. Innocence was not quite lost, but she was slipping away like a dream.

As a born-again Christian, I was supposed to be living a life of sanctification, and continually emboldened and made into the image of Jesus by the power of the Holy Ghost. But in truth, there was nothing special about this Born Again child of God. I was a very confused, somewhat rebellious, hormonally driven, misfit teenager. School was a continued source of torment. I was certainly smart enough, but I was apathetic. I was given no direction for my future by my parents, pastor or school. I simply drifted by, trying to avoid others. I was to graduate high school in the summer of 1981, but I flunked one too many basic algebra courses. I was simultaneously enthralled by Carl Sagan’s PBS series Cosmos, intrigued by Steve Allen’s other PBS series Meeting of the Minds, yet I could not pass a stupid math class, and had to repeat my entire senior year of high school. My continued depression sank me to crushing lows. Mom was at wits end. As ashamed of myself as I was, I fought with mom against sending me back to Cape Central High School for another year. I could not bear another year of torment in that school. Mom finally and reluctantly enrolled me in a small private school owned by a Baptist church, which we had never attended.

I spent my final year of high school enrolled in Cape Baptist Christian School (again - a bogus name), the smallest school I would ever attend. This was my first time being affiliated with the Baptist denomination, and I again stepped into another world of religious stagnation.

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Friday, January 6, 2012

Conversions and Deconversions – Learning of Science and Sin

Worshipping Jesus was not my thing. It seemed too human. The patterns that I detected within the chaos were too predictable. Too transparent. At the same time, I was becoming more socially aloof at school. Because I had skipped the 2nd grade, I was the youngest, and usually the smallest in my class. I was always the best reader in my class, and I was viewed as the Teacher’s Pet. Some teachers displayed their affection for me a little too openly. I received some dopey school award in 3rd grade, and another teacher gave me an enormous animal picture book. It was a deadly combination that lead to being bullied by some of the bigger kids. My self-esteem started to deteriorate, and I stopped spending any time with schoolmates. The only other kids I spent time with were those in my church. Typically, I found escape in the school library, away from the teasing of the other kids.

My reading began very early in my youth. My mother taught me how to read while on our travels, well before I started public school. I loved picture books, but I was not afraid of some of the heavier stuff either. I remember being exposed to National Geographic magazines very early, and although quite a few people in my church objected to such young children seing those magazines due to the nudity in some articles, my mom did not object. I had seen plenty of nudity during my time in hippie communes, so I think I developed a healthy innoculation towards the shock of seeing naked bodies. The articles with naked people did not really interest me anyway, since they were usually about primitive cultures I had never heard of, nor cared about. I read National Geographic for one primary reason – their articles on animals and dinosaurs. I loved that stuff!

I hiked a lot in the desert, sometimes miles from the house, alone with some friends from our church, armed with a couple of Daisy air rifles. We roamed all over the desert arroyos and mesas, a couple of springs that I knew of, and some narrow canyons that filled with water every spring. I saw lots of geology and lots of wildlife. I had developed a real curiosity about the world around me. The night sky in the high desert of New Mexico is breathtaking! I pity people who tell me that they have never seen the Milky Way. I wasted many hours of my life staring at the vast expanse of stars over my head, reciting the names of stars and constellations, or just letting my mind drift in wonder. Sometimes, my curiosity of nature outweighed my fear of its dangers. Upon encountering a rattlesnake in the desert (something which happens frequently), I would stop and stare at it from beyond striking distance, wondering how it rattled, why it rattled, and why it flicked its tongue. I would make no motions, but just stand my ground and watch. The snake would remain coiled, rattling, rattling, rattling, until it finally got bored with me and crawled off. I would memorize names of animals and dinosaurs from my picture books and magazine articles. Mom and Michael saw some kind of aptitude in me, and bought me a cheap microscope. I spent time looking at pond scum, river water, horse tank muck, and plenty of, what every boy with a microscope eventually looks at, my own blood, snot and spit.

My earlist scientific influence was probably a TV weatherman from Albuquerque named George Fischbeck. Dr George (as everybody called him) sprinkled his weather forecasts with quick anecdotes about how weather forecasting actually worked, and how the science was done. His charisma certainly helped. He was quick, lively, fun, entertaining, and very smart. On weekends, Dr Fischbeck broadcast another show, aimed at youngsters like myself, on the local PBS station. He performed simple science experiments for us kids, told us how they were done and what they meant, all with a few corny jokes sprinkled in. A rival TV network featured another charismatic weatherman, whose name I have long forgotten, who painted dinosaurs as a hobby. He would occasionally feature one of his dinosaur paintings with a brief explanation before beginning his weather forecast. “This is a rhamphorhynchus, a small flying pterosaur. It looks like a bat, but unlike a bat, its wing membrane is framed only to a single elongated finger…and now let’s look at the today’s weather”. I found these men irresistible. They were completely unlike anybody I knew in my little community of hippies, Jesus Freaks and Pentecostals. For the next few years, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I responded with ‘meteorologist’. This was the humble beginning of my science education.

I also liked the syndicated show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, hosted by Marlin Perkins. Every week he, along with his assistant Jim Fowler, would travel someplace on the planet to capture some animal, usually just to tag it and release it back into the wild. As much as I loved this and similar programs, there was a bit of a problem. There was usually a segment, only a moment or two, when the evolutionary history of the featured animal was discussed. Every time this segment was on television, my face would flush red with embarrassment. It was that hot feeling I got when I was embarrassed about seeing something I knew I should not be seeing. I knew what my church said about fossils, evolution and an ancient Earth. I knew that God created the world in six days about 6000 years ago. But I also knew about fossils. I could easily find scads of seashells in the desert, and for some reason, I trusted Marlin Perkins when he described the vast age of Earth. My young brain was not yet ready to try to reconcile these contradictory views of Nature. I accepted both, even though I knew that Grandpa Wagner thought that Evolution was Satanic. I will never forget the day that Grandpa Wagner’s haggard and toothless old wife took my favorite set of dinosaur flashcards and threw them into the woodstove, right before my eyes, mumbling something about tricks of the devil.

I trusted my sensory intuition. It involved things I could see, or at least reasonably infer. I could look through the toy microscope, view the heavens, dig for fossils and arrowheads, and actually view tangible evidence of with my own two hands. It also involved a love of books. Jesus did not involve anything I could see or touch, but he came to me through another book. As I said, I came to a point where I stopped enjoying the singing in Christian Worship. I felt like I was outgrowing much of the emotional outflow of worship. I started paying more attention to the hymn lyrics that I was singing, and found that they made little actual sense to me. But one thing I could do was read that Book, that special Book that I was told was God’s love letter to me. If I wanted to learn about Jesus, I had to read the Book, and pray to him. Since books taught me about planets, animals and dinosaurs, I figured that the Book, the Bible, would teach me about Jesus.

I did not own a Bible of my own except for my Children’s Picture Bible, and some of my cousins owned a giant family Bible with old paintings that were pretty exciting. I was mighty impressed with my step-dad Michael’s giant, leather-bound Scofield Study Bible. Tiny print on over 1000 nearly transparent pages. It had articles in the back on all manner of subjects, and I remember lots of photos from archeological digs. His had a big, black cover with a zipper, and pockets on the inside that could hold pencils and pens. I had never seen a book like that before, and something about the size of it, and the auxiliary features that came along with it. He had the text all marked up with colored pencils according to topic, and I liked to flip through the pages, scan the text of the sacred book, and look at the even smaller footnotes. While they were still dating, Michael Wagner gave my mom a large black Thompson Chain Reference Bible. It was also very large, but not quite as large as Michael’s Scofield Study Bible, but it was impressive enough to mom that she could finally replace her cheap paperback Good News Bible, and do some serious Bible studying. I still enjoyed my Children’s Picture Bible, but I rejoiced when Mom and Michael gave me a small, leather-bound Bible of my own. Not an annotated study bible, but a small King James version with my name embossed in gold right on the front cover.

Even though I was a voracious reader, I don’t know if mom and Michael were actually expecting me to read that Bible. But I viewed the Bible, the book written by God, as something more concrete than worship. I did not need the frenzy of crowds to make it work. There were no patterns or scripts involved in reading. I could just sit in the house, alone and in peace, and read that special book that God wrote – just for me.

I did not read the entire Bible. Thanks to my Children’s Picture Bible (which was surprisingly comprehensive!), I had a fair idea what was in there, and where to find it. Like most newcomers to the Bible, I got stuck in the Mosaic Law, but I just skipped over that for the juicy stuff. Contrary to most newcomers, I loved scouring the Bible’s many geneologies. I enjoyed names, numbers, figures, dates. I loved the stories about Elijah and Elisha, the miracle working prophets of the Old Testament. During particularly hot and dry days, I would imagine a tiny cloud in the sky, about the size of my hand, that could move overhead and bring a miraculous downpour. I knew that Jesus told me that I could move mountains if I only had enough Faith, and I also knew that Elijah had enough Faith to call down fire from Heaven. There were plenty of bullies in school that I desperately wanted to get the better of, and I longed to call fire down from Heaven to show them a thing or two. I remember consciously planning on building up enough Faith to actually perform this miracle, but nobody told me quite how to ‘build up Faith’, so that plan sort of fizzled out. Too bad. I wanted a burning stone altar of my own.

I did my best to read the apocalypic visions in the book of Revelation. My church paid special attention to Jesus’ warnings of the future and signs of the End of the Age. We believed that Christ’s return was immanent, which was obvious to us all from the warning signs Jesus gave in Matthew 24. Wars, famines, nuclear proliferation and uncertain times all lead us to think that the Rature was near, that we would all float off the ground and meet Jesus in the clouds, thus ushering in the Great Tribulation. Hal Lindsay was just becoming wellknown in Pentecostal circles, and End Times Prophecy, and sermons devoted to ‘unlocking Revelation” were suddenly all the rage. At least a few times, my church urged my mom to keep me out of school, holed up together in the house, so that we could wait for Jesus to take us home. I am not sure how long we were kept out of school – a few days, maybe a couple of weeks, but eventually our Messianic hopes were short lived and we returned to class.

I also read all the red colored text in the Gospels - the very words of Jesus himself. I prayed and talked to Jesus often, I sometimes imagined him walking with me, dressed in a white robe, with shoulder length hair, beard and sandles. His kind face was soothing to gaze upon, but I never imagined him speaking back. I had to rely on what he spoke to his disciples, 2000 years ago. I did my best to understand. It was not long until I chanced upon these threatening words from my best friend:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come. – Matt 12:31-32

It is the dreaded Blasphemy of the Holy Ghost, the one and only unpardonable sin! I took this to mean, according to the context from which it is quoted from, to attribute signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit to be from the power of the Devil. In these years, my self-esteem and assurance was already sinking due to my conflicted view of the world, and my aloof nature with schoolmates. I was also somewhat obsessive with ideas. Once an idea was in my head, I could not help but toy and play with it, even if it was a bad idea. And the thought that just a mere utterance, the spoken attribution to the Devil what belonged to the Holy Ghost, would land me into Eternal HellFire, both scared and fascinated me. How could God send a person to hell, forever, just for uttering a simple phrase? Upon learning this dangerous information, I felt that I was recklessly dangling over an impossibly high cliff; slightly off balance so that one breath would tip me over to certain doom.

What if that boy evangelist that my church raved about was really not sent from God? What if it was all a trick from…. ? What if his miraculous cures were from the power of ….? What if we were not being Slain in the Spirit, but instead being Slain in the …? I don’t know how long I consciously avoided attributing the power of the Holy Ghost empowered child evangelist to the Devil, but it was only a matter of time before my obsessive mind caved in to my darker nature:

“That boy evangelist got his power from the Devil!”

I don’t know how long I panicked over this utterance. I don’t know how often I prayed, and begged God for forgiveness. All I remember is that for several days, maybe even weeks, I was quiet, prone to tears, and sought solitude in the desert so I could repent of my blasphemous behavior to my Best Friend. I did think I was truly hellbound. I did not know who I could speak to.

One day in class, for no good reason, I burst into tears. Mrs Cristola, my 5th grade teacher, knew I was frequently bullied, and she supposed somebody was being particularly cruel to me. But that was not the case. It was unprovoked. I simply cried, sobbed and whined in pathetic self-pity in front of the rest of my gradeschool class. Mrs Cristola asked me what was wrong. I said nothing. How could I?

She led me out of the class, leaving a classroom full of kids to certainly mock and laugh at my odd behavior. She found the nearest private room, which was the janitor’s mop closet. She sat across from me, and with her face mere inches from mine, implored:

“What is wrong? Tell me. What is wrong? Is somebody hurting you? Tell me. Nobody can hear.”

How could I tell this woman? How could I tell my schoolteacher, who was not a member of my church, that I was crying, not because I was being bullied, not because my grades were suffering, but because I had doomed myself to eternal damnation by blaspheming the Holy Ghost. In an episode that would later repeat itself several times in my life, I was left speechless, with absolutely no excuse for my miserable behavior.

Absorbed with self-pity, I asked God to kill me. This was not the first time, and certainly not the last. I was very confused. I did not understand my classmates. I did not understand my Jesus. I did not understand my family. Nothing made sense, except the horrible price I was learning to pay for my own Sin. That millstone of guilt would live on with me for many years.

For some reason that I have never been able to understand, we suddenly moved from San Ysidro. The Wagner family and their church, who had fled from Jamestown, New York, suddenly had an inexplicable urge to move again, this time to a place my family had never traveled. I recently asked mom why they decided to move to southeast Missouri, but to this day she still does not understand. Nobody in the church had any family or friends there. Nobody had any work or employment waiting there. But, mom had married into the Wagner family, so we packed our meager belongings, left the desert, and arrived on the fertile farmlands of Missouri in the summer of 1975. It was time for us to start over again.

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Monday, January 2, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions – Learning the Script

The seeds of my eventual de-conversion were already in place in my young life. I was not introduced to religious belief until after I had explored the western United States with my family. I had enough of an understanding of science, particularly Evolution, to allow that seed to germinate over many years, only to blossom when I became an adult. I was also very good at finding patterns, particularly in the behavior of my new religious family. Perhaps my Christian beliefs were doomed from the beginning.

I only remember a few things that my newly converted mother said to me concerning her new Jesus Freak beliefs:


“Mom, isn’t Grandma going to Heaven?”

“No. I am afraid not. She has not been born again.”

“But she is good. She knows about churches. She taught me! Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors…”

“That does not matter. Even if she goes to church, it does not matter. She has not been born again. She does not know Jesus”


A fundraiser for starving, sub-Saharan Africans is showing on television. We have all seen them. Emaciated woman clutching onto fly covered toddlers with distended bellies. Some sick and filthy children with crusty eyes are eating food from relief workers that looks something like what we slopped the pigs with. And for your gift of only 25 cents per day, the price of a cup of coffee, you can feed one desperate child. Mom cuts split ends from her hair while she considers their terrible plight.

“Oh dear. They need Jesus. If only they knew Jesus.”


Mom spoke to me one evening by the warmth of the wood stove, “Remember, we will live in heaven forever. Do you know how long ‘forever’ is? Imagine a boulder of granite. Not that soft sandstone like we have here, but the hardest rock you can imagine. Imagine a boulder that is 1000 feet on ever side. A huge boulder, 1000 feet long, 1000 feet high and 1000 feet deep. Imagine that every 1000 years a bird lands on the boulder, sharpens its beak on the boulder, and then flies off. A bird sharpens its beak on the boulder every thousand years. When that boulder of granite is finally worn down from those tiny birds sharpening their beaks on it, then that is when only 1 day has passed in Heaven. Can you imagine that?”


This was smattering of the things I heard from my mother during those early years of belief. I was very young, and my Christian theology was infantile. I had no conception of Trinity, Christology or any other form of theological sophistication. My beliefs did not come from the pulpit of Grandpa Wagner, since I remember few specifics any of his Holy Ghost empowered rants. Basically, I all knew in that time of early belief was that there was a Man who lived in Heaven, named Jesus. Jesus used to live on Earth long, long ago, but he was killed because of who he was, but he came alive again, then he rose up into Heaven. Heaven was up there, beyond the clouds. Maybe Heaven was even beyond the planets that I was learning about from my astronomy poster. Heaven was where Jesus lived with his Father, whose name was God, and that was where we would go when we died. Jesus loved me very much, and I was to love him back because he died for me. Jesus could do anything, but he also wanted to spend time with me and be my friend. He wanted to play with me and would protect me while I was exploring the desert or swimming in the irrigation ditch. He could read my mind. He could tell what I was thinking, and if my thoughts were good or bad. Jesus did not want me to sin. This meant that he did not want me to lie, cheat, steal, kill or do anything else wrong. I could not smoke (like my dad), cuss (like my dad), gamble (like dad) or drink (like dad). I could not play with myself. Witches were evil, and I could not watch TV shows like Bewitched. I could not think bad thoughts, because Jesus could always tell what I was thinking. I could always pray to Jesus because he was my friend. If I wanted to go to Heaven, I had to Repent and become Born Again. It did not matter how good I was, it just mattered that I was Born Again. If I was not Born Again, I would go to Hell and burn forever. There was a bad guy who flew around trying to make me do bad things. His name was The Devil, or Satan. He was God’s enemy, but apparently if we prayed loud enough, we could ‘bind’ The Devil, and then The Devil couldn’t do anything bad to us. Jesus was going to come back very, very soon, and take all of us up into the clouds with him, and the world would end.

That is about it. Most of my theology in those years came from bits and pieces I picked up from hear and there, my own wishful thinking, and Chick Tracks, which were starting to become very popular. These short, cartoon pamphlets were much more memorable than any sermon I heard from church, or from our hymnals or Bible readings. They were easy for me to read, the drawings were funny, and they were amazingly memorable. I could read them over and over, and let the propaganda sink deep into my psyche. I am not sure where these tracts came from, or who brought them into our church, but my favorites were Holy Joe, Big Daddy, and This Was Your Life, Somebody Loves Me, and A Demon’s Nightmare. I encourage anybody reading this who is not familiar with Chick Tracts to click on the links and check out my gradeschool reading material. I seriously doubt any o my Catholic friends know what these are, but they were very common in homes and tent revivals during the early-mid 1970s. Looking back at these things, I cannot believe what a warped mockery they make of the world. It is almost as if the movie Constantine was a documentary.

[note – it looks like Big Daddy has been heavily revised since I read it as a kid. The first and last few panels are the same, the stuff in the middle looks like all updated material. Luckily, the frame which explains that the binding force of atomic nuclei is actually Jesus is still in the comic.]

Our ‘church’, if it can be called that, was usually led by Grandpa Wagner, but anybody else, as long as they were male, could fill in if they desired. We sometimes met outside by the horse tank if we planned on a water baptism; sometimes we met in a friend’s house. Usually though, our church met in a small adobe house down the road from ours, where the front room had enough space for about 30 people. Grandpa Wagner fashioned himself as the pastor of our tiny church, and his sermons were usually some extrapolation from a Biblical verse or two, and usually included yelling, jumping, and stamping his feet on the floor in fits of passion. I remember him preaching on things like the fact that we would never be good enough to go to Heaven, the filling of the Holy Ghost, demon possession, and Jesus’ soon return from Heaven to judge the Earth. I remember only the most primitive theology being preached by him, and I doubt he had anything more to offer. The songs that we sang from old hymnals were not memorable to me, but I remember that our singing was accompanied with a guitar, accordion, and about a dozen tambourines. During and after singing, everybody would speak, sometimes very loudly, in ‘Tongues’. I always felt strange watching my mother chant in this strange way. The scene was always chaotic. Everybody stood, lifted their arms and cried as the otherworldly language took hold of them. Sometimes all control was lost. People would occasionally fall and gyrate on the floor. Sometimes they did this while crying, other times while laughing, singing or screaming. On rare occasions, somebody had ‘demons’ cast out of them by Grandpa Wagner and the congregation.

We often drove in a caravan to traveling tent crusades and revivals in the neighboring town of Bernallilo and even in Albuquerque. These must have been hugely popular in the wake of the Jesus Movement in the early 1970’s because I remember lots of these things. It was usually an odd mix of the older, more conservative Evangelical trying to accept the younger crowd of fervent, long-haired Jesus Freaks sharing their space. Our church once caravanned all the way up to Farmington to watch Rex Humbard perform at one of his healing crusades. I don’t remember seeing Kathryn Kuhlman, but I do remember mom saying she saw her, and that she performed the healing miracle of lengthening a man’s leg. Mom recounted the story, with astonishment and wonder, of seeing the miracle with her very own eyes I also remember watching some kid, not much older than myself, preach every night for a week, in some community hall in Albuquerque. He was billed as the world’s youngest evangelist, one of probably dozens billed in the same way, and he was certainly dynamic. I remember leaving each night, and listening to adults as they marveled at his miraculous gifts of the Spirit. I remember this young boy, dressed in shirt and tie, as he marched up and down the aisle between folding chairs, preach with the confidence of a veteran. At the end of each service, we would form a long line in front of him, so he could place his hand on us, pray, and we would then be ‘Slain in the Spirit’. Of course, I had been slain in the spirit many times, by Grandpa Wagner and by numerous other traveling evangelists, and because everybody was wailing and bemoaning their own sin and unworthy state, my own face was almost always hot and wet with tears. But I will never forget the knot in my throat as this child placed his hands on mom’s head and yelled, as she fell over backwards to be caught by some assistants. I also remember my own strange feeling as hands were placed on me, and I knew, as if reading a script for a play, that this was the time in which I was to fall over and be ‘Slain’. So fall over I did. And I would lie there as people stepped around my prostrate body and the pandemonium continued.

Patterns. I started to see patterns in the chaos. Somewhere in the frenzy of these revivals, I detected a subtle script that was nevertheless being followed. Was I just part of an act?

I remember more than once, consciously deciding to not fall when hands were placed on me. I was not trying to be rebellious, I was just trying to detect the power of the Holy Ghost. I was a firm believer in Jesus, but I had a sense that I was being slain only because everybody else around me was being slain, and falling over was something that was just expected of me. The evangelist placed his hands on the forehead of a praying believer, sometimes with his finger dipped in a bit of oil, and after a second or two, and on cue, the believer would slowly tip over backward. It seemed suspiciously rehearsed. I once heard a story about an obstinate man who braced himself with his leg so he would not be slain, and his leg ended up broken. So I did not brace myself by placing my leg behind me, I just stood there as the evangelist placed his hands on my forehead and prayed. I consciously did not fall. I half expected him to keep trying, to pray even harder, to throw a command at me. But no, he simply passed over me to the next person in line.

So, at a very young age, as a young Christian who loved Jesus, I learned that my being Slain in the Spirit was a function of the crowd around me. I imagined everybody in the crowd, including mom, falling over at the command of the evangelist, overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit. I could tell that I was not falling over by any power other than my own, rather I was only doing it because momentum from the believing crowd encouraged me to. This was one of the first things of a critical and skeptical nature that I picked up on as a very young Christian.

I could not, at the time, imagine any psychological trickery going on. I could see the script that was being followed, and I could read the patterns that were being laid out in each service, but I did not think to imagine if anybody could be Slain in the Spirit without the emotional crowd present, say in the privacy of the pastor’s office. My critique of the situation made me imagine that there was something wrong, not with the crowd, not with the religion, but with me. Perhaps my Faith in Jesus was not strong enough, or that I was not truly sincere in my belief, and I just compensated by allowing myself to fall over in order to fool everybody else. I imagined all my friends and family around me, being legitimately overwhelmed by the power of the Holy Ghost, all control of the bodies being taken over by divine command, while I had to be content with merely imitating everybody else. I did not feel too guilty over this particular lapse of faith however - that would come later. Relief was in sight from my friend Dino. I remember once laying on the floor after being Slain, eyes shut, then opening to look Dino, Grandpa Wagner’s young grandson, who was lying next to me.

“sssshhh” he quietly whispered. “Keep your eyes shut”.

OK. I was not the only one pretending.

Still, I could not help thinking that there was something wrong with me. It was not only the fact that I felt I was following a script when I was Slain in the Spirit, it was that I could not, to my shame, yet Speak with Other Tongues.

Our church taught, along with many other Pentecostals, that since Jeuss promised that his followers would speak with tongues and drive out demons (Mark 16:17), it then followed that only those that did show this evidence were truly saved and going to heaven. Everybody in our church spoke in tongues, including my mother. I had certainly seen demons cast out of people by the congregation. But I could not Speak in Tongues. I never could. I cannot count the number of altar calls I tearfully accepted, just in case I was not sincere enough the last time I tearfully accepted an altar call. I do not know how many times I was baptized in the river or horse tank, trying to show my willingness to be Faithful to Jesus, whom I was supposed to love. It did not matter that everybody in our church regularly accepted altar calls, repented, and was dunked (our chuch was tiny after all). None of that mattered. The fact was, I could not bring myself to Speak in Tongues. I was very troubled with my inability to be filled with the Holy Ghost and speak with Other Tongues much more than my own faults at being Slain in the Spirit.

Some of us kids used to meet in one of our bedrooms and ‘play’ church. I would whip out my Children’s Picture Bible and tell some story of the Biblical Patriarchs or something, then we would all sing a few songs. Once during playtime, Dino, my troublesome friend, started speaking in tongues in a mocking manner.

“Dino, stop! You are going to get us in trouble!”
“Stop it Dino!”
“C’mon, speaking in tongues is easy! Shandalahai!”

“Shandalahai. Shandalahai la la Shandala la la da Shandalahai.”

I picked up more patterns at my young age. Even though I was troubled by my inability to Speak in Tongues, I could detect that the language as spoken by my church mostly consisted of the same words and syllables repeated over and over. Even by mom. Some variation of ‘Shandalahai’ seemed to be a favorite. And Dino was just mischevious enough to not only pick up on that, like I did, but also mock it.

“Shandalahai! Everybody does it this way!”

Still, like being Slain in the Spirit, I refused to just read the Script. I did not want to follow the crowd and just chant “Shandalahai” over and over. I wanted to be filled with the Holy Ghost, and I sincerely desired the power of the Holy Ghost to take over my body and speak through me. I was intensely conscious of my own actions.

Once, during some service, I asked Grandpa Wagner and the congregation to pray for me so that I could be filled with the Holy Ghost and speak with new tongues.

What followed was a cacophony of prayers, chanting, yelling, urging, hand-laying, and demon-binding. Voices rose and shouting began. I cried. They yelled. My face and tears were hot. I tried to loosen my throat, to allow my tongue to flap of its own will. Voices urging me amidst the pandemonium of prayer, “Just let it out! Just let it out! Pray with other tongues, in Jesus name!” I pleaded with God. “Please God. Please Jesus. Fill me with the Holy Ghost. Come into my body! Please save me! Please save me! Let me speak in Tongues!! Please!

I cried, I prayed, I begged. They shouted, they prayed, they urged me on. Finally, I just let my tongue smack against the roof of my mouth.

“…duh duh du du do do du du do do dud dudududu dodoodoud dou do duo du do…”

Shouting! Cheering! Rejoicing! Everybody clapped. I continued to stammer with my eyes shut, tears flowing, flushed, drained, but with arms raised in praise to my Jesus. Jesus, who had finally given me the gift of the Holy Spirit!

“…du do do du du du do do dodood dudo…”

But why did I not speak with anything that sounded like words? I could do nothing but repeatedly stammer. Grandpa Wagner reassured me. I was just in the baby stages of speaking in Tongues, and just like a baby who babbles, my spiritual speech would soon develop into a full language. Very soon now. Very soon. I was relieved.

I remember several weeks had gone by. For a very short time, I freely and proudly spoke with other Tongues, because I felt that I had finally recieved that power from the Holy Ghost. After the prescribed number hymns were sung, and the proper intensity of prayer was reached, we would all stand to our feet, we would all raise are arms, and without any verbal commands but on cue nonetheless, we would all Speak in the Tongues of Angels, in unison. While the more mature believers wailed forth, ‘Shandalahai!’, I finally felt like a true believer with all of them, as I lifted my own arms, half bent at the elbows, eyes shut, and quietly spoke to God in my spiritual language of stammering utterances. But my babblings never developed into a language. Several weeks went by, and I continued to stammer. I felt no language developing and no maturity in my speech. I think I was just relieved that I could do it, and do it before witnesses. But after several weeks, I quit speaking in tongues. I tried it, and I had not advanced beyond a baby language, so I must have felt dissatisfied with it. I never attempted to Speak in Tongues again. I was satisfied with what I had. I was convinced that I had been filled with the Holy Ghost as evidenced by my speech. I could let it pass.

At a very young age, I could recognize the unwritten and unspoken patterns in Christian worship, prayer, hymn singing and fellowship. They were obvious to me, and would become only more obvious as my Christian life developed. I could tell when people would become Slain in the Spirit, and under what conditions. I could tell when people would speak in Tongues, what their speech would sound like, how long it would last, who would stand up to give some kind of interpretation, and what that interpretation would be. Even as a very young Christian, fully intent on living to please Jesus, I could see patterns of behavior, and these patterns just allowed me to the memorize the Script of Christian behavior that we all followed.

But I did not make the connection that something was wrong with the belief. That was not thought of. It was simply out of the range of possibility. Rather, something was wrong with me. I was never Faithful enough. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!

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