On the occasional Sunday we missed church when I was growing up, my three brothers, sister, and I would gather around my father who sat in his favorite easy chair. With Mom nearby in her chair, Dad read us a story from the family Bible. With its classic, elegant font, thick, padded, decorative cover, and gold edges, it was clear to me these were the words of God.
I was a devout Christian through high school in my small, rural town in Minnesota, and I had a distaste for those who sought to compromise the words of the Bible. In 8th Grade, I remember arguing with Leslie Ness about underage drinking. To me, it was sin as the Bible said, “Obey man’s laws as God’s law.”
“You’re being too strict,” she said, to which I responded, “Too strict? How can you be too strict when it comes to following God’s orders?”
In high school I would still go to the parties thrown out in the woods, but was disappointed with friends who drank. I didn’t consider social norms or implications or that it was square of me to feel that way.
After graduating, this small-town boy went to a small private Christian school in St. Paul. Seemed a good fit—my pastor had even gone to this college. However, having never lived in any other place, I was in for a surprise. I didn’t know how poorly I’d adjust to life on my own. Making friends was terribly difficult for me. Taking the initiative to sit at a table in the cafeteria with strangers frightened me. So I often just sat alone.
After a couple months, and making a couple friends, I was invited to a party. I was glad to be invited, but my anxiety spiked as that Friday night arrived. I can remember the pre-party social energy I felt in the dorm, all these outgoing, expressive strangers around, and me having to measure up to them. I also remember the girl who was to drive us making a stink about my invite because of a lack of room in her car. Nothing personal, but a validation for me as a nuisance, a problem, of not measuring up. My buddy, Adam, though, who invited me, made sure I’d get there.
I don’t remember the straw that broke the camel’s back, but given the general anxiety I felt, and with all my negative thoughts, I aimed to be inconspicuous. This meant not making a scene when the booze was passed around. So I drank.
We got to the house—your average 1960s two-level, three-bed, two-bath home. The party was in the basement. It was a diverse affair—also something I wasn’t used to at the time—with some of the school athletes present. One of them was my friend, Adam’s, roommate, Antoine. He was the point guard of the basketball team, and he was loud and cocky. Totally the opposite of me; totally dominated me whenever we spoke. I never resented the guy, just always felt so inferior.
Not long after the party started, though, I was drunk. And I felt great. All that extreme negativity was turned on its head—as low as I was used to feeling, I was now walking tall. I walked up to Antoine and gave him a piece of my mind about how his music at the party was “shit”—to his delight, actually. He thought it was funny that I came out of my shell. Then his girl said she was going to teach me to dance, and I remember having her ass in my crotch, grinding with her to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up”.
I woke up sick the next day, so didn’t touch booze for a while, but the next time I did, and many times afterward, I’d lose myself to the alcohol and let the release and relief of its effects dictate the night (or day). Suddenly, the dogma and obedience I’d had for the Bible’s orders to obey the drinking age law didn’t matter. Experience won out. I even remember thinking that there could be no way something that felt so good could be a sin.
Sophomore year was a similar script with marijuana in the mix. My Mary Jane cherry was popped at another party where this hippie couple found out I hadn’t smoked before and were excited to get me high for the first time. They did. And I left their corner of the garage to join my other friends sitting in a circle of folding chairs. I slumped down on one and remember zoning out on someone’s white tennis shoes while The Doors were playing. I was gone. And time went so slow. Those hippies succeeded marvelously.
So with occasional pot use and regular drinking, my spirituality dwindled to nil and had little direction. I got a job telemarketing one summer. I didn’t like it, but got good enough at it to make some money. I even got promoted. So to my great personal relief, I let out a sigh, quit school, and settled for that job. I even made some friends there—though almost entirely under the pretext of partying. These new friends took things up a notch, too, and through them I’d be introduced to coke, meth, mushrooms, and ecstasy.
The script was pretty simple: when I was messed up, I felt good. When I wasn’t, I was super anxious and lost in life. Getting high, of course, wasn’t going to help me find my way, and due to my using, even everyday responsibilities became difficult. Over the next two years I lost my job, and another. I moved. I moved again. I moved again. I lost another job (as a bartender of all things). In the end I was living on a hobby farm 35 miles west of Minneapolis, paying no rent in exchange for feeding the animals.
I kept myself motivated with the idea of being an actor, and later, of going back to college. But more than anything these were lies I told myself to enable my escape and isolation for one more day. Drinking cheap beer and smoking lousy weed, I continuously sought to shunt my consciousness into being buzzed. The circumstances I found myself in were always much less important than how I could make myself feel. Thus, I’d rather be in the middle of nowhere feeding donkeys and goats as long as I could be high.
Thankfully, I got drunk one day on a glass of vodka and got my second DUI.
In jail I picked up an AA pamphlet. I had known I was alcoholic for at least a year by then. It was obvious. Every time I tried to have one drink, it was followed up with an almost-sick feeling unless I immediately had another. I knew I was alcoholic, and I knew I needed to start going to AA, it being the “club” where I could meet other recovering alcoholics.
At that point I never thought about religion or spirituality, and if I did it was to scoff at people’s faith in that which doesn’t exist—God, angels, the Devil. My religious barometer was tested when I read the back of that pamphlet and it listed the 12 Steps.
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.
Okay, I thought. So far, so good.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
What the hell is this supposed to mean?!
3. Gave our Will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
I can still see the brochure flung from my hand, scooping the air, and coming to a sliding stop on the concrete floor of my little cell. I would have none of that God stuff, sitting in my blue canvas jail clothes on my thin, hard, lumpy mattress.
But thankfully, something changed in the next month. A series of panic attacks scared the heck out of me—not just during them, of course, but that I was having such biological-mental deviations at all. And at my first meeting a month later, I didn’t let my religious prejudice prevent me from asking for help. I even stood up at that first meeting to introducing myself to the group. After nine months of back and forth and some relapses, I came to grasp recovery from drug use, understanding the roots that caused this symptomatic behavior, and how spirituality—as practiced by countless people all over the world—is, at least for almost all humans today, an indispensable requirement for a happy existence.
Not long after my first meeting, I came to see that God as a concept wasn’t crazy—at least not the idea of a power greater than me. I could use my logic to discern that there’s a ton of stuff I’m not in control of—that no one is in control of. And if the “power(s) that be” that created the universe can tweak one of its creations (me), then maybe there was hope to live clean and happy.
Today, after seven years of keeping an open mind, and welcoming any and all evidence, my spirituality has grown into more than just the logic. I have my own understanding—albeit an ever-evolving one—of what God is. This definition—or lack thereof—includes a lot: It’s about the people that come into one’s life; it’s about the circumstances and opportunities that avail themselves with no direct action taken on your part toward developing them; it’s about how when you stop worrying and focus on the present, you find that many problems sort themselves out, that one needn’t be responsible for more than what one is capable of doing. It’s about finding that space which includes equal parts planning and relinquishment. It’s about knowing there’s a force out there that provides, and that for all the externalities that we in such a wealthy country blame for scarcity in our lives, that this force is most often choked off because of our own actions. It’s about realizing that lottery winners are so darned happy because they never have to worry about money again, but that there’s no reason we can’t assume such relief and security every day of our lives.
It’s about belief more than faith, but when our emotions block the calm and capabilities of belief, then faith is needed. Otherwise, if I don’t acknowledge that Power either by belief or faith, then I lose the relief, attempt to wrest control of life (and of others), and inhibit—if not completely disallow—the usefulness I can be to others.
And I see these tenets in every spiritual practice I’ve encountered. I’ve read them in Tolle’s “The Power of Now”; I hear them on my Casting Crowns Pandora music channel; I’ve read them in the words of Jesus; I felt them in the temples of China; I’ve practiced them when working the Twelve Steps.
But I am no longer a Christian. And this has been a source of difficulty between me and my family. They’ve each experienced and felt their own spiritual truths and live their lives accordingly, continuing to attend Lutheran churches. I veered away, and religion is no small thing to veer about. In these matters of paradise vs. damnation, there can be no bigger. So how can a family stay tight with this wedge?
I know there’s a lot of people out there who wrestle with this same issue with their families.
For most of my family’s customs, religion is involved: childbirth and baptism, marriage, holidays, funerals. Even more regular are the prayers at mealtime; and whenever an event congratulatory or tragic occurs, “the Lord” is brought up. With such an involved, defining, and paramount aspect of one’s life and afterlife, it’s daunting to realize the schism.
Despite, or perhaps because of this, we’ve taken a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach. They know I don’t attend a church, and they don’t ask why. We avoid all that and sort of play the role of whistling in the dark about the open secret during all the times we gather—and all the times religion is part of it. Much, much, much easier to act as if there are no existential differences between us.
Sometimes, though, the wedge is firmly inserted. I got a phone call five years ago from my older sister, Renee … .
Renee’s the second oldest in the family and I’m third. I remember playing a lot of make-believe games with her as children, she being the evil witch and me being some kind of hero. When she was 16, and I 13, our ages divided us. I wanted to hang out with the big kids who did cool things, and she wasn’t too thrilled. We’d fight at home.
One time, in a peaceful moment, we went on a bike ride together. I remember us walking our bikes back on a dirt road near our house as the summer evening approached. We talked, and she calmly asked why I had such a problem with her. I don’t remember many words of that conversation, but I do remember the challenge of having my first heart-to-heart with her—or with anyone in that way before. I know we still fought afterwards, but I never forgot that moment of facing my hurt feelings and my big sis, Renee, helping me address them. As we grew older, our relationship matured into an open, comfortable, and healthy one.
Then, five years ago, she called to tell me she and her husband, Kevin, were expecting. I was so happy I was going to be an uncle: so happy to have gotten my life cleaned up by then and able to enjoy this moment with her. I saw how the first child of the next generation in our family was to bring so much joy to so many.
A short time later, though, she lost the pregnancy. I can remember speaking with her after it happened. She was so let down—the whole family was. But it meant a lot to be able to be there for her, sharing with her others I knew who went through this same loss.
A few months later, her and Kevin became pregnant again. This time, the pregnancy remained healthy, and when the time came, my sister called to ask if I’d be her baby’s sponsor. In the Lutheran tradition, this meant me being there for him as he grew into a man: each birthday, each Christmas, each milestone in his life: from lil’ peanut to pumpkin to pip squeak to tween to teenager. I was touched and honored. I felt so responsible all of a sudden! It was thrilling as I remembered having my two sponsors growing up—Aunt Leah and Uncle John— and now I’d be that person looking out for my nephew. It was powerful because I always wanted to feel like a grown-up around Renee and her friends, and now fittingly, a dozen years later, she offered me this chance to step up and be the man I wanted and knew I could be.
But I refused.
Because being a sponsor also meant a Christian vow that I couldn’t take. When the time came for the baptism, I would be instructed by the pastor in front of the congregation, “if Garret (my nephew) should lose his parents, that he be brought up in the true knowledge and worship of God … that, as he grows in years, you place in his hands the Holy Scriptures, bring him to the services of God’s house, and provide for his further instruction in the Christian faith … .” It goes on. So I had to tell her no. And she had to look elsewhere for a sponsor for her baby son.
I really wanted to be that person for her boy. There were no hard feelings, though, from either side. It was just how things had to be. I’ll say that my refusal hasn’t kept me from being a good uncle. But the symbolism and the tradition and the family tie was significant, and I had to turn my back on my family for that instance. And despite subsequent opportunities—my brother now has two children—I haven’t been and won’t be offered this chance again.
My spirituality has allowed for many commonalities between my family and me. When having deeper conversations with my mom or even Grandma, I have no issue talking about “letting go and letting God”, loving your neighbor, honesty, integrity, and forgiveness. I’ve even been comfortable leading prayers at holiday meals, expressing gratitude for the nourishment.
But for all the common ground we share, I am still a long ways from where they are. According to their beliefs I qualify for Hell. They don’t tell me that, and we do a pretty good job of ignoring that elephant in the room. But I’m finding it inevitable, and so better sooner than later—to address that elephant. I’m not Christian, and for the first time I recently uttered those very words to my older brother, Jerald, in a most benign setting: a Mexican restaurant in small-town Minnesota.
My big brother: the “father” of us five and a deacon in his congregation, was perhaps the toughest person to share these words with. The biggest reason is because we’re so close. I see his family—wife, son, and daughter—often. I’m close with my nephew and adore my niece and their mother. Jerald and I go fishing; he’s the one who brought me to the airport when I moved to China, spoke to me every week while I was away, and picked me up when I got home a year later.
I see his children’s books about Jonah and the whale and Daniel and the lion’s den. All the details of their lives are made up of the fabric of their Christian beliefs. And here I am, the potential scissors. Maybe I’m being too dramatic, but all their six-year-old boy would have to do is ask why I never go to church with them when I stay with them, or ask me about Jesus or something, and if I responded honestly, it could really throw a monkey wrench into the world they’ve built around him.
Back in our booth at the restaurant, after we got another refill of tortilla chips, I told him of a woman I was recently seeing. She broke it off not long after we started dating because I wasn’t Christian. Fearing where this conversation might go with Jerald, but too late to back out, I painted the picture that she was extreme and that she was bothered because she needs someone who shares her enthusiasm for Christ.
It didn’t work.
He followed up with a question I feared anyway. “Brandon, what do you believe?” I was about to rattle off the usual “safe” list of things we could see eye to eye on. But for some reason this time I focused on the part waiting to get out: that which I don’t believe.
“Jerald, I don’t believe Christ is my Savior. I’ve looked at the tenets of Christianity as honestly as I can, and I just can’t believe it.”
He shared that he wasn’t surprised to hear it, but it was an unveiling just the same. No questions about it now.
Except that there are continuous questions. That’s the thing. I don’t have a definition as I did as a young man, so I keep wondering. Even in recovery from addiction—where I’ve come to find the best answer to drug use prevention is to eliminate the desire to use, and the best (only way) thus far I’ve discovered to eradicate the desire to use has been the relief and optimism gained when knowing there’s a power looking after me—I’ve run the gamut from atheist to regular prayer.
And lately, I’ve wondered if it’s just the belief that there’s a loving God that matters, that the comfort and security helps people to relax and enjoy their days, and that this need—or at least this benefit—is the engine of religious delusion. Is AA’s version of “God”—the ability to choose any higher power of your understanding—any fundamentally different than any other religious delusion minus the dogma?
I don’t know.
And lately, I’ve realized that there’s something more important than knowing the Truth—which I’ve always assumed to be worthy of incredible amounts of my time—and that is peace and happiness. I think this explains why so many people go to church while doubting the words of their holy book. I know, for me, it’s probably incorrect to assume—as is said in AA—that alcohol is an overpowering chemical whose urge for me to use is only fixed by God. This sounds mythical. But absent better answers, I need to be part of a group that comes together to help and support one another as we try to be the best men we can be.
I’m not sure how my family will accept that. As my sibling, it starts with Jerald. We get along great today. Maybe one day I’ll make this admission to my parents. I doubt I will with my grandparents—I fear their heads might explode if they knew I didn’t believe Jesus’ death saved me from Hell.
Then again, maybe I’d be surprised. After all, I believe the reason the Bible is reinterpreted to fit social norms (women pastors, the marriage of homosexuals), and the reason Jerald doesn’t kick me out when I visit reveals how human beings’ relationships with one another are more important than religious law.
Portrait of big family courtesy of Shutterstock