Friday, June 29, 2012

"Turkey Broth for the Spirit: Confessions of a Born Again Atheist"

Provided below is a short sample:

Turkey Broth for the Spirit: Confessions of a Born-Again Atheist

Ester Lighthorse
Copyright 2012 by Ester Lighthorse
Author’s Note:
This book is not a work of fiction, and it is not a work merely based on true facts here and there with a good peppering of artistic license. It is written exactly as I experienced it. I have, however, changed the names of the people involved, and even the names of a few places. I did so out of respect for private lives and identities.
For the thrill of thinking.
For my parents, who taught me how to think.
Turkey Broth for the Spirit: Confessions of a Born Again Atheist
Chapter 1

Jesus Loves Me This I know

     I can recall with perfect accuracy the moment I began to think there were holes in the argument for God. I cannot say the same in regards to when I started to believe in God in the first place.

     My parents both became Born-Again Christians while I was yet still an infant. The way that my mother tells me the story is moving to me in many respects. I find it is a story of determination in the face of rapt destituteness, a story that begins with two young parents searching for some kind of ‘completeness’ that they knew they needed, yet did not know how to acquire.

     It was the late summer of 1974, and my newlywed parents had been invited to attend a thanksgiving feast. This was not the feast of Thanksgiving most popularly associated with the month of November, no. It was a pot-luck feast where everyone brought something to eat. Then after there had occurred a good amount of eating and conversation the gospel was preached.

     My parents were quite young at the time, only out of high school for a year and a half. They had married, much to the chagrin of relatives on both sides of the family, and after I was born seemed to face a barrage of trouble from every direction. My father had trouble finding and keeping employment, and while my mother did her best to help there was still never enough. At one point, having no other choice for accommodations, they lived on the Native American reservation of my father’s tribe in relative poverty. The proverbial family plate was full of overwhelming responsibilities.

     Upon arriving at the meeting hall of the church’s thanksgiving feast event my parents were welcomed with warmth, compassion, and genuine friendliness. After enjoying the vast array of foods the gospel portion of the evening began. A man named Willie stood and began to illuminate the hearts of all those in the gathered group with the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus. It was not a message of hellfire and damnation. It was not a message of forsaking society in an effort to earn some type of spiritual brownie button. It was not a message urging people to believe in God and accept Jesus into their hearts so that they could be better than anyone else or more deserving than anyone else. It was a message of peace, hope, freedom, and love from God.

     Considering the life situation of my parents this message of peace and hope and freedom and love was exactly what they needed. Someone, not just any someone but the someone of all someones, cared about them and their dire circumstances. God cared. He cared about whether or not my parents had something to eat and a place to sleep. He cared about the employment situation and the money troubles. He cared about the mounting stresses and the deluge of life wrinkle after wrinkle. All of these things struck a cord within the hearts of my mother and father, for in a time of great trial and need someone wonderful and infinitely powerful gave them everything. For my parents it was especially relieving and comforting that someone gave a damn about them.

     When Willie was finished preaching the gospel he asked if there was anyone in the audience who would like to receive Jesus into their heart and start to live their life for God. My parents both stood, tears in their eyes, and prayed and received Jesus into their hearts. Of course they knew full well that doing so would not instantly remove their troubles. Receiving Jesus had nothing to do with magically making anything better, but it did mean that not only would God help them through each day, they would not have to worry what each new day would bring because God would take care of it.

     Perhaps there is at least a modicum of truth to be found in such spiritual reasoning. Don’t worry about everything. The only thing you need to be concerned with is the day that you are living. Tomorrow, well, tomorrow will be dealt with…tomorrow. When you concern and worry yourself with more than just the day you are living you put too much pressure on yourself and those around you, and when that happens you get over-worked, over-stressed, and in definite need of someone to help you when it seems you cannot help yourself.

     It reminds me of the poem called “Footprints” where the individual in the poem sees one set of prints in the sand and wonders why God left them? God had not left them, but rather had carried them through the rough spots; that was why there was only one set of footprints. It is true that an excessive amount of worry on the part of any individual will have a negative effect on the life and life situations of the worried individual. Actions taken to reduce the worry and stress are often an excellent step to take in order for an individual to improve their quality of life from their mental state to their physical and spiritual states. For many people the belief in God is a great balancing tool in their lives. God brings happiness to many people, at least they say He does. I am inclined to believe many individuals who say that their belief in God helps them in their day to day living…even though I do not believe the same as they believe spiritually. Understand, though, that my inclination to believe that belief in God does help some people is not an admission, assertion, claim, statement, or anything of the like that God actually exists. I do not believe or think that God exists.

     It has been openly claimed by many, many individuals that God makes them happy. And what does the Bible say about happiness? Proverbs 15:16 says, “A merry heart is just like medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.” I do believe that this is true, that happiness within a person has a way of making that person stronger, better suited in many respects to deal with many negative issues with a clearer perspective and a deeper sense of grace. However, I do not think that in order to experience true happiness a person must believe in God. I think the key to happiness, at least one of the keys, is an ability and compunction to shake worry from the self.

     My happiness as a young child was at first seemingly boundless, and while that would with time change I still have many fond memories of feeling so full of happiness and joy that I would sing songs of thanks to Jesus. Many of the songs I would sing were verses taken directly from the books of the Bible, Old and New Testaments alike, and put to catching melodies. Among my favorites was a song that began, “Oh Lord, You have searched me and know me; You know my down-sitting and my uprising. You understand my thought a far off; You compass my path and my lying down.” Another favorite went something like, “Let none that wait on Thee be afraid; Oh, my God! I trust in Thee! Let me not be afraid, let not mine enemies triumph over me.” I would sing these songs over and over or try to play them on my little red harmonica.

     I was too little to consider the meanings of the words I sang. All that mattered to me was that I was singing, and of all the practices of worship taught to me when I was young I loved singing the most. Singing was the number one activity I looked forward to the most whenever my parents went to their religious meetings. It wasn’t just because I had been taught that God wanted people to sing to Him to show praise and thanks. Singing did something to me inside, something wonderful. It always has. To this day, whenever I sing I feel a sense of freedom and limitless joy. The only difference is when I sing now I am not singing for any deity. Now I sing precisely because I love and am drawn to music. And even though my personal spiritual beliefs have changed dramatically I still sing all my favorite church songs as I play my guitar.

     Music has many powers that some people just do not seem to realize. Think of the song that millions of children the world over sing, the song about the wheels on the bus going round and round? By themselves the words mean very little and don’t have much of a grasp on one’s mind. However, put the words to that absurd tune and suddenly you have a musical mantra that evokes squeals of delight from the youngest of children.

     As a child, every Sunday I learned many biblical lessons and verses through song. Whether the song was Jesus Loves the Little Children or Jesus Loves Me, This I know or Some Trust in Chariots and Some in Horses or Silver and Gold Have I None, I learned that I was better and more deserving than those who did not believe in God. Yes. I must put it that way because in reality that is exactly what I was being taught. I was special. Why was I special? I was special because I believed in God and Jesus and because my parents believed in God and Jesus. Somehow I began to understand that believing in God and Jesus meant that I had extra strength for getting through life’s troubles. Conversely, I understood that the strength that people who did not believe in Jesus thought that they had was not real strength. It was really a trick. You see, one of the most common ways that God employed to turn people to Him was to make a person think they were strong in a time of crisis. Then right when they thought they would make it through their trouble God pulled the rug out from underneath them, forcing the person to turn their heart toward God.

      How did I know all this? I learned it through Bible songs that I was told were absolute truth. Your everyday average child would never sit long enough to actually listen to anyone give a sermon or even speak for a few minutes of such things, but the same children could be taught a song that seeded their heart with such ridiculous ideology. Music has a curious way of leaving all sorts of fingerprints of lyrics in a person’s brain. That does not mean it is necessarily a bad thing. I remember most of the Mother Goose songs I learned as a child without negative effect. Hey, Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle and Three Blind Mice and Hot Cross Buns come to mind. Of course, truth be told there is a huge difference between learning religious songs and learning Mother Goose songs. The difference is Mother Goose songs do not encourage children to consider people who believe differently as enemies, to condemn to hell those who would choose to not believe in God, to pray for the undoing of those who would not consider the Holy Bible as the true Word of God, or to be taking the words of the songs absolute truth.

      Can you recall learning nursery rhymes and songs as a small child? If so, perhaps your parents or teacher or someone who taught you the nursery rhymes informed you that the songs were simply for fun and the stories and people and characters in them were make-believe, fake, pretend, not actual, not real. Of course, who would want their child to believe that Mother Goose really did fly through the air on a “very fine gander” whenever she hankered to go for a wander? Or how about Peter Pumpkin-Eater putting his wife in a pumpkin shell after he realized he could not keep her? What about Hey, Diddle, Diddle and the infamous cow jumping over the moon while the dish runs away with spoon? Would you agree with the notion that teaching children that nursery rhymes are real, actual fact would be detrimental to their psychological and mental development? Chances are you would agree, after all, who would want their child to grow up into an adult who truly thinks that an owl stands as a sentinel at the door of Mother Goose’s house, that a spider sat down next to Little Miss Moffet and scared the beejesus out of her as she ate curds and whey, or that there is an old woman who lives in a shoe along with a battalion of children?

     Considering that, why, why, why would you want your child grow up thinking that an intelligent and supreme being purposely makes bad, horrific, terrible things happen to people just so that they will believe in Him, that a talking snake was able to bamboozle an individual with human intellect to do something they were not supposed to do, that Lot’s daughters seduced and slept with their own father (who was drunk, by the way) in order to produce an heir, or that every human being on this planet is a descendant of Adam and Eve which would mean that there was a helluva lot of incest going on for a very long time?

     Now, of course the songs taught in Sunday schools the world over do not reference incest. At least, they shouldn’t. But the songs that are taught are presented as truth taken from the Bible which is itself presented as absolute truth. By default many of the children will grow up to take everything in the Bible as absolute truth, because it has been pounded into them from the time they are very young and starting with the songs they learn. It is brainwashing, plain and simple. The results?

     Take a look around you. I am not saying that all of the ills of humanity stem from teaching the Bible as truth; a good chunk of them are, however, responsible for contributing to awful behaviors. Maltreatment of gays and lesbians, denial of individual rights based on so-called biblical truth and fact, and social/cultural rifts deriving from the age-old argument My-God-Is-Better-Than-Your-God abound. Disagreements between some religions are so strong that people kill each other. And many of these absurd behaviors are a direct result of people taught from a very young age that they are right and everyone else is wrong. That they have the only truth. That there is only one way to believe inasmuch as love, hope, peace, compassion, grace, mercy, and salvation are concerned.

     Being as though I was a small child I did not know that the religious songs I was being taught could and would encourage some very negative thinking. Even if I had been told there were negative intonations in the wording of the music I would not have known that there was a problem with such thinking anyway. I offered no logical resistance, but rather embraced such stealthily hidden religious ideology wholeheartedly. After all, it was all up to God, right? However God chose to do something it was right because it was God. God had to do whatever He had to do in order to get people to believe in Him. If He had to make sad things happen to someone in order to get them to believe, then it was not really sadness because most people eventually turned to God; God invariably had nothing to do with sadness. Nothing to do with sadness. Nothing to do with sadness. Nothing to do with sadness. I tell you this was beaten into my brain over and over. If a person’s sadness continued that was a clear indicator that they were still not listening to God. If He had to make something bad happen so that people would believe in Him, then it was not really something bad because by believing in God a person avoided hell and that was a good thing since everyone knows that hell is the ultimate in badness. If He had to trick them…well, then it wasn’t trickery. It was God. And didn’t God work in mysterious ways?

     Besides, how was I supposed to know that I was being groomed, if unknowingly to my parents, to become an ego-oriented spiritualist, a person of elitist salvation, a person who for a very long time thought it was okay to condemn people if they did not believe in God?

Chapter 2

The Piano Drops

     My parents were regular attendees of the church where they had received Christ and become ‘renewed’ before God. One of the things I distinctly remember about these early years was the amount of joy and happiness I felt emanating from my parents when they met and fellowshipped with other church members. I recall many nights where members would pile into cars and head down to the beach where they would play guitars and sing around a bonfire. Sometimes after an evening gathering members would go to the local Bob’s Big Boy for coffee and desserts. Some of the memories that stick out the most for me are when a whole bunch of us went to the desert and rode dune buggies, went fishing off the rocks of the bay, had gigantic picnics during the summer months, went to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and even went grunion hunting.

     I have a pretty good memory and can recall people and situations from as early as when I was only two years old. Even to this day I can do this. When I think back I remember knowing about and believing in God. Of course my parents told me about God, but I do not know at which point I began to believe along with them. Perhaps it is a silly quest for me to try to remember being as though most small children believe everything their parents tell them. This is a natural occurrence. Why wouldn’t I believe in God if I did not even have the concept that it was indeed possible that He did not exist and I did not have to believe in Him? How can a question be asked if the individual(s) do not know the question, or even a set of questions, exists in the first place?

     Without my knowing it God had become a reality for me, a given. I remember that whenever I saw someone hurt I would pray that God would make them better and give them help. Whenever someone was sad because someone died I prayed that God would help to make them happy and not hurt so much in their heart. If I heard the television or the radio say that someone was lost and could not be found I prayed that God would take care of them and help them to not be afraid.

     As I child I understood prayer to be a communication from a person to God, usually one asking for help of some kind, but also utterances of thanks for all blessings received. Prayer was the gift God had given to man so that he might speak directly to God for any reason. I remember being amazed when my mother told me that God could hear you praying even if you were only thinking it and not saying it out loud. She said that sometimes people were in situations where they might not be able to speak out loud, so instead they prayed by thinking about it.

     I was also told that prayer was very special, so special in fact, that if a person was praying they had better mean what they were praying. God did not appreciate prayers of thanks where there was no real gratitude. He did not appreciate prayers asking for someone to get well from illness if the praying individual did not really want the ill person well. Intent was very important when it came to prayer because it either validated thanks and requests for help, or it showed what a liar a person was. If you prayed to God and did not mean it…you were a liar. Worse yet, you were lying to God.

     When my parents began to experience relationship troubles I remember praying to God a lot, everyday. I have some very vivid memories of my father, who was a fairly big man, pushing and shoving my petite mother. One particular instance I remember walking into the kitchen when I heard yelling. My father was slamming my mother up against the wall by the kitchen window over and over and over. He had a talon-grip on my mother’s shoulders and she was crying out as he kept hurting her. My parents had not seen me enter the kitchen and when I cried out to my mother she told me, “It’s okay, baby! Just go back into the living room!” I very clearly remember seeing bruises on my mother from time to time and I worried so much for her safety and her happiness.

     Perhaps such things are strange for a little girl of two. But it did not seem so strange to me then, and I would pray fervently that God would fix my mother and father and whatever between them that was broken. Of course, I may have realized that something was wrong, broken, but I did not understand exactly what it was. I was simply too young to understand. My mother is one of the strongest individuals that I know and now I see how the elements of her faith in God did indeed help her to persevere the trials she faced. But rest assured, my heart still hurts for my mother when I think of this time in her life, our life.

     Consistent relationship problems abounded for my parents by the time I was nearly three. One occasion my father had some friends over and they had had quite a bit to drink. They had become loud and boisterous and somewhere along the line my parents began to argue. Eventually my father and his friends left the house. My mom was upset and after she had cleaned up the mess they had left she took the glass bottles that had held the alcoholic drinks, smashed them up inside of a paper grocery bag, and then delivered the paper sack of smashed glass to the door step of the residence of my father’s friends in an effort to stress the points of what they had done wrong.

      I did not like seeing my father angry and did not like seeing my mother so sad. Because I was such a young child I could not understand why my parents were angry with each other, why they fought. All I knew was that there was a growing blanket of unhappiness. I thought that if I prayed hard enough or long enough that God would make everything better. For a while things did seem to be getting better.

     My mother became pregnant with twins when I was two years old and I recall being very excited about having siblings. The members of the church my parents attended were very generous with the support they offered my parents. Many times we would come home to find bags of groceries that fellow members had left on our doorstep. And while the other church members did extend a helping hand of their own free will I always associated such help with the will of God. If something good and amazing and helpful happened it was because God must have wanted it so.

     Then two different things happened that confused me a little bit about the will of God. The first thing that happened was a plane crash that took place in San Diego, California, near the 805 Freeway and a street called University Avenue. I remember this day well. What actually happened, at least as far as I can remember, was a small plane like a Cessna or something similar clipped the wing of a PSA jetliner. My mother had been cleaning the house and I was staring at my newborn sisters who lay sleeping on the couch. Suddenly there was a huge booming sound. I distinctly recall saying to my mother that it sounded like someone had dropped their piano. A look of fear immediately crossed my mother’s face and she asked my father to go see what it was that had happened. A short while later he had returned, white as a ghost. He said there had been a plane crash in a residential area. I remember he was very disturbed by what he had seen.

     I later asked my mother why God had allowed the plane to crash and kill people and why He did not stop it from happening. She said, “Sometimes there are bad accidents or bad things that happen, things that we do not understand. God has reasons why He lets things happen, even when they are bad things or things that make people sad. The best thing we can do is pray.”

     Even though I was so little, at that point barely three years old, I remember telling my mother that I was praying for the people on the plane who died, that God had been with them when the plane crashed and that He took away their fear of crashing and dying. In the recesses of my mind, however, I still wondered why God had allowed such a horrible thing to happen. And for quite a while after that day I remember thinking about the people who had died in that plane crash…and I couldn’t help but to wonder if they had been afraid when they realized they were going to crash; for some reason I just could not seem to shake the worry that they had been afraid when they realized they were going to die. God and Jesus loved people and I hoped they loved people so much that they took away their fear when scary things happened. Because that was something that God and Jesus were supposed to do, right? Take away fear and make everything a little bit better? Of course this was true! In fact, I learned songs in the church meetings that were about God wiping away tears and taking away fear and hunger and comforting people around the clock, especially in their darkest hour. But what was done, was done and couldn’t undone. The piano dropped as the very first tendrils of a terrible thought sneakily entered my heart: God could be quite mean when He wanted to.

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