Losing My Religion

We are in the midst of a catastrophic change in western culture. The church, having ruled our lives for millennia, is experiencing a mass exodus – even if it doesn’t seem that way where you live. People are free to question things they were taught as children, often for the first time.

What follows is a coming-out-party of sorts. I didn’t write this but I’ve known Jason almost my entire adult life. The experiences he describes are real, when describing his commitment he is prone to understate his devotion. He is extremely intelligent and arguably one of the best public speakers in Canada. He isn’t pontificating or proselytizing or complaining, simply telling you about his journey (so please treat it that way). Some of you may know him, be kind. You may not agree with his sentiments but he is incredibly courageous to sign his name to this; but then again he has always been, and remains, a man of honour.

He will be ostracized. This is an incredibly important conversation that is not happening in churches or forums, and is laced with emotion on both sides. The fact remains, however, that millions of us are seeking to find out what we believe in an era that is confusing and polarizing. 

This is Jason’s story.

Hi.  My name is Jason. Officially I’m Reverend Jason Johnson. You see, I’m a former Pastor with the Free Methodist Church in Canada—an evangelical, right-leaning, conservative, mainstream Christian denomination. (More on the former part in just a bit.)

From my first day at Bible College to my last day in the office my career as a Pastor spanned nearly three decades. I received a Bachelors degree from a Methodist school and a Masters degree from a Baptist school. I worked in churches in BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan. I served as Intern Pastor, Interim Pastor, Youth Pastor, Assistant Pastor, Associate Pastor, Church Planting Pastor and finally as a Senior Pastor. If I wasn’t working as staff in a church I spent my free time volunteering in a church. Further to that I served on the national Board of our denomination for several years and then on a committee that oversaw the training and development of new and emerging leaders. The church was my life.

Theologically, I would describe myself as a born-again, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled, Bible-believing, church-going Christian. I believed, affirmed, taught, publicly proclaimed and adamantly defended what I came to describe as “historic and creedal Christianity.”  Meaning, the creeds and doctrines that historic Christianity developed, wrote down and taught. Things like the six-day creation event, a literal Adam and Eve, the Flood, the virgin birth of Jesus and his bodily resurrection, humanity’s sin and a holy God’s anger and wrath directed toward that sin but salvation is made possible only through mental, spiritual and emotional faith in Christ to take away our sins, and eternal reward in heaven for the saved and eternal punishment in hell for the unsaved. If you believed things outside this or contrary to these I labeled you misguided at best and a heretic at worst.

I hope you’re getting the sense of where I was at personally and professionally. You need to know where I was a few months ago and where I am today to comprehend the seismic shift my theology and practice have taken.

Just now I used the word former: “I’m a former Pastor.” You see, I stepped out of church leadership earlier this year. My last day in the office was January 31st. I said “former” because I’m not taking a hiatus, a break or otherwise pushing pause on it with the intention of going back.  I’m done with that professio

n and though they say you should “never say never”, hear me now: I will never be a Pastor again. I left that profession never to return. Nearly thirty years of devotion came to a screeching halt after only a couple months. In fact, I rarely attend church anymore and when I do it’s mostly social: my family likes to go and I genuinely like the people who attend.

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How did this all transpire?  What took place that would make me leave a profession and calling of nearly thirty years vowing never to return?  A few things, actually.

In general, leadership in the church is very difficult. I’ve been antagonized, attacked, publicly shamed, blamed, sabotaged, thrown under the bus, and undermined by people who claim to be Jesus-followers and who believe deeply in love, forgiveness and grace.  Being a Pastor has been a frustrating, confidence-shaking and lonely journey. Looking back now, I’m not sure if I was ever in a church and thought, “I love this place!”  I’ve secretly wondered whether or not I wasted my life.

Four things transpired specifically to initiate and perpetuate my swift change.

One, I started reading books “from the other side.” That is, books that I would have described as heretical. Though they were written by Christians they doubted, disbelieved, downplayed and denied most if not all the historic and creedal truths. There was no Adam and Eve. No Flood.  No virgin birth and no Resurrection.  No hell.  Probably a heaven.  No universal sin and resultant need for salvation. Reading these books opened the door to the possibility that maybe not all of this is true, and that’s okay. Add to this my ingestion of copious amounts of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

Two, I read again about how the Bible was put together. The Bible is an ancient document written by an ancient and primitive people. The events described in the Bible happened decades and even centuries earlier and, for the most part, describe a primitive people responding to barbaric times through a theological lens. Why did we get exiled to another place? Because we sinned against God and failed to keep his covenant. Why did we attack and utterly destroy a city? Because God told us to. Why were we successful in attacking and destroying a city? Because God was with us. The people in the Bible had a primitive understanding of cosmology, biology, human sexuality, the rights of women and children, and marriage, to name a few. Add to this primitive understanding the deep-seated belief that “God is on our side” and “we are God’s chosen people” and “this land was given to us by God” and you get the unfortunate atrocities of genocide, infanticide, abuse of women and children, and slavery. To this day Christendom doesn’t agree on the contents of the Bible. Catholics have several books in their Old Testament that Protestants don’t. Some strains of Eastern Orthodox church don’t include the Song of Solomon or the Revelation of John. Martin Luther didn’t want the epistle of James included. There were literally hundreds of gospels written about the life of Jesus that weren’t included in the New Testament and the four that are were written anonymously.

Three, I read the Bible. Penn Jillette famously said that reading the Bible will make you an atheist. I kind of agree with him.  It’s not like I hadn’t ever read the Bible. I read it cover to cover several times. I read the book of Galatians in the original Greek. I read it every day. But this year I innocently took the “Read the Bible in 90 days” challenge. I spent a couple hours every night reading chapter after chapter and writing notes down. I began to see certain things emerge that I hadn’t before. I quit reading it because the historical events it described just seemed way too contrived, like somebody authored or doctored these stories rather than simply writing what happened. I saw how violent God and the people were. I saw the abuse of power that was initiated and approved by God. I saw God turning a blind eye to heinous atrocities (or worse, commanding them) and incredible moral failure yet casting horrible judgment on minor infractions. (In one story, a man, his wife, their children, their livestock and their possession were destroyed by fire from heaven then the whole lot was burned and swallowed up by a localized earthquake all because the man took a few special items.) I found it harder and harder to accept the stories of the Bible because in doing so I would have to ignore scientific facts, moral decency and modern sensibilities.

Four, I experienced profound disappointment in God on behalf of others and myself. For the past several months I have felt alone and abandoned by God. He has remained silent while I’ve been asking him for answers. God has become for me the proverbial father who comes home from work and sits watching TV. Though I beg for his attention he ignores me and remains silent. A friend of mine who faithfully and sacrificially served God for decades, who gave up luxury, marriage and parenting, was rewarded for her retirement with stomach cancer and died only a couple years later. In short, I’ve seen the righteous suffer while the wicked have prospered. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that bad things happen that troubles me. That I can handle. What I can’t handle anymore is bad things happening when God himself said he wouldn’t let bad things happen. Your foot shall not stumble nor fall. The one who watches over you will neither sleep nor slumber. Ask anything in my name and I will do it. Seek and you will find. If you, though you’re evil, know how to give good gifts, how much better gifts will I give?

 

There’s a scene in Happy Gilmore where a caddy tells happy, “I’m here to make sure you don’t do anything stupid.” Soon Happy does something stupid. He then goes to his caddy and asks, “Where were you on that one, dip shit?” I want to ask God the same thing. A 25 year old get killed in a car accident. God, where were you on that one, dip shit?  My aforementioned friend dies of cancer. God, where were you on that one, dip shit?  A sudden squall comes up and women and children drown. Go, where were you on that one, dip shit? God has repeatedly broken his promises, let me and others down, failed to show up, not done what he said he would do, allowed what he said he wouldn’t allow, and has therefore become unreliable and untrustworthy. Frankly I grew tired of making excuses for God and for giving and receiving meaningless clichés and platitudes to explain why God didn’t do what he said he would and why he let happen what he said he wouldn’t.

So where am I at today?  First off, I’m a hypocrite. I will be the first to recant the above if God actually showed up and did what he said he would; if I actually received some answers. I would love to tell the world I was wrong about God and that he actually does give good gifts, look after his children and answer prayers. I like the fact that my oldest daughter reads her Bible every night even when she goes to her friends’ overnight. “Can you bring me my pajamas, toothbrush and Bible?” she asks. I like that my youngest asked to be baptized in the Shuswap this past summer. I attend church with my family and am still moved by the Pastor’s words. Just today I went by our church to see if there are any volunteer opportunities for me. We still pray as a family at meal times, before long trips and before bed each night.

 

Theologically I would classify myself as a Christian Agnostic. These don’t go together too often but with me they do.

I’m Christian in the sense that it’s my tribe; what I’m used to. I grew up in the church and it’s religiously where I’m most comfortable. I like the Christian story of salvation and reconciliation. That humans are unique above all other flora and fauna and lost and fallen makes sense of why things are the way they are. We’re capable of incredible good and d1973581_10154092811185285_3559455100687846132_o.jpgespicable evil. I like that Christianity has some beliefs unique to it. No other religion has the Trinity, the incarnation of God and the death of God. I like the words and life of Jesus. I like that the supernatural is possible.

I’m an agnostic in the sense that I’ve embraced mystery. I know I don’t know stuff and I’m okay with that. I don’t know why God does what he does. I don’t know if God cares for us. I don’t know why God doesn’t answer prayer. I don’t know if the Bible is the Word of God. When we embrace certainty, especially religious certainty, things go south rather quickly because what we generally mean is, “I’m certain I’m right and I’m certain you’re wrong.” Certainty divides us and creates a mechanism whereby some are “in” and some are “out”. Embracing mystery lifts the burden off our shoulders of having to explain God and God’s ways and lets us live how we want to live, without judgement.

But, I would probably mostly describe myself as a practical deist. God is up there and I’m down here. If we meet sometime, great; if not, I’m okay with that too. I don’t pray. I don’t expect things from God. I don’t thank God anymore for the good things in my life. I’m not waiting “to be led by God” anymore. I’m taking my life and destiny firmly in my hands. If I win it’s because of me. If I lose it’s because of me. God isn’t helping me and probably never did.

That’s my story. I was *here* and now I’m *here*, never to return and I’ve never felt so free, alive, and myself in my life.

And I’m not alone…

(If you are capable of acting with integrity/insight and have honest feedback (and wish to contact Jason directly) you can email him at revjohnson@shaw.ca)

** Scott here. I’m not going to publish any comments that are arguments about theology. That isn’t what this was about.

Grabbing The Wrong Handholds

They made me watch CSI, Ginger Version. I don’t even know what the real name is but it’s the one with the redhead guy who tries so very hard to sound like the coach from Rocky. My youngest Matthew and I are forced to endure this for an hour and there has literally not been one line of dialogue that anyone would say in the real world. At first we didn’t understand. It slowly dawned on us that the acting isn’t getting any better. Not one person has used normal inflection or words that, when put together in a stringy thing called a sentence, would actually be spoken by a human who is not on a show about super cops who don’t know how to talk like normal people. It vaguely reminds me of when I did acid except the walls aren’t moving… yet.

I can see them speaking but nothing makes sense. Don’t get me wrong, a ferret could follow the dialogue. It’s just that the dialogue is so incredibly vapid, so devoid of reality and voiced by such poor actors who all believe they are on Die Hard, except it’s less realistic than those Christmas plays you have to endure when your kid is in grade five. No one can stop squinting and the dude who just said, “Have you considered the weather?” sounded like he was attempting to take a burrito dump. Not a single person had a spontaneous thought and the lighting is off and the dialogue feels like it was written by that weird kid who wore a cape to grade six and sat beside you in Socials. I keep looking around to see if people are laughing. My son Matt is laughing. So proud.

The real Shakespeare famously penned, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. These players couldn’t act their way out of a wet paper nutsack. Rock stars and wrestlers and models can become actors so you know there is real art involved. And don’t give me your “but there are some very talented actors”. So what. I know some incredibly talented welders who can fix my CR-V. Actors are massively overpaid to do a job that everyone wants because they get treated like royalty and get to buy islands and large phallic boats. It says a great deal about our culture that people line up in their thousands to catch a glimpse of these botox clowns, inbred royals, and idiots on CSI who make twenty times the money I ever will. Honestly, models can do it. What the hell. We have given our allegiance to actors playing gurus and trusted in Bill Cosby to be our television dad. Some of us honestly believe that the top 1% gives a rat’s ass about the struggles you are going through because they can’t remember, or never knew, what it was like to be an ordinary bloke. They live fictional lives.

A few of you know what it is like to take LSD (remember Purple Microdot?). I work in the addictions field while doing several other things during my week and in over 12 years of doing Intake I have never met an addict who identified Acid as their drug of choice. You can get seriously messed up for only a few dollars, but still it is rare to talk to anyone who thinks this is a good idea every day of the week. Hallucinogens allow you to step outside your own body and observe yourself from a very surreal and often screwed up perspective. This family of drug use has become increasingly popular, yet again, among predominantly younger adults who read somewhere on the Internet that you could eat mushrooms and become a philosopher. There is some interesting research with hallucinogens, especially in the psychological arena, but you rarely read that “Kierkegaard got totally wasted on shrooms and wrote Fear and Trembling”. Many of us solved the world’s problems on cocaine but couldn’t read the chicken scratch when we woke up later that same day. That is literally a true story. I was so sure.

And a bad trip on Acid will scar you forever.

Contrary to what the internet is telling you, you are probably not going to find the meaning of life if you do MDMA, although you might like everyone for a few hours. The 21st Century is far more complicated and fraught with information that is completely new in the history of primates. Coping skills which have worked for millennia are suddenly obsolete. Even as recently as the Dark Ages hundreds of years could pass for our ancestors with little discernable change. Most humans grew up, lived and died within a few kilometers and went to bed when it got dark. There was no constant bombardment of new and confusing data unless you were being chased across the highlands by the bloody British. More than half a millenia separated Attila and Genghis but they still killed people from the back of a horse with relatively the same range of weapons. Just think how much the world has changed since World War Two, or even the early Sixties. You have had more world shaking cultural changes in your lifetime than people would have seen in hundreds, even thousands of years. I haven’t even mentioned the Internet, perhaps the biggest game-changer since the Enlightenment. Sometimes I become so entangled in the sheer absurdity of our existence that it’s tempting to feel like I’m in a bad episode of CSI Miami. Nevermind, they’re all bad. My parents lived in homes where you had to throw coal into the fire every morning. My son, who still lives at home part-time, loses his mind if I turn off the Internet at 11 p.m. Our ancestors could keep the living crap out of us without breaking a sweat. 21st Century problems in a world moving so fast that no one has a clue what the answer is or how we are going to deal with our growing cultural addiction to stimulus and response and Instagram.

Few of us trust our local churches to provide solutions for life and you can’t trust the government anymore because they really are spying on you. The Catholic Church is in freefall. Google and Facebook are actually messing with your mind, and I’m not talking in some groovy metaphysical way. They are literally reprogramming your brain. Your phone is apparently tracking you even when Location Services is turned off. Institutions that we have trusted for millennia have let us down and it feels like we are losing our handholds.

Our worlds are filled with information and most of that data is mindless drivel. Is coffee good for me or bad for me this month, I can’t remember. Is Pluto a planet again? Was that dude from Making of a Murderer guilty or not? Is gluten still the Antichrist? We can no longer trust our grade 11 math class to make sense of this augmented reality, and after what seemed like twenty years of enlightenment and walls falling and peace treaties, the world is suddenly scary again and full of regimes with small penises and very large guns. We’re in a pissing contest with our neighbour country over milk. Seriously, milk. How do we make sense of it all?

How do you end an article like this? Oh ya, I remember now.

Handholds.

Any rockclimber can tell you that running up an indoor climbing wall has very little in common with climbing an actual mountain or rock face. In the real world there are few perfectly formed nubits to grab every 2.5 feet. Rock faces are often wet, smooth, filled with vegetation or bird crap. So much bird crap. There are often no obvious routes and the ones that appear straight and narrow consistently prove to be unclimbable. In the real world the handholds are far less exact, less climate-controlled, and less exhilaratingly obvious. It’s incredibly easy to lose your way in this world.

You need to be reading. I’m not screwing around anymore so listen because I’m not making this up as I go along and any counselor worth their bread will tell you that if you aren’t growing then you’re going backwards. For years I’ve told clients they need to read and study and take their emotional growth much more seriously, and the numbers of people who actually listen to this obvious advice is underwhelming and tragic. If you absolutely refuse to write then watch documentaries that are outside your comfort zone and subscribe to some mental health podcasts. Cooking shows and escapist novels don’t count unless you are actually going to make the friggen recipes. Oprah and Deepak and Tony Robbins are not really philosophers, in spite of their witting aphorisms, and can only take you so far. They are paid millions to peddle philosophic pablum and that’s fine, but it’s not really the same as studying your life. Don’t get me started on Oprah Winfrey.

We don’t have the luxury anymore of putting this stuff off until it’s too late. If you think you will just grow out of your anxiety or chronic depression or immaturity or naïveté you are literally the definition of that word. By the time people are adults we have a shitbarge of pain collecting in our subconscious and if you don’t do something about it, and I mean it, dammit, you are going to fall miles short of your potential. I’m talking about you Mr. Anger Problem. Deal with that stuff because you are ejaculating your attitude all over the rest of us and using anger to bully people. You passive-aggressives need to talk to someone who can hold you accountable for all that bullshit you are spreading. Just tell me what you want, for the love of god. I know you aren’t mad, you’re just disappointed that everyone seems to let you down but have you ever stopped to consider that being passive-aggressive is dysfunctional and everyone around you knows what you’re trying to do? Most of us can smell a PA a mile off and we talk about you behind your back. Use your words. Are you easily offended? The rest of us are on egg shells around you because we don’t know if or when you are going to pout and make a scene. Is that really how you want people to think of you?

If you are one of those people that constantly needs others to feel sorry for you, then I actually feel sorry for you. Grow the hell up. You have a hole in your heart that you are trying to stuff full with sad Facebook and IG posts that tell us you’re having a bad day (sad emoji) specifically so that we will all tell you that you’re awesome and we believe in you. Believe in yourself, you’re better than this. See someone and talk about your incessant need for approval because that crap is handcuffing your life.

Anger, passive-aggressive behaviour, taking offence, acting pathetic, they’re all about power and control. These dysfunctional handholds keep us immature and miserable. These are learned coping mechanisms that you developed when you were a kid or after an abusive relationship and they may have worked at one time but they are handholds that are holding you back. Wouldn’t you rather be happy?

We all need better handholds. If you spend your whole life trying to be pretty and petty you are going to end up dumb and bitter. Don’t be dumb. Spend 3 years working on your anxiety every day. Don’t lie down and give in. Get serious about your anger problem and get control of your emotions. Work on that crappy impulse control until you can win. Seriously. This stuff is very hard and the percentage of people who die happy is lower than we want to admit. You are worth it. Say it. I am worth it.

Stop trusting in other people to make you happy, Scott. Stop being decimated when our cultural icons turn out to be rapists. Everyone is going to let you down, that’s called life. Everyone is petty and selfish and a little bit broken so get over it. You’re right, people are stupid. Some people think the actors on CSI can act. Don’t be one of those people, pick up a book or listen to an audiobook or an intelligent podcast or documentary and learn a little psychology. Talk to someone about philosophy. Don’t be dumb.

I don’t care what you say, CSI sucks.

 

Why Do I Care What You Think?

We are a people who struggle with self-worth. I meet few people who are happy with who they are. We are the chronically under-valued and the terminally insecure. We have a tendency to look to other people for approval and live our lives in order to be loved. We tell our children to love themselves, but battle with self-loathing.

For years I considered myself a rebel, a person who lived outside the box, who didn’t give a damn about what others thought of him. Looking back it is easy to see how this was a coping mechanism, a way of finding acceptance, if only with myself, as a marginal personality who did not easily “play well with others”. If I couldn’t win at fitting in I would give the finger to the establishment and act as if their opinions did not matter. I gave the impression that I was vain, when in fact I was insecure.

I can see, now that I am getting older, the temptation within myself to act like a performance monkey. Seeking to fit in does not end after high school.  We have been programmed since birth to base our feelings of self-worth on what others think of us and what we do. For some reason we are extremely conscious of the opinions of those around us. Those people who choose to criticize us may, in point of fact, be idiots and subjective to the highest degree but this seems to matter very little. Jumping through the hoops of people who don’t even respect is what we do.

There was a time in my life when it seemed important that people liked me. I was running a non-profit and had shareholders who were strongly opinionated and often very negative. I was always available to help salve their broken lives and marriages, and they were always available to critique my performance. I remember vividly one meeting with a couple at a local coffee shop wherein they decided that I needed to be “fixed”. It was to be the last of several meetings, all designed to help me come to grips with my glowering flaws (in their opinion). Late in the conversation it finally dawned on me, I didn’t even really like or respect this couple. I knew their dirty little secrets, their insecurities, their propensity to be condescending and arrogant. I realized that if we did not have a shared vested interest I would never want to be their friend or hang out with them… ever. I had been emotionally prostituting myself in order to appease them – something that now seemed impossible to do. My fear of their disapproval and perhaps disengagement from the non-profit had created a sick codependence.

It is one thing to seek to be kind and a person of integrity. It is another thing altogether to base your self-worth on the opinions of fallible and fickle people whose opinions should not matter. Wholeness is found in the realization that I cannot jump through enough hoops, suck up to enough people, to fill that hole in my heart that wants to be loved. Chasing that dragon is like chasing any other addiction, it just leaves us broken.

Accepting who and what I am, right now, is a daunting and difficult task. Letting go of our need to make everyone happy feels completely wrong. If people had to accept us for who we are would anyone still like us?

In counseling I admonish single clients, often fresh out of dysfunctional relationships, not to date until they don’t need to. They usually look at me funny and I find it necessary to explain – don’t bring your garbage to your next relationship. Don’t use that next person to fill that hole in your heart. Don’t depend on someone else to make you whole or happy. Don’t date… until you don’t need that person to fix anything. Become emotionally self-contained. Work on becoming whole.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

Taking Advice

Everyone has opinions. Lots of them. When you are in crisis or seeking advice, to whom should you turn?

I once had a female friend who was very fond of offering unsolicited advice. She was prone to offer her opinion on many areas of my life, whether I felt I needed her advice or not. When I would not jump to what she would suggest she would tell me, exasperated, “I don’t know why I even give you advice, you don’t do what I tell you to!”

That’s the problem with advice givers. Either they are just shooting into the wind or they expect you to follow their lead – in spite of the fact that they really often do not know what you are going through or the circumstances particular to your problem. Psychology Today has a good piece on the problem with taking advice from your friends.

So, ask a friend for advice and they will give you the advice from their perspective, from the world as they see it. They will have good intentions, think they ‘know’ you and your situation, but the subtle differences between people can nullify the advice they offer.

Yet most people love advising others. The reasons for this are psychologically complex, such as:

  1. Some people get a sense of self-satisfaction from hearing about others’ problems. It can make their own problems seem smaller.
  2. People like to impress their views on others. Not because they are right but because it increases their own perceived value or sense of self-worth.
  3. Others may want you to take a course of action that suits them. For example, if you split up from a partner and the two of you spent time with friends – perhaps went on vacation together – the friends’ advice will be tainted, often unconsciously, by the negative consequences for them of your break-up.
  4. Helping behaviour has high social approval. People often like people who offer advice or help.
  5. People want you to do what they do in life.  This confirms their own choices; your needs may come second.

Often the advice people offer give an insight into their own problems. Because they know themselves well and have privileged access to their own situation their advice will reflect themselves, not the person who is the object of their advice.

 Sometimes asking a professional isn’t much better. Let’s be honest, some counselors suck. They are condescending, or subjective. They have all the answers or seemingly none at all. I remember going to a counselor who kept asking me, “And what do you think?” What I was thinking was, “I’m paying you eighty bucks an hour. I know what I’m thinking, I want to know what you are thinking!” I didn’t need a professional to parrot back to me my problem. I knew my problem. What I didn’t know was what to do about it.
The saying goes, “Opinions are like butt-cracks, everyone has one.” It’s important to be careful when asking for advice. Most people either want to make you happy or have a similar experience they want to relate. Few of us, unless we are fully awake, manage to provide objective and helpful truth when asked.
So take what your mom says with a grain of salt. Get opinions from several sources. Read about your issue on the web from good sources. Google “my Issue + cbt” or something like that. Email me and I’ll try to steer you in the right direction. Talk to someone with no emotional investment in your problem. Find someone with some years and take them out for coffee. Find a counselor that doesn’t suck.