02 January 2016

Share in Christ's suffering

 "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." Jeremiah 29:11

 As a boy, I memorised Bible verses in different clubs. My trip to America reminded me of how mad for the Bible we all were and how much I excelled in the madness. There are, in my boxes in my parents' closet, awards for memorising the most verses and for being able to find the verses fastest in the Bible. I won second and first prize in different years: I still have the ribbons. My daughter asked me if I was famous for memorising verses. Yes, I say, in a small way, in a small church in rural Minnesota. Yes, we were the famous, well-behaved, homeschooled children who knew the Bible well.

The verses we memorised all served an ideology built on the doctrine of original sin: we are all sinners. Yoko says I like the word sinner. I do: it's appropriate to describe everyone. Romans 3:23. The wages of sin is death. Romans 6:23. The gift of god is eternal life. Acts 16:31. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. It was a connect-the-dots exercise of decontextualised sentences. The Roman Road because it was mostly in St Paul's letter to the Romans (circa 55 AD).

 The explicit threat of judgement came up in skits and sermons, and the constant presence of the tribulation — a time when Jesus would unexpectedly come back and if you hadn't been saved, you would be left to a world without god, a world that would last seven years more. The mark of the beast: 666. Could you say no to the mark: I wasn't certain I could. I was 9 or 10. I laid in bed thinking about it: how and where I might hide. How hungry could I be before I gave up. How would I like to die. 

 These are not the verses you see written in flowing script on placards in my parents' house. The face of the church is one of love with euphemistic concerns about gay marriage. We love you, we're just worried about you. The words are a political dog whistle now. We are Christians, but the real kind, not the fake ones. The ones that believe in a literal hell. You will literally burn. You understand, right. If you don't, you probably aren't the right kind of Christian. Fundamentalists who meet me now will just say that I had a false faith: it's easy for them, but it was not a false faith.

And then I was 22. It was nine at night, and I was standing on a river bank in Japan with a group of Japanese school children and some theology students from a seminary in Tokyo. There was a bonfire and they were talking about hell. My Japanese wasn't good enough then to follow it, but there it was: the Roman Road in Japanese. All the fear and terror replicated in complex, passive verb structures that I was familiar with in English: God is not sending us to hell, we are sending ourselves. We are being sent by ourselves. We have already been sent by ourselves. And I was losing it. We were asked: what image do you have of god and drew pictures. I drew a heart filled with love for the world and realised it couldn't be right. I didn't actually believe that, did I.

A year later Yoko and I would be walking on a beach in Niigata for the first time. I said I wanted to be with someone who wanted what god wanted for me. I was waiting for god to open that door for me. I didn't know what it meant, but knew what whistled. I didn't intend to stop then: I never intended to give it up. 'What if you had dated someone you met playing baseball and all you did was talk about baseball and play baseball and you got married and the person you married suddenly started hating baseball. Hated everything about baseball.' I don't know. I'm an injured baseball player, I say: the metaphor doesn't work. I stopped playing baseball because I was injured and couldn't play anymore. I still want to play, but I can't. The metaphor doesn't work.

My punishment for leaving the faith is the pain it causes. My wife suffers; my parents suffer. Sola fide: in faith alone — but only the right faith. The dog whistle faith. The tombstones at St Peter's sink into the ground for another year as the soil gets softer and softer. I'll pack my pipe and walk around the block again. In another world I kept on, don't worry. You don't suffer in that other world.