Thursday, August 14, 2008

Of Baptist Funerals

So my grandmother is dying. She could be taking her last breath as I type this. It is not a complete surprise; she has been a heavy smoker since long before I was born and has been told several times by medical professionals that she should quit or face death. She has been in the hospital before with the medical staff not expecting her to survive much longer. This is one of those times. They have placed her in what is known as a "hospice", which as I have learned is a rather nice extension of the hospital for those that do not have long to live. Interestingly enough, my mom told me recently that she has not asked for any more cigarettes, and seems to be at peace.

My dad called tonight, a few hours ago, to tell me the news that this is probably her last night. It was a moment I expected for at least a couple of months, a moment I dreaded, a moment I rehearsed, keeping myself up at night - but not for the reason you probably think. I dreaded it because he is a religious person, and I am not.

A Little Background


I am currently living in Santa Clara, California, a technology hub in a liberal state. Silicon Valley. I grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a modest sized city with a strong Baptist community. The Bible Belt. When I was a kid, I was a "Christian" - meaning, that was what I said my religion was if anyone asked, and that was my religion because it was my parent's religion and thus I "inherited" it. This was before I realized what Christianity was. Heck, I still don't really know what Christianity is, it seems to be some composition of beliefs centered around the base idea that God had a physical son who can bring us salvation, though the denominations seem to differ significantly on the exact implications and details of this base belief. Since these beliefs are contradictory among denominations, Christianity as a whole comes off as a confusing mess.

When I was young, I did not go to church sermons, but I did attend day care at a church. Through that and my parents and perhaps television, I learned that God lets good people go to Heaven, bad people go to Hell, and he can do this because his awesome son died by crucifixion, the details of which are (censored for such young children). And since I was a "good" person (I knew this because I made good grades in school and generally did what my parents told, and I was not a murderer or a thief or what have you), I was going to get to go to Heaven. Yay! Lucky me! I even have memories arguing with my friends what Heaven was like. One of my friends agreed with me that Heaven would become like whatever you want it to, our logic being that living in Heaven is supposed to be the happiest experience you've ever felt, so whatever you fathom that would make you happier would already be true. My other two friends said that that was silly, that Heaven was what it was and we could not change it, believing that nothing we could imagine would make us as happy as Heaven already is.

Time passed, stuff happened, I turned fourteen and my parents started taking me to church for the first time. Turns out now that the whole "salvation by good deeds" bit that I blindly believed wasn't "really" how it works - although why they expected me to start blindly believing a new unproven system when the one they had been feeding me for fourteen years was a lie is beyond me. Hitler could be in Heaven if he accepted Christ, while an atheist who gives her life to save a school bus of burning children could be in Hell if she never did. Christianity sickened me, and Christians disappointed me for believing such garbage. I started to realize that there never was proof for anything religious I believed, and though I can talk with relative clarity about the topic now, the transition was the worst thing that has ever happened to me. Much worse than the recent layoff, heart surgery, and loss of my grandmother that I have had to deal with this summer - and trust me, this hasn't been easy.

Not knowing how to handle this newfound information (misinformation?), I started getting grumpy at church. My parents did nothing to try and figure out why I was grumpy (honestly because I didn't know what to say or do, but felt that I must try something); instead, they got mad at me and scolded me, making me feel even worse. I was a rational outcast in a land of fools, and no one - not even my own parents - would listen.

What Happened Tonight


It was with these horrendous memories that I have spent the weeks thinking about how I would tell something to my dad when the time came. At my other grandmother's funeral last year, the pastor took time toward the end of the service to ask everyone to hang their heads in prayer and, if they hadn't already, ask Jesus Christ into their hearts. I was not expecting this, and my anger reached about as high as it had ever been. Here is a guy whose profession depends on the belief of others using my grandmother's funeral as a commercial slot for his religion, trying to nab people at their weakest moment for conversion. It was outright disgusting, lower than I ever expected he would sink, and I spent the rest of the funeral in paralyzing rage.

I wanted to tell my dad that I would not go to another funeral if it was going to be held by a Baptist pastor. I feared doing so, as my dad is a Baptist, and has never shown much patience toward my feelings on the matter. But he seems to have mellowed as he aged, so I was hoping for a somewhat calm reception of my statement. Tonight I was tested; I got the news that there will be a funeral soon, and after several minutes of hesitating, making small talk with him about how I could fly out and back without missing my first day at my new job, I finally told him how I felt. Know how long it took before he made an angry retort? If you guessed right after I finished explaining things, you give him too much credit. He actually started before I had finished stuttering my ideas out, as if he knew where I was going after just a few words. I won't repeat what he said here, as he later apologized for saying it and explained that he was just stressed out (an apology that I appreciate, but which may not be enough for forgiveness - I haven't decided yet). I just needed to vent, and I wanted to lead into something very important to me.

The point


In case it hasn't been made clear, I am not a Christian. I am not religious. I don't know if I am an Atheist or an Agnostic, and I don't understand why I have to blanket myself under one of those labels - do you call yourself a particular phrase because you do not believe in Santa Claus? I am not sure why, but I feel pain that my father has always shown such indirect anger toward me for this. I thought by now I would be strong enough to not care what he thinks, and it honestly baffles me that I apparently still do.

I want to have a "believe and let believe" attitude toward Christianity, under the assumption that they have a right to their beliefs and are not causing me harm. But how can I have such an attitude when I feel such pain, when I have been told that I deserve the worst punishment possible no less than history's worst villains by those I love at a fragile age? How can I feel complacent when Christians vote, yet their beliefs are bound to and constructed from an unproven, unscientific, unethical, self-contradictory book that was written hundreds of years ago by a far less educated society?

How can I feel calm when I can not escape this hell on earth, even at the funeral of my relatives?

1 comment:

Eric Ritz said...

I always liked your grandmother. I remember we'd go over there and she'd someone trick us into feeding dogs and taking out garbage, doing some sort of fast-talk. One moment talking about her day, and then somehow we were behind the TV trying to change the colors that weren't really off balance, lol. I'm happy to hear she's at peace.

I wish I could give some advice about everything else, but it seems pretentious. I hope everything works out.