Can I Get an Amen?

May 17, 2011

10 a.m. t0 12:30 p.m.

Abyssinian Christian Church, Fort Collins, Colo.

Chosen because…ethnic diversity touted on website.

I grew up in what’s fondly referred to as Vanilla Village. White, middle class America. When I was a kid, if we saw a black person it was like encountering a rare bird. “Oh my God look, it’s a black person! Where do you suppose he lives? What’s he doing in Ft. Collins? Where do you think he works?”

Our fascination wasn’t malicious. We weren’t trying to find his workplace to torment him, we were just curious. Ft. Collins is more diverse than it used to be, but it’s still really, really white.

So imagine my surprise on Sunday morning when I walked into the Fort Collins Abyssinian Christian Church and found myself in the minority. It was fantastic.

Culture Shock

This church is in the middle of a neighborhood, which is how church should be — an extension of community. It’s very plain. Blonde brick. Basic A-frame. Old office chairs stand in as pews, each one with what appears to be a handmade pocket on the back. The pockets don’t hold Bibles as everyone brings their own and, when they pray, they hold them up to heaven. This is new.

A woman greets me at the entrance, hands me a handful of peppermints. Confusing. Later, during a pause in worship, a woman sitting near me offers me a peppermint from her stash. Is this some sort of new age icebreaker?

Several men stand to the side of the cramped aisles. They’re well dressed and big. They look like bodyguards and do not leave their posts during service. I’m intimidated. Not by them, but the situation.

I’m not the only white person in the congregation, but I stick out because I look like a bum and everyone else seems to adhere to old-fashioned church values of dress up. The dreadlocked hippie in the choir provides some comfort.

Get Your Shout Out

The choir and keyboardist are active and unbelievable, providing accompaniment I actually want to listen to. This is the first time I’ve heard a church choir sing. Usually they mumble, occasionally harmonizing words. This choir does its thing throughout the service, including when the preacher speaks.

The preacher greets us. “I hope you woke up with prayer.”

We all did. Even me. My prayer was, “Dear God, please shoot me.”

I can’t imagine anyone else in the congregation greeted the day this way because they’re moving about singing, talking, dancing, smiling — they’re thrilled to be in God’s house.  This is an anomaly. I’ve never ever seen such enthusiasm for God. Ever.

As per usual, the greet your neighbor bit sends me into a panic. A very large hatted woman to my left gives me a huge bear hug. I sit, terrified that the man jumping over a chair is headed toward me. He isn’t, kisses the kid in front of me instead.

The preacher encourages us to “get our shout out,” which means clap, yell, sing and dance the devil away. Terrified and amused, I sit, watching. Eventually a smile dents my crabby face. Though I’m not shouting, the shout out is working.

I’m fascinated by a woman in the front who looks like she’s leading a Jazzercise class. She disappears. She either had to suddenly tie her shoe or she’s fallen to the ground. When she pops back up, she sits in a chair fanning herself so I think she was probably writhing.

The preacher says religion is “not a spectator sport,” but I cannot will myself out of my chair. I don’t feel judged by anyone other than myself. Personal problem.

The preacher’s messages are simple. Be grateful for the day. Put your faith in the Lord. I like what he has to say because he speaks like a human – not a theologian – and says things like, “Can I get a witness?,” prompting the congregation to follow with“Amen” and “yes sir.” I freaking love it especially when the older woman behind me starts croaking out “that’s right.”

I don’t care about this church’s message. The congregants are so excited about God that it really doesn’t matter. Enthusiasm for anything is half the battle. Why is this the first time I’ve seen people get excited about church?

*Let us clarify. By death, we mean the marriage can be dissolved for any of the following reasons: Large arguments; small arguments included but not limited to those concerning the agricultural categorization of a tomato and the merits of golf as a leisure activity or a sport; mid-life crises; general boredom and dissatisfaction with life; dirty dishes; ugly children; the discovery of anything that’s bigger, better and more interesting than what you have; drug allergies; delayed bi-curiosities and outside influence.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England

Various hours

Chosen because…missing it would be like going to Rome and not dropping by the ‘ol Vatican.

Sigh. Watch this. Bride loses it because her husband’s family apparently doesn’t have the mental capacity to effectively participate in wedding day activities which, oddly enough, include a rousing game of the board game Clue.

Would you marry this woman?: Latest Bridezilla Meltdown! 

St. Paul’s Cathedral is gorgeous. I’m thrilled to go in. Until I learn the cost of admission, which is something like the equivalent of $36 U.S. if you want to get a view from the top. I bolt for the door. My tour guide grabs my elbow and forces me through the Capitalist gates. (Photo is the view from the top of the Cathedral. Can’t take pics inside.)

I’ve said this 1,000 times but opulence and a complete disregard for Jesus’ teachings – poverty, good will, helping others – is one reason I hate church as a walled institution. It’s the same reason I’m fairly anti-marriage – people get too caught up in flowers, budgets, color schemes and board games to think about what they’re doing, what it means and if it’s for them.

This comes from a recently divorced woman, a divorcee, a social pock-mark but hey, I went for ceremony when I didn’t want it and though I don’t think it impacted my marriage, I certainly let the grand idea of a wedding as well as outside influences and second hand experiences occasionally sway dealings within my marriage.

I wish more people – myself included – would go beyond the pomp. Beyond churches as symbols, holidays as economic bustiers and weddings as events.

Perfect example: The Royal Wedding. My trip to St. Paul’s happens a few weeks before the wedding, but for the next few weeks, the cathedral haunts. It’s on every news channel and in every paper, commentators speculating on guest list dust ups, Kate Middleton’s relationship with the church and her ability to look like a royal by W-Day.

I hope the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have a lovely life, I really do, but standing in St. Paul’s Cathedral, listening to reporters say things like, “Oh look at them, you can just tell they’re in love” is like nails on a chalkboard. How is marriage between  man, woman and, for believers, God, everyone but the bride, groom and God have an opinion?

I suppose the trip up St. Paul’s stairwells was worth $36 but I leave feeling the same way I do after exiting many wedding receptions. What is the point?

I must admit that I would have thoroughly enjoyed the royal wedding had I been invited, the Syrian ambassador to the U.K. hadn’t had his invitation renigged and the lovely princess sat me between him and her drug and booty loving uncle, Gary Goldsmith. That’s the kind of pomp and circumstance I look for.

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ft. Collins, Colo.

10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

Chosen because…went for Pentecostal but service times didn’t suit my needs so swapped it with another “al” denomination.

Well I Never

I’ll never stay in Colorado. I’ll never read the Bible. I’ll never go to church. I’ll never get married. I’ll never get divorced. Never say never. Lesson learned.

Since the Redeemer Lutheran experience, I’ve put my pissy pants on every Sunday morning, bitched and moaned all the way to church and resisted pre-service temper tantrums. But when I left St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, I was calm. Like abnormally, once-in-a-lifetime kind of calm. Why? Because it turns out that I’m getting dumber, not smarter and for that I’m grateful. I’m so sick of thinking.

Age: The Great Eraser

I don’t know anything about Episcopalians and that’s fine as knowledge taints experience. I love the church interior. Basic. A few stained glass windows. A cross draped in white cloth hanging from the ceiling. This is the first church I’ve been to with organ music, which I love. Very traditional. Love that too.

Service starts. A choir cloaked in white, wooden crosses hanging from necks, floats down the aisles. Priests or whatever take the stage. There are many. They have hoods on the back of their white robes. I’m not in the deep south or Michigan. I wipe KKK from the brain. During meet your neighbor the preachers step into the aisles, shaking hands as they go. I like this but am trapped between an old woman in a powder blue suit and a crabby note taker who nearly clips my toes every time she pulls down the prayer bar.

Most of the congregation will be chillin’ with God soon. Perhaps that’s why the preacher chose John 3:1 – 17. Here’s the story. This arrogant dude, Nicodemus, meets with Jesus at night because he’s ashamed to be seeking advice from a lowly country boy but he needs counsel so he does it anyway. Nicodemus thinks he knows everything but in his later years, after Jesus dies, he doesn’t say anything. He kicks his know-it-all attitude, which suggests that as we age we either lose our minds or realize we don’t know a damn thing about anything.

I believe it’s the latter. I’ve realized this in my own life, particularly within the last few months. I’ve ripped the blanket off some of my more gregarious opinions and stereotypes, but I still use “you’re wrong, you’re just wrong” when backed in a corner during arguments. Turns out I’m usually wrong, which I hate especially when my mom hauls out the dictionary as backup. You can’t argue with Merriam.

Never Say Never

I didn’t want to go to church, assumed it would suck, thought “I’ll never enjoy this” but like I said, it really chilled me out. I liked the sermon but I also didn’t feel any pressure to share my non-existent relationship with God with other people. I’m not sure I’ve gotten that from any other church.

Example. Rather than harping on Bible studies, the pastor focused on Foyer Groups, groups of eight-to-10 people who meet for dinner etc. to get to know each other. I like that. I need friends but I don’t want the Bible getting between us.

I never thought I’d use the prayer bar or reply to the preacher as outlined by the bolded text in the leaflet, but I did it. I kind of want to get baptized so I can receive communion. But I’ll never do it. I’ll never stick with organized religion. And I’ll never say things I don’t mean. Ever.

When kids stop believing the “you came from a stork” bit, parents are forced into the dreaded sex talk. I remember mine. It involved a picture book with a skinny male cartoon grinning on top of a lying on top of a fat female cartoon. I can’t remember if she was smiling. Both were naked. Traumatizing.

Dad was conspicuously absent for this conversation, but both of my parents discussed kids and religion, how they would handle it, etc. I knew dad attended Catholic school  — he has the scares to prove it — but before I started this project, I had no idea mom had faith in God. She doesn’t anymore.

To better understand my disconnect to religion, I interviewed both about their experiences with organized religion as well as their hands off approach to helping us find it.

Here’s what my mom had to say. (She said I misquoted her in a past blog. Bad journalist I suppose. We’ll see what she has to say about this one.)

Me: Did your parents raise you with religion?

Mom: For part of my life but it wasn’t the whole household. My mom was the one who started going to church when I was probably eight-to-10. I believe it was a Lutheran church. I kind of feel like this was an out-of-the-blue decision but I’m not sure. I went with her but I can’t remember if my siblings went.

My dad wasn’t ever interested in any religion. I feel like he was raised Italian Catholic and probably went to Catholic Church as a kid but I’m not for sure. I feel like he was neutral about church.

I don’t remember religion being a part of my life before that but I went to a Catholic Church with my aunt and uncle and I also went to Catechism class.

Q: You went to Bible camp with that Lutheran church and got saved. Can you talk about that?

A: I was saved at camp, which means you accept Jesus Christ. It was the most exhilarating emotional experience I’ve ever had in my life to this day.

The camp counselor, who was a teenage girl, asked me if I was ready to accept Jesus Christ as my savior. We were by ourselves and whatever words were said. I agreed to do it and it was like a rush of beauty that ran from my head to my toes.

I always had a very strong faith back from when I went to Catholic Church with my aunt and uncle and had a very strong belief in the whole Christian thing. I should have died then! I would have been guaranteed a place in heaven!

Q: What were your first thoughts of Jesus? Did you ever fear religion?

A: I don’t remember but I remember that at times I felt like I had a holy presence at the foot of my bed but they looked like the pictures that are on Catholic funeral cards (laughs) so I don’t know if it was spiritual or an overactive imagination.

I wasn’t fearful of Jesus, but I was fearful of going to hell.

After we stopped going to church, I held onto my beliefs. I said nightly prayers and for extra brownie points I would always pray to God to bless everyone I cared for and everyone in the world and I’d put myself last because I thought that was good manners.

Q: Did you feel faith had a positive impact on you?

A: Yes. I liked being a good girl and I’m sure it kept me out of trouble. One of my dad’s favorite expressions, as we all know, was Goddamn and I literally cringed whenever he took the Lord’s name in vain. All I know is that it (faith) personally made me feel good.

Q: What happened?

A: I had a strong belief until I went into high school and then our family started falling apart, started splitting, which in turn made other bad things happen in the family. It was dark and chaotic and I think I just quit saying my prayers and thought, what’s the point?

Q: So that’s it? No more religion?

A: I don’t know. I feel like I’m not an atheist or an agnostic. I’m a confusiest. I’m confused because I do believe it (faith) works for a lot of people and sometimes I do believe there’s got to be this greater something but there’s so many unanswered questions in the Bible that I just can’t really go by that.

Q: Did you and dad talk about religion before you had kids?

A: Yes. You know dad is a wounded former Catholic schoolboy so you know he had a pretty tainted view of religion but we both agreed that religion was a choice our kids should be able to make when they were mature enough to fully understand it.

I think when you start taking kids from birth and going to any kind of church, they’re just raised to believe something because their parents believe it. We wanted our kids to understand the different choices.

Q: I don’t remember you taking us to church so how did I have the opportunity to see the church side of things?

A: I think you were all asked at a certain age if you wanted to go. I think you and Taryn (sister) experienced some churchiness with friends.

I didn’t feel like going to church because I was unsure what my beliefs were and I thought, ‘How can I guide my children one way or the other?” I felt that would be extremely hypocritical on my part.

Q: What impact did this decision have on your kids/family?

A: I really feel horrible about the times I saw my kids have embarrassment over their lack of knowledge over really basic things like who is Jesus (laughs) and why do we celebrate Christmas.

Q: Are you serious or messing around?

A:  I’m serious. I do regret not exposing you guys to more but if I still had that opportunity now and was raising you kids, I still don’t know how I would do that. You don’t just dump your kids into church and say have fun. It would still be a slippery slope for me. I regret exposing you to more of it but I don’t know how I’d do that without believing myself. Besides, I always wanted a trio of heathens to join me.

Q: So how do you deal with things when life is challenging? Specifically as it relates to your kids?

A: Heavy drinking (laughs).

Q: What if one of us kids died tomorrow? What would happen to us?

A: Boy I really wrestle with this one. I want to believe there’s a forever after so we can all be there together someday. I just don’t know.

Q: What if I become a nun? Will you still love me?

A: That will never happen. They won’t have you.

Q: That never crossed your mind?

A: Yeah like it crossed my mind that I’d be an astronaut.

Religion or Bust

February 15, 2011

I had every intention of going to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. In fact, as soon as I realized the events surrounding the Mercedes-sponsored Laureus sports event would prevent me from going, I tried to extend my stay purely for the mosque. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out.

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the eighth largest mosque in the world and the largest mosque in the UAE. It’s gorgeous and open to visitors for educational tours. Understandably, visitors are asked to respect cultural norms ie. wear modest, conservative, loose fitting clothing; long sleeves, long skirts and trousers; leave shorts, short skirts and tight clothing at home; avoid intimate behavior such as kissing or handholding; wear a headscarf (women only); and keep beachwear at the beach.

My first experience with Islam was, naturally, inappropriate. I first heard midday prayer while relaxing on a private beach in a garish, unholy Victoria’s Secret bikini I bought on a whim of overconfidence (I’ve lost the bottoms to my standard plain Jane swimming suit). Though it was a private beach, I felt uncomfortable until the wind forced me to cover up.

(The dreaded VC suit on a lampshade…where it belongs.)

The prayer was surprisingly soothing and nothing like the chaos Fox News links to everything Middle Eastern and/or Islamic.

I did have a little prayer mat in my room and realized on day three that the diagonal arrow above my bed was intended to lead guests toward Mecca, not the closet. Waking up to the early morning prayer was delightful and saved me from missing my return flight.

I only wish I could have made it to the mosque and actually come back with an impression a tad more substantive than prayers and an arrow.

My flight out of Abu Dhabi had some quote from the Koran but I can’t remember it. However, when I got home, I found a Bible on my front porch — no joke — and there was a bookmark in the Book of Esther so I randomly grabbed a quote as I need guidance and apparently, sometimes when people are struggling, they reach for a random bit in the Bible and relate it to their lives.

This is what I got:

“And the ‘drinking’ was according to the law; none did compel: for so the king had appointed to all the officers of his house, that they should do according to every man’s pleasure.” (Esther, Chapter 1)

I was looking for something more substantive, something that wouldn’t encourage my commitment to vice. I thought the Bible was supposed to speak to people when they’re hurting. Maybe it’s supposed to act like a cheering section. Who knows. I was hoping for something like:

“This too shall pass,” a Facebook post from a friend that may be Biblical in nature? I’m not sure.

On a side note, my flashy binki may not have been entirely inappropriate. Apparently bikinis and religion can work together as proven by another Mercedes-sponsored event — the True Religion Bikini Runway. I wasn’t asked to participate in this one. I can’t imagine why. You wouldn’t believe the number of swimsuit modeling offers I turn down each year. It’s out of control.

True Religion Bikini Runway 2011 Line

I will be heading to a Mennonite church this coming Sunday and apologize for the flighty posts. Travel. Hopefully I’ll adjust.

(You can follow us on Twitter @thumpme or join our Facebook page. No obligation.)

Down and Out in Arkansas

January 26, 2011

Ohio Club, Hot Springs, Ark.

5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Notable Matter: Prominent photo of Al Capone, to bathroom says “Grandpa’s Workshop”

I fell in love with Arkansas the moment I crossed the state line and saw a man with a Jason mask four wheeling along the shoulder of the highway against the flow of traffic.

I drove from Tennessee to Hot Springs, Ark. to salve my wounded soul and aching body, which had, more or less, been in a car for two weeks.

Hot Springs, Ark. is known for its eight bathhouses however, the women at the tourism office and the guy at the hotel had no idea when the city’s major attractions closed. Arkansas.

The Ohio Club

I go to the Ohio Club after soaking in the baths. I’m wrong. It isn’t a dive. I ask for directions to a dive bar. They are withheld. Strangers are more concerned with my safety than I am. I stay.

I love this bar. It was gangster hangout and I love gangsters. Al Capone, Bugs Moran and Owney Madden loved the springs and gambled, drank and philandered at the Ohio Club during prohibition.

Despite the great atmosphere — 1920s décor, mahogany bar, mezzanine level perfect for stripping — and the club’s sordid history, I can’t talk to anyone. I’m depressed, have to think about some stuff. Mind goes back to the bathhouse.

Bill, Boob, B…

Every state lays claim to something — world’s largest prairie dog, largest ball of twine, etc. Hot Springs, Ark. is the hometown of Bill Clinton, the country’s most publically excitable president. It is also home to the world’s largest natural breast. I know. I saw it.

I walk into the bathhouse. Four pools, varying temperatures. Pass on the middle pool, which is behind a full length, glass display wall. Pass on the left pool, too cold. Three fat, hairy old men in the right pool, a couple sucking face in the upper pool. I choose the old guys. Don’t need love in my face.

Notice a group of large women sitting in chairs, watch them, listen to their accents. Watch in horror as one woman’s swimming suit gradually succumbs to the weight of her left breast. She notices when the suit hits mid-nipple. I tell myself I’ll be OK. I’ve been to nude beaches, seen other breasts. I will recover.

But then…a middle-aged woman who is au natural walks into my bath. Until she sits, her curls and my eyes parallel. I want to flee. Don’t want to be rude. She talks. I think of germs.

I relax. She’s cool. Traveling to Arizona with her partner for an RV festival. Partner’s  Each has a daughter. One on each coast. I want to join them. Don’t ask. Have to tend to a minor task called figuring out my life.

The Ohio

Thinking about the bathhouse pulls me out of my funk. Put away pad, pull hair back. Ask owner to recommend a Baptist church. She looks at me funny. Asks man at the end of the bar, request passes every mouth.

Woman: “Honey what are you writing?”

I tell her about the project, make it known I’m not a Baptist.

“Honey, I’m Pentecostal you can go to church with me.”

Man laughs.

“I was thinking Baptist would be good since I’m in the south.”

“Oh you’re in Baptist country. They’re crazy you know.”

Man: “Don’t tell them you don’t believe.”

Woman: “Oh God no.”

“Why?”

“They’ll make you go to the front of the church so they can convert you and you’ll probably have to stay up there and sing.”

“Seriously?”

Woman: “Don’t listen to him.”

They say 90 percent of the community “goes to church,” which means they think they’ll be saved if they show up a few times a year. The woman yells down the bar that I don’t believe. The only atheist in town comes over. We talk about science, his experience with the Church of Christ, the reason he stopped believing.

Lesbians and atheists in Arkansas. Interesting.

Note: I apologize if this blog is subpar. I’m in hellhole Nebraska, kid behind me needs a spanking. I didn’t sleep last night, GPS broken, no atlas, headed into a storm, 14 hours to go.

Mountain View Community Church, Ft. Collins, Colo.

10 a.m. to 11: 30 a.m.

Chosen because…it’s small, my mom considered buying it years ago and I spent many a night jumping off the roof of a neighboring house to hang from a rope swing. Genius, I know.

Warmup

Getting out the door is rough. Mom straightening my clothes, touching my hair, thinks I’ve never dressed myself. Feels like the first day of school. Notice six-inch rip in upper thigh of my leggings. Don’t want to get in a tête-à-tête with mom regarding how hemline dictates whether an outfit requires leggings or tights. Instead, I change my outfit and get in the car. Harvey Danger’s “Flagpole Sitter” playing. I consider feeling bad for agreeing with the following verse, which I love.

“Been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding.”

I think better of it, continue thinking of stupid people breeding, figure church will help. Drive up. Sigh of relief. Young couples, families and teenagers walking up the steps. Fine with meeting my neighbor who is young, cool, interesting and sweet.

The Message

I like the message. Condemnation. Conviction. Cleansation (pastor admits to creating this word). We condemn ourselves when we do something wrong, feel unworthy of God’s love or, for us non-believers, the love of others. Rather than confessing, we cover it up or blame someone else.

I feel good. I don’t have an issue with condemnation or conviction. I do not blame others for my issues and confess everything to everyone. I think for a second, realize this is good for me but problematic for others. It damages relationships and, thanks to keypad confessions, has me looking into international journalism law, specifically defamation of character.

The pastor says “confession brings hope.”

I disagree and have another thought. Do I confess my sins to the entire blogosphere because I’m honest or do I do it because it takes the weight of sin off my shoulders and dumps it on someone else? For me, does confession bring hope? No. It begets relief. Something to think about. Hard.

I lose the pastor during cleansation. This is the point where belief collides with lack thereof. Cleansation requires faith in God or Christ. I don’t have it.

The Pews, My God the Pews

Next week I’m strapping a body pillow around my chest and wearing three layers of Depends to prevent pew pain. The pastor mentioned removing ourselves from our flesh. I have difficulty doing this anyway and sitting in a pew with a tense back, bra clasp digging into my spin, butt bones on fire, does not help.

Churchgoers: Why are pews so miserable?

Take Away

I would go back to this church. I liked the people, the size and the message. No donation platters. Pastor referred to judgmental believers as the “so called religious.” Loved that. Was uncomfortable with the baptism of two high school girls who were dunked in a waterhole hidden behind a wooden door. The Baptism, not the church, made me uncomfortable.

I felt better after church and thanks to some divine radio intervention that put Bob Marley in my head, I stopped thinking about stupid people breeding and thought about sunshine, snowboarding and enjoying life.

As BM says:

Most people think great God will come from the skies, take away everything and make everybody feel high. But if you know what life is worth, you will look for yours on earth; and now you see the light.”

Yes, there was an attitude shift after church experience No. 1 but I don’t know what/who was responsible. I can’t relate it to God, but does it really matter what it is if it improves your life?

P.S. The title of my last post was “Though Shalt Not Judge.” I changed it to “Thou.” If you see glaring mistakes, please let me know. I’m a novice.

Thou Shalt Not Judge

January 12, 2011

Long Branch Bar, Laporte, Colo.

3:40 p.m. to 4:52 p.m.

Notable Matter: Plastic shot glasses, “I swerve for Shem” bumper sticker

I lose faith in humanity and then I fall in love with it.

The Long Branch Bar. No windows. Few cars. Sign on the door says, “Wet Floor.” I walked in. I hate to admit it, but I was reticent. Not because my dad said, “I know a guy who got shot there, be careful,” but because I didn’t know where to go.

U.S. citizens can’t move without signs. They’re everywhere. Step here. Don’t smoke here. Wipe your feet here. Unload here. Sign here. To the left of the entrance was a long hall similar to one I walked down in college that led to a drug den, a place I didn’t expect to be and feared I would never leave. To the right, the back of the bar.

Gray hair, no teeth, a Poudre High School sweatshirt (my alma matter) flanking acid wash jeans, the bartender smiles, motions me to the back of the bar and around the counter. I walk down the bar, drag the only free stool close to a man with a handlebar mustache, thick hands, Carhartts and teeth blackened by tobacco.

“Don’t sit there,” he says.

“Why? Is it broken?”

“No. No. I’m just giving you shit. You have to be able to take some shit.”

“I can take shit.” I  sit.

The bartender asks for my ID, probably thinks I’m an undercover cop prepping for a sting. The man with the mustache me helps her find my birthday. “Girl, there’s no way you’re that tall.”

“I am. Promise.”

The ID comes back. The man says, “Michigan. Well, I know where to find you when I stalk you!”

“If you want to drive that far in the winter to stalk me, go for it.”

This is why I love dive bars. No one takes themselves seriously and no one ever reads me their resume.

First 15 Minutes

The man’s wife sits next to me. Sweet lady, kind eyes. They have four kids. Their youngest daughter, 24, is in Kandahar, Afghanistan serving her first tour. She has two more to go. She puts packages together for men in the field, wrapping food, water, clothing and ammunition in “puffy stuff that looks like honeycombs” so when they drop the packages at night — always at night — the ammunition doesn’t explode.

The woman hasn’t heard from her daughter in weeks, says the U.S. pays the Taliban to protect the communications towers, that one must be down. Even though guard dogs sit in the mess hall, her daughter eats outside. The mess hall was bombed. She’s afraid.

“How did your daughter seem the last time you talked to her? Was she OK?”

“She was OK the first three months. But that was the first three.”

“So how do you distract yourself from thinking about her every minute of every day?”

I drink.”

Love

I don’t want to give the impression that this couple is depressed, forlorn. They’re kind and funny and real. They want what everyone wants — safety, a happy family, a job, shelter, love.

They’ve been married for 33 years. Not only do they enjoy each other, they love each other. He kisses her, talks about the cute blonde he met at the army base. It’s amazing to watch.

Of course it wasn’t always that way. They lived in Kentucky for several years. He worked nights, she worked days. Life was hard. Four kids. Backwards community. Few neighbors had septic tanks. One of the neighbors did his business over a 5-gallon bucket. When the bag under the bucket filled, he threw it on top of a hill.

It was rough on the kids. Their peers would only play with them if they went to the same church. They didn’t go to church. They lived in a dry county, drove two hours for booze. The Baptists didn’t approve but somehow made peace with the bootleggers who sold alcohol and drugs to the kids.

The man and woman left. Then their kids left.

“All of a sudden you don’t know your husband. You just have to learn to fall in love again.”

Religion

She grew up Catholic. He wishes she’d kept her faith. She has…sort of. Went to church on Christmas, usually prays at home.

They agree we won’t win the war. It’s religious, no hope. He searched for spirituality years ago, settled on the Mormons.

“You know, that whole have-a-bunch-of-wives stuff is a bunch of crap. That’s like five percent, less than five percent. Do you know what they do? They give 10 percent of their income to the church so when you’re in trouble — no job, financial problems — they take care of you. It’s about family.”

We talk about aliens, things greater than ourselves, reincarnation. He suggests we could be one large ant farm someone’s watching, occasionally releasing us, sometimes killing us.  I’ve never though of it that way.

“Who is anyone to say we’re the smartest beings?”

He has a point.

I tell him I’m not looking for religion, just humanity.

“Girl, as long as you follow the basic rulesthe 10 — you’ll be fine. You don’t have to be a great person. You’re not a bad person. You’re just a person.”

I am. So are they. The woman hugs me when I stand. She smells like soap. I don’t want to leave.

As you know, I’ve finished the Bible — all but Revelation — and so I’m moving to a new project.

After much deliberation, I’ve decided that from now until Christmas 2011, I will go to church on Sunday and dive bars on Tuesday, posting church blogs on Monday and bar blogs on Wednesday.

I hope to post from undetermined national and international locations. Prague and Argentina are high on my list as is Iceland, a fortuitous location suggested by a physic and friend who, as fate would have it, plans to go to Iceland in June. What are the odds?

Though you’ve noted my affinity for shock value, the church/bar project is about exploring the congruity of pew and stool. Both allow people to escape life, understand it, enjoy it, hide from it and surrender to it.

I’m anxious about this transition. Not the bar part, the church bit.  I read the Bible in at my own pace in solitude. But going to church requires a certain amount of scheduling (cringe) and talking to strangers. Yikes.

Yes, I talk to strangers for a living. I ask questions, people answer. I don’t like the idea of inverting this system. I want control. In dive bars, loosely defined as windowless edifices with no more than four domestic beers on tap — no one asks any questions. I walk in, people stare and go back to their bottles. They don’t ask about my personal life, my profession or my woes. In church, this is not the case.

Once I hit a certain comfort level with church, I’ll loosen up and take a bit from Pastor Noah, using myself as a mouthpiece to share problems that are not mine. (Noah talks about turning to someone in a movie theater and saying something like “Hi, I’m x and addicted to porn. Can you help me?” I will do this.)

I promise that after I run through 51 churches and 51 dive bars, I will read Revelation. Promise.

In the mean time, if you want to subscribe to this blog, please scroll to the bottom of the page. I can’t figure out how to move that up. I’ve tried. Always with the same result — a fascinating combination of expletives.

I hope you stick with me on this one. As always, questions, comments and criticisms are welcome. Email is biblethump@rocketmail.com. Twitter: @thumpme. Facebook.

I am an elitist and generally assume I’m smarter than the rest of the populace. Much to my chagrin, I’m actually an idiot in a tweed jacket. As such, I try to keep this writing rule at the forefront of my mind — Respect your reader.

Why? Because readers are smart. I went through this period of existential writing. I thought it was genius. It was crap. Maybe I’ll sift through some of those stories and post them under the subculture category.

I respect all of you, but you’re killing me. Here I am thinking I can spout off about anything, which is my modus operandi at bars, cafés, anywhere really but you’re holding me accountable for my grandiose statements.

I asked why you believe in God. Many of you said you just have faith, which is cool and inarguable. On a basil level, discussing the existence of faith is like trying to convince someone who loves mayo that Miracle Whip is better. It’s impossible, an immovable difference in opinion. You’re in or out. With us or against us.

With Us or Against Us

(This is extreme, but I can’t resist Bushisms)

Some of you gave more in-depth reasons for having faith. I read through and thought about them all. My responses are below.

Reason: You’ve had a personal experience with God.

I can’t say I’ve ever had a personal experience with God, but it really is a miracle that I’m still alive. This is not hyperbolical Ivy either. I look innocent, All American, but I could write a dictionary-sized novel detailing situations/lifestyles that should have killed me. So I can’t say yes, I’ve had an experience with God, but something got me through age 25 and that’s something.

Reason: It humbles your human tendency toward selfishness.

I’m very selfish. I try not to be, but this effort has nothing to do with the Bible or God. I like to make people feel good. Unfortunately, I have to work really, really hard to keep this at the forefront of my mind. I’m not very good at this.

Reason: It helps you love those who are difficult to love.

I don’t understand this. If I don’t like someone I don’t spend time with them so how could I ever love someone I find difficult to love? Is this a big picture question? Like trying to find a place in your heart for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Zetas cartel or this whacko who stomped his girlfriend’s puppy to death?

Sorry, can’t do it. I won’t waste my time hating them, but I won’t waste my time trying to love them either. In the words of my Italian grandfather, “Ah, they’re nothing to me.”

Reason: Faith affects the impact you have on others.

OK. Again, I don’t use the Bible for this but I have three life goals I hope will positively affect others. They are:

a. Broaden my worldview…

b. Use writing as a means to pull people’s head out of the sand (something like that)

c. Improve the lives of those I love?

Dear God. I’ve forgotten them! They’re above the desk in my office but I’m out-of-town. I also believe I’ve temporarily blocked them out for reasons known but not shared.

We have different reasons for choosing to believe/not believe but I think we can all agree on a few things. We’re all flawed and we need motivation to become better people.

So we’re on the same page. We just work within different parameters.

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