“Born again, again,” by Bob Melone – Chapter 2, part 2 of 2

17 02 2016

My parents’ generation remembers “The summer of ’42,” but I remember the summer of ’76! That’s when those in my family began falling like flies! Everyone was being “born again” . . . mom, several of her Aunts, and even my grandmother! (My mom’s mother had been actually been born again in her younger years, as I’ve come to learn that she was often referred to as a ‘holy rollers.’ So I guess she was just born again, again!)

But as far as I was concerned, I figured that I was born a Christian the first time, and was perfectly content with that. I had no desire to be born, again; and I was not the least bit interested in becoming what I continue to refer to today as a ‘Crazy Christian!’ Never the less, in spite of my resistance, the rest of my family was changing, and quickly. Was it for the good? I think so . . . or at least I like to think so. I had always loved my family, even crotchety old Aunt Mary, who added all kinds of color to our clan. We all enjoyed being together, and would find all kinds of reasons to gather at someone’s house, usually my Aunt Gloria’s, to celebrate . . . just about anything. The men would watch golf in the family room. The women would cook and chatter away in the large country kitchen. And we kids would play “Blind Man’s Bluff” in the hallway, or “Pies” out in the front yard.

But in spite of that closeness, this new-found religion appeared to being at the last the women in our family closer than ever. Looking back, perhaps some of that change was superficial, but as a kid . . . well, it was clear that something good had happened to all of them. They may have been pretending, and having walked in those circles for much of my life, the changes may have been relatively shallow, but something definitely happened, and everyone knew it.

One summer evening in 1976, my mom came out to the backyard where my dad I were sitting on a picnic bench talking. I think we had just cut the grass – something I loved doing with him, and hence, did all the time! Their friends, Dr. John and Mickey, had just phoned to let them know of a concert over in Canada. (Growing up in Western New York, prior to 9/11, going to Canada was like going to 7-11 to get a Slurpee!)

“On no!” I thought to myself! “Not another . . . ‘concert!’”

Surprisingly, my mom won this battle, and after convincing her to let my cousin John come with us this time, I agreed to go. We arrived on the campus of a small community college, and proceeded to a large auditorium. It was packed, with hundreds of chairs surrounding a small stage, and over the platform was a large banner that read, “Dallas Holm and Praise.” My cousin John sat between me and my brother, and my parents were to my right. Some guy by the name of David Wilkerson (“The Cross and the Switchblade” guy!) gave a message that was surprisingly relevant, and somehow he managed to move even MY stubborn heart. Eventually he introduced Dallas Holm, and then the music began . . . tambourine and all!

“Not bad” I remember thinking! But not wanting to give any sign that I might actually be enjoying the evening, I kept such positive thoughts to myself. The band played for quite a while, with bold preaching between the songs, of Christ and ‘Christ crucified,’ and how tonight he was giving ME the chance to respond.

Now by this time, I had already been to several ‘alter calls’ in my life, and never did I plan on responding. But during Dallas’ last song, something happened. As the band played, and Dallas sang – Come unto Jesus, give him your life today. Come unto Jesus, let him have his way – I leaned over to my cousin and whispered, “I don’t think I can stay in these seats any longer!”

“Me either,” he whispered back!

“Timmy,” I said, elbowing my brother in the ribs, “c’mon, let’s go!”

I’m sure that Timmy had ‘made a commitment’ long ago, and so he looked at me with what I only remember as ‘disgusted shock!’. It was like he was speaking to me with his eyes, saying “It’s about time you big jerk!” Never the less, he agreed, and so the three of us made our way down front. When I looked back to see my parents, I noticed that they were gone. Then I felt my dad’s hand on my shoulder, and there, during that summer of 1976, I too, was born again.

Actually, if we’re talking spiritually, I still don’t know when I was born the first time! Perhaps it was my physical birth – because I knew these people didn’t really accept my baptism as an infant, or my confirmation in ninth grade, as having any kind relevance to what they were doing! Those sacraments were “Roman” ceremonies, and thus really held no weight in these new ‘real’ Christian circles. Evidently, contrary to my thinking, before this altar call, I was not really a Christian at all. I knew things “about God,” but didn’t really know God personally! I had a “religion, but not a relationship.” I was a good person, but “not good enough for God.” And apart from inviting Jesus into my heart, and ‘letting him have his way’, I never would be his beloved son. Original sin had tainted my soul, and until I intellectually accepted the cleansing blood of Jesus, I was on the outside looking in. Until I walked the sawdust trail, said the Sinner’s Prayer, and signed the little “Steps to Peace with God” booklet, I was lost – no ifs, ands, or buts, about it!

Now psychologists more informed than I might best assess what the concept of original sin has done to people over the years. However at the very least, it has divided humanity into “us and them” – those who have done something about their sin and those who have not. And the years the results of this line of thinking have only served to segregate and foster irreconcilable differences between races, cultures, religions throughout the ages. Still today, the irony is that it remains at the heart of BOTH, Roman Catholic and Evangelical teaching. Both here in America and around the world, these two important theological movements have the same starting point, and while their responses take them in slightly different directions, they both continue to neglect what I believe to be one of the most basic teachings of the Bible.

Marcus Borg, in “The Heart of Christianity” writes (pp.164-64) “We begin with sin. The language of sin (and forgiveness) dominates the Christian imagination . . . (and it’s) centrality in Christian thought and practice is evident.” He points out that until recently, Roman Catholics were expected to make their confession to God BEFORE they could receive the sacrament; and for evangelicals, the second step in finding ‘peace with God’ remains all about acknowledging a sin about which we can do absolutely nothing.

But it is this our primary identity?

In the first creation story of Genesis, authors have God proclaiming that humanity is ‘very good.’ And yet so often, the church has allowed its understanding of sin to alter this line of thinking and believing. It’s theology of “the fall” has been so literalized, that it has – unconsciously at best, consciously at the worst – painted a picture of a God who is doing little more than playing games with creation. He created human beings with free will, knowing very well that we’d make way too many wrong choices; and then require us to make a better choice, which we actually have no power to do on our own, because again, our human nature is to make the wrong choice; BUT, fortunately, to some – not everyone, but to some, the chosen ones – God has given the ability to respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and to make the correct choice, and thus experience salvation and redemption, so that we can get to heaven when we die.

Now read that last sentence again, and tell me that such a view of God is not a capricious one!

No friends, in spite of everything we have learned, while humanity makes mistakes, the message of the Gospel is that God loves us none the less. And while those mistakes have consequences, the message of the Gospel is that NOTHING CAN SEPARATE US FROM GOD’S LOVE!

NOTHING!

So what happened to me that night in 1976? I’m not sure I really know. But whatever happened, it had less to do with God changing God’s opinion of me, and more to do with me changing my opinion of God. It was less about God changing God’s relationship with me, and more about me changing my relationship with God. And it was less about God now being able to overlook my original sin, and more about my NOT being able to overlook my original blessing.

Priest and author Matthew Fox says that “we enter a broken and torn and sinful world – that’s for sure. But we do not enter as sinful creatures, we burst into the world as ‘original blessings.’” With mystics throughout the centuries, Fox proclaims, and so too must we proclaim, that Original Blessing trumps Original Sin at every corner! That is our primary identity, and that is the primary message of Jesus. Further, it’s why the Gospel is good news, and it’s why grace is so amazing!

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“Born again, again,” by Bob Melone – Chapter 2, part 1 of 2

11 02 2016

In the Italian Catholic home of my upbringing, prayer was not the only activity in which good, God-fearing, Christian people engaged. Sunday morning mass was also a rite in which I learned to participate at an early age. Like my baseball games, it was another place where I learned to talk to God. But more importantly, it was the place where I learned that there were certain things God expected of us.

My family of six occupied the front pew, on the right side of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church every Sunday at noon, for years! (I recently learned that we sat in the front row because when my dad’s grandmother took him to church as a child, that’s where they sat!) Attendance was not optional, for any of us, no matter how old we got or how busy we were. And after mass it was not at all uncommon for the priest to join us for lunch. Father Gugino was my favorite – probably because he was so . . . normal! That is the word I STILL use to describe people in ministry who have their heads screwed on straight, and who have not become so blinded by their faith that they are unable to see and comprehend and relate to the world around us.

I don’t remember much about Father Gugino’s visits, but I do remember that they were often loud and bathed in laughter. He was warm, friendly, outgoing, and I liked him. He made God approachable, kind and compassionate, and even, dare I say, fun-loving. However Father Gugino was not your typical Roman Catholic priest – at least not in my experience. And sadly, the incarnational ministry that he lived out in our small suburban parish was not the norm – again, in my experience.

For the most part, the religion of my youth was wrought with law and guilt and judgement. So while God was part of my life at an early age, while the Spirit remained an important part of my life through Junior and Senior High School, the presence of the Holy was far from comforting. You see, the first thing I remember learning about God can best be summed up by the words from the mass that come right before communion. “Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

Roman Catholic teaching, and the teaching of so many faith communities today, begins with the concept of human unworthiness, or “The Doctrine of Original Sin.” In spite of Scripture’s declaration that God looked at humanity and declared us to be ‘very good’ – our focus is upon Adam, listening to his wife Eve, and humanity’s being “separated from God” ever since. Forget the fact that Enoch walked with God, or that Moses spoke with God, or that David was a man after God’s own heart: people have been separated from God, period! We are more than just fallen, broken, or not living in right relationship with the God of the universe. We are, in the words of John Calvin, totally depraved! This is the human condition; and for hundreds of years, this has been the primary message of the church. Even though the writer of Romans tells us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, the church decided that sin CAN, and a human being’s primary identity is that of total depravity before our Creator.

Now the consequences of such teachings are tragic; and it’s why so many people regard a life of faith as being about little more than figuring out how to get back on God’s good side. There were certain things that God expected of us, and as followers of Jesus, it was our job to strive to meet those expectations. And for me, growing up, Mother Church was all too happy to show me how! Mass, confession, prayers to the Virgin Mary, not eating meat on Fridays during Lent, and countless other disciplines were not JUST to put me in places where I might encounter and experience the Holy, but they really were human attempts to please and appease the divine. It was the way the Church could control what I did, and how I did it, and thereby become the dispenser of God’s grace, mercy, and love.

Too cynical an attitude? Perhaps! But no less true. And I intuitively knew this. So I was the nightmare for every CCD teacher I ever had; particularly for my favorite, who I only remember as Dottie! (CCD stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine – an organization established in 1562 for the purpose of educating people in the essentials of the Roman faith.) While most of the kids in my class would be throwing paper wads at one another, I was throwing question at the teachers! Why this, and why that? I have vivid memories of saying to Dottie one afternoon: “The Virgin Mary is dead; so why are we praying to dead people?” And with a slight smile, which led me to believe as the year went on that were kindred spirits – Dottie attempted to give the party line . . . but with a little wink, and a nod, as if to say: ‘We both know this answer doesn’t make sense, but let’s just humor the ‘powers that be.’ They’re not bad people, and doing some really good things; so let’s just let them go on think they have pulled the wool over our eyes, and kept us from really seeing the amazing grace of God. They’re never going to change, and so it’s just not worth it to try.’

So that’s what I did . . . for a while. But the questions never stopped – and not just because I always have been and always will be inquisitive; but because this is what I believe a life of faith is all about. Questioning! Seeking! Searching! Not being afraid to push the boundaries of one of life’s greatest mysteries! Unfortunately though, not everyone like questions! Some people like everything to be clear, settled, finished . . . done!

My great Aunt – Auntie as we called her – had been “Born Again,” and that event would dramatically alter the life and trajectory of my family forever. She was in her early 50s – the age that I am as I write these words – divorced after a marriage that lasted less than a year, and with no family but her only sister’s only son: my father! Hence, she was with us all the time.

“Whoo, whoo!”

That was how Auntie always answered our hellos on the phone. “What are you doing over there?”

“Nothing much,” I would sigh, wondering why I was the lucky one who always seemed to answer the phone when Auntie called. It wasn’t that I didn’t love her – because we all did – but her new-found-faith left her more talkative than ever. She could rival the greatest revivalist preachers of the day, and once she got started, you just had to wait until she made her point. Surprisingly, on this particular morning, she got right to the point. And I should have known something was up.

“Hey Bob-Boy” she said affectionately. (That was the name, born in her love for “The Waltons” – a 70s TV show, that she lovingly used for me until just a few years ago, when she no longer knew who I was! She died at 93 back in 2013!) “What are you doing tomorrow night?”

“Nothing, why?”

“Well, how would you like to go to a concert?”

“A concert, wow!” I exclaimed. At the age of 13, I had recently discovered Buffalo’s hottest radio station, WKBW; and music was always on my mind. “Who’s playing?”

“I don’t know,” Auntie snapped back, as only Auntie could do! “There’s a group playing in Buffalo and I heard they’re pretty good. Now do you want to go or not?”

“Well . . . I . . .” Stumbling, I knew that not many of my friends were going to concerts with their 50 plus year old Great-Aunts, but Auntie was always fun to be with, and if my brother would go with me, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad.

“Bob-Boy, yes or no?” came the impatient voice on the other end of the line, rushing me to make a decision . . . as if knowing that if I thought about it too long, I’d certainly say ‘No Thanks!’.

“Well . . . what time?” I asked.

“I’ll pick you up at 6:30.”

I hung up the phone, ticked off at the way she always dominated and controlled so many conversations, but excited because I was going to what would be my first, real concert. Unfortunately, the next evening, after driving for what seemed like hours, we pulled into a church parking lot and my heart sank. How could I have been so clueless? “This is a ‘church’ concert?” I thought to myself! “A ‘religious’ concert! What on earth was I thinking?”

Slowly, my brother and I got out of her light blue Corvair, and followed her inside. The ‘concert’ had already begun, and everyone was waving their arms while singing along to some song about letting your ‘flags fly high.’ (And here, I will resist any comment about the “freak flag” in my favorite Christmas movie, “The Family Stone!”) On stage was a piano, a guitar, and of course, typical for such events, the infamous tambourine. It was going to be quite a night – I could tell right away!

If the drive seemed like hours, the concert seemed like days! I couldn’t wait to hear the last hallelujah and the final amen! The differences between the solemn, mystical, ritualistic, and formal Roman Mass, and this hyper-energetic, rowdy, spontaneous . . . and yes, crazy Pentecostal “concert” could not have been greater. But they would become the norm in the coming years, and over time, my entire family would be “born again.’ All our questions would be answered. All our doubts would be settled. And the teachings of the Bible would become crystal clear. My family had stumbled into a circle where everything was all figured out, and truly, my life, and the lives of those I loved, would never be the same again.