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Billboards

Billboards

Living in the Bible Belt, it isn’t unusual to run across billboards that proselytize the Christian faith. Ads that promise that God is listening, that things in your life will improve if you just give yourself to God.

I began thinking about these billboards. What is the actual purpose of these ads? I mean, does anyone really think that a non-believer is going to undergo some sort of epiphany because of a sign they saw while driving home from work? How many conversions have come via billboard messages?

The people posting these billboards are not fools; I’m sure they realize that the odds are that those billboards will not bring many (if any) converts to the flock. Neither are they apt to throw away money for no reason. So why are they up there? What do they hope to achieve?

I began to turn this over in my head, trying to come up with an answer. Not being privy to the decisions to spend a portion of a faith’s annual budget on billboards on Florida SR 434, I tried to understand the thought process involved. What goal could these billboards achieve, if not the salvation of the souls of would-be sinners?

This is where my cynicism began to kick in big time. Maybe there’s a deep-seated need to proclaim one’s faith in letters taller than a human being by the side of a heavily-travelled road? OR perhaps they are marking their territory. Stay out of here left wing nutjobs, gays, perverts, abortionists, sluts and communists; this is Christian territory and we don’t cotton to the ungodly here.

And that’s where my paranoia began to kick in big time. I was reminded then of the propaganda campaigns of Nazi Germany and of the Soviet Union. If you keep telling people that they are happy and secure long enough, they’ll start to believe you even evidence to the contrary. Sometimes I think they might be preaching to the converted in a subtle way – the signs in other words aren’t meant for the non-believers but meant to remind believers of what awaits them should they stray from the fold.

Proselytizing has always been a big part of the Christian faith, particularly here in the South. Part of the definition of being a good Christian round these parts is the responsibility to testify, to report the good news to all who will listen and to express that the only way to Salvation is through the Lord Jesus Christ and in particular the way their particular faith operates. No Protestant thinks that a Roman Catholic has a chance in Hell of getting to heaven, and vice versa. There is also an awful lot of “my faith is better than yours” one-upmanship among the Protestants. Of course, that hasn’t escalated into tribal warfare like the Sunni and the Shi’a have among the Muslims. At least not yet, anyway.

Still, it makes me wonder. I always got the sense that Christ taught that having faith shouldn’t be a source of pride or a means of feeling superior to others and there’s an awful lot of that among the religious these days. I can understand why atheists, agnostics and those of other faiths sometimes characterize evangelical Christians as arrogant and insensitive. I see that aspect in them every day.

I have always believed that if you’re going to be evangelical you first need to be humble. You are not better than anyone else. That’s not what your faith does for you. If you go by the teachings of Christ, you should consider yourself the least of men. You are there not because you’re better than those you are trying to convert, but because you are serving them. Christ looked at his followers as men of service, and he himself in service to them. If the son of God saw himself that way, so should you.

I am not a religious man but I am not anti-religious either. I have issues with religions being more about the agendas of men instead of the agenda of God. They should be less concerned with how they appear to the press and more concerned as to how they appear to God and his children – all of them. In that regard, they shouldn’t be looking for ways to exclude and marginalize but ways to be more inclusive and accepting.

And charity shouldn’t come at a price. The hungry should be able to go to a soup kitchen and get nourishment without having to be preached to. The sick should be able to go to a hospital without hearing a sermon. There should be no conditions to help others. And, to be fair, there are soup kitchens and hospitals that don’t do any of that. They accept anybody regardless of who they are and they don’t push their faith in anybody’s face – in fact, those that take advantage of the services they offer are surprised to find out that they are run by a religious organization.

And yet there is a fervor about being a Christian these days that’s disturbing to me. This feeling that there’s a war on Christianity in this country, that Christians are being persecuted for their faith. I think that the reason that perception might exist is because a group of fairly loud Christians are trying to push their agenda and their faith on the rest of us; creating laws that are in line with THEIR faith rather than what is in line with law.

Our country exists because people fled Europe so that they could worship the way they wished in peace. That means that people who chose to worship as a Unitarian, a Sufi, a Hindu, an Orthodox Jew, a Roman Catholic or not worship at all should have the same ability to do so without having someone tell them how to live their lives according to THEIR beliefs. That means you don’t get to impose your beliefs on gay marriage or abortion on others.

That doesn’t mean you can’t express your viewpoints. It just means that your religious beliefs don’t supersede a woman’s right to choose or a gay couple’s right to marry. Beliefs don’t trump rights according to our constitution.

So at the end of the day, Christian billboards are ok by me. If you want to promote your faith at the side of the road, you are free to do so. However, that means that if someone who is disturbed by your anti-abortion billboard decides they want to post a pro-choice billboard of their own at the next available place, that’s their right as well. While I do find that religion by road sign a little weird, it isn’t the strangest thing about religion in the Bible belt. Still, I do wonder what the thought process is behind them.

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Votive Candles

Votive Candles

Particularly here in the Bible Belt but certainly throughout the Internet and elsewhere we are reminded as this Christmas season reaches it’s crescendo that the reason for the season is to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. Certainly I can’t argue with that sentiment; although the exact birth date of Christ is now believed to have more likely taken place in June and the December 25th date more to bring pagans in who were more comfortable with celebrating holidays in that time period the tradition is now engrained in Western culture that December is among the most holiest of times for those who follow the Christian faith.

Faith. That’s a difficult word these days. We all claim to have it in some form or another, be it a religious faith or faith in science for example. I myself must profess to having a hard time with faith these days – not so much with a faith in higher things, but more with my faith in organized religion. I have said elsewhere that I was raised Roman Catholic and grew disillusioned with the Church after the pedophile priest scandals – not so much for the fact that there were pedophiles among the priesthood but because the Church knowingly and willfully covered their own asses rather than and ahead of protecting their flocks. I couldn’t accept moral authority from an organization that felt the former was more important than the latter.

My views on the Church remain heavily in doubt, although I admit that the new Pope has given me some hope that perhaps things may change. He is going a long way to healing some wounds and if he continues on the road he’s on, he might just get me to reconsider my position but for now I’m a man who believes in God but is of no particular faith.

But do we need to belong to a church to have faith? Of course not. Atheists have their own sort of faith – they believe that there is no God. Because the existence or non-existence of the Almighty is largely unprovable both the atheists and theists simply have to take it on faith that their position is the correct one. For myself, I do believe that there is a higher power, one we do not understand and are in fact incapable of understanding as much as a dog is incapable of understanding quantum mechanics. I don’t insist others believe as I do, nor do I feel the need to prove my belief system to others who demand proof of my belief structure. It is simply something I believe to be true. Knowing that there is something greater out there, something that unites all of us and gives us all something in common, is comforting to me.

I also believe I don’t need a middleman in my relationship with God. I don’t need a priest or pastor to tell me what to do, or to insist I give my worship every Sunday to a being who quite frankly is unlikely to need it. Why does an all-powerful God need someone to worship Him/Her?   That never made any sense to me. My belief in right and wrong largely follows these lines – that I must live a life that brings harm to as few as possible while making life better for as many as possible, that I will not judge how anyone chooses to live their life assuming that how they live their life does no harm to others. Offer help when it is needed but never insist when it is not wanted. To give what I can and accept with graciousness what is given. To learn to embrace the diversity of beliefs and cultures and to explore what is new to me with the wonder of a child. To realize that my time here is limited and to live each day with the understanding that it is a beautiful gift to be cherished. To fight with passion for the things I believe in and to listen to those who disagree with me with respect.

I aspire to these things but being human and full of frailty I don’t always meet my own expectations. Sometimes I fail, particularly in treating everyone with dignity; sometimes I get frustrated with the religious right and radical conservatives and react with anger and venom. I don’t have to agree with them, I can even fight against their agendas but I need to remember to treat them with compassion and respect. After all, they are as entitled to their beliefs as much as I am entitled to mine – even if they’re dead wrong. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

Lighting votive candles are a tangible expression of one’s faith. The flame that burns is a symbol of the flame that burns within. The form that flame takes is as different for each individual as each individual is from one another. For me it is not just a declaration of my faith, but a promise to try to do better within it. To give more and take less, to comfort more and be less combative. I still choose to follow no specific religion but I respect those who choose to; I recognize only that this is not the path for me at this time. That doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who follow a specific religion, nor accept their own faith as a part of who they are. While I decry the things about organized religion that disturb me – the hypocrisy, the agendas that often seem at odds with bringing their flocks closer to God and more about bringing power and wealth to individuals, I cannot in good conscience ignore the good that has been done by organized religion as well. You can’t accept one without the other as you can’t accept the good in people without accepting that which is bad in them.

So in this season which is sacred to so many, let me wish all a season of joy and love. May the new year bring peace and understanding, prosperity to all and malice towards none. Let us learn to have faith if not in God than at least in each other. Let the new year bring focus less on ourselves and our own needs and more on the world around us and the needs of the many. I pray in 2014 we start a movement of unity – to promote understanding and compassion, to stand up against violence and bigotry and for all of us to do the right thing. To make a priority not the acquiring of things or the ability to wage war and impose our doctrine on others but to feed the hungry, to heal the sick and to shelter the homeless. Turn our attentions not on new ways to kill each other but on new frontiers to explore in medicine, science and the arts. And to you, my dear reader, may you have a holiday season regardless of which holidays you celebrate – or even if you celebrate no holidays at all – that is safe and filled with love. May your own votive candles burn brightly and long.

Attitudes and Latitudes

I lived most of my life in California. It is nicknamed the Golden State for good reason – nearly perfect climate, plenty of sunshine, great agriculture, great industry, the best of everything. It has also been horribly mismanaged and its state government is in big trouble, economically speaking.

That’s neither here nor there because this isn’t about California. It’s about Florida, the state I currently live in. We moved here in 1998, the same year we got married and have lived in the same house since 2001. It’s an older house (and by “older” I mean it was built in the 80s…old is relative in the U.S.) that looks out into woods from my back window. In the mornings, I sometimes like to stare outside and watch the squirrels, lizards and birds do their thing in our yard. It’s a good life.

People have some different visions of Florida in their minds and I confess, I had my own images before I moved here. Many people see the Sunshine State as wall-to-wall theme parks and tourist attractions and I admit we have an abundance of those. Some see Florida as a haven for retirees from the Northeast and I admit we also have an abundance of those as well.

Florida is much more complicated than either stereotype, although there’s accuracy in both of them. Yes, we are a family friendly vacationland that also has its share of retirees. Certainly as much of the Northeast digs through the worst winter in decades, our mild winter would in all likelihood seem very attractive to someone who has done one winter too many of shoveling snow.

This brings to mind our summers. Florida is sub-tropical, which means plenty of humidity and lots of heat. Orlando, which is the major city nearest me, has plenty of days where the temperature tops 90F and the humidity 90%. At the same time. Think of it this way; Norwegians love their saunas but I don’t suppose many of them would want to live in one; that’s pretty much what Florida is like in the summertime. We go from air conditioned homes to air conditioned cars to air conditioned offices, then shop in air conditioned stores and eat in air conditioned restaurants.

Eating out is more common here because nobody wants to cook in the summer time. Heats up the house too much, not to mention any sort of exertion outdoors will get your sweat glands working overtime. Florida natives and those who have been here longer than I have seem to have developed an immunity to it, and a greater tolerance for the heat and humidity but Da Queen and I have yet to adapt. I suppose we would if we lived here the rest of our lives but I’m not sure we will.

It’s not that we don’t love Florida – there’s a lot to love about it, but we miss seasons. There’s none of that here; it’s hot and humid, or hot and dry and briefly during the winter months, cool and somewhat dry. There is no autumn and there is no winter; there’s no spring either, just endless days of summer. There’s much to be said for that and if I’m completely honest, there are seasons – they’re just much more subtle than you see in the Northeast and the Midwest. You don’t have the changing leaves and the budding flowers. I’m sure native Floridians would be able to point out these subtleties to me but I’m afraid I haven’t been observant enough to catch them yet.

The summers can be pretty brutal here, which is why much of the population flees – we call them Snowbirds here. When the weather starts to turn elsewhere in the country, the Snowbirds take wing and flock to sunny Florida. I don’t know that I’d want perfect weather all the time; a little rain, a little snow, a little sun – all are welcome.

Florida is also home to the Everglades, one of the world’s unique eco-systems. While eco-tourists flock to Costa Rica to ride on zip-lines through the jungle and hike through the underbrush of the rain forests, Florida really hasn’t done much to promote eco-tourism here and frankly, there’s a lot of potential for it here. And no, I’m not talking about those damn airboats that go skittering through the swamps on jet engines. Those are for NASCAR fans who love to screech “YEEEEHAWWWWW!” while munching on pork rinds. And yes, we have an abundance of that sort too.

What we really have an abundance of is plant life and animal life. I have never seen as many different critters anywhere as I have here. From my backyard I’ve seen rabbits, tree frogs, peacocks, squirrels, geckos, blue jays, robins, enoli and peregrine falcons. Elsewhere within a short distance of my home I’ve seen tortoises, armadillos, raccoons, deer, great blue herons, ducks, possums, geese, cranes, owls, turkey vultures, gophers and, of course, alligators. Yes, there is an abundance of those too – in nearly every standing body of water there’s at least one. Swimming in ponds and lakes here can be dicey, although they tend to stay away from people as much as they can.

There is also an abundance of insect life here, unfortunately. They range from merely annoying to downright deadly. We have palmetto bugs (which are sort of like cockroaches on steroids), noseeums (which are tiny little biting insects which leave incredibly potent bites) and fire ants which if you step in them in bare feet or sandals can give you quite a bit of pain. There are also banana spiders (hideous spiders that spin their webs in trees and drop upon the unwary who walk underneath them)  and love bugs, annoying flying insects that mate in mid-air and secrete a fluid that damages car finishes when they mate; during mating season one can walk and/or drive through swarms of them.

Unfortunately, the humidity has an additional annoying effect; things rot. De-humidifiers are a necessity here. Fruit left out can rot in a matter of days; sometimes hours if your house isn’t cooled down enough. Bread grows mold within a week, even inside plastic.

The people of Florida are mostly a conservative bunch, although there are plenty of people here who believe as I do. Some remember, with a rather critical eye, that this is the state that gave George W. Bush the presidency in 2000. There is a significant population of Southern Baptists and conservative Christians; you never forget for an instance that this is called the Bible Belt for a reason.

One thing I find interesting about Florida is that it’s not considered part of the South, even though we are the southernmost state in the continental United States with Key West southernmost point. In many ways, we are our own region; we are nothing like Georgia/Mississippi/Alabama/Tennessee/the Carolinas, considered by most to be the “true South.” Southern accents are pretty rare here. Southern gentility is much more common in Alabama and Mississippi than here. We’re far more casual; more Jimmy Buffett than Johnny Reb.

That’s not to say we’re not genteel or mannered either – we have our share of Belles here, even if Cypress Gardens is closed (and about to be converted to be the newest Legoland). Still, boat culture is popular on the coasts and here inland, we’re more of a generic suburban and rural culture. There are a lot of really nice people here too – Da Queen and I have friends who are extremely precious to us, some met through work and others through Facebook and other social networks. Our mothers both live here, hers before we moved here, mine after. Never underestimate the importance of family in linking you to a place.

As much as we love Florida, the summers are too much for us. We will eventually retire to the area around Asheville, North Carolina – the Blue Ridge speaks to us and the climate is perfect. Da Queen, who grew up in Colorado, misses mountains and the climate there. It’s not an indictment of Florida – it’s simply more of a preference for a place that touches us. Still, Florida is part of who we are; a little bit of the Sunshine State will always be in my soul. I may not be the person who “gets” Florida the best but that doesn’t mean I don’t love it in my own way. Besides, living near Orlando gives friends and family an excuse to visit – look me up when you’re coming to the theme parks, okay?

Right to Marry

Right to Marry

I have come to the conclusion that this country isn’t nearly as accepting as it makes itself out to be. How else can you explain this backlash of mainly conservative Christians who are so vehemently opposed to gay marriage?

I’ve listened to the arguments both pro and con but the crux of the matter is this; gay people are denied the same rights and privileges that straight people receive for no other reason other than that they are gay. What rights and privileges are we speaking of? Tax credits, for one. The right to make medical decisions for their partner if they are unable to make them for themselves (in order to have that right now they have to establish a power of attorney, which is unnecessary if you are legally married). The right to inherit, for another.

Those are all important items to be sure, but for gay people it goes far beyond that; they seek to legitimize their unions, to have their love recognized and acclaimed. They want the church ceremonies, the reception and all the memories that go with them. They want, in other words, to fight for their right to party.

Denying them marriage is to remand the gay community to second class citizen status. It’s a way of saying to them “live somewhere else.” Since we can’t deport people for their sexual preferences – nor can we jail them for who they feel attracted to – we’ll do the next best thing. We’ll make them feel like they don’t belong. We’ll isolate them and alienate them. We’ll tell them they aren’t good enough and don’t deserve it. Sooner or later, they’ll start to believe it.

Doesn’t work that way though. All it does is feed the resolve of the rainbow nation and their supporters. Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area as long as I did, you are pretty much forced to face your intolerances. You are sooner or later going to work side by side with gay people, or live next door to them, or hang out with them. You learn very quickly that they aren’t demonic, sexually obsessed sorts who prey on little boys, although I’m sure there are a few like that in every crowd (lots of straight people do that kind of thing too). You discover – wonder of wonders! – that they’re just like you and me. They have the same aspirations, the same dreams, the same ambitions. They want to find someone to settle down with, build a home and have a career that allows them to live comfortably. That’s all.

However, here in the Bible Belt as well as those places where either there aren’t many gays or there are far too many churches, there is a distinct fear of gay people – like they carry some kind of plague. Watch out for the gay man! If he touches you, you’ll turn gay…and…look…fabulous!!! AIIIIEEEEEEE!!!!

It’s all a crock, really. I think a lot of it is power tripping; people thinking they can exert their will to impact the lives of others negatively. It’s a very human trait, regardless of religious belief. However, as the judge in California rightly determined, even if seven million people vote in an election to limit the rights of others, that vote is immaterial. It violates the civil rights of others, it’s illegal. While the majority rules in a democracy, it cannot infringe on the rights of the minority. That’s a basic principle that the founding fathers had in mind when they established this country and while we haven’t always been successful in following that principal, we at least acknowledge that it’s there. You can’t violate the rights of a segment of the population just because people voted to say that it’s okay to.

Now the constitution doesn’t give you the right to marry specifically. It’s not a guaranteed freedom. However, the Pursuit of Happiness is part of the fabric of our society. Simply speaking, you cannot prevent a group of citizens from pursuing happiness because it violates your religious beliefs. Marriage can be considered a part of the pursuit of happiness; after all, what is life really worth without someone to share it with you?

One of the main arguments against allowing gays to marriage is that the union between two men or two women precludes procreation. If that’s the case, what of couples who can’t have children? Should they not be allowed to marry because of a biological issue? And there are plenty of couples who choose not to have children. Does that mean they’re not entitled to be married?

The answer in both cases is of course not. We allow straight people to marry no matter what their intentions are. If gay people choose to raise children, they have plenty of options – adoption, for one; artificial insemination for lesbian couples for another. To say that gays would be unfit parents is hypocritical to say the least. How many straight couples are fit parents? How many times do we see children taken away from their parents due to drug use, financial insolvency or abuse? You are as likely to have those elements in a straight household as you are in a gay household. Also, gay men and women statistically cheat less on their partners than their straight counterparts do.

Personally, I’m tired of the bullshit and hypocrisy. To those who authored California’s Proposition 8 and similar initiatives in different states, I say you are as un-American as it is possible to be. This country is supposed to be a shining light; that means being tolerant to those whose lifestyles we may not agree with. Certainly I get irritated by gay people referring to straights as “breeders;” I find that as repugnant as straight people referring to gay people as “queers.” And, to be sure, there are plenty of gay assholes in the world.

However I’m pretty sure the ration of asshole to cool is roughly the same in the gay community as it is in the overall population. The Republicans, who preach that government should stay out of people’s lives as much as possible, should follow their own advice. Who a person loves and chooses to marry is nobody’s business but their own. If they choose to legitimize their union by proclaiming it in front of God, their friends and their community, they have that right. My question is, if God didn’t love gay people, why did he put the same-sex love instinct in so many people in the first place?

It’s time we stopped just mouthing the words to the constitution and started living them. This country was meant to be a place of tolerance; after all, we were founded by people who had left the Old World due to religious and financial persecution, people who wanted to be free to make their own way in the world in a way that wasn’t possible in Europe. We are custodians of that dream, and we don’t have the right to deny it to American citizens just because a segment of the population wants to, even if they are the majority. The laws of the land are not a commentary on sexual morality; they are there to protect our rights and persons. Allowing gays to marry harms nobody; if anything, it will create a slight bump in the economy as those in the wedding industry – bakers, photographers, reception venues, tuxedo rentals, dressmakers and so on – will have more work to do as there are more weddings taking place.

I was taught that love is a good thing and that when we love someone, it pleases God. I wasn’t taught that there are any strictures on that or any conditions; that is a human invention. Nobody has the right to tell someone “you can’t love this person nor can you marry them.” That’s a dark ages kind of mindset. If there is a side to take in this argument, I stand on the side of love. That is always the right side to be on.