Wednesday, December 31, 2014

First Contact – Part 4 – Jews

I began to get serious about playing music in middle school when I got an electric guitar and a small amp. Later I got a classical guitar and learned to fingerpick. Then I got a banjo and learned to fingerpick-pick. At different points along the way I would get together with friends to play music. However, it wasn’t until I was in college that I played in a serious band that actually got gigs.

There were four guys in our band: Billy, Mike, Roger, and me. Sometimes Billy would ask me to play a simple duo gig where he sang and played guitar and I would accompany him on my banjo. The most memorable duo performance was at the local Jewish Community Center. There was a fairly large community of Jewish people in Louisville, KY. In addition to the community center there was a Jewish Hospital, several synagogues, and a temple.

We were to play at a party after a basketball game on just a regular ole day. December 24. Yes, it was Christmas Eve, but of course that was just a regular ole day for Jewish people. My parents and I always exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve, but playing that evening was okay by me. I knew I’d be home in plenty of time for gifts. When we arrived, the game was still in progress. This gave us time to set up and be ready when the party started. And soon enough it did. A bunch of young people started streaming into the meeting area where food was ready for them to consume as they listened to the musical machinations of Billy and Randy. We played some bluegrass, John Denver, and other music appropriate for a banjo. Everyone seemed to have a good time and was very friendly.

After about an hour the party ended, we were thanked, and we packed up and left. I saw no money trade hands, so I assumed we had played gratis, which was fine. However, on the way home, Billy informed me that he had been given $50 for our efforts and gave me $25. Wow! That was quite a bit of money in the day.

So, that was my first encounter with Jews at an official Jewish institution. It wasn’t until more recent times that I actually attended a Jewish service at a synagogue. While in high school, my son, Andrew, had a semester of Hebrew. He also became interested in the religious practices of different groups. He began attending the local Jewish synagogue occasionally and I went with him a few times. He was actually a participant at one of the services. I found the services interesting and the congregants very welcoming and friendly.

One of the members of the synagogue is a blind man named Stanley. As it turns out, he is very good friends with a now-retired Christian minister named Carl. The church Carl was a minister at was just a few blocks away from the synagogue. Carl is also an adjunct professor of religion at our local university. Andrew had many classes with him, and they became friends. Occasionally, Andrew would meet Carl and Stanley for lunch.

Isn’t it nice when people of varied beliefs can come together in fellowship and not let their differences hinder a friendship? Hopefully, heaven won’t be as exclusive as some people believe it will be.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

First Contact – Part 3 – Jesus Movement

The Jesus Movement got its start in the late 1960s, continued through the 1970s, and then died out in the early 1980s. Parts of this movement were also associated with the Hippie Movement. The movement consisted mostly of young Christians who were fed up with the status quo and wanted to see real change in the world.

In 1975, I was in college and loved rock music. One group I really liked was Grand Funk Railroad, and they were coming to Louisville for a concert. Not being able to find anyone else to go, I had purchased one ticket.

It was January 26, and I had decided to go to Walgreens for an early dinner before the concert. Walgreens, as well as many other pharmacies, used to have what was called soda fountains. Later, they added food. As an interesting side bar, it was in 1922 that Walgreens invented the malted milk shake, which became an instant hit. But to get back to my story, the Walgreens near my house in the mid-1970s had essentially a small restaurant with very good griddle hamburgers. That’s what I was after for my meal.

As I was sitting there in a booth waiting for my burger to be cooked, a young guy about my age came over and asked if he might sit with me and ask a few questions. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I said yes. I don’t remember all that was said, but I do recall the following.

The guy asked, “Have you ever had those moments when you are at total peace with the world and everything seems to be in its right place?”

After thinking about it for a few seconds, I responded, “Yes, I have.” I was thinking of the times I would turn out the room lights, put on some ethereal music, and just lay still letting the music envelope me. I was thinking of the times when I would be laying on our couch at home with the cool flow of air from our window air conditioner swirling about me as I read a classic science fiction novel that took me to unknown worlds. I was thinking of the time I came across a Gregorian chant on the car radio as I was driving at sunset. All these things made me feel at peace with the world.

“That’s good,” he said. But, of course, that wasn’t the type of peace he had in mind. He was thinking of the peace that comes from a knowledge of God and his son Jesus Christ. He went on to share with me the Gospel as he understood it.

I told him I believed in God, but not Jesus or the Bible.

He said, “A group of us are meeting tonight at a friend’s house. I would love it if you would attend with me.”

I said, “I can’t do that. I’m going to a concert tonight.”

“Who are you going to see?”

“Grand Funk Railroad.”

“How much did you pay for your ticket?”

“Six dollars.” (Yes, this was the typical cost of a big name concert in those days.)

“If you will come to the meeting, I will buy that ticket from you.”

“I don’t want to do that. I really want to go to the concert.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Of course, I was also thinking that I wasn’t about to go off to some stranger’s house with some guy I had just met. There was no telling if this guy was for real or not. And later when I got home and told my mom about this encounter, she had the same thoughts, urging me not to go.

Well, we parted company, my delicious burger arrived, and later I went to Freedom Hall for the concert. It was fantastic. However, the guy sitting next to me was quite different from the one at Walgreens. When they started playing Also Sprach Zarathustra before Funk’s entrance, he stood up and started yelling, “Oh my God! 2001 A Space Odyssey! Oh my God! I can’t believe it! They’re playing 2001! Oh my God!” Hey, granted, I thought it was cool also, but this guy was over the top. He was obviously stoned, but he must have been godly in his own way since he apparently had a God.

Sometime after that first contact, I had a second contact with the Jesus Movement. But in a way it was a first contact since this time it was the hippie faction of the movement. A friend and I had been at an outdoor rock concert and were making our way back to the car. A group of Jesus Freaks (that’s what they were called) was sitting around in a big circle on the ground. As we passed by one person in the group asked if we wanted to join them. We thought “what the heck” and sat down.

Well, we sat there for about 5-10 minutes just kind of looking around waiting for someone to talk. Not one word was spoken to us the entire time by anyone. Finally, one of us said, “We have to go now,” and we left.


I have thought about these first contacts with the Jesus Movement a number of times over the years. How would my life be different had I sold the proselytizer my ticket and went to the meeting instead? Could I have ended up being a minister? Might I have been disappointed and then pissed that I missed the concert? Maybe I would have been robbed and killed. You never know about these things.

It’s also interesting to think about how different the approaches of the Walgreens guy and the hippie circle were. The Walgreens guy was very proactive. He came to my table. He asked to sit and question me. He asked me to attend a meeting. He was willing to put his money where his mouth was by offering to buy my ticket. Six dollars may not sound like much today, but it’s the equivalent of about $26 today. That represents several hours of work at minimum wage.

By contrast the hippie circle simply asked me to join them as I passed by. Then apparently I was to somehow sense their faith and absorb it by osmosis without any further action on their part. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I know enough to know that the Walgreens guy’s approach was the more Biblical one.

In closing, you may find it interesting that at a later date Mark Farner, guitarist and lead singer for Grand Funk Railroad, apparently became a Christian and began playing contemporary Christian music. My wife and I bought a couple of his CDs. They were quite good.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

First Contact – Part 2 – Hare Krishnas

Perhaps some of you remember the Hare Krishnas. They officially formed in New York in 1966 with the title International Society for Krishna Consciousness. They became quite visible in the late 1960s on into the 1970s. They were known for proselytizing around downtowns and at airports. Their popularity, I believe, was at least partly due to the band The Beatles popularity and their association with the Hare Krishnas, in particular George Harrison. Surely everyone remembers his solo hit after The Beatles split entitled “My Sweet Lord”. It was a very popular song that is still played in some venues to this day. It was about his longing to see the Supreme Lord, Krishna. Even the words Hare Krishna are part of the lyrics.

Anyway, in the early 1970s, I went into downtown Louisville to shop at a particular store. As I approached the entrance, I saw a Hare Krishna guy standing there.

“I would like to give you this book,” he said as he handed me a copy of the Bhagavad-gita.

I grabbed it from his hand, thanked him, and began to enter the store.

Somewhat panicked, he said, “WAIT! We ask for a donation in return for the book.”

I said, “I don’t want to give a donation. I thought you said you were giving me the book.”

“Well, yes, but we ask for a donation.”

“Are you saying I can’t have the book unless I give you a donation?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“How much?”

“We ask for at least three dollars.”

I handed him the book back and went into the store.

Obviously, this guy’s approach was not going to entice very many new followers. He either needed to actually give the book away and then ask for a truly volunteer donation, OR he needed to ask for a donation and let you know that you will receive a copy of the book if you donate at least three dollars.

That was the first and only time I remember having an actual encounter with the Hare Krishnas. Needless to say, I was not impressed.

First Contact – Part 1 – Church of Christ

Since it’s the holiday season and a time of the year where quite a few religious people celebrate, I have been thinking about interesting first encounters with religious groups. I thought I would share some of the best stories with you. Keep in mind that I may have had earlier contact with people of these faiths, but not in a religious context.

I wasn’t raised going to church much, but when I did attend it was Baptist churches. So, my first religious encounter with a Church of Christ member was in college. Mark was a friend in high school, but we never really discussed religion until we started college. I can remember one day standing in the school parking lot discussing the book of Revelation. Mark did not believe that the tribulation, rapture, thousand year reign, lake of fire, etc were actually going to happen. At that time in my life, this was foreign thinking. The Baptist churches I had attended and the evangelists I had listened to on TV all taught that they would actually happen.

So, I asked Mark, “Well, if the book doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means, then what does it mean?”

Mark replied, “You have to first understand that some parts of the Bible are literal and other parts are figurative.”

I inquired, “Okay, so how do you tell the difference?”

Mark said, “Well, that which is literal is literal and that which is figurative is figurative.”

I was dumbfounded. What he said was obviously true, a tautology in fact, but it helped not one bit in making a determination about literalness or figurativeness. There had to be something more definitive. Yet, we kept going around and around and never really understanding each other. This did not leave a very good impression on me of the Church of Christ. And to make it even worse, Mark’s preacher had a regular radio program which I began to occasionally listen to after my conversation with Mark. One day the preacher started talking about how some things in the Bible were literal and some were figurative. “How do you tell the difference?” he asked the audience. His answer: “That which is literal is literal and that which is figurative is figurative.” Oh, boy! Well, at least I now knew where Mark had gotten that phrase from.

Interestingly, after I graduated from college and took a full time job in Alabama, I made some new friends. They invited me to church, and I went. Lo and behold, it was a Church of Christ. I was a bit hesitant, but decided to give it a chance. Over time I began to understand how they actually distinguished literal parts of Bible from the figurative parts. I began studying with a teacher, Jim Massey, at a local Church of Christ college every Sunday evening. Jim was a man of many hats in the church. He was a minister, evangelist, teacher, missionary, author, and more. I was very impressed by the logical manner in which he approached the Biblical text and how he attempted to look at the Bible as a whole when determining doctrine. I eventually joined the church, and Jim baptized me.

Shortly afterwards, I was back home visiting my parents in Kentucky, so I decided to give Mark a call and tell him the good news. (Note that the conversation may not have been exactly as I quote below, but the gist is accurate.)

“Hey, Mark. Guess what.”


“I joined the church.”

“Which church?”

“The Church of Christ.”

I was ready for his excitement to burst forth.

“Okay. Let me ask you a few questions.” Mark said.

Uh-oh, I thought. What’s up?

“Do you have a kitchen in the church building and eat in the church building?”

Oh, no. I had learned enough about the Church of Christ in the short time I had been a member to know that there were a number of divisions in it with differing beliefs. One of the more conservative wings was known by the group I had joined as the “anti brethren”. Not in the sense that they were not our brethren, but in the sense that they were opposed to more things than we were.

I responded, “Yes we do.”

Several more expected questions followed. I finally said, “Okay, you are apparently in the group we call the anti brethren.”

“Yes, I am,” he said.

So, after getting past my initial impression of the Church of Christ and then actually joining it, I was still not in the right group according to Mark. I guessed I was still bound for hell; I just didn’t know it. I wondered how many other people were in my situation. After all, if you believe you are right with God, but really aren’t, you don’t even know to seek out an alternative.

Oh, well.

Before I close, I would like to relate an interesting story about Jim Massey. He was known for being open minded. If he ever became convinced he was wrong about a Biblical issue, he was not above admitting his error and changing his position on the matter. In fact, in one of the classes I took from him he admitted that his position on a particular doctrine, after studying the issue in more detail, had changed since he taught the class the previous year. This impressed me.

Anyway, shortly after Jim baptized me, I had been studying the issue of drinking alcohol and had come to the inevitable conclusion that the Bible taught that drinking was not a sin, only drinking to excess. Somehow word got back to Jim. He caught me one day and asked me if I indeed believed drinking was okay. I said I did. In fact, I told him, the wine used for the Lord’s Supper was obviously alcoholic. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul chastised the believers for misusing the Lord’s Supper by getting drunk. Jim told me that the Greek word used there meant to be full, not drunk. I asked then why the translators translated it as drunk. He asked me to come to his office with me. Jim knew Greek and always carried a Greek New Testament with him to church. He pulled this out, went to the passage I was referring to and showed me the Greek word. Then he pulled out his Greek dictionary and looked that word up. I asked him what it said. He responded, “to be drunk.” After a pause, he said, “I’ll have to study this some more.” I never heard back from him on what he concluded from this study, but I always admired him for not trying to weasel out his dilemma, but rather used it as an opportunity to come to a deeper understanding of Scripture.

As for me, I was also open minded and willing to change my beliefs. After studying the Bible in more detail over the next several years, I ultimately concluded that many of the “facts” in the Bible could not be substantiated. I was therefore compelled to leave the church. I discuss all this in detail in my book God Is: Exploring the Nature of the Biblical God. It can be purchased in paperback or Kindle format at Amazon.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Remembering My Friend Joe

I was recently informed that my good friend, Joe Gautney, had died. I have known Joe for about 36 years. He was working at TVA when I first started working there in the late 1970’s. Soon after hiring in I was asked to attend a one-week statistics class in Chattanooga. Joining me were Joe Gautney and two other employees: Jim Watson and Warren Fowler. Joe, Warren, and I ate dinner together every evening and engaged in other activities, one of which was going to a drive-in movie. Jim ate dinner with us the first evening, and then decided to do his own thing the rest of the week.

One of the things a lot of people, including me, remember about Joe back in those early years was his dedication to jogging. Weather permitting, we’d see him outside jogging around our work area during lunch.

Several times over the years Joe and I worked near each other, but never together on the same project. In the late 1990’s when TVA employees were going through an extensive RIF, Joe was laid off. Well, he was supposed to be. Through sheer tenacity, he was able to find occasional odd jobs. That in combination with his annual leave and leave without pay saw him through until he was able to get a full time position again.

For several years in the mid 2000’s, Joe worked in an office I passed every morning on my way to my office. Joe always arrived at work early, so most mornings I would stop for a chat. Joe and I could talk about anything. We’d talk about work, family, the future of TVA, retirement, etc. We also talked about religion and politics, topics on which we totally agreed. We were skeptical of both.

One thing I really admired about Joe was his commitment to honesty and justice. For Joe, your word was your bond. Whenever a person or group broke their word or didn’t fulfill an obligation, Joe was not above becoming angry and even downright ornery. And that’s not just me saying this; Joe would readily admit this about himself.

In the late 2000’s, when TVA was consolidating buildings, Joe and I were both moved to cubicles in a different building. We were located very close to each other so were able to continue our friendship. Joe was extremely diligent about keeping up with and being frugal with his money. If I ever needed answers to questions about our pension and 401K, he could usually answer them.

Although I had met Joe’s wife, Janice, a few times over the years, I never really got to know her until Joe started inviting me to have lunch with them on Thursdays. You see, just about every Thursday, Joe and Janice would eat lunch at a Chinese buffet in town named Evergreen. I became a semi-regular participant in those lunches. I found Janice to be just as friendly and down home as Joe was and really enjoyed our time eating together.

Unfortunately, Joe and I had not seen each other over the last several years. I semi-retired and was only occasionally at TVA. Joe finally fully retired. And as often happens in these situations we ended up not getting together anymore. Even so, I still think of Joe as a good friend and co-worker. I will miss him. Rest in peace, my friend.