Saturday, January 31, 2015

First Contact – Part 16 – Unitarian Universalist

The Unitarian Universalist (UU) church began in 1961 when the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) formed from a consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Both of these groups had roots in liberal Christianity.

Basically, the Unitarian movement stemmed from people who were anti-Trinitarian, meaning they did not ascribe to the belief that God was a triune being. They had a scriptural basis for this belief and were thus willing to suffer persecution. One famous example was that of Michael Servetus. He was a 16th century Spanish theologian and polymath who developed a non-Trinitarian Christology. Upon traveling to Geneva, he was denounced by John Calvin, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake by the city council. It is hard to understand how any human can come to believe that an all-loving longsuffering God wants a person to be executed for simply having a different understanding of what the Scriptures teach.

The Universalist movement stemmed from people who believed that a loving God would not condemn anyone to eternal torment. Rather, they believed that after some type of punishment for their sins, everyone would eventually be reconciled to God.

The defining principle behind the UU church is that no one has a corner on the truth market. It is the responsibility of each individual to pursue and find truth. Knowing that different people will reach different conclusions means that tolerance of differing beliefs is necessary. This is a principle I can personally live by since that is what freedom is all about.

Thus the UU church is really an umbrella under which many differing ideas reside. Even so, it seems that the predominant group in the church is the Humanists. My personal take on Humanism is that it is for spiritually minded non-religious people. Humanists tend to deny all religions while seeking a connection to the Universe and their fellow man; social justice being important to the latter.

I first heard of the UU church many years ago, but I never really had contact with it until after my deconversion. One day I noticed in our local newspaper that the one UU church in our area, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Shoals, regularly announced who was going to be speaking that week and the topic he or she would be speaking about. One week the speaker was from our local university and the topic sounded interesting, so I attended. The building was rather small, but nice. It turned out that I knew a few people who were members. While interesting, I did not find the service intriguing enough to attend on a regular basis.

About four years ago, I heard that a retired friend from work, Bill Parkhurst, was going to speak. Bill is a longtime member of the UU church. At work, he was known for wearing mostly short pants and a Hawaiian shirt. I was curious to see if he would be dressed this way while “preaching” at his church. He did not disappoint.

Bill’s speech was interesting, especially the part when he introduced me to the audience as being a recent fellow retiree. Ha! But seriously, the part I remembered most was when he discussed a book entitled “A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson. A few weeks after Bill’s talk I had an unexpected extended visit to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Fortunately, I had my iPad with me. I decided I needed something to read. Remembering Bill’s recommendation of Bill’s book, I downloaded the Kindle version and began reading it right there on the toilet. Isn’t modern technology wonderful?

My son Andrew has attended the UU church a bit himself. A few weeks ago, he heard that Dr. Carl Gebhardt, the retired pastor from our local Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and adjunct professor of religion at our local university, was going to be speaking. So he went. As you may recall, I mentioned Carl in my last First Contact post about the Disciples of Christ. Anyway, Andrew informed me that Carl was also going to be speaking the next two Sundays. I decided to attend both weeks with him. I found the messages Carl presented at these services to be both interesting and entertaining.

If I had to identify myself with any particular church, I guess it would be with the UU church. I firmly believe that each person in this world must seek out truth and determine the meaning of life on his or her own. Of course, we can help each other out with open discussions. But ultimately our conclusions must be our own, not dictated to us by others. Fortunately, in the United States, most religious people have this UU mentality. They believe in the freedom of religion where no one group dominates the beliefs of the country. I believe most understand that if one religious group came to dominate our nation, it just might NOT be theirs. Unfortunately, there are still parts of the world where this is not true. There are still some that believe that the world should be converted to their way of thinking or suffer death.

Even though I mostly identify with the UU church, I have a difficult time identifying with its Humanist members. They tend to be more liberal politically than I am. My friend Bill is quite a bit more liberal than me, which makes for some interesting discussions on Facebook. I consider myself more of an Individualist. I will discuss this more in a future post.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

First Contact – Part 15 – Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

As I mentioned in my last post, the Christian Church Disciples of Christ (CCDoC) was one of the offshoots of the Restoration Movement of the 19th century. The thing that sets this church apart from the other two major offshoots, the Church of Christ and the Christian Church, is that it is much more liberal. By liberal I primarily mean the position that the Bible can be interpreted in a very loose manner. For instance, perhaps Jesus was no more the son of God than you and me. Or perhaps Jesus was not born of a virgin. Or perhaps Adam and Eve were not actual people, but rather symbols that represent generic men and women. You get the point. The Bible should be understood in light of the people who wrote it, the culture of which they were a part, and their intent rather than as a document inspired directly by God. Of course the looseness of interpretation varies from one church to another and from one person to another. But this is true of many different churches.

Back when I was a Christian in the Church of Christ, this liberal view of the Bible by the CCDoC was anathema to me. I did not interpret the Bible as strictly as some of my brethren, but I certainly didn’t go as far as the Disciples of Christ. But now that I have rejected the Bible as being the Word of God, I better understand their position. It makes sense to me now.

Interestingly, back in 1989, the CCDoC and the United Church of Christ approved a partnership of full communion, mutually recognizing each other’s sacraments and ministry. The United Church of Christ is the church that my wife grew up in. As I mentioned in my previous post, she left that church and joined the Christian Church while in college. Kathy’s mother eventually left also and joined a Baptist Church. The last straw was when her Sunday School teacher questioned the virgin birth of Jesus. Eventually Kathy’s dad also left and joined the same Baptist Church that his wife attended.

There is one CCDoC church in the city where I live. I have known about it for years, but had never attended. My first contact with this church was through my son. He is a student at our local university and is majoring in history. He took a lot of religion classes as part of his coursework. One professor that taught a number of these classes was also the minister at the local CCDoC: Dr. Carl Gebhardt. Andrew liked Carl’s approach to studying and teaching the Bible. He believed we should just present the facts as best we know them and let the cards fall where they may. Don’t start with a preconceived doctrine and then seek to prove it, but rather honestly try to understand the Bible properly and let your doctrine follow.

Andrew soon became friends with Carl and was given a parking pass for the church’s parking lot. This was very convenient for Andrew because the church was right across the street from the university buildings in which many of his classes met. Andrew even started having lunch with Carl occasionally. Most of the time they were joined by a Jewish man that was a mutual friend.

Given Andrew’s friendship with Carl, Kathy and I decided to attend a Sunday morning service so we could hear him preach. Unfortunately, he was not present that day and another person was filling in for him. Interestingly, this man was someone we had known from years before in the Church of Christ. We also discovered that a number of couples we had also known from the Church of Christ were now members at the CCDoC. What was going on? How did these former members of the conservative wing of the Restoration Movement come to jump over to the liberal wing? I still don’t know.

Some time later Kathy and I went to the CCDoC again, and this time Carl was preaching. After getting to meet him, I felt compelled to get together with him for a one on one discussion. So I contacted him, and we met for lunch. Over time, Carl and I met several times to discuss religious ideas and our personal lives. When I found out he had an interest in photography just as I did, we arranged to go on a photography expedition to a local nature preserve. We had a great, but exhausting, time.

Around the time I was getting to know Carl, I was finishing up my book “God Is”, which details my thinking of the Bible and how I came to reject it as being the Word of God. I had asked a number of religious friends to read and critique an early copy of this book, but most rejected my offer or failed to follow through with an acceptance. Interestingly, two pastors and a Bible teacher offered to read it. One pastor, Jerry, was from the Baptist Church where my wife is a member. He read part of it, and we had a good discussion about it in his church office. The other pastor to read it was Carl. He actually read the entire book and gave me some written and verbal feedback. The Bible teacher, Joel, was from the Christian school where my wife works and has a PhD in the Old Testament. I appreciated that Carl and Joel were willing to write endorsements for my book. You can read their endorsements, along with several others, in the Editorial Reviews section of my book’s page on Amazon (

Recently, Carl spoke a few times at our local Unitarian Universalist church. I will talk about this church in my next post.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

First Contact – Part 14 – Christian Church

Back in the 19th century a new church movement began. Two independent groups decided that Christ’s church should be united rather than divided. They sought to be known only as Christians. Not Baptists. Not Presbyterians. Not even Protestants. Just Christians. The movement came to be known as the Restoration Movement since it sought to restore the church as it was in the first century. One of the two movements originated with Barton Stone in Kentucky. The other originated with Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander in what is now West Virginia. Over time the attempted unification failed and the movement ended up splitting into three major groups: Church of Christ, Christian Church, and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I discussed the Church of Christ in my first post in this series. I will now discuss the Christian Church. In the next post I will discuss the Disciples of Christ.

My wife Kathy was raised in the United Church of Christ, which, by the way, is not related to the Church of Christ. However, when she went off to college she found a new church home in the Christian Church. She joined a Christian Church affiliated student fellowship called His House and began attending the Christian Church. When she moved back home to start her teaching career, she found a nearby Christian Church to attend. That is where she was attending when she and I started dating.

Kathy and I first became acquainted during our senior year in high school. We had a couple of classes together as well as study hall. I developed a crush on her, but was way too shy in those days to do anything about it. She went off to Murray State University to get her Master’s degree so she could teach math. I stayed at home and went to the University of Louisville to get my Master’s degree so I could be a chemical engineer. As I mentioned in my first post in this series, it was after I started my career in Alabama that I became a Christian. I was a member of the Church of Christ.

In early 1981, I was home visiting my parents. A good friend who grew up just down the street from me asked if I would like to go to church with him. He went to a Christian Church. He informed me that Anita went to church there also. My wife’s name is Anita Kathleen. In high school everyone knew her as Anita, but she dropped that name in college since all her family called her Kathy, and she was tired of being known by two different names. Anyway, I knew that the Christian Church used instrumental music and had other differences from the Church of Christ, but I was not as strict about such things as others were. So I attended the Christian Church with my friend. This was the first time since high school that I had seen Kathy. It was in Sunday School that I realized that I still had feelings for her. However, I was dating someone else in Alabama at the time.

In October 1981, I was once again in Louisville, but this time I was not dating anyone. I called Kathy up and asked her to go to dinner and see a performance of the Louisville Symphony Orchestra. She accepted. We had a great time together on that date. Thus began what some would call a whirlwind romance. It started with letters, then phone calls, then visits. Keep in mind that we lived 300 miles apart, so visiting was not easy. Also, in those days long distance phone calls were expensive. So we were racking up monthly phone bills in the hundreds of dollars.

When we would get together, one of the things we would discuss was our Christian beliefs. We both knew our relationship was getting serious, and we wanted to make sure that our beliefs were close enough to not cause us problems down the road. She knew I had no problem with the Christian Church since I had been going there when in Louisville. When she visited me, she attended the Church of Christ where I was a member. There was no Christian Church anywhere near where I lived, so that was not an option.

Both the Church of Christ and the Christian Church had a code they lived by: Speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent. It bugged me that both churches believed this statement, yet somehow came to different conclusions on some matters. Upon analyzing it for a while, I finally realized why there were differences. The first part of the code, speak where the Bible speaks, caused no problems. If the Bible said to do something, both churches did it. If the Bible said to refrain from something, both churches refrained. It was the second part of the code, be silent where the Bible is silent, that was causing the conflict. You see, the Church of Christ took being silent about something as being the same as refraining from it. The Christian Church took being silent about something as meaning that God didn’t care one way or the other. This difference made for some interesting discussions.

The New Testament says we should sing to God as part of our worship, but it is silent about musical instruments. Therefore, the Church of Christ refrains from using instruments in worship as its way of being silent on the matter. The Christian Church believes you can use instruments or not since God is silent and thus doesn’t care. There were a number of other differences that stemmed from these differing interpretations of what being silent on an issue means. Personally, I came down on the side of the Christian Church even though I could argue either position. In fact, I was so familiar with differing doctrines I could argue either side of a lot of issues.

As I said, Kathy's and my romance went quickly. Just four months after our first date, on Valentine’s Day 1982, I asked Kathy to marry me. She said yes, and we were soon in discussions with her mom about what date and venue to choose. Ultimately, we decided on July 3, 1982. That allowed Kathy to finish teaching for the school year, and it was around a holiday, thus allowing more people from out of town to attend. As for venue, we decided to wed at Kathy’s church. It was to be officiated by both the preacher from her church and the campus minister of His House at Murray State University.

After marrying, Kathy and I began studying the Bible together at home on a regular basis. We started in Genesis and planned to work our way through Revelation. But plans have a way of being disrupted. There were a number of passages in Genesis that bugged me. I had questions that neither Kathy nor the Bible could answer. I began discussing these issues with our preacher, elders, and deacons. I soon found that they did not have any answers either. At least not any acceptable answers. Many times the answer was, “Sometimes you just have to have faith.” But I knew that oftentimes people had faith in things that were untrue. I needed evidence to distinguish between truth and untruth. In too many cases, that evidence was not forthcoming. So, Kathy’s and my Bible study fell by the wayside.

About five years into our marriage, I found myself rejecting the Bible as being God’s Word. This was something Kathy and I had never even considered before we got married. We had discussed our differences in religious beliefs, which were minimal. But never did we consider the possibility of one of us rejecting those beliefs sometime down the road. It was a difficult time. But ultimately, our love for each other won the day. Our love was able bridge even the gap between an agnostic and a Christian.

In 1 Corinthians 13:1-8a, the Apostle Paul says this about love:

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”

Hey, I believe Paul was on to something here. Five years into our marriage, Kathy and I faced what some might call a crisis. My beliefs were diverging from hers. In fact, had I had my new beliefs before we wed, we most likely would not have gotten married. Yet there we were; married and believing differently. But as Paul says, “Love never fails.” It certainly didn’t fail us, but it required us to latch onto it and not let it loose.

I look back on this now with wonderment. It almost seemed like a supernatural intervention occurred. I became a Christian just long enough for Kathy and me to fall in love and get married. I became a Christian in 1980. We started dating in 1981. We married in 1982. I began doubting the Bible soon after. I became a nonbeliever in 1987. Could it be that God, or fate, or something else, wanted Kathy and me to be together, so arranged the circumstances just long enough for that to happen? I don’t really know, but it’s something to think about.

So, after over 32 years of marriage, Kathy and I love each other more than ever. I am reminded of the 1969 Spiral Starecase hit song “More Today Than Yesterday.” The lyrics say, “I love you more today than yesterday, but not as much as tomorrow.” It’s a great song. Yet, there are many who believe that Kathy will go to heaven, and I will go to hell. To me, that is saying that love is more powerful in this life than in the next. Yet, God is supposed to BE love. Is he incapable of loving me at least as much as Kathy does? Why would he deny our love in the afterlife? And why would this denial be based on sincerely held differences in beliefs rather than our actions? It makes no sense to me.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

First Contact – Part 13 – Non-Denominational

There are many churches that consider themselves to be non-denominational. Even churches considered to be part of a denomination, such as the Church of Christ, think of themselves as non-denominational. That is because some people believe that a church that gets its doctrine strictly from the Bible is non-denominational, whereas a church that adds to what the Bible says is denominational. Well, I will leave that debate to others. I have associated with several churches that claim no denomination, but in this particular post I will be concentrating on just one church in this category: Lakewood Church.

Many of you may know that Lakewood Church is located in Houston, Texas, and its pastor is the controversial Joel Osteen. Many Bible believers consider Joel Osteen to be a preacher of the so-called prosperity gospel. The church was started in a feed store by Joel’s father John Osteen back in 1959, but now occupies the former Compaq Center sports arena that seats almost 17,000 people. Estimated attendance each week exceeds 40,000 people. Wow, talk about your mega-church.

For many years Lakewood Church has had a TV ministry. This is where I first encountered Joel Osteen. I found him to be a dynamic and interesting speaker, so listened to him frequently. Over time, however, I found his messages to be repetitive, so listened to him less and less.

Back in April 2009 I was asked by my manager at work to visit an Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, to discuss some possible work I might be able to do for them. I was there for a week talking to various people as they had time. The visit went quite well. I also had time to visit some of the sites around town such as the Riverwalk and The Alamo. Yes, I remember The Alamo. At the end of the week I drove up to Austin to visit the state capitol. After that I went to visit my friends Richard and Denise, who I talked about in my previous post on Catholicism, in nearby Round Rock.

On Saturday I arrived at the airport to head home, but the weather had other ideas. A large storm had just passed through the area and was causing the airlines to cancel eastbound flights. Finally, late in the afternoon, my flight to Houston was cleared for takeoff. Once I arrived, I discovered the storm was still between there and Huntsville, Alabama, where I was headed. So, after standing in line for two hours to reschedule my flight for the next morning, I went to a hotel to spend the night.

When I arrived at the airport the next morning, I checked the departure board and found that my flight was a go. However, by the time I cleared security it had been cancelled, apparently due to additional storms blocking our path. I was told that because so many people had been delayed it might be 2-3 days before I could get a flight. They tentatively scheduled me on a flight two days hence, but told me that if I arrived that evening, I might be able to get on as a standby passenger.

So, what to do with all that time?

I knew that my first cousin, Pat, was in Houston getting cancer treatments at MD Anderson. I called her and asked if she felt like meeting somewhere. She asked what I would like to do. I said I would like to go to Lakewood Church and then to lunch. She talked to her husband, Eugene, and they decided they would come to the airport to get me and then go to Lakewood. They had been to this church before, so knew how to get there.

Everything went like clockwork. They picked me up and we made it to the church with time to spare before services began. Upon entering the building, Pat found a greeter/security person near the entrance and asked if she could take us to seats near the stage. She asked Pat if she had ever been to the church before. She said, “Yes.” The greeter informed her that they normally reserved those seats for new visitors. Pat pointed to me and told her that I had never been there before. So, we were escorted all the way across the arena and seated on the second row from the stage. If you knew Pat, you’d know that she was a firm believer in the Biblical passage that says, “Ask and you shall receive.”

The scale of the crowd was amazing. I hadn’t ever been in a church with that many people in attendance. Also, I was enthralled with all that was happening in the way of recording the activities on the stage. There were camerapersons at various locations moving about. Over our heads was a very long boom with a video camera on the end. Sometimes it would suddenly pass right over our heads from our backsides. This was a bit disconcerting. I was hoping that the operator was keeping a close eye on the nearby audience to make sure no one stood up just before the boom topped their heads. Talk about your headaches.

The service was executed in a very professional way. There was excellent music and excellent singing. Joel’s wife Victoria spoke for a while. All these activities were topped off with Joel speaking. I quite enjoyed it all. Once the service was over, we began our long trek back to our car in one of the large parking garages that surrounded the arena. It took a while to get away because of all the traffic. If you have never experienced a mega-church, you need to. I believe Lakewood is actually the largest in the US.

After clearing the traffic, we went to Pappasito’s Cantina and enjoyed some Mexican food for lunch. After that we went back to the temporary apartment Eugene and Pat were living in whenever they were in Houston for Pat to get treatments. After some good conversation, they took me to the airport where I was unbelievably able to catch a flight home as a standby passenger.

Looking back I realized how serendipitous my work trip was. I was able to see places I had never been before. I was able to visit a church I had wanted to visit for some time. I saw friends I hadn't seen in years. But mostly I was able to visit with my cousin Pat. You see, just five months later she lost her battle with cancer. So, my unexpected visit to Houston turned out to be the last time I saw her alive.

Thanks bad weather! I wonder if Joel Osteen had anything to do with that.

    Eugene and Pat outside Lakewood Church

    Joel Osteen preaching

Sunday, January 18, 2015

First Contact – Part 12 – Catholicism

My earliest memories related to Catholicism were of a Catholic school just a block and a half up the street from our house in Louisville, KY. It was named Most Blessed Sacrament, but my friends and I used to jokingly call it Most Blasted Sacrament. It seems kind of silly now, but as a child it was a real hoot.

I do not recollect ever attending a Catholic service or even going inside a Catholic Church building as a child. The first time I remember being inside a Catholic Church was to attend a wedding. It was in 1979, just a short time after graduating from college. My friends Richard and Denise were getting married. My wife Kathy and I had graduated from high school with them in 1973. Kathy and I did not wed until 1982. Richard and I actually attended school together from the first grade all the way through college. We lived just a couple of blocks from each other.

I had become interested in photography in high school and began buying more professional level cameras and lenses while I was in college. Richard knew of my interest, so asked me to be the photographer at his wedding. I had never shot a wedding before, but he was aware of that and still wanted me to do it. But he had a twist. He also wanted me to be his best man. At first I thought that would not work. However, given that I could put the camera on a tripod and set the timer for the pictures I needed to be in, I agreed to do it. All worked out fine. However, I do remember getting a bit annoyed by having to kneel so much during the ceremony.

Yes, that’s me third from left with the fro and mustache. Cool dude, huh?

Being mostly associated with Protestants growing up, I was skeptical of some of the beliefs of the Catholic Church such as infant baptism, holy water, transubstantiation, Mary worship, and so forth. But I eventually came to realize that when it comes to the supernatural, there is really nothing more bizarre or unbelievable than another thing. If God truly exists and he is omnipotent, ruling by fiat, then he can choose to deal with man anyway he wants. He can ask us to worship him in any way he wants, and he can ask us to believe anything he wants us to believe. Basically, anything goes. It then boils down to what we individually decide is the proper way to determine what his desires for us are.

After moving to Alabama, I came to realize that some of my friends at work were Catholic. I attended a few services to see what it was all about. The most memorable visit to a Catholic Church was to attend a performance of the musical “Jesus Christ, Superstar”. A friend from work was performing the role of Jesus, and he did a great job. Interestingly, the man who played Judas Iscariot was probably the best singer of the bunch. But somehow it just didn’t seem right for the bad guy to be that good.

A few days ago I listened to a one hour speech by a man that had been a Presbyterian pastor, but gradually came to realize that the teachings of the Catholic Church that he had thought were anti-Biblical were actually Biblical. At the end of this journey of discovery, he resigned his position of pastor at the Presbyterian Church and of teacher at a college and joined the Catholic Church. Here’s a link to that speech:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

First Contact – Part 11 – Greek Orthodoxy

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, my son Andrew was a curious sort, especially in his teen years. But I guess many teens are curious. That is typically the time in a person’s life where beliefs and values are being formed. You know, finding out who you really are and all that.

At Andrew’s high school there was a Bible teacher that also taught classes in Hebrew and Greek. Andrew took both. He also found out that the teacher liked Greek Orthodoxy. When he discovered there was a Greek Orthodox Church about 70 miles away in Huntsville, he wanted to attend. The church was actually pretty close to where my father lived. So, on weekends when we visited Dad, my wife and I would take Andrew to the church on Sunday morning. Kathy and I tried attending the services, but their style of worship just didn’t appeal to us. So, we started going shopping at a nearby Sam’s Club while Andrew was at church services.

After services, parishioners would gather in a meeting hall and share food and drink. There was a small store there where items of interest to Greek Orthodox Church members were sold. Andrew loved finding interesting things to purchase there.

Over time a married couple at the church befriended Andrew and began looking forward to his visits. One year Andrew decided he wanted to go celebrate Pascha (Easter) at the Greek Orthodox Church. This celebration started on Good Friday and ran through Sunday. On Saturday evening the services ran from 11 pm until 2 am at which time there was a great feast. The married couple was gracious enough to allow Andrew to spend two nights at their house so he could participate in everything. Finally, he drove back home on Sunday afternoon.

I met several members of the church when I attended services and when I would pick Andrew up at the meeting hall. All seemed very kind and gracious.

To me, Greek Orthodox services seem very similar to Catholic services in that they tend to more formal than the protestant evangelical church services. There are differences in beliefs, but I am not knowledgeable enough to speak to those differences.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

First Contact – Part 10 – Islam

I admit that I have had very little contact with Muslims. Islam is not a prominent religion in my part of the country. However, I do know one Muslim quite well.

When my son, Andrew, was very young we discovered his body was not producing a sufficient amount of growth hormones. We ultimately ended up taking him to a pediatric endocrinologist at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. His doctor changed a couple of time, but eventually Dr. Latif became his endocrinologist. Dr. Latif is from Jordan and is a Muslim. We could not have asked for a kinder, more thorough doctor. Andrew quickly developed a friendship with Dr. Latif since we had to travel to Birmingham twice a year for checkups. We typically only talked to him about Andrew’s condition and how he was faring health-wise and school-wise, but occasionally we would talk about personal things.

At some point we found out that Dr. Latif was going to start traveling to the Children’s Hospital’s satellite clinic in Huntsville, Alabama, a couple of days each month. This location would shorten our travel time significantly. So, we began to schedule Andrew’s appointments on a day when Dr. Latif was going to be in Huntsville.

As Andrew got older, he began to be curious about other religions and faiths. He would often ask people about their faith. This was how we learned for sure that Dr. Latif was Muslim. We asked things like how difficult it was to be a doctor and still be able to pray five times a day. He said that it only took a few minutes each time and he was able to fit it in during breaks and lunch. At one point Andrew actually bought the doctor a prayer rug as a gift.

Dr. Latif was not an American citizen when we first met him, but he is now. I can still remember the day we went to the clinic in Huntsville for an appointment, and there were banners up in the waiting room. Was it a party? Of sorts. The banners were up to celebrate Dr. Latif having just become a US citizen. He was excited and we were excited for him.

Andrew remained under Dr. Latif’s care until he became an adult. At that point he was told he needed to find a different doctor that specialized in adult rather than pediatric endocrinology. He eventually did so. But it was sad parting ways since Andrew, as well as Kathy and I, had grown close to Dr. Latif and enjoyed our visits with him.

I am glad that I met Dr. Latif before the increased activity of radical Islam. He let me know firsthand that there are indeed peaceful, kind, and loving Muslims in the world that are trying to help people rather than harm them.

One thing we need to keep in mind is that many religions have a violent past. The Old Testament tells us of some pretty heinous things the Israelites did, supposedly at the behest of God himself. But people can grow past their violent pasts. I just recently read this statement from author Edward Hudgins on the Atlas Society Web site: “A religion is to a great extent a construct of its adherents. It consists of the beliefs, values, priorities, assumptions, and expectations shared by those adherents and reinforced by their culture and institutions.” In other words, a religion is what its practitioners make it. Apparently Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is calling for religious toleration in his country. He even set an example by becoming the first Egyptian president to attend mass at a Coptic Christian church.

Let us hope that the forces of tolerance can uproot the forces of hate in every corner of the Earth, whether they be Muslims, Jews, Christians, another religion, or even agnostics and atheists. What the world needs now is love, sweet love. Just as it has always needed.

    Andrew at Age 12 with Dr. Latif

Sunday, January 11, 2015

First Contact – Part 9 – Full Gospel Church

Some of you may be asking, “What in the world is a Full Gospel Church?” Well, according to Wikipedia, it is synonymous with the Pentecostal, Charismatic Protestant movement that started in the 19th century. Basically, I associate Full Gospel with churches that believe in the baptism of the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, divine healing, speaking in tongues, etc.

As I was growing up, I used to hear my parents talk about the Pentecostal and the Holiness churches around where they grew up in north Alabama. They were the ones being slain in the Spirit and dancing in the aisles. Some may have even handled snakes. It all kind of blends together in my head, but I think you get the general idea of what I am talking about.

While there are several charismatic churches in my area, the two I became the most familiar with over the years were Faith Tabernacle (now called Faith Church) and Christ Chapel. These are both independent non-denominational churches.

Shortly after becoming a Christian in the Church of Christ I started a quest to understand the differing beliefs of the multitude of churches. One of the earliest ones I investigated was Christ Chapel. At that time they were in a small building near downtown. My roommate, David, who had been a student at the local Bible College and was a part time preacher, decided to join me in attendance at the church one Sunday evening. The service was filled with music, prayer, and preaching. Not that radically different from the Church of Christ except for the use of instrumental music (the C of C sings a cappella) and the occasional speaking in tongues (the C of C services were all in English). Near the end of the service everyone was getting happy, standing up, and singing with all their might. We were told to join hands. This made me a bit uncomfortable, but I did it anyway, as did my roommate. Afterwards, David’s comment was, “My, those folks sure are friendly.”

You have to understand that for many in the Church of Christ the use of mechanical instruments of music is a sin. Also, many believe that the gifts of the spirit such as healing, speaking in tongues, and so on were no longer in effect. So, some would think that what David and I did—actually participating in the service where these things were being done—was sinful. But to tell you the truth, I didn’t feel like I needed to shower after the service.

A few years later, Christ Chapel built a new building north of downtown that served as both a church and a school. I can still recall my wife and me going to see Twila Paris, one of my favorite Christian musicians, at this building.

My son, Andrew, was born in 1991. When he was in K-5, he attended Woodmont Christian School, which was part of Woodmont Baptist Church. My wife, Kathy, had quit her job as a teacher when Andrew was born, but was now ready to start teaching again. She was offered a job at WCS the year Andrew was in K-5. Looking to expand the school the next year, they needed a larger facility. After much searching, Woodmont Christian School started discussions with Northwest Christian Academy, which was the school that met at Christ Chapel. This church was planning to build a bigger church building and convert its current building to a school only. After much talking and praying, the two schools decided to merge into Shoals Christian School at the Christ Chapel building. While there were a few doctrinal differences between Woodmont Baptist Church and Christ Chapel, it was decided that none of them was a deal breaker. Thus, a combined school ministry began and continues to this day. Kathy began teaching at SCS the following year, and Andrew became a first grader there. Kathy still works for SCS; Andrew graduated from there in 2009.

Shortly after Kathy started working for WCS, she decided to attend Woodmont Baptist Church. Andrew attended with her. I had deconverted from Christianity before Andrew was born and by this time I was only attending church sporadically. Kathy ultimately decided to join Woodmont. Andrew joined a few years later and was baptized.

Sometime after Andrew became a teenager, he became more interested in the charismatic movement and joined Christ Chapel’s youth group. He was not yet driving, so on Wednesday evenings I would drive him to Christ Chapel (only a few minutes from home) for the youth meetings and then pick him up afterwards. Later still he actually began attending some Sunday services there. Eventually, Andrew began speaking in tongues and had his own prayer language.

Occasionally, I would attend Sunday services with Andrew at Christ Chapel. I discovered that several people I knew from the Church of Christ were now members there. This was quite a radical change, but I guess not as radical as my change was. My observation was that Christ Chapel’s worship was very similar to Woodmont Baptist’s worship. The main difference seemed to be the preacher in the former breaking into the occasional tongue speaking. The people there were always welcoming and friendly.

Let me now switch gears and talk about Faith Tabernacle. The first contact I remember with this church was in the mid 1980s when Don Wildmon, the founder of the American Family Association and American Family Radio, came to speak one evening. Wildmon was a very outspoken United Methodist minister that was fighting a battle against the increasing immorality in the movies, on TV, and in music. His battle was known as the Campaign for Decency. Faith Tabernacle had decided to host an event where he could voice his concerns. Interestingly, a Church of Christ preacher was also supporting Wildmon and was at the meeting. In the spirit of cooperation, the music before the program was alternately led by a Faith Tabernacle member, then by the Church of Christ preacher. When the former led, instruments accompanied the singing. When the latter led, the singing was a cappella.

When my son was a teenager, he would occasionally attend a once-a-week fellowship at Faith Tabernacle called Hebrew Café. There young people could listen to music, play games, and have snacks and beverages, all within a safe environment.

While I always found the members of both Faith Tabernacle (Faith Church) and Christ Chapel inviting and friendly, I just couldn’t get into the emotional element that was present at their services. I guess I am just a mental type person that is convinced that our beliefs should be based on reason, not emotion. That is why I was intrigued by the Worldwide Church of God and the Church of Christ. Both took a rational approach to understanding the Bible. I liked that. Of course, I eventually came to realize that the Bible was not the reliable source of information I once thought it was. Necessarily, I had to deconvert. I vow to always follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Speaking of evidence, a few years ago Shoals Christian School was contacted by Josh McDowell’s ministry. They were going to be on tour and needed to fill a speaking gap one day. They were going to be near the area, so wanted to know if SCS wanted to host an event. Of course, they jumped on it. McDowell spoke at the school during the day, and then spoke to the community that evening at Christ Chapel. One of the things that endears me to McDowell is his position on faith, reason, and evidence. As you probably know, Josh McDowell is the author of the world famous books on Christian evidences entitled “More Than a Carpenter” and “Evidence That Demands a Verdict”.

At that meeting, McDowell asked the audience why Christian evidences was so important. He answered his own question with words like these, “Anyone can believe anything by faith. All you have to do is choose to believe it, whether it’s true or not. In order to be sure our faith is in something that is true, we must have evidence of its validity.” I almost stood up and shouted, “Amen, brother!” even though I was no longer a Christian at that point. I totally agreed with him. Only believe in that for which the evidence supports. The problem is that when it comes to something like the Biblical text where we can’t go back in time and actually observe the events reported therein, evidence can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Also, different people require differing levels of evidence to be convinced of something. That is why we sometimes have hung juries. Anyway, Josh McDowell has found the evidence he requires to believe the Bible; I have not.

A short time after McDowell spoke at Christ Chapel I was there for a Sunday morning service. The pastor of the church was preaching about faith. I do not remember his exact words, but basically he told the congregants that he didn’t need any evidence for his faith because he could feel it inside. I guess he didn’t agree with Josh McDowell like I did.

Friday, January 9, 2015

First Contact – Part 8 – Seventh-day Adventists

Shortly after joining the Church of Christ in 1980, I discovered that a coworker, Billy, was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist church. As was my habit, I began questioning him about his beliefs and tried to understand some of the differences he and I had. At some point he suggested that I come over to his house and meet with a couple of other members from his church. The main topic of discussion was to be the Sabbath and why the SdA worshipped on that day rather than Sunday.

I told a church friend of mine, Steve, about this meeting, and he was eager to join in. Steve did a lot of mission work in Africa and was pretty knowledgeable of the Bible.

Well, the big day came. Steve and I drove to Billy’s house. As promised, two other men were there. We sat around in a circle in Billy’s living room and started our discussion. We probably talked for an hour or longer, but I don’t remember very much of it. However, one exchange stands out clearly in my mind.

While defending Sabbath day worship, one of the SdA members brought up Matthew 24:15-21, where Jesus is quoted as saying the following:

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.”

The SdA guy then followed up by saying, “Why would Jesus tell his followers to pray that their flight not take place on the Sabbath if the Sabbath was no longer a day of rest and worship?”

I sat in silence. I was a new believer and didn’t have many answers. Steve seemed to be stumped also, at least for a while. He said, “Well, let’s see, why would he say that? Hmmm. Why would he not want them to take flight on a Sabbath? Hmmm. Oh, I know, the gates to the city were closed on the Sabbath. That would make it much more difficult to flee the city. Yeah, that would be it.”

I was thinking, Now that was an obvious impromptu answer. They’ll see through that easily and have a definitive response. I was wrong.

I saw a look of concern come over one of the SdA members. There was a pause. No immediate response came. Finally they spoke again, but had nothing to definitively refute Steve’s explanation. I was a bit surprised.

Later, as we were departing, Steve said to me, “They don’t have a leg to stand on.”

I wasn’t that certain, but it did seem to me that Steve had gotten them on the run.

For some reason I never pursued having any further discussions with the Seventh-day Adventists. I attended one of their services, but that was about it. In actuality, I came to view the whole Sabbath vs. Sunday issue to really be a non-issue, mainly because of these words by the Apostle Paul in Romans 14:5-6.

“One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.”

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

First Contact – Part 7 – Worldwide Church of God

In the late 1960s and early 1970s my dad and I liked to watch a television program named “The World Tomorrow” hosted by Garner Ted Armstrong. The show was a production of the Worldwide Church of God. This church was actually started in 1931 as The Radio Church of God by Herbert W. Armstrong, Garner Ted’s father. The show talked about the future of the world according to Biblical prophecy. In 1972, Garner Ted and his father had a falling out, and the latter took over the broadcasts.

After joining the Church of Christ in 1980, I found myself attempting to understand other denominations and their teachings. At some point, I began ordering pamphlets on different topics written by Herbert W. Armstrong. They were all very intriguing. Armstrong was very good at explaining his position on Biblical issues in a structured and understandable manner. I also subscribed to their magazine “The Plain Truth”. My main takeaway from Armstrong’s teachings was that unless the New Testament specifically did away with a commandment in the Old Testament, it was still in effect. Thus, the day of worship was still to be the seventh day, the Sabbath, old covenant festivals were to still be celebrated, and so on. Animal sacrifices were nixed when Jesus gave the ultimate sacrifice of his own life.

One day I was telling a friend and coworker named Jim, a devout Church of Christ member, about reading all of Armstrong’s literature. He said, “You don’t need to be giving your money to that organization.”

I responded, “I haven’t given them any money. All of their materials are free.”

Jim countered, “Now that’s really sneaky. Offering everything for free to entice you away from the Church.”

I wondered exactly how Armstrong was supposed to distribute his materials if charging for them was wrong and giving them away was also.

Anyway, I became so intrigued with Armstrong’s literature that I decided I wanted to talk to someone in his church. Unknown to me at the time, there was a local congregation that met in members’ homes. When I called the church’s main number listed in their literature, I was able to speak to a representative who arranged a meeting at my apartment.

When the date and time arrived, two men came knocking. If memory serves, one was a traveling preacher and the other was a leader in the local congregation. We had a good conversation about Bible doctrine and such. As our time drew to a close, I told them that I would like to visit their local church. I was informed that it was a closed service; only members were allowed to attend. I asked why.

One of the men said, “The Bible tells us we should be careful not to let false doctrine into the church, so we are careful about whom we allow to attend our services.”

I said, “You mean like it says in 2 John?”

The man responded, “Exactly.”

Of course I was referring to 2 John 1:7-11 where it says, “I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch out that you do not lose what we have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take them into your house or welcome them. Anyone who welcomes them shares in their wicked work.”

Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? But, of course, you can prove just about anything by reading just a few verses in isolation. I understood this even when I was still a Christian.

Well, anyway, I wasn’t willing to play by what I now call the Pelosi Rule. You know, where I had to join the church in order to find out what was in it. So, that was both my first and last contact with the Worldwide Church of God.

Many people considered the Worldwide Church of God to be a cult because of the strong influence Herbert W. Armstrong held over the church. Interestingly, after Herbert W. Armstrong’s death in 1986, succeeding church administrations began reversing much of the “radical” teachings of Armstrong until they became more in line with mainstream evangelical Christians. This caused the church to splinter into a number of different groups. The remaining group renamed itself to Grace Communion International in 2009.

However, there is one splinter group that claims to be the true church in the Armstrong tradition. They are known as the Restored Church of God.

Interestingly, I found a Web site with an archive of all the literature Herbert W. Armstrong produced during his ministry. It’s located at . If you want to see what I was so intrigued by, you can find it there.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

First Contact – Part 6 – Mormons

As I was finishing up college, I had some free time on my hands before starting my new job. I would sit up late each night reading. I read mostly the various photography and astronomy magazines I subscribed to and science fiction novels. However, I would occasionally grow tired of these, so began reading the Old Testament in the Bible. I made it through about 2 Kings before it was time to head to Alabama to start my career.

I soon got busy with other things and quit reading the Bible. However, I would occasionally discuss religion with friends and coworkers. One person suggested I get a copy of the New American Standard version of the Bible as he thought it was one of the better translations. I did. Over time I came to realize that several people I knew at work were Mormon. I was familiar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, knowing about the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Joseph Smith and the golden plates, and the church’s family orientation. But I had never actually studied with a Mormon. That changed when a university cooperative student named Sam came to work for me. I found out Sam was also Mormon and began asking some questions about his faith. He soon set up a meeting between me and a couple of missionaries.

I guess I was sort of searching at that point in my life. Even though I had for many years felt like there was a God, but did not believe in any particular God, I felt like there had to be more to religion. After all, there were many people who did believe in a particular God and had a particular faith. Could they all be wrong? I didn’t know for sure. But I was willing to discuss it to find out.

I met once a week with the Mormon missionaries at Sam’s apartment. I found the studies somewhat interesting, but I was a bit dismayed by their approach. Rather than pointing out the evidence for believing the Bible and the Book of Mormon, they rather asked that I pray during the week for God to reveal to me the truthfulness of the these books. I did that, but got no response. I also attended the local Mormon Church a time or two. Then one week the missionaries told me that they thought I needed to set a date to join the church. They believed that if I showed God I was serious, he would honor that date and bring me to belief before it arrived. That did not set well with me. I told them that I didn’t think it was a good idea to basically push God into revealing himself to me on my schedule rather than his. So, I broke off my studies with them. Fortunately, Sam understood and we remained friends. Interestingly, a few years later Sam left the Mormon Church.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I ultimately ended up joining the Church of Christ, only to become an agnostic about seven years later. While I was a member of the church, a couple of Mormon missionaries came to my apartment while door knocking. I let them in. After some introductions, we began discussing the Bible in earnest. It was at that point that I realized how inexperienced some of these missionaries are. I began questioning some of their beliefs in light of what the Bible said. Often they were unaware of the Biblical statements or lacked an understanding of what the verses were saying. Again, it seemed that they believed that our faith should come directly from God via prayer rather than by study and understanding.

After my deconversion, I recall sitting in a booth at our company’s snack bar with a fellow employee that I didn’t know very well. I did, however, know he was Mormon. Our conversation turned to religion and I told him of my current beliefs. At this point in my agnosticism I liked asking religious people whether or not they believed I was going to hell. I let them know that I would not be offended by any answer they might give. After all, I would tell them, they were not going to be my judge, God was. This particular fellow found himself unable to give me an answer no matter how much I urged him to answer and no matter how much assurance I gave him that I would not be upset by any answer he gave. I assumed that if he believed I was alright in God’s eyes, he would tell me so. Thus, his reluctance to answer told me that he did indeed believe I was lost, but just couldn't bring himself to tell me.

The one thing that I find very interesting about people who are confident about their salvation and other people’s lack of it, is that they typically believe that many of those lost people truly believe they are saved when in fact they are not. If that is possible, then is it not possible for those people themselves to be wrong about their own salvation. Think about it. If you are confident you are right with God, you don’t even know to seek something different so that you will truly be right with God.

Several years ago my work took me to the Salt Lake City region of Utah where I was able to visit the Salt Lake Temple. It is something to see. While walking around the courtyard during one visit, a couple of missionaries started a discussion with me. I explained my religious background and told them why I was now agnostic. We had a nice conversation. They even told me about the some of the people memorialized there with statues. That is the last time I remember talking to Mormons about religious matters.

Like so many other religious people, I always found the Mormons to be courteous and nice people. They are strong on family values, which I like. But I personally cannot subscribe to their faith.

Friday, January 2, 2015

First Contact – Part 5 – Faith Healers

As I was growing up, there were a number of faith healers on television. They were always fascinating with their dramatics and head popping. I often wondered why there were so many sick people in the world given the number of people of faith capable of healing. I thought perhaps it had something to do with the lack of faith of the sick people. But upon examining the Bible, I realized that the healings mentioned there had more to do with the faith of the healer than the faith of the healee.

One faith healer in particular I used to watch on TV was Ernest Angley. Although I was always skeptical of the supposed healings that occurred at his hand, I found him to be flamboyant, yet intriguing and entertaining to watch. In October 1978, I heard that Angley was coming to a nearby civic center, and I knew I had to go. The program lasted about four hours and was filled with preaching, music, healing, and money collection. I was hoping to see what I would have considered a true miracle. This would consist of some type of healing that obviously violated the laws of nature such as a missing limb growing back instantly. I was not so fortunate. Most of the healings consisted of relieving nicotine addictions, reinstituting lost senses of smell, and reversing hearing loss. Absolutely nothing occurred during the four hours that came close to convincing me that Angley was God’s man of the hour. Further, when he began blessing boxes of trinkets before his assistants took to the audience to sell them, he lost any semblance of confidence I may have had in him. Still, I thought it would be interesting to talk to a person who was “healed” that day. About a month later I got my wish.

While at a funeral home during a visitation, my father introduced me to a man that he knew from years past and told me that he had been at the Angley service. Further, he had been on the stage and had had his hearing healed. No, he had not been deaf, just a bit hard of hearing. Since the healing, his hearing was much improved. Ever the skeptic, I began talking to him softly, thinking that if his hearing had not been healed he would have difficulty understanding me over the din of voices surrounding us. He heard everything I said. I was impressed, but not convinced. After all, I had never talked to the man before his healing, so there was no way for me to know the extent of his hearing loss. Perhaps he had gotten good at reading lips and knew what I was saying even though he could not hear me well.

In college, my friend Doug and I used to study and hang out together. At some point he got involved in a charismatic movement and converted to it from Catholicism. After college he got a job as an engineer just as I did, but later was led to work as a campus minister. The last time I saw Doug was at my wedding. While catching up on our lives he told me a story that I will never forget. One day at the campus ministry house a man showed up with some missing fingers due to an unfortunate run-in with a lawn mower. Doug and another person laid hands on the man and prayed for him. Then, right before their eyes, the man’s fingers grew back to full length.

I was astonished. What was I to make of this story? Was my good friend lying? Was he deluded? Had he been tricked? Or could it be that the healing actually happened just as he reported? Having not been present at the healing, there was no way for me to know for sure.

So, when it comes to faith healing, I remain a skeptic since I have never actually seen one. But, regardless of my skepticism, there do seem to be some credible stories that indicate healings do take place that cannot be explained naturally. But we must keep in mind that there is much we don’t know about nature, especially as it relates to the human body. Just as lightning at one time was thought to be from a supernatural source but now is known to be natural, perhaps one day those unexplainable healings will be explained.

I discuss this topic in more detail in my book God Is: Exploring the Nature of the Biblical God.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

An American Band

This is sort of an addendum to my last First Contact post about Jews. In that post I mentioned a musical band I was a part of in college. This got me thinking about other events that led up to that point in my life. Here I share some of those thoughts.

My first serious musical instrument was an electric guitar. I was in middle school, and my parents bought me a Silvertone guitar from Western Auto along with a small cheap amplifier. It was quite nice. I learned a few songs from some books I bought.

Later I took an interest in classical guitars after hearing a good friend play. One Christmas in high school, my parents bought me a Federico Garcia classical guitar #3 built in Spain. It was quite a fine guitar considering it only cost $78 on sale. I learned to fingerpick on my own for a while and later took lessons. I joined the Louisville Classical Guitar Society and began performing at our monthly meetings which were open to the public. My teacher was the president of this society.

At the very first meeting where I actually played, I was sitting next to a longtime classical guitar teacher in the Louisville area named Basil Gural. As it turned out, the person who performed just before me was Dale, the best classical guitarist in the area. Needless to say, this was a bit intimidating. Once Dale finished, I was introduced. I sat down on the stage, propped my foot onto the foot stand, set my guitar on my leg, and introduced my song.

“And now after that wonderful performance by Dale, I would like to play for you ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.” Laughter. Ice breaking. That was what I was after. However, a few seconds into the actual song I played, I flubbed it. Not letting it get the best of me, I started again and made it through, albeit a bit shakily.

When I returned to my seat, Basil leaned over and said, “I believe you should have stuck with ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.” I couldn’t help but laugh. But over time, I became more comfortable performing in front of people and would sometimes play two songs at the meetings.

I was also a big fan of bluegrass music, especially the five-string banjo. I found a cheap Harmony banjo and bought it. However, since I was only used to using my fingernails for picking on my guitar, I was having a hard time converting to fingerpicks for the banjo. Using my fingers was fine when performing solo about the house, but not when playing with other musicians.

About the time I had learned to play the banjo with my fingernails, several friends decided to form a band. These guys were Mike (guitar and vocals), Billy (guitar and vocals), and Roger (keyboards and vocals). They also wanted me (banjo and can’t sing worth a flip) to join. One day we all got together for a practice session. You could barely hear my banjo above the other instruments. Billy finally spoke the obvious, “Randy, you’ve got to learn to use fingerpicks.” He knew it. I knew it. All God’s children knew it.

Well, anyway, I began donning fingerpicks every time I practiced at home. Lo and behold, I actually started sounding pretty good in short order. Our band was officially underway. Now we just needed somewhere to play.

There was a small bar on Bardstown Road named New Philosophy. Unfortunately, their philosophy seemed to be to hire musicians to play for about five people each evening. This was not good for the business, but a great place for a new band to start. We talked to the owners, two brothers, and they told us we could play on Friday night. Saturday night was reserved for the better bands that brought in larger crowds of 10 to 12. Ha! Interestingly, I don’t believe we had a name for the band. I sure don’t remember having one and neither do the other members that I am still in touch with.

Each of us in the band began inviting our friends to our debut performance. None of my friends came. I don’t know about Mike’s and Roger’s friends. It was Billy that saved the day. Somehow Billy knew A LOT of people. Many of those friends were Jewish. Billy’s friends were like a field of dreams. Ask them and they will come.

Well, opening night finally came and the place was absolutely PACKED with people. They were mostly Billy’s friends and their friends. I didn’t know any of them, but I was glad to see them. You know, job security and all.

We played many sets that night, jointly and individually. We were actually quite eclectic. We played soft rock (on which I played bass guitar, which I had to borrow since I didn’t own one, or even play one that well) and bluegrass (on which I played five-string banjo). For my individual set I played classical guitar.

Throughout the night, the bar owners kept offering me and the other band members any free drinks we wanted. I didn’t drink, so I would ask for a soda. The owners were beside themselves and giddy with excitement. They kept saying, “We just can’t believe it. We never have a crowd like this on Friday night, or any night for that matter.” I kept thinking you need to thank Billy.

At the end of the night after all the customers were gone, our band met with the bar owners to get paid. They told us how they wished they could pay us more, but couldn’t because most of the customers were drinking beer rather than liquor, and there was a smaller profit margin for the beer. We were fine. We mainly just wanted to play. The money was more of a perk than a necessity.

Anyway, we were immediately upgraded to Saturday night and continued to bring in good crowds each week. Yet, we had to endure the “we wish we could pay you more” speech after each concert. I thought we were being paid well. I just wanted to go home and go to bed.

In addition to playing regularly at the New Philosophy, we occasionally played other venues. The most memorable one was a house warming party that Billy set up for us. He had some friends whose house in the East end of town had been blown away in the April 3, 1974 tornadoes that wreaked havoc throughout Louisville. They were rebuilding. When they got the house to the point that there was a roof and electricity, they decided to have a house warming party. We had to plug our equipment into electrical receptacles hanging from the rafters. It was a big deal; lots of people were there. The hosts had set up several long tables just loaded down with foods of all kinds. It was all I could do to stay with the band rather than graze at the trough. All went well. We even had the obligatory drunk insisting we play some song we didn’t know how to play.

I remember another gig we had at a large apartment. There were a lot of weed-smoking young people there. The highlight of the evening, for me, was when we were playing a bluegrass song that had a particularly hard banjo run in it. Sometimes I would nail it and other times I wouldn’t. Well, I nailed the first half of it and the crowd went crazy. This threw me off causing me to flub the second half of it. Oh, well, as a boss of mine used to say: “More Fun!”

I remember finding a seat on a crowded couch during a break. The next thing I knew a joint was being passed to me from my left. Since I didn’t smoke, I took it and immediately passed it to the person on my right. Interestingly, this is exactly what I now do when I am at church and the Lord’s Supper is passed to me. Hmmm.

I had always heard about the peer pressure that would be applied if you didn’t join in on the vice everyone else was engaging in. But you know, I don’t recall ever being pressured. I was in a number of situations where booze was being drunk and marijuana was being smoked. It was the way of the day. Yet I don’t remember anyone ever urging me to partake. Perhaps all the people I was around understood that just meant more for them.