labingi: (Default)
[personal profile] labingi
Recently my uncle, Bill Sanford, passed away at eighty-two years old. Bill was a minister in the Methodist Church. He was also one of the most purely positive role models in my life. I am grateful to Bill in countless ways for his loving presence, but I want to focus on the impact he had as a Christian on me as a lifelong agnostic. What a beautiful example he is of living the loving teachings of Jesus.

To explain Bill’s influence on me, it’s necessary to talk a little bit about me. I have always been an agnostic. I learned agnosticism at my parents’ knees as others learn Catholicism or Judaism. If I asked my parents if God existed, they would reply with “I don’t know.” This belief system was ingrained in me by the time I was five years old. In the years since, my sense of what agnosticism means has grown more complex, but I have never had the desire to be anything other than agnostic.

Being an Agnostic Kid in the United States

Compared to many countries, the United States, blessedly, has a high degree of religious freedom. But it is a nation culturally dominated by Christianity, and it is not always easy to be an agnostic child among a Christian majority. Here are a few of my childhood experiences:

In kindergarten, I had a Jehovah’s Witness friend. While she and her family were always nice to me, I was not allowed to play with her outside of school: my mother explained to me that they thought I was a bad influence because I wasn’t a Christian.

When I was five or six and playing with a friend at my house, I mentioned that I didn’t believe in God. My friend burst into tears and started walking for home (three miles away). As I followed her down the road, she explained, sobbing, that she couldn't play with me because I worshipped Satan. Finally I told her I did believe in God, which cheered her up. I think this is the only time I have ever flat-out lied about it.

At eleven, my lifelong best friend, a Catholic, noted offhandedly that I was damned. There was no malice in the statement: it was just a fact. I wasn’t a Christian, and only Christians are saved. (I should note that today's Catholic Church has a more nuanced view than this child's understanding.)

With such experiences, reinforced by cultural narratives like televangelists’, it is perhaps not surprising that as a child I was afraid of churches and resistant to Christian teachings. My mother dragged me to church once or twice for my cultural literacy. I remember sitting in Sunday School, being forced to sing “Jesus Loves Me” with a feeling of dark detestation at the fact that I was supposed to believe Jesus loved me because “the Bible tells me so,” as if we should believe everything we read!

But these negative impressions of Christianity were not my only childhood experience.

My Uncle, the Minister

My extended family background is Christian. From a young age, I remember saying grace with my Grandma Happy and with her son, my Uncle Bill. Saying grace bemused me a little. Very young, I understood that it wasn’t my tradition but something we did visiting the relatives. Yet I came to enjoy the family holding hands, giving thanks for our food, and giving each other’s hands a little squeeze as we let go. It was a moment of togetherness.

When we got together with Bill’s side of the family, he presided over our table with a gentle oratorical presence I later came to recognize as influenced by his training in seminary. He was a quiet man: his words came slow and steady. He spoke with the confidence of one who believes in what he’s saying and the caring of one who says it in a way we can understand and enjoy. He said grace for us. He also told jokes. And while I’m sure he said a lot of other things too, it’s the jokes I remember. He told them soberly as if making a serious point. But if there was a point, he never hammered it home. He just led us in laughter. I didn’t care exactly what he had to say; I wanted to listen to him.

I had the privilege of knowing Bill for thirty-eight years, and in those thirty-eight years, he never once tried to convert me. He was quite happy to discuss religion. He discussed it in the context of topics he was studying, events happening at church, his personal conscience and philosophy, responding to thoughts I shared with him. He never told me what I should believe.

In generic terms, Bill was a liberal Christian who believed in a historical reading of the Bible. In his personal practice, he was a loving soul who believed in helping others, whether it be through his tireless work building homes for Habitat for Humanity, through his newspaper columns shining light on local community members and their good projects, or through helping individuals navigate their own way to a well-lived life.

Bill believed in honest inquiry. He investigated life's questions with an open and trusting heart and encouraged others to do likewise. A few years ago in response to letter I sent him, he sent me an article he'd written in 1979, entitled, "What I Believe about Doubt." I'd like to quote a small piece:

"I have come to believe that when expressions of doubt bother us, it may because our own faith is insecure, our conception of God is too limited. Let us recognize that our God is a very capable and adequate God. Human doubt no more threatens God's reality than doubt of the law of gravity threatens it. Let us embrace the view that truth can stand scrutiny. The Christian faith can stand testing. God can weather all our wonderings. Yes, we can even have faith in our doubts since they are likely to lead us to a more adequate faith."

Bill always supported my freedom to learn from my doubts. He respected my right to keep my questioning as my personal system of checks-and-balances to a better lived life.

While Bill was open to doubt and diversity in belief, he had a clear, concrete sense how to do good in the world, as clear and concrete as Jesus's call to love our neighbors as ourselves. In a re-affirmation of faith from 2007, Bill described his own faith practice as "pragmatic" in the sense of "what may be seen to work in the actual living out of life." This pragmatism led him to be "a respectful and obedient son in relationship with God, a sensitive and caring brother in relationship with other persons, and a wise and dependable steward in relationship with everything under my care." Bill lived a Christian life by modeling a Christ-like friendship for all around him. In his presence, the world was calm and comfortable. Whether hiking, taking photographs, or indulging his lifelong love of the railroad, Bill sought harmony. He loved people, plants and animals, landscapes, and societies unconditionally, not without moral discernment but without moral condemnation.

A Lasting Impact

Though I grew up a little afraid of Christianity, thanks in a large part to Bill's loving influence, I didn't grow up too afraid. I even gladly attended Justin-Siena Catholic high school so I could study Latin and get a high quality college prep education. I learned a lot of wonderful things about the Catholic Church along the way.

Sometimes, I still have a trace of the old fear of churches. But that didn't stop me in my mid-thirties from finally deciding to give church a serious try. The church I chose was the First Congregational Church of Eugene, Oregon, a progressive church explicitly welcoming to agnostics. (It was this welcome on their website that got me through the door.) What a wonderful institution--a caring community coming together in loving service to others without making particular demands as to faith. This is the soul of Christianity. I recognized it when I saw it because I had seen it in my uncle.

Today, my view of the Christian faith--despite some of its churches' absurd hijinks--is overwhelmingly positive. I owe much of this positivity to Bill. In his decades of service, he touched uncountable lives, and the effects of his good works and care for humanity will ripple out far. I miss Bill, and I am blessed to have had his loving example as one of the foundations of my life.


My mother and Bill's sister, Pat, wishes to add the following:

His preparation for death was also exemplary.  As a kindness to his family, his affairs were probably more in order than those of anyone I have known.  He had perfect confidence that dying was no bad thing if one is prepared and trusts in the god of his faith, whatever it be.  As a member of Compassion and Choices, he wished the same for everyone.

Date: 2013-09-25 01:00 am (UTC)
lilacsigil: 12 Apostles rocks, text "Rock On" (12 Apostles)
From: [personal profile] lilacsigil
I'm glad you had the opportunity to know someone like him. I'm an atheist with a deep distrust of organised religion, but the high school teacher I remember most fondly was actually the school chaplain. She had an attitude very much like your uncle's - welcoming, thoughtful and endlessly kind, and this very much changed my thoughts on what a Christian could be.

Date: 2013-09-25 01:25 am (UTC)
vilakins: (magen)
From: [personal profile] vilakins
What a wonderful person, kind, understanding, and totally at peace with himself and his belief.

I do regard the US as a bit of an oddity with their attitude to religion and the importance certain brands of it have. I think the average person here is probably agnostic (as opposed to atheist) or nominal Christian (the sort who've never been to church but put Anglican on their census form). There are some right-wing "Christian" political parties(I put it in quotes as their opinions hardly mesh with those of Jesus) who seem almost American in their fundie fervour, but they're hardly a force to reckon with or worry anyone.


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