Woman of God

Avis Collins is the minister at the Apostolic Awakening Fellowship, a conservative church in Duluth, Georgia. Known as Mother Avis by her church family, she promotes herself as a black conservative who’s opposed to gay marriage, extra-marital sex, race mixing, and government entitlements. She grew up in a mainstream Methodist congregation, but became a fundamentalist following the fallout within her family from the deaths of their parents. Her church promotes family values and economic empowerment, and, in practice, their philosophy is a curious mixture of feeding the homeless while criticizing them for a lack of initiative, promoting Jesus’s teachings, while encouraging church goers to become entrepreneurs, and welcoming members of all races, just so long as none of them try to intermarry. As of 2011, Avis boasts a following of over four hundred parishioners, and their services are a rousing mixture of amplified Gospel, warm, welcoming fellowship, and fiery rhetoric delivered by Mother Avis.

In the late-00s, Avis’s ministry came under scrutiny when it was discovered that a number of the white parishioners in her majority black congregation were active members of the Klan, drawn by her message of racial separatism. This set off a flurry of news reports locally, with people on all sides of the controversy giving interviews, black congregants who stated they would not share the pew with racists, contrasted with those who said that so long as they mind their manners, all are welcome, versus white members, who tried to minimize the situation, citing Mother Avis’s powerful preaching as the reason for their devotion. It all culminated in Mother Avis giving a well-received interview on Good Morning America, where she remained cheerful and positive, and stated the situation demonstrated, “The power of Christ to unite people of all backgrounds and philosophies.

Still, the church remains controversial, with the IRS constantly questioning their religious exemption, some believing them to be more of a religiously-oriented business rather than the classic definition of a church, given the many products they sell, from essential oils and scented candles, to prayer blankets, videos and recordings of the choir and fellowship band, and others suggesting racial motives for the microscopic level of scrutiny they’re constantly under. Mother Avis tries to remain above the fray, with one notable misstep, where she commented harshly on what she termed as “sodomites” in a news report about the PRIDE Festival in Atlanta, which drew protests from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Following these challenges, the church instituted a public relations fellowship, which clears all requests for statements, and carefully monitors any outgoing missives for content, as well as largely shielding Mother Avis from unscripted press appearances.

One of the church’s harshest critics is a blogger known as Lady Midnight, who not only publishes a weekly column, where she tackles religion, politics, and human rights, and often uses Apostolic Awakening as an example of religious excess, but she also frequently posts disparaging criticisms on the message board at the Apostolic Awakening website. She’s consistently the only negative poster to whom Avis will personally reply, and their sometimes voluminous exchanges often betray not only serious animosity, but also a great deal of familiarity between them. In one such exchange, Avis stated, “You should be grateful the Lord blessed you with the opportunity to be an inspiration to others, rather than the sullen, withdrawn shell of the woman you once were.” While most congregants are either spiritually uplifted or totally befuddled by Mother Avis’s attitude toward this irritant, a few of her closest confidants are aware that Lady Midnight also happens to be Avis’s younger sister, Annabelle, with whom Avis hasn’t spoken directly for more than a decade.

Paralyzed in an automobile accident in Cobb County in 1990, Annabelle turned away from religion during her recovery period, breaking the heart of her minister father, and, in Avis’s view, hastening the deaths of their mother, who suffered a stroke in 1998, and spent the remainder of her life in a vegetative state, and their father, who suffered a massive coronary in 2000. Following their father’s death, Annabelle supported their older brother Alfred’s decision to take their mother off life support, which Avis vehemently opposed. The youngest brother, Avery, a singer, rapper, and actor now based in Los Angeles, who calls himself EZ-AC, eventually sided with Alfred and Annabelle, causing Avis to drop her opposition, and sever all ties with her family. Within a year, she began her ministry in a small storefront in downtown Duluth, and began recruiting members by preaching on street corners.

The End of History 

While many might believe life on Earth would be simpler if we could all be brought together under a single, unifying philosophy, no one can come to any sort of agreement on what that should be. Every social, political, economic, and religious movement since the dawn of civilization has sought to unite people under a common set of beliefs, or economic system, or way of life. Utopian movements speak of such a time, when everyone finally agrees on a guiding set of principles as the end of history. This does not mean the end of human advancement, just the end of our struggles to find a system which best promotes that advancement.

Few can doubt that the old order is swiftly passing away and a new one is taking its place, but rather than controlling how the future will develop, I see people like the current administration in the US as a catalyst for finally destroying what’s left of the old ways of thinking. They’re the last gasp of the tribal mentality dying out. Once they and their cronies are done, it’s up to the enlightened throughout the world to pick up the pieces of what’s left and start over.

We are seeing, on the world stage, the beginnings of a global movement aimed at protecting the environment, insuring peace and prosperity for all, encouraging women and protecting them from such brutal practices as enforced marriage and genital mutilation, and respecting individual rights and beliefs. We need to take the initiative to insure that what develops promotes the goal of uplifting and empowering all people. Philosophies such as that of the Taliban, which holds that it’s okay to shoot a teenaged girl in the face for wanting an education, are so abhorrent that they deserve no place in the discussion, and humanity will be best served when such ideas are wiped from the face of the Earth.

Race, religion, politics, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, are all used to exclude people. Remove these as barriers and we all have a seat at the table. The truth is constantly being revealed to us. It’s not written in any particular book nor does it come from any particular period of world history, but it’s always there, always speaking to us in everything that exists, and all that occurs. We should stop assuming any one set of beliefs should predominate and start embracing the uniqueness of each individual. In a universe of infinite possibilities, we exist. We should strive to make the most of this opportunity.

Big Bang


Trying to discern the origins of the universe from within the universe is like trying to figure out how a cake was made using only the evidence of the finished cake. It’s there; we see it, but deciphering all that went into it is difficult, because the finished product is more than just the sum of its parts. We can speculate, based on our senses, what some of the ingredients were; we can develop theories as to how the various elements came together, but we can’t know for sure how it came into being unless we’re there to observe the process of creating it. Of course, in the case of a cake, we can be there to observe how one is made. Not so with the universe. 

Religion tells us God created the heavens and the Earth; science shows us the nuts and bolts of what went into building the universe. Religion says it began with light; science says it all began with a bang. With sound moving much slower than light, it’s possible to still hear echoes of the big bang provided one has the right equipment. What set it off, though? What was the catalyst that put everything in motion? To date, no one on either side of the debate has a definitive answer that satisfies everyone. All anyone knows is that it’s here; we inhabit it; all living things are a part of it. 

Most of what we see, hear, taste, touch, or smell is an illusion, created for us by how our brains interpret the signals the environment throws at us. How one person perceives the world may be vastly different than another person. We use language to help bridge the gap, but even language is a tool we’ve invented to serve a specific purpose, and often falls short in conveying an accurate description of the sensations of living. Time is another tool designed to give us reference points in our perception. In truth, we live in neither the past nor the future but in the eternal present experiencing what goes on in the world as it happens. Our brains allow us to store memories and recall them, perhaps with a bit of alteration, and to imagine outcomes not yet realized, giving us a semblance of a past and future. 

We created the notion of God because humanity believes it needs a parental figure watching over us, someone to tell us who we are and why we’re here. Everything has a beginning and an end, and individual humans have parents, therefore humanity has to have such “parents” from whom we sprang. This model is already faulty, though, because individual humans have two parents, regardless of whether both are known, whereas most modern religions only mention one parental deity. In much of nature, it’s the female who bears the responsibility for giving birth, but in many modern religions, the female deity has been erased from the equation.

As humans, we have an inherent need to understand our origins. Where we came from and why is at least as important to us as what we’re here to accomplish. There are no easy answers to the question. It remains for each individual to determine the answer for himself or herself. We may, one day, come to definitive conclusions about our common origins, but in the meantime, we should do all we can to enjoy the pursuit.

Eternal Present 

Clock
Most people would agree that 2016 has been a horrible year. The number of famous people who’ve died seems far out of proportion to any other year, and the political climate, culminating in the election of Donald Trump as president in the US, has been extremely bitter and hostile, leading many to fear what comes next. The world situation seems just one misunderstanding away from igniting into a major conflict on many fronts. On a personal level, 2016 has been very trying for me as well. I’ve lost family members, had very little success with my writing, my health has been questionable, and my “day job”, which pays all my bills, has been on shaky ground since July. Many people, myself included, will be happy to bid farewell to this lousy year.

As U2 reminds us in their song, New Year’s Day, however, not much actually changes when we make the arbitrary switch from one year to the next. Companies which operate on a calendar year may have more resources at the start of a new year, and therefore are in a better position to hire or expand, which can definitely affect individuals, but if it’s cold and rainy on December 31, it will most likely be so on January 1, and if one has a lingering illness or pending financial commitment, it’s unlikely to go away just because the calendar changes. However psychologically comforting ending a year might seem, the reality is that time itself, and, by extension the calendars it yields, is an artificial measurement created by people. Time is a tool, developed to help distinguish one collection of days from another. It’s ironic that so many people stress over deadlines and schedules, when the very time underlying it all has little to no meaning outside of its given context.

At one point in history, calendars were often measured in accordance with important events. Roman time was usually marked in accordance with the reign of a given emperor, such as fourth year of the reign of Augustus. This tradition continued among the monarchs of Europe after the Roman empire fell. The Western calendar once marked time from the estimated birth of Jesus, though most scholars now place his birth before the start of the current calendar. At some point, as the Western calendar became more prominent throughout the world, the religious trappings were removed to give us “before common era” and “after common era”. Jews maintain their own calendar, in addition to using the Western one, as do Muslims, and other nations, such as China, measure the years differently than those in the West.

It is said that, in writing, the best way to increase tension is to start a countdown, and consistently worrying about the passage of time certainly increases a person’s tension and stress level. For most, time serves as just this sort of stress inducing catalyst, with as many people hating the pressure imposed as there are folks who feel motivated by deadlines or the sense that “time is slipping away”. As with most human-made constructs, there is a great deal of absurdity inherent in creating a method of marking time, only to realize we don’t have enough time to accomplish what we need to do.

Many Eastern philosophies speak of existing “in the moment” and this is, perhaps good advice for us all. In reality, we all exist in the Eternal Present. While we can remember times past, and have the ability to envision a future, what we experience is the here and now. True, there are times when we may feel the passage of minutes and hours, usually while trying to meet some deadline, but it’s also very easy to lose track of time if one is engaged in some endeavor, like reading, writing, or having a stimulating conversation. Just as we often feel enslaved by the clock, we have the ability to turn off our sense of time, as many do by “unplugging” when camping or otherwise on vacation. Oftentimes, when people plan vacations around events, or scheduled activities, they come back feeling just as stressed out as when they went away.

Despite the precise measurement of days, hours, minutes, and seconds provided by the clock and calendar, most people mark time by the events they experience. Most people alive at the time of the Kennedy assassination can relate exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I can still remember where I was when I heard of the Challenger explosion. Personally, we recall births, deaths, marriages, divorces. In such instances, it’s not the calendar which governs the moment; instead, it serves its purpose of being a marker documenting an event. My mother used to remark on how unbelievable it was that so much time had passed from some event she recalled from when she was younger. I’m sometimes amazed when I look back on events like the Olympics, and realize how far I’ve come.

For better or worse, time is a constant in our lives. It serves the purpose it’s intended to serve, but, for many, it can also become an impediment, forcing us to rush toward some imaginary goal, sapping our energy for other, more desirable activities. We should never become so caught up in the so-called “rush of time” that we allow it to dictate our lives. Always be sure to steal a few moments away for oneself.

I wish everyone a healthy and happy 2017.

All Seeing

Amulet with the Eye of Horus. Earthenware, Achaemenid artwork, late 6th–4th centuries BC. From the Tell of the Apadana in Susa. Louvre Museum. Department of Oriental Antiquities, Sully, ground floor, room 14. From the excavations of Jacques de Morgan. Photographer: Marie-Lan Nguyen. From Wikipedia Commons.

Conceptions of God are constantly in flux, which is what yields so many different religions. In Lake Woebegone Days, Garrison Keillor humorously describes numerous disputes among church congregations over the interpretation of scripture which lead to factions developing which cause the congregations to split. Baptists and Methodists primarily disagree over the method of baptism, and Protestants and Catholics split over whether faith alone or good deeds are necessary to ensure salvation. Even the idea of God differs from congregation to congregation, some believing in a vengeful “Old Testament” style deity while others opt for a loving father figure watching over us all.

One thing most believers agree on, however, is the nature of God. A common description is that God is all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful. God knows us better than we know ourselves and knows all that has happened to us and will happen. The idea of an all-knowing God goes back at least to the Egyptians, with their all-seeing eye of Horus watching over everyone. Given this capability, one wonders why so many spend so much time communicating with God, when an all-knowing entity, by definition, should already know anything we’d be likely to tell it. Also, the belief that God knows the future implies that the future is set and if this is the case, this seems to suggest our destinies have been been predetermined by God.

Such a situation makes the quest for salvation almost irrelevant, since God has already decided who’s going to heaven and who isn’t. The problem with a system like this is that if God has predetermined our destinies, we are, necessarily, living according to God’s plan and are not responsible for our behavior. How can we not gain salvation, since we’re only following the plan God has laid out for us? One might argue that Satan can step in and lead us astray, but if so, God should have already taken this into account, since God knows all. If we accept the notion that our lives have been predetermined this leads us to a further dilemma when tragedy occurs. If a plane crashes and everyone on board is killed, is that somehow part of God’s plan, since surely God knew the plane would crash? Perhaps God’s foresight rests not in absolute knowledge of the future but in being able to visualize the possibilities.

There’s a difference between seeing the future and being able to theorize potential outcomes. Each decision we make comes with many potential consequences and it’s nearly impossible for us to anticipate all of them. Perhaps, instead of being able to see what will happen, the entity we call God has the ability to imagine all potential outcomes of a given decision. One wonders, though, why such an entity would waste time and energy imagining what might happen, when all it has to do is wait and see what actually happens. If salvation is a possibility, humans must be free to make their own decisions and therefore predestination can’t factor into the equation. Perhaps the point of the universe is to test unlimited possibilities.

There appears to be no rhyme or reason to it, no cosmic logic to explain it all. Predestination robs us of our free will and calls into question the notion of salvation, since a vital part of that is having the freedom to choose. A future that can’t be anticipated by even God, however, takes away the notion of an all-seeing and all-knowing entity watching over everything we do. In this chaotic universe in which we live, it’s difficult to believe an entity would exist that somehow manages the chaos, while concealing the mechanisms to those who inhabit it unless, of course, observing how the inhabitants manage is part of the plan.

The Cheese Toast Project Now Available!

Cheese Toast Animated Graphic 02My collection of essays, The Cheese Toast Project (ISBN: 978-0-9848913-4-4), is now available in print at online booksellers, and in print and Kindle versions at Amazon.com.

The essays are about family, writing, music, drama, religion, politics, and history. Early drafts appeared on my blog, Raised by Wolves and have since been revised and expanded.