This short autobiography was posted in four parts from December 14-21, 2002, the first month of Real Live Preacher. I’ve never liked it. It was roughly written, and I cringe when I read it. Correction, I cringed when last I read it back in 2004. My editor at Eerdmans agreed that it was rough, but he liked that about it and demanded that we include it in the book. He felt it was unpretentious or something. Maybe so. Offering my opinion on that would introduce paradoxes, so I’ll just smile and say nothing more about it.
I do recall that this was a kind of break-out piece for me. It was linked from blogs all around the world. Years later I still have people asking me about it. In fact, this repost is in response to a request from a professor in North Carolina who uses it for a class and found that it had disappeared when he went to the URL to retrieve it for this semester.
So, professor, here it is.
The preacher’s story part one: I am a strange mix
The preacher grew up in a devout Baptist family in Texas. Some of you are imagining a domineering father and endless hours of religious abuse punctuated with occasional beatings.
I have a great family. My parents were and are gentle Christians who put a premium on living a Christ-like life and helping the poor. We lived near the border, and my parents were actively involved with a group of Christians who were constantly throwing their resources at the piteous poverty that co-existed with us just on the other side of the Rio Grande.
I spent a lot of time in Mexico as a young boy. The preacher knows the mingled smells of outhouses, kerosene, and poverty. It’s something you never forget.
One year during a bitter cold spell my father and his friends showed up at the border with a load of blankets and coats. The forecast was for temperatures well below freezing that night, and they knew a lot of families were going to be cold. The Mexican government forbade them from entering. Some bureaucratic bullshit, I guess.
My dad said his kinder, gentler equivalent of “fuck it” and became a smuggler on the spot. He and the others made numerous trips across the border that day in different cars with blankets, food, and jackets crammed under the seats and hidden in the trunks.
My dad felt that one’s calling to serve God was higher than one’s calling to obey the law. For Christ’s sake, he and his friends couldn’t let children freeze.
“For Christ’s sake” packs a punch when you mean it literally.
My family went to services 3 and 4 times a week. Ours was a nice church filled with good people who cherished one another. I enjoyed being a part of the community and learned to love Jesus in that place. These were the Christian people who nurtured me and taught me my faith.
I came to understand that it was the teachings of that same Jesus that led my parents to fight poverty and want in the border town.
There was a leeetle problem though. Early on it became apparent that something was different about me. I couldn’t make myself believe some parts of the bible. I was a natural born skeptic.
When told the “Noah and the Ark” story in Sunday School, I quickly figured out that two of every kind of animal would not fit on one boat. No one else seemed to be doing the math. I could no more believe the ark story than I could believe the sky was green. I wanted to believe. Believing seemed nice, but I couldn’t. I COULD NOT.
I felt strange and out of place because everyone else at church seemed to believe everything.
I kept my “believing problem” to myself because I thought something was wrong with me.
Thus was born the strange dichotomy that has become the Preacher. A passionate love for Christ and his teachings mingled with a fierce skepticism that would only grow stronger as I grew older.
Part two: college, seminary, and disillusionment
I felt “the call” to ministry after high school. Let’s just say I had a strong desire to be of service to God, and I wanted to learn more about the now troublesome bible.
I went to a University and majored in Religious Studies with minors in Greek and Philosophy. Except for the philosophy, that’s a standard “pre-seminary” degree. Eye opening time! I discovered most serious bible scholars had moved beyond a simplistic reading of scripture.
The bottom line: Not everything in the bible should be taken literally, and, more importantly, not everything in the bible applies to MY life.
After college I spent four years in seminary studying further. I managed to work out my problems with scripture and now believe the bible won’t cause insurmountable problems for anyone willing to study it with integrity.
I was, however, experiencing disillusionment of another kind. The source of this new trouble was my growing dissatisfaction with a lot of the Christian people I was meeting.
Sometimes it seemed Christian people literally took leave of their senses. Once I was at a gathering with Christians who were singing some kind of spiritual song. One of the lines included this hideous phrase, “I’ve never seen God’s children begging for bread.”
I was sickened. “What about those kids I saw in Mexico”? Were they suggesting those hungry kids were not God’s children? I decided these people were living in a dream world. All they wanted to do was sing songs about Jesus and pretend the world was wonderful. The world IS wonderful, but it also contains great evil and sadness.
It seemed to me that many Christians saw what they wanted to see. They needed the world to fit easily into their categories.
Over the 8 years of my formal theological education, I encountered many such examples of Christians who, I felt, were not living honest and authentic lives.
By the time I was out of school and ready to be an employed minister, I was having some serious problems with the church. That’s not good. My options were pretty much “minister” or “you want fries with that?”
I believed then and still believe that many Christians are not honest about their own failings, sins, and disappointments. Like Martha Stewart, they try to sell a sugary, imaginary world of happiness to people who are hurting and looking for real answers.
I believed then and still believe that many Christians use manipulative techniques in order to gain converts. Converts are counted and boasted about. I shit you not. They wouldn’t call it boasting, but that’s what it is. Retch!
I believed then and still believe that many Christians have created a sub-culture with it’s own language, customs, and myths. Ministers even have their own dialect and hairdos. Weird. This sub-culture is really more about worshipping America than God, more about achieving than receiving, more about competition than grace. The problem with a religious sub-culture is no one else “gets it”, and you are isolated from the world you are called to SERVE.
I became increasingly disgusted with the institutional and bureaucratic nature of churches. It seemed to me that many churches were worshipping the idols of wealth, power, and prestige. It seemed to me that many churches existed solely to support the Christian sub-culture.
I could write for an hour about each of these, but the Preacher counts brevity as a virtue.
In spite of these troubles, I still believed that something beautiful was possible for the Church. I dreamed of finding a small community of people, dedicated to Christ and to bringing God’s love to the world. These people would be bold enough to live authentic lives and not be tied to a Christian sub-culture.
I would say I longed for a spiritual journey and not a religious assimilation.
Part Three: dark night of the soul
After seminary I started a chaplain internship. The program was called “Clinical Pastoral Education”, sometimes referred to as “Tear the Young Minister a New One.”
I trundled my candy-ass, educated self to the hospital. I was fresh out of seminary and used to sitting around talking about higher criticism.
This hospital gig was just the kick in the ass I needed.
You see, people facing death don’t give a fuck about your interpretation of II Timothy. Some take the “bloodied, but unbowed” road, but most dying people want to pray with the chaplain. And they don’t want weak-ass prayers either. They don’t want you to pray that God’s will be done.
Hell no. People want you to get down and dirty with them. They want to call down angels and the powers of the Almighty. THEY ARE DYING and the whole world should stop.
I threw myself into it. I prayed holding hands and cradling heads. I prayed with children and old men. I prayed with a man who lost his tongue to cancer. I lent him mine. I prayed my ass off. I had 50 variations of every prayer you could imagine, one hell of a repertoire.
I started noticing something. When the doctors said someone was going to die, they did. When they said 10% chance of survival, about 9 out of 10 died. The odds ran pretty much as predicted by the doctors. I mean, is this praying doing ANYTHING?
I’m sophisticated enough to understand the value of human contact, but prayer is supposed to affect the outcome, right?
I began to feel the “ping” of a tiny hammer, tapping away at my faith.
Then I met Jenny.
30 something. Cute. New mother with two little kids. Breast cancer. Found it too late. Spread all over. Absolutely going to die.
Jenny had only one request. “I know I’m going to die, chaplain. I need time to finish this. It’s for my kids. Pray with me that God will give me the strength to finish it.”
She showed me the needlepoint pillow she was making for her children. It was an “alphabet blocks and apples” kind of thing. She knew she would not be there for them. Would not drop them off at kindergarten, would not see baseball games, would not help her daughter pick out her first bra. No weddings, no grandkids. Nothing.
She had this fantasy that her children would cherish this thing – sleep with it, snuggle it. Someday it might be lovingly put on display at her daughter’s wedding. Perhaps there would be a moment of silence. Some part of her would be there.
I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed. Jesus, this was the kind of prayer you could believe in. We were like idiots and fools.
A couple of days later I went to see her only to find the room filled with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.
As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.
Ping. The hammer fell and preacher came tumbling after.
It’s funny, when your faith finally caves, it goes all at once. You realize you were just a shell held together with hackneyed rituals and desperate hopes. You are not strong. You do not have answers.
I don’t remember the walk back to the office. I must have had the classic, “Young chaplain just got the shit kicked out of him” look because people left me alone.
I looked in the restroom mirror and said, “I do not believe in God.” I knew this was the truth and felt the need to say it out loud. I was on the other side now. I was an unbeliever. It was like waking up in Tokyo and noticing to your great surprise that you’ve become Japanese. You weren’t raised in Japan, and you have no idea how to use chopsticks. What the hell are you gonna do with yourself?
It wasn’t the experience with Jenny that caused my break with God. It was the kids in Mexico, my difficulty in believing parts of the bible, the phony Christians I met along the way, and the hundreds of prayers that seemed unanswered. Jenny was just the last ping of a hammer that had been working on my foundation for a long time.
St. John of the Cross calls it “The Dark Night of the Soul.” He says those seeking God will walk the paths of others but eventually those paths will end and there will be no path. They will be left with “Nada, Nada, Nada.” Nothing, Nothing, Nothing.
It broke my heart. I grieved in joint and marrow. My reptilian brain cried. I was sad all the way to the bottom.
Part four: the preacher is out of his tiny mind
I received an email from someone puzzled about the grief I experienced when I gave up on God. This person felt liberated when she left Christianity.
I understand how some would feel that way. Many of you only know Christianity from bad books, TV preachers, and the people who watch them. If that were all I knew of Christianity I would celebrate my liberation from it all the days of my life.
But I was exposed early to the real stuff – Top Shelf Christianity – Deep and Old Christianity. This kind is practiced by people who work until they stink and take life in great draughts. Their hands are as rough as their hides, and they DO their faith in secret, hiding their good works in obedience to Christ. They know how to love and be loved in return. Their laughter is loud and has its roots in joy.
These Christians don’t want your money and they don’t advertise. You will only find them if you MUST find them. These are the ones who took me to Mexico as a boy and showed me pain and joy. They hid nothing from me.
I was also blessed by being exposed to the right kind of Christian thinkers. C.S Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkein. Frederick Buechner, Carlyle Marney, and Thomas Merton. Will Campbell who wrote “Brother to a Dragonfly” and Eberhard Arnold. Frederick Dale Bruner and Martin Luther King Jr.
You did understand there was more to this than religious TV and the drivel they sell in those awful Christian bookstores, right? After all, Christianity didn’t sustain itself for twenty centuries by shitting Hallmark cards before a live studio audience.
Hell yes, I grieved. I thought not “believing” in God meant losing this life and, worse, losing these people.
I decided not to give up without a fight. I can be a stubborn son-of-a-bitch. I sought answers. I read the good stuff and talked with the good people.
I learned some things. I found my way.
Turns out Christianity is an Eastern religion. The earliest Christians were Hebrews. Semites. People of the East. They did not know how to separate mind from body. They were holistic before holistic was cool.
In our world we have separated mind from body to our great loss. Here a man may betray his wife and neglect his children, but say he loves them “down inside”.
Bullshit. There is no “down inside.” Love is something you do, not something you feel.
Likewise, we think having faith means being convinced God exists in the same way we are convinced a chair exists. People who cannot be completely convinced of God’s existence think faith is impossible for them.
Not so. People who doubt can have great faith because faith is something you do, not something you think. In fact, the greater your doubt the more heroic your faith.
I learned that it doesn’t matter in the least that I be convinced of God’s existence. Whether or not God exists is none of my business, really. What do I know of existence? I don’t even know how the VCR works.
What does matter is whether or not I am faithful. I think faithful is a hell of a good word. It still has some of its original shine. It still calls us to action.
Once I stumbled upon this very old truth, I prayed the most honest prayer of my life.
God, I don’t have great faith, but I can be faithful. My belief in you may be seasonal, but my faithfulness will not. I will follow in the way of Christ. I will act as though my life and the lives of others matter. I will love.
I have no greater gift to offer than my life. Take it.
That’s it. I pushed all my chips across the table. The preacher bet it all. Why? Because the idea that there is a God who cares for us busts my heart wide open. Because I pushed reason as far as it can go but I wanted to go farther still. Because I wanted to, and… well… I just wanted to.
I’m an idiot and out of my mind, and I don’t care who knows it. Sue me.
“And what does the Lord require of you, O man, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” Micah 6:6
I’ve been working this simple spiritual program for 16 years now. I seek to be faithful to what my tradition teaches me about God. I fall short much of the time. I ask forgiveness and move on.
After 16 years God gave me two gifts.
Prayer became a joy again. I sit in silence more than I speak nowadays. I’ve been known to sneak into churches and take naps in the pews. I know it sounds crazy, but it feels like God is watching me when I nap in church, and I like that.
Sometimes I “feel” that God exists. After all this time, that’s nice, but not necessary anymore.
My old demons still haunt me. Voices whisper to me on dark nights, saying, “You know there is no God. You’re wasting your life and you are a fool.”
I hear the voices, but they have very little power because you know I’m not going to stop now.