Even as is was becoming increasingly clear there would no be chance for any kind of wholeness without leaving the church, there were many moments I wasn’t sure if I was ready to step into the void—into the deep black unknowing. The last few chords of any sense of control over my life were snapping all around me, but I still didn’t know quite how to walk away. I think somewhere deep within I knew that leaving the church I planted eight years before would not just be leaving a job, but in many ways leaving the first half of my life.
I remember thinking about my childhood favorite film, The Neverending Story, especially the scenes where you could see “the nothing,” the shadowy void, consuming the land of Fantasia. I couldn’t quite tell if I was watching the Nothing slowly eat away everything I had loved about my old life, or if I myself was the Nothing — if I myself was the hungry abyss. I had kept the rules all my life until now, and been reasonably successful at everything I had ever tried to do. But now everything I touched wasn’t turning to gold, but to ashes.
I had always harbored a secret, irrational fear that I was somehow uniquely wicked, and somehow destined for damnation. And that when I basically had not known what it was to do anything seriously wrong! I wondered if there was a kind of inevitability to watching my world burn while holding the matches. I kept thinking about Johnny Cash’s haunting rendition of “Hurt,” especially hearing the man in black sing, “What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the end. You can have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt.” I wondered if I’d have anybody left if I survived the storm at all. I certainly did not know if God would be there for me, if God could be there.
For all the ways I had preached a gospel of grace, and was genuinely convinced of the truth of it for others, my own relationship with God had always been a kind of uneasy one. It was always easier for me to speak about God than to speak to Him — maybe that is true for most of us? I don’t know. I just know that it was a very different thing to try to cling to the lifeline rope in the high seas that were drowning me than it had been to be the one holding out the rope.
the friend of sinners
Christians often speak casually about “friendship with God.” One day I was sitting in the little condo I had temporarily, shriveled away from everything and everyone I cared about — often going three days at a time without seeing anyone I knew. And out of nowhere, I thought about the phrase used in the gospels to describe Jesus, sometimes derisively from his critics — “the friend of sinners.” And somehow the word “friend” just broke me in two.
For me there is always something sweet, almost childlike about the word “friend.” “Friend” was a word that somehow put me in mind of things I thought of as gentle as a child, things I thought of as purely good. I was a soft-hearted kid. I thought of all puppies as “friends.” I loved puppets in general and muppets in particular — I thought of Kermit and Miss Piggy and Gonzo as friends, and as my friends. When I was six, they showed a movie at youth camp about this sweet guy who had a puppet ministry. Some mean teenagers broke into his workshop at night, and vandalized the puppets. The point of the little movie was the mean kids felt bad later and asked Jesus into their hearts, and became good kids. But I never got past the idea that there was anybody out there who could stand to hurt a puppet, and had nightmares about it. Now I was the mean kid who hurt the puppets, who hurt all the friends, and I didn’t know how to live with it.
I was old enough now to know that friendship was a holy thing too, especially when I read descriptions of it in antiquity, from the likes of Thomas Aquinas. I knew it too as a terrible word, especially when offered as an unlimited, irrevocable love and loyalty all the way up into the end. It is Jesus in the garden, eyes full of tenderness, not a taste of sarcasm on his tongue when he says to Judas, “Friend, do what you came here to do.”
Despite my ability to think about God and write about God and speak about God in intimate ways, I never quite knew how to relate to that God as “friend.” With hot tears rolling in waves down my cheeks, I remember saying out loud, “Jesus, I hear that you are the friend of sinners. I’ve never been good at being with friends with much of anyone it seems, and I sure enough don’t know how to be friends with you. But if it’s the sinners that you are friends with, I know now for a fact that is what I am, and I sure you could use a friend like you right now if you would have me.” I needed to know friend Jesus. I needed to know I had not run him off. I hoped I wasn’t big enough to run him off.
Some of the worst moments were the ones where I somehow knew he was still around, maybe that if anything the wreckage of my heart had pulled him deeper into it. I see now the folly of people thinking God is punitive ogre who is out to get sinners for their misdeeds, that wrath is the “other side” of God that somehow balances out the love that is what God actually is. That god is a deity with a personality disorder — he’s the Batman villain “Two-face,” where one side is pretty and one side a horror show. Christians are only supposed to only focus on the beautiful side and not look at the ugly one, because of course if we saw Him for the monster that He might actually be, there is no way we could worship a being like that. I know now that is all wrong. The God who is fully revealed in Jesus Christ is love and only love. But to look at that divine gaze from a place of guilt, the love is experienced as wrath. The love has not changed, but our perspective on it has changed — we now see through a glass darkly, not face-to-face.
I never will forget reading the Dominican priest Herbert McCabe’s astonishing sermon “forgiveness” on the prodigal son, where he says that is what sin does to us — it does not change God, but it changes our view of him, so that we cannot help but see him through a distorted lens. Hell then would be to be stuck in that horrible view of God as ogre, not allowing him to heal our eyes so we could see him rightly, and unable to snap out of our heart’s drunken haze. These were things that I knew, things that I believed, that I had preached and taught.
But looking up from my own place of desolation, I didn’t know how to see Him at all, and I could only see myself as “the nothing.” What we see when we see God always determines how we will see ourselves. We are always made in the image of the God that we see.
One day I was sitting on the bed, and began to pray for everyone else in my life that I loved, including the ones I felt estranged from. As I prayed the things that came up inside me, I could not seem to help but pray specifically for God’s hand to be on each one of them. And then came an unexpected river of lava, coming from somewhere even deeper, moving from praying to screaming. “But whatever you do, please take your hand off of me. Please just LEAVE ME ALONE. Please let go of me. Please, please, please just let me go. Please let me be.”
standing over the edge
There was another day while still on my kamikaze mission to repair my heart and life in the context of pastoral ministry where I was in a series of back-to-back meetings, and I kept feeling I was running out of breath. I kept smiling and nodding politely, but I was getting more scared with each new episode. The last meeting of my day was with a girl from Iowa who had come into town just to visit our church. I talked with her for a few minutes, and then excused myself. I ran outside, hoping somehow there was more oxygen out there than there was inside, and still didn’t feel like I could fill my lungs. I went to the emergency room, thinking surely there was something medically wrong with me. They did all the tests — nothing wrong so far as they could see, certainly not a heart attack. I wished there were at the time, just so I could know that there was something wrong with me that a doctor or medication could fix. Or maybe even not be fixed at all, so long as I could check into a hospital and out of my life.
The next morning, I had another terribly difficult conversation with someone close, and I was right back in the same state of anxiety. I was tired of being out of breath, feeling dizzy, having a high-pitched, squealing ring in my ears as much as I was. Stupidly, I got in my car and drove to nearby Crowder’s mountain, out of my mind with guilt and grief. I climbed the mountain, as I had done hundreds of times before. I went to the edge of the rock at the top, and I stared into the gorge — unmoved by the beauty of any of the things around me. In my head, I thought there was no way I could jump off that mountain. I knew it was a selfish act that would only punish the people I loved, and I would never want that. But I also was not in my right mind. Like never before in my life, I did not feel fully in control of my faculties. It was like hot pain was animating me, moving my limbs. I was consumed by it. I could not see hope, I could not see a future — which is a way of saying I could not see God. I was staring into the abyss, and all I wanted in that moment was let the darkness overtake me. Anything to just not feel anymore.
I looked at my phone, thought about who I’d text or call to say goodbye if that was what I ever had to do. Amanda texted to check on me, which I will be forever grateful for. At first I did not respond; I could not respond. But slowly I started to come out of the fog, started to come back to my senses.
There was no explicit experience with God. But I do think that day there was an experience of something God placed within us, though I’m not sure if it is more human or animal. Somehow when I walked down the mountain, I knew I was going to live, even though I did not know how to live anymore. I knew I had to live. I knew I would fight to live. I knew that no matter where the fuel came from, whether the substance was light or dark, there was still some kind of coal being shoveled into my engine, and that one way or the other the train still runs — into heaven, into hell, or more of this no man’s land in-between. I had no better idea of where my life was going or what I was going to become. Just that I had to stay in the game, and that I wasn’t bowing out for anybody.
That would have been one way of jumping into the void, not into the ambiguity but just the darkness. From somewhere in me, the animal defiance came up that says “I may feel like dying, but I actually don’t want to die.” But that did not mean the void would not have to be crossed, or that there was not a yet a kind of void I was going to have to take a dive into.
The abyss I would have to plunge into was a kind of unknowing. It was a loss of control, it was “someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” There was going to be no going around that abyss, and to jump into the other one would just be cheating. The gambler in me still wanted to play the hand, win or lose.
into the pool
A few weeks later, I took the dive I did have to take. It was a terrible thing to meet with our leaders and friends in the Church to tell them what we were doing. Some were encouraging, some were hurt, some were angry. I was more or less impervious to any of that by then, because I knew that even there was hell left ahead of me it would be better than the one I was leaving behind. I could not be a damn ghost haunting the halls of that building anymore. The animal in me had put his foot down.
My last few sermons were probably my best — they were full of heart and passion and truth. They were not noble — nobility was not an option from anywhere that I was, they just were what they had to be under the circumstances. But the rawness of them was killing me too. It is one thing to try to make your pain available to God and others in a vulnerable way as a wound for God to heal others, and I do believe that is how God works. But it is another thing to become an exhibition, to feel like people are watching you like a science experiment. Like when I put my G.I.Joe’s in the microwave when I was a kid as the ultimate torture chamber, just to see what would happen to them (spoiler alert: they caught on fire and melted into a red plastic pool of goo). I loved our people, but I didn’t care about doing any of that anymore. Another reason I had to go.
I had especially dreaded telling my parents that I was leaving. I was a third- generation Church of God preacher. The church was ten minutes away from my Dad’s house where he would soon retire, and he had an office there down the hall from mine. All along, he had wanted me so desperately to find a way to stay. I felt like leaving would be extinguishing his dream, and didn’t want to feel like more of a disappointment. But to my surprise my Mom and Dad were very supportive. They had seen me bleeding out, and they didn’t want that for me. If it would take leaving the church to find wholeness, then that is what they wanted for me.
It all felt so strange. I had been in full-time ministry since I was 22 years old. I had been thrust immediately into the role of expert on God before I knew anything about God or life or how the world worked, really. Some people thought I was some kind of prodigy as a speaker, but whether or not I was a prodigy, I had not had the time or space to develop my own soul. I didn’t care anymore about whether or not I was good at any of the things I had set out to do, I just wanted to figure out how to be a human being. I wanted to figure out how to live out of my soul rather than out of my head. I did not want to be separate from anybody else, set apart from anybody else by virtue of what I did for a living. I wanted to be a real boy.
Barbara Brown Taylor is one of my favorite writers, and I read her lovely, lyrical Leaving Church years before. But knowing that I must leave, I reread it, and this time it was like ingesting fire. They spoke so hot into my soul, it was like they came down from Sinai. There is this one section in particular where Taylor writes about being at a pool party hosted by someone in the church, and feeling the ache of being other than the people there in ways she could not bear. She tells about sitting down with a couple in adjacent rocking chairs that she was never able to enjoy, because her priority was always to be the people who were in crisis. She tells about laughing with them, while corn is stuck in her teeth. And then the section that made life bubble up in my veins, the section that felt like salvation:
After my supper had settled I wandered down to the pool, where I watched swimming children splitting beams of underwater light with their bodies. I had baptized many of them, and I loved seeing them all shrieking and paddling around together in one big pool. Suddenly to my right there was a deeper yell, the sound of scrabbling feet on cement, and then a large plop as a fully clothed adult landed in the water.
I stood back and watched the mayhem that ensued. All around me, people were grabbing people and wrestling them toward the water. The dark night air was full of pool spray and laughter. The kids were going crazy. Several people hunting for potential victims turned toward me, their faces lit with smiles. When they saw who I was they turned away again so that I felt sad instead of glad. Whatever changes were occurring inside of me, I still looked waterproof to them. Like the sick man in John’s gospel, who lay by the pool of Beth-zatha for thirty-eight years because he had no one to put him in when the water stirred up, I watched others plunging in ahead of me. Then two strong hands grabbed my upper arms from behind, and before I knew it I was in the water, fully immersed and swimming in light.
I never found out who my savior was, but when I broke the surface, I looked around at all of those shining people with makeup running down their cheeks, with hair plastered to their heads, and I was so happy to be one of them. If being ordained meant being set apart from them, then I did not want to be ordained anymore. I wanted to be human. I wanted to spit food and let snot run down my chin. I wanted to confess being as lost and found as anyone else without caring that my underwear showed through my wet clothes. Bobbing in that healing pool with all those other flawed beings of light, I looked around and saw them as I had never seen them before, while some of them looked at me the same way. The long wait had come to an end. I was in the water at last.
I love that section for so many reasons. One of the things that moved me most at the time was the way that Taylor, a literary genius, subtly plays with the motif of baptism here. Water is integral to life, to new birth. There has always been a mysterious connection between the sea, in antiquity the place of chaos and mystery, and the void of Genesis 1. There is no new life without passing through the waters, like the Hebrews marching through the Red Sea as God parted them. In the New Testament, there is no new life without joining Jesus in the watery grave. Once again, Christianity is the religion of going-through-and-not-around. I had talked about it for so long. Now it was my turn to jump into the pool.
into the watery grave
It was Easter Sunday at Renovatus. I preached on the first words of Jesus when he appeared to the disciples after his resurrection: “do not be afraid.” I said that I thought you could sum up the whole of God’s message to human throughout Scripture and throughout history — do not be afraid. I told them these are words that are spoken when it would seem to us that we have every reason in the world to be afraid. That God speaks them when He is about to do something new. And in the midst of this sermon on death and resurrection…I announced that I was leaving. Only our leaders knew we were leaving before that service. Like “The Grinch who Stole Christmas,” I felt like I was the pastor who stole Easter.
Of course I felt ridiculous announcing my departure on the Sunday with the biggest attendance of the year, when everybody has dressed up and brought their friends. But I was not going to keep grabbing every rung of the ladder on the way down, trying to salvage the unsalvageable. I was not going to stay plugged into the ventilator. The only message that I could preach was the only message my life could be at that point, and was the message of death and resurrection.
I knew that even though I would be there one more week, it had to be my last sermon. It just had to be. I could not drag the ending out any further. I was in every sense of the word done. I was Pharaoh not letting my true self go, and in doing so feeling every plague in my body. I said I would be there the next Sunday for a transition service, but I would not preach again. The message of death and resurrection had finally grabbed a hold of me, not in the way it grabs a hold of a preacher but in the way it grabs a hold of a man. I had no idea what I was walking into. I was stepping into a starless night. I only knew it was time to cash in all my chips on the hope that resurrection could be a better existence than the one I was sort of maintaining. I knew it was time.
At the end of both services, I baptized people for the last time at this church I had founded and given my life too. I felt the holiness of each of them as I gently handled wet bodies, the tour guide for their own descent. In the 9am service, I was almost done baptizing people, when Heather Shelton came out of her pew as if she was in a trance. Her lips were quivering, her face contorted in anguish. It was her father Herman who we had buried just a few weeks before, and everything about his early departure was filled with ambiguity. It had been a torturous ride for Heather, the ordeal of her father’s fall, the many hours in the hospital, the celebration that he was better and resuming normal life, the second tragic turn that led to his death, the weight of the decision to pull the plug.
Heather kicked her flip-flops off when she got down front, and practically threw her cell phone onto the stage. As she took off her glasses and I helped her into the pool, it was not the cherubic look of a new convert on her face, excited about new faith in Jesus. It was a mix of resignation, heartbreak, an almost angry determination, and yet a kind of hope too that if she could jump into the river that carries us toward death, there could be new life for her too. Already, my nerves were jangled and my heart tender, the day being what it was. But baptizing Heather that day was something other entirely — I can’t bear to not capitalize that. It was something Other.
It was my last opportunity to perform one of the sacraments I most held dear, to wash my hands in the holiness of God’s sons and daughters. Heaven was skidding into the ground, and the people just kept coming and coming.
By the time I finally got done baptizing people at the second service, I looked to my right at Teddy Hart. Teddy was our staff pastor. He was protégé and one of my closest friends. He had been with me since year one, transitioning from a life more or less biding his time in Cleveland, TN to becoming an extraordinary preacher, pastor and friend. A sensitive soul, Teddy’s eyes were already red from all the tears he shed that morning.
“Teddy…do we have time for one more?”
Since it was Easter, I was wearing a suit and tie. I did not bother to change, I only took off my shoes. And I joined my people in the abyss. I loved them, and I didn’t want to miss my one and only remaining opportunity to jump into the pool with them. I didn’t have anybody else to baptize. My last official act as a pastor was already done. I was going to the pool not as anybody’s priest, but as one of them.
The water was cold. My heart was hot. Baptism has a celebratory aspect, but I had no delusions that those moments were anything less than my own little funeral. I did not yet know what kind of man I would become when I got out of the water. I had no idea what my life would become. Like the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, I only knew that angels had been in this water, and wanted my broken down body in the pool, in the wake of them.
The life I had built was over. Everything I had been, I was no longer. I had no sense that the water of baptism would make me something more, like they’d turn me from Clark Kent into Superman. But could they turn me into something human? Like Barbara Brown Taylor, I wanted in the water because I wanted to embrace my full humanity in the company of my friends, vaguely aware that becoming more human is to have the image of God in us renewed.
Teddy held his hand over my nose. I felt his tears on my head. He could barely get out the words: “Pastor…I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.” I took the plunge. When I came up, I clutched him like I was drowning rather than being baptized. I suppose in a sense I actually was, maybe they were always the same thing anyway.
I heard my friends weeping all around me. We all knew this was goodbye