“I saw Satan fall like lightning,” Jesus said. If only we could be so lucky. Only Satan fell like lightning, the rest of us fall much more slowly, hitting every step on the way down.
My first conversion
Walking into the pale yellow forest that was the hospital, I thought the fluorescent lights turned them into the color of tobacco-stained teeth. I felt my stomach contort unnaturally, like a circus act. I was twenty-one, just married, and suffering was an exotic land I had no reason to visit as of yet. I was a tourist, a first-time guest, and this was the first stamp on my passport. Nothing about the place felt familiar to me.
An hour before, I had listened to the breathless voicemail from Angela, one of my best friends in high school. I knew her father, Henry (not their real names), had HIV for years. In recent months, his body gave way to full-blown AIDS, and he was dying. So I left my home country for the first time for the sake of my friend. Just before I knocked on the door, I took a deep breath to let my nerves settle.
Angela opened the door and embraced me, tightly. To me, the middle class product of conservative, tent revival religion, she was the epitome of cool. Her mom was a playwright. Even when we were in high school, she was on a first name basis with all the local black politicians. She had introduced me to people like former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, who ran unsuccessfully against our infamous Senator Jesse Helms, and congressman Mel Watt. When she graduated from college, she got her picture taken at the after party with Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Maya Angelou. She had helped open me up to radical new ideas, like that democrats were not necessarily going to roast in a low-level of Dante’s inferno. We had lived through some things, but I had never seen her hurt like this.
Releasing her, I took Henry in slowly, his dark black skin stretched thin over brittle bones. The healthy forty-something I saw the last time I was with him had been replaced with a skeleton man.
Angela quickly introduced me to Diane, the social worker who had been helping him. We exchanged pleasantries, and they caught me up on Harold’s decline in the last few days. He was unconscious and pumped full of morphine. It was only a matter of time, the doctor had said. They were just trying to keep him “comfortable.” The farewell vigil was crawling forward, and there was nothing to do but keep watch until his body gave up its long protest with death.
A few minutes later, Diane said she needed to go outside for a smoke, and Angela and I followed her out. Not for a smoke, mind you. I had never tasted alcohol or tobacco, and might not have cussed if I had smashed my thumb with a hammer. Angela was my progressive friend, but I was all old-time religion. Diane found out I was planning to go into the ministry, and she was elated. Because as it turned out, this chain-smoking angel with the short hair and crooked teeth loved some Jesus.
If I barely passed through customs into the land of pain, I was equally unfamiliar with the territory Diane inhabited. She was irreverent, bawdy, and funny as hell. During the next three days while the three of us kept watch in the little island of pain, I was utterly delighted by her. Diane’s ease with profanity was matched by her ease with talking Bible, and I equally impressed with both. She talked about that story where Jesus “whipped everybody’s asses in the temple.” And the story where Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery, and in her words, “wrote every single last one of those motherfuckers’ sins in the dirt.”
I didn’t judge Diane, but I felt under a kind of gentle judgment being with her. Not because she was anything less than loving — Diane’s profane language was baptized in unconditional love you could feel all around her. I just felt self-conscious about my one-night stand with suffering, around a woman who’d been in such a long, monogamous relationship with it. Diane spent her life with people like Henry for very little pay. She was with people who hurt because it was the life she chose on purpose. Her life more resembled the kind of selfless life I read about in the gospels than that of people like me, and my sheltered little brain just didn’t know exactly what to do with that.
For three days, we laughed together, cried together, and held each other like three little Eskimos, keeping the cold of the night at bay. There were moments of terror as Henry’s body rebelled against him, breaking into convulsions like I had only seen on the pale blue carpet at campmeeting, hillbilly Pentecostal that I was. There was no resurrection on the third day, just the sweet release of man in great pain finally letting go of his runaway body.
The Catholic funeral was a sea of black faces. It was equal parts liturgy and shout. I had never witnessed anything like it — the ancient rhythms of the old words with the thumping rhythm of our bodies in the church. It felt alive, authentic, sensual. I don’t know how much I recognized of the Spirit in those days, my senses yet a lump of clay not yet by the strong hands of pain or the warm hands of joy. But I recognized the Spirit that day — she moved through us like a dance, her steps both heavy and light.
I didn’t have the ecclesial stripes to officiate such a service, and wouldn’t have been ready for the holiness of such a thing anyway. But Angela was kind enough to ask me to do the New Testament reading in the service. I felt their dance lilting through me when I read the words. I got done, closed my Bible, and took three steps toward my seat, before I turned around and went back to the podium — remembering what the guy who did the Old Testament reading did at the end. Leaning into the microphone tentatively, I said “The word of the Lord.”
“THE WORD OF THE LORD,” they thundered back.
I never saw Diane again after the graveside service. She hugged me tightly, and I couldn’t believe how much the smell of her cigarettes felt like home to me after just those three days we spent together. She told me what a fine young man I was, that if I ever started a church in the area, it would be a church she felt like she could actually attend. I felt the sincerity in her words, but they undid me. I went back to the little apartment in rural Kings Mountain, NC where Amanda and I lived, the renovated barn loft over so far as I know the town’s only porn studio (these were humble times). I buried my nose into the covers on our bed and sobbed. The time in the hospital and at the funeral had been holy as an Easter mass, but it was the first time I knew I didn’t have any business leading anybody’s church yet.
I was 21 years old, and had prayed to ask Jesus into my heart in the altar of at least half of the thousands of church services I had already been to. But that was the moment of my first conversion.
Go tell it on the mountain
There are moments in life holy enough to brand us, the angels pressing the iron of love into us like holy cattle. Such moments don’t so much give us new belief systems, per se — those are less permanent, more like temporary tattoos. When the divine touches us, we aren’t given a new way of thinking so much as a new way of seeing. That is of course what Christianity has always been — not a fragile belief system to compete with the others, but a different way of seeing God and others, that, once glimpsed, is hard to un-see.
But that is not to say it can’t be done. Holy experiences are hard, dense, substantive — they don’t evaporate because we get around the common or the profane. They are waterproof and bulletproof, and will survive almost anything…except to speak of them too much. Talking too much about them will erode them the way the elements of life, of wind and sun and rain, never could.
Reluctantly, the call that took hold of my father and grandfather fell on me, and I inherited the family business. I was talking about Jesus full-time for a living, without Diane’s profanity, and maybe without her orientation in real-life, too. When you’re peddling religion like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, what else should you talk about if not your conversion?
I told about Henry and Diane every where I went, in the little rural Church of God congregations where I learned to preach, and in the mid-sized church in Gastonia, NC where I soon after went to work. I was a youth pastor. I had lunch with students at their high schools, organized the occasional lock-in, and when given the microphone, talked about Jesus like nobody’s business.
Soon after my experience with Henry, I read the story in Acts where Philip, an orthodox Jew who became a leading man in the fledgling Jesus movement, was taken by the Spirit from preaching to the crowds, into the desert. There he meets an Ethiopian eunuch, a man ethnically and religiously very much unlike him. According to Levitical law, this foreigner who mutilated himself for a place in his Queen’s high court would have been ceremonially unclean. According to Philip’s religious culture, the man’s sex organ was mutilated, but he could not deny the purity of the foreigner’s heart. Riding in his chariot, the man had been reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, his heart as hot as the desert road they had been traveling. When Philip explained that the figure in the ancient texts was Jesus of Nazareth, the eunuch received it as happily as Philip once had. As soon as they saw found a little water off the road, the eunuch insisted being baptized.
I felt like a young Philip, having all my preconceptions about who God should act upon shattered on my own desert road. Like Philip, I took a detour from the fire of the revival service, and found the fire on a dark-skinned foreigner — and found the Spirit to be more powerfully present there than under the tent where we had campmeeting. I never had the convulsions other people had on the ground beneath me in the altar services, but I saw God in Harold’s shaking body, and I was determined to tell the people in my world what I saw and heard.
In the sermon, I didn’t just talk about Philip and the eunuch — I talked about Jesus. Jesus, the friend of tax collectors and whores. Jesus, the friend of the outcasts and the misfits. The Jesus who defied the purity codes, refusing to acquiesce to the idea that anybody or anything he would ever touch could somehow make him less holy, instead infusing holiness into everything and everybody he ever touched. There was something in me that burst into flame every time I preached that sermon.
There was a rage in me too, because I knew that what I encountered in the text and in Harold’s heaving body rebelled against the kind of fundamentalism that often became entrenched in the circles I ran in. But I was smart enough not to make any of the particular points clear enough to get myself kicked out of the synagogue, and nobody felt like they could argue with the Bible. Especially since that sermon brought out an anger and an edge in me that was generally synonymous in our tradition with “the anointing.” If you were confident and a little bit pissed, then the Spirit was surely on you. I had passion if nothing else, and the “the anointing” turned me from Clark Kent into Superman — at least for 45 minutes a week.
My heart felt soft in those days. Even before the experience with Henry, I had enough friends of different cultures and backgrounds that I had long thought of even my most different friends as “my people.” I would not have hurt any of them. But in my own church context, I had to be careful how I spoke of them. It’s a fine line trying to proclaim the Jesus who is the friend of sinners, and trying to claw out your place in an institution that is often scared to death of them. I couldn’t laugh when other ministers told jokes about people I loved, but I managed an awkward smile. I remember a moment in particular when a minister I had once admired, around the table with a group of pastors, gave his reaction to a minister who had been recently defrocked after being caught in a gay affair. “It’s a good thing I’m not God,” he said. “Because if I were, I’d have frozen that man’s mouth while he had his mouth around that other man’s penis, and I’d have turned him to stone.” He was smiling when he said it, but he was not kidding. Inside, I trembled, but I wasn’t going to make the mistake of the man in question, and open my mouth at the wrong time.
A song of ascent
A few years later, I preached my signature a sermon again on a Sunday night. This time, it was in a sanctuary packed tight with 2200 people. I was wearing my best suit. It was my first service preaching back at the mega church where I had just been hired, and this was my moment. Until it was time to preach, my nerves were runaway horses. I was sweating profusely. The choir was singing the house down, and it was the last song. The last thing I wanted to do was miss my cue, so when they finished the belting out the last chorus, I bolted to the stage. And in doing so, unwittingly jumped the gun. I made it up the steps and got two steps from the podium — when they jumped back into the chorus. The lights were hot on me, and I was already all the way up there. So I did what any good Pentecostal boy would do when you blow your cue — I lifted up my hands and said, “Hallelujah!,” and praised my way through the reprise.
It was an awkward way to start. But when the choir got done and everybody clapped, I got down to business, and as it always was when the moment to deliver the word, the jell-o of my insides turned to steel, and I preached like a burning man, a fire and brimstone preacher of love. I believed every word. I told Henry’s story, like I always did. I talked about eunuchs and AIDS and proclaimed Jesus as the friend of sinners. I didn’t know how the sermon would go over in that environment. But a few minutes later, my pastor, who was my favorite preacher in the world (and the preacher who-to this day- has most shaped my own preaching with his vulnerable, heart-first approach), stood to his feet and said amen. A few minutes later, everybody was on their feet, and broke into wild applause only 75% into the message. It was without question the best night of my young life. When Amanda and I ate cheesecake in the upscale bistro after the service, I thought I had arrived.
In the years that followed, I learned to navigate the complicated un-parallel universes of the denomination, church culture at large, and my growing compassionate convictions. I was a 25-year old kid with a full-time staff underneath me in my department, and a five-million dollar outreach center to work with — while my own theology was still in an adolescent phase of development. There were wonderful people there I loved very much, and still do, from leadership on down. There were also the typical kinds of random “controversies” that are just par for the course when you’re working at a big church in the south—the guy on staff who said I shouldn’t quote C.S. Lewis (from that first sermon!) because he read online he was a closet universalist, the couple who tried to get me fired for saying “crap” and quoting an old song from the Police in the same sermon (“secular” music & all), and the parents who were on a crusade to keep our outreach center from being defiled by students with tattoos and body piercings. I slowly learned how to navigate the politics that go along with that kind of ecclesial life—perhaps too well? But in any case, I was on the perfect career path within my tradition — young, upwardly mobile, a capable preacher, even picking up some degrees along the way.
I never exactly stopped caring about the Harold’s of the world, I was just wasn’t in a position to be around them anymore. Wasn’t it just like a suburban white kid to feel like he won a gold medal for going into a moment of real suffering for five minutes and letting his heartbreak over it a little? I got banged up a little in the culture wars everybody in my world ambled into. I had my one holy story tucked inside me enough to keep my heart tender, but I talked it out of my system just enough to keep it from getting me into trouble.
Looking back, I think the storm of my second conversion was rising in me even then, but it was going to be much more painful than my first.
Opening the big tent
I do not want to be too hard on the 25-year old young man. There was a bright, naïve kind of goodness in him. That version of me was sincere — a true believer. I could only see what he could see, and could not see what I could not see, as it is for each of us. In the decade following that night, we went on to found a church called Renovatus: A Church for People Under Renovation. We said we were a church for liars, dreamers and misfits. And I can assure you, I thought about Diane a lot in those early days. She said she had a hard time finding a church in our bible-belt town of Charlotte, NC where she felt at home. And I planned to make sure the church I founded would be the kind of church where she did feel at home, if I ever saw her again. And hopefully a church that could have been a good home for Harold — God, I wanted that.
It became a beautiful community with many beautiful people. Along the way, the tent of my big tent revival religion got considerably larger than it used to be. I came to reject the idea that my native Pentecostalism was supposed to be a fiery form of fundamentalism, set apart just because people spoke in tongues. I came to believe that Pentecostalism was misfit religion, spirituality on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. I believed that when people who couldn’t find any other place to belong elsewhere came together and shared a combustible experience of the Spirit, Pentecost would happen.
The Spirit after all is the ultimate non-conformist, the archenemy of the efficiency so much contemporary church culture prizes above all else. To be clear, there are many deeply Pentecostal people that are not in Pentecostal churches. The Spirit people — the subversive people — are in all parts of the Church. But we had more than our fair share there.
We were coming to see that Pentecost was big tent religion, an open tent with no sides to it. Everyone is welcome. That was what was so shocking about the Pentecostal movement in its origins — women were preaching, blacks and whites and Hispanics were worshipping together in the same rooms all the way back in 1906. Pentecost is scandal. You can’t get more progressive than the Spirit of God, because the Spirit brings the future reign of God into the present, disrupting all our existing categories of left and right and Jew and Gentile and male and female and slave and free, makingall things new.
It was a grand experiment, and there are all kinds of wonderful stories I could tell you about. But I won’t. I told many of those stories in my first book, a book that started by revisiting those native moments of innocence and wonder that call us back to primal memories of a garden paradise. These experiences maybe even more universal than our shared experiences of naïve bliss — the story of paradise lost, of falling, losing, and having to find yourself again.
I was still the fire and brimstone preacher of love, maybe even more so. And had even had experiences in more recent years that awakened my own understanding of God’s love for me in ways that I could not have imagined. But I was also still the young idealist who lived too much in his head. I didn’t know how to fall out of my head and into my heart. I didn’t know how to fall, period. I was preaching, teaching, enlightening, and like I was in my days at the mega-church, still entrenched enough in Bible-belt culture to be dodging bullets. I was still sincere, still a true believer. I believed in grace for everyone else I knew, and may have thought I believed it for myself, theoretically. But it had never been tested. By then, I had been the guy dispensing the information through preaching and writing and podcasts, still basically living out the script I fell into without significant deviation. I was still living up to the expectations assigned to me by others and by myself from early in my life.
my terrible Augustinian moment
It was eleven years after that Sunday night sermon, now two am on a Saturday night. Once again, I could not sleep. In a few hours, it would be time to preach twice in my own pulpit. Tired of laying awake alone in the guest bedroom, I finally turned on the lamp beside my bed. It had been five months since the world I had built had gone up in flames, and it was all my fault. It was like a Hollywood make-up artist had transformed me during those long months — I saw the shadows underneath my eyes getting larger, watched the white hairs in my beard turn into wildfire, and picked a big clump of my once thick dark brown hair out of the drain in the shower every morning. I didn’t know how I was going to get up and face them again, much less my own face in the mirror.
I picked up the John Irving novel off of the bedside table, the one with the black and white cover showing a woman’s back as she unlatched her bra. Only when I read the novel, In One Person, I found out it was actually a man. I picked up the paperback in an airport a few months ago when I was on my way out of town to speak at another conference. At the time, I knew next to nothing about the story. I only knew that I loved John Irving ever since I read A Prayer for Owen Meany. Before the storm, I read about half of it. And to my shame, I put it down because I quite honestly did not know how to deal with the graphic descriptions of gay sex. The story of the young boy growing up in an all-boys school in New England trying to sort his sexual identity moved me. But it was the first novel I’d ever read where the protagonist was gay or bi-sexual. I was no Puritan — the book did not offendme. It was not intentionally lurid, like a romance novel, just frank. I just didn’t know quite how to handle such bodily frankness, especially in a context so completely foreign to mine.
So now I picked it back up that night, in a very different place in my life then. The church we planted was eight years old, and my life had still fairly upwardly mobile. I wasn’t pretentious; I didn’t think I was special because more people liked my sermons. But after living my whole life until then on the straight and narrow, never straying outside any of the parameters of the life I was born into, for the first time I felt like my life had gone out to sea.
Unlike the protagonist in Irving’s novel, I was not a homosexual. Like the protagonist in novel, I had “fallen in love with the wrong person,” and did not know how to fix any of it from where I was. I was trying to sort out my life and my marriage while still in the pastorate, going into the office and shutting the door to cry behind my desk every day, full of guilt and pain and ache. I didn’t want to be there anymore, or at least didn’t know how to be there anymore, but felt responsible to the people and to this thing we had built. I didn’t know how to leave, but I didn’t know how to stay. I was still trying to find a way to be vulnerable in the sermons without being indiscrete about all the things we were trying to work through. I felt like I was slowly bleeding out in front of everybody.
It was an odd rendition of Augustine’s conversion story, when He heard a voice say “take it, read it,” and found a section of Scripture that upended his life of youthful lust. I picked up a book about conflicting passions instead of the Bible, but was no less upended. As usual for Irving, this fiction is grounded in very real historical events — in the case of In One Person, the AIDS epidemic among gay men in New York City in the 1980’s. As the lead character loses friend after friend to the plague, the heartbreak of the book overwhelmed me. I grieved over the deaths I read about. I grieved over the pain of rejection he and his friends endured. Three hours later, I had finished the novel — and was just sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed, sobbing.
I cried for many reasons. I cried because after being extended the grace to take four months off to try and sort our lives out, I was nowhere close to resolution. I cried because the angst in the novel both massaged and stirred up all the angst in me.
Somehow though, I knew God was speaking to me through it all, even so. Being a Pentecostal, I was raised somewhat of a mystic — I have always believed that God was speaking, not to me in particular but to all of us, and that there were moments when my antenna was up when I could hear something. Ironically, the reception seemed to be clearer in a storm, even in one of my own making. It is difficult to qualify how it is I think I hear from God, but it is like words settle within me that, for lack of a better way of putting it — just feel altogether other. It is a deep, interior way of knowing, perceiving, listening, that I fade in and out of. When the familiar voice comes, it is marked by tenderness — there is something sweet about it, and yet almost something that breaks my heart too, in all the ways that pure love does.
Somewhat to my surprise, I did not feel judged by God. I did not feel that the voice was angry, or that I was somehow disqualified for my humanity. Yet as the breeze filled the windowless room within me on my dark Pentecost, I knew something I did want to know. I saw something I did not want to see. I saw that the only way in my life I would ever have cause for such tears anymore was in the pages of fiction. Because for as much as my experience with Henry drove me into my early years of ministry, these were not the stories I was living into now. I was too busy with safe Christian work, vaguely caring but too clinically detached, and had an impervious bedside manner. I was too cautious navigating the complicated politics of ecclesial life, still very much a voice for love and compassion generally, but avoiding any particulars that could get me into trouble. That meant a kind of loving people from a distance.
I was broken open now simply because I now had my own pain, my own unresolved inner conflict, neck-deep in my own angst. And finally I saw the world again. I finally saw people. I finally was starting to see God again in the only way people ever really can — from the underside of things. I was no longer in a place of power, deciding what was up or down or in or out; no longer at the head of the table, participating in a lively discussion about who else should or should not be there. I was now hoping I was still in a place to get a few scraps from it — but I was not sure.
That was more than a metaphor. In recent years, my own theological vision had been shaped by my understanding of the Lord’s table through the Eucharist. We celebrated weekly communion at the church, and the idea that Jesus was tangibly present in the celebration of this meal became our dominant narrative — though that is historically uncommon in a North American Pentecostal church. The week after my world exploded, we went to a Catholic mass, knowing that the sacred meal would be offered, and would be the climax of the service. I went there entirely because I wanted to be in a service where I could come to the table.
I came down with my head bowed, my very bones aching for the body and blood of Christ, hoping it could nourish me even in my wasteland. The person in front of me drunk from the common cup…and when I approached, the lady with the chalice offered me an apologetic shrug. They had run out of wine. I’m sure she saw the mix of incredulity and pain on my face. It was a moment that named everything dark that I feared — that the blood of Christ was not available to me here now, that it could not reach to the depths of darkness to which I had descended. I was now seeing the world as the helpless sinner who did not know where to go or what to do with my own pain and my own guilt. I don’t know if I how found I could have ever been before, because this was the first time I was truly and utterly lost.
I wept when I finished the novel, because I knew I had held a lot of people and a lot of pain at an arm’s length before my own slow-motion fall, the long descent that was not at all like lightning. And I heard the words of Jesus spoken to Peter, gently naming the reality of my own heart — I had been the one who knew what it was to be in charge, to take care of myself, to take care of others. But now was the time when others would have to “dress me and take me where I did not want to go.” I now had the terrible gift of sight. I could not avoid real-life stories anymore just because I was afraid of where they might take me.
starting to see
The next Sunday, I was preaching the assigned lectionary text for the week — and it was John 9, a chapter that is all about seeing. It is about a blind man who is healed by Jesus, finally able to see. Since John is the most mystical of the four gospels, it is dense with allegory. The text is brimming with details about the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders who are not able to see, in contrast to the lowly man who now sees all too well. His sight is a threat to their sense of propriety and religious order. They don’t know what to do with him. Their world was more well-ordered when the blind man had his proper place in it.
When Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, the light strikes him blind for three days. And if I was coming to see anything at all, I think that was what was happening to me — I had to go blind first. I did not feel like Moses coming down of the mountain to deliver the word of God — I did not feel like delivering a word at all. I only knew that in my broken place, I could only speak of what I was actually seeing, even if my eyes were squinting and I could only see a little. Even if I could only see “men like trees” like the blind man in the gospels that Jesus touches, who can’t see with clarity until Jesus touches him a second time. The hour was far too late in my fading former life to talk about anything abstract or theoretical. There would be no escaping into my head, into my world of theological ideas. I could only speak of what I saw, nothing more, and nothing less.
It was a painful sermon to preach. I told about Henry, and all the things that happened that got me started. I told about reading the Irving novel all night the Saturday night before. I told about how I saw how my own lack of suffering had made me relatively aloof to any real suffering in the world, until my own pain and trauma, and the pain I felt for hurting others, forced me to see. That now I was heartbroken enough to see God from the underside, and the hurt in the world from eye level. I told about how desperately I wanted to see and continue to see, how I did not want to continue living with my head in the sand.
I wasn’t composed like I was when I preached about Henry at 25. My insides were blistering, and hot tears ran down my face. I was embarrassed for all the things I did not see before, ashamed to acknowledge the lack in my own heart now. I was ashamed that I had not owned the people who had always been my people, ashamed for working so hard to navigate all such matters politically.
In the days and weeks ahead, I finally began to learn what it meant to lose my life to find it. It was a long, slow dying. I was a man who had fallen off the top of a ladder, and had still been trying to grab every rung on the way now. I did not yet know that the spiritual life, like Jacob’s ladder in the Old Testament, was not just ascent but descent. I only knew I did not want to continue to the long fall back to earth.
On Sundays, I preached the assigned lectionary texts, but there was no way to detach the sermons from the pain that was simultaneously killing me and slowly bringing me to life in the way that all new life comes into the world — with a blood-curling scream, and many tears.
resuscitation or resurrection
Several weeks later, I was in a different hospital room. Once again, it was an African-American man that was dying. This time, it wasn’t a fragile, skeleton of a man whose skin was stretched tightly over his bones, but a man who looked impossibly alive. To see his 6’4 frame, the color in his cheeks — to feel the warmth in his large hands — it was hard to believe this strong looking man could be dying.
But he was. Two months prior, he fell at work and suffered serious head trauma. The doctors didn’t know if he would survive, but after several serious and complex surgeries, he was finally on the mend. In fact, he wasn’t even in the regular hospital anymore, but in a rehabilitation ward — days from going home. Until out of nowhere, he had a heart attack in his hospital bed. They were able to resuscitate him, but the oxygen had been deprived from him for too long — he was completely brain dead. The part of Herman where all the memories and motor functions resided was not going to come back. He was only breathing because of a ventilator, and this precious family was trying to make the terrible, necessary decision to pull the plug on the artificial life that was sustaining him.
I held his enormous hand as the family pressed in behind me. The holiness of the ground itself was almost unbearable. The spiritual transition that was taking place was palpable, and everyone in the room could feel it. Harold’s life was oozing out, and it was time for the people he loved to send him off. I closed my eyes to lead the family in prayer, feeling the hot tears roll quietly down my face as we felt the beauty and sorrow of the moment pressing in on us. The more I prayed, the more the family begin to lean into the prayer — with tears, with soft amens, with resolved “yes Lord’s.”
Hours later in my home, I felt the familiar presence again, and I knew there was something I was supposed to see while still saturated in the holiness of Herman’s departure. Once again, the presence was tender. Once again, the words while gentle, were also hard. I was once again seeing what I did not want to see. In the twinkling of an eye, I saw that in my life back at the church, I was choosing resuscitation. I saw that my chest was still heaving with air, I was still warm to the touch, and I could still hold someone else’s hand in my own — but there was no life for me there anymore. I was a ghost, refusing to depart from my old life. I was a dead man insisting he was not dead.
It struck me that night what a terribly courageous thing the family had to do. They did not know any better than the rest of us that Herman would be resurrected if they let him go — they had not been on the other side of that transition anymore than the rest of us have. But they chose to believe it. They chose to put their weight down on the hope of resurrection. They chose to say goodbye to a semblance of life, the form of life, in the hope of Herman experiencing the substance of life on the other side. They did not choose resuscitation. They chose resurrection. I knew I did not possess their bravery, and that I doubted myself as much as they believed for Herman. I did know that I trusted the God of resurrection, and had no problems placing weight down on that hope with them for Herman. But I did not know if I could trust it for myself. I only knew that I was being faced with the same choice.
Two days later, I had one more moment when I felt strangely inclined to pull a book off the shelf. This time, it was my own. I don’t normally do that — I’m not that narcissistic (except when I am). But it felt like there was something I was supposed to see there. I will always love that first book, because it came from some deep places. It was honest to where I was — it was true to the first half of my life. I would stand by everything in it. But those were things then I knew much more with my head than with my heart, uplifting information that was still turning into revelation inside of me.
I gave each chapter of the book one-word titles, and there was a somewhat linear movement and progression to them, a kind of flow. From identity…to beloved…to wilderness…to calling…to wounds…to resurrection…to…I stopped myself. I was looking at the pages, and was overcome with that terrible knowing, the kind that comes when the Spirit enters the room. The kind that comes from being shown what you do not want to see. The kind that “flesh and blood cannot reveal to you, only the Father in heaven.” My eyes filled again with tears, but it was so perfectly obvious now I could not help but smile at my own ignorance, however disastrous it might feel now. I had written a book on Christian spirituality, of which death and resurrection is its central motif and defining characteristic — and had moved straight from wounds to resurrection. There was nothing in that book about death, because I did not yet know what it would mean to die.
That was the chapter of my life finally being written.