Barbara Brown Taylor

the books that most shaped me in 2014.

I will spare you the tedium of an apologetic for publishing this list, of saying that it’s all in good fun or I don’t mean it to be pretentious or whatever. I assume if you clicked the link, you like lists too. These are wildly subjective, and were not even all published in the last year—of the many books I’ve experienced, these are just the ones that have marked me most (in non-fiction). Since this has been an intense, emotional, roller-coaster ride of a year, they are all pieces of art I’ve felt special kinship with, because in one way or another they have ligthened the dark just a little. So it feels a bit less sterile and more intimate than these have felt when I’ve done them in the past. It feels like I am introducing you to my friends. It’s very nice to have you and them all at the same dinner party. I hope you get all get along, but if you don’t like any of these guests, I won’t hold it against you.

  1. Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

When somebody says something like, “this book has saved my life,” generally it is hyperbole. It’s not an expression here. It is a book that has kept me alive, sustained me when all else was lost. It has been my companion in bed in the darkest of nights, sometimes the only thing that could subdue the shivers. I was at Rohr’s conference in New Mexico this fall, and I thought from afar that if I could, I would like to kiss this little monk on the top of his head (I’m 6'5,” Rohr is a fairly slight man). I read it while on a personal spiritual retreat in San Diego back in March, and every word bathed me, bandaged me, soothed me, sang to me. It was holy reading. I want everyone that I love to read it.

Falling Upward is about the two halves of life—not so much in terms of biological age, though the two are often tangentially related. It’s about life before and after failure. There are 1,000 ways I could commend it to you, but the truth is that Falling Upward is a book that will feel like it dropped out of heaven if you are in the right season in life for it, and probably feel like reading math if you aren’t. You are either ready for it or you are not, and if you are not ready, or the time just isn’t right, I doubt it would be particularly helpful if I explained it to you. I’ll put it this way: it will make all the sense in the world to you after the crash. We go crashing into the second half of life, not waltzing into it, and you probably won’t need anybody to tell you that you’ve got there. In the meantime, if anybody reading this sees Father Rohr, please kiss him on the head for me.

It’s nearly impossible to pick an excerpt since I highlighted most of the book. But here goes: “Some kind of falling, what I will soon call ‘necessary suffering,’ is programmed into the journey. All the sources seem to say it, starting with Adam and Eve and all they represent. Yes, they ‘sinned’ and were cast out of the Garden of Eden, but from those very acts came ‘consciousness,’ conscience, and their own further journey. But it all started with transgression. Only people unfamiliar with sacred story are surprised that they ate the apple. As soon as God told them specifically not to, you know they will! It creates the whole story line inside of which we can find ourselves. It is not that suffering or failure might happen, or that it will only happen to you if you are bad (which is what religious people often think), or that it will happen to this unfortunate, or to a few in other places, or that you can somehow by cleverness or righteousness avoid it. No, it will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes from those experiences—all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey. As my favorite mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, put it in Middle English, ‘Sin is behovely!’”

And since I’ve already got you to the dinner party, let’s not rush. Here’s one more: “The genius of the Gospel was that it included the problem inside the solution. The falling became the standing. The stumbling became the finding. The dying became the rising. The raft became the shore. The small self cannot see this very easily, because it doubts itself too much, is still too fragile, and is caught up in the tragedy of it all. It has not lived long enough to see the big patterns.” Sweet Jesus, yes.

2) The Grace in Dying by Kathleen Dowling Singh

Books like The Grace in Dying do not come along very often. It is so comprehensive in scope, so bold in its vision, and runs across so many disciplines—it truly is a book of particular genius. Not only is it wise, but tender, warm, compassionate, and most of all unbearably human. A PhD who has spent her life walking with hundreds of people through the dying process, Dowling Singh’s bold thesis is that no matter where people come from, what their culture or background, religious or otherwise—the dying process is remarkably similar when people actually have time to die (as opposed to sudden, traumatic death). In the same way that Rohr sees the “answer” in Christianity as already being programmed into the problem (through failure, sin and stumbling, we fall into resurrection), Dowling Singh sees divine grace as hardwired into the dying process itself.

The argument runs something like this: We spend most of our lives building our ego, making judgements around our likes, dislikes, and preferences. The ego is not evil—ego-building is necessary in human growth and development. But the ego is not the true self, only our image or perception of ourselves. So we spend most of our lives living from that ego rather than living from our depths, living from the soul. In the process of dying, all of those ego mechanisms are slowly taken from us as the body becomes weak, frail, and dependent. And yet it is precisely in this letting go of the ego self, even against our wills, that we are liberated. While the process inevitably entails seasons of chaos, anger, and denial, before death there is generally a time of unparalleled acceptance and peace, however long or short—the last burst of a soul finally living beyond the constraints of the ego. Grace indeed, however harsh it may come.

Dowling Singh herself is Buddhist, but the book is chock full of insights from Jesus and great Christian thinkers and mystics. In fact, I think the book at its core level is about nothing more or less than “losing your life to find it,” and Dowling Singh quite understands the essence of Christian theology from the outside infinitely better than most of us insiders. If it doesn’t move you, you don’t have a pulse. And if there is not Spirit and life all over this book, I don’t know where the Spirit is. I dare you to make it through this book without both blowing a few mental circuits and shedding some hot tears.

We will discover for ourselves that the tragedy is not in dying, the tragedy is in living disconnected from Life. I have heard it said that our culture suffers not so much from the forces of darkness but the forces of shallowness. We will experience grace the moment we experience our connection with Spirit, the transcendent Reality, the Center to our periphery. We will experience grace the moment we experience Life beyond our cramped self-definition, the moment we take off the blinders and glory in all that is beyond ‘me.’

And later, “The path home could be easily traced, much like a mother following her child’s path to bed. She sees what has been dropped on the way. If we were the mother following an enlightened being or the consciousness of one who has entered the Near Death experience, we would see the toys left behind and the shoes that had been dropped, the socks, the pants, the shirt, and the underwear; the body, the emotions, and the thoughts; and last, before the bed, just discarded on the floor, all separate sense of self.” Mercy.

Dowling Singh’s visionary, monumental work reframes the challenge of Jesus’ own teaching in an evocative, potentially life-altering way: if these are in fact the qualities of death and dying, what it would like if a person were able to experience the grace of dying while they are still alive?

3) Iron John: A Book about Men by Robert Bly

Unfortunately, we are not given a manual on manhood when we are born. It’s a pity, but ultimately a problem that could be corrected: I propose that every human being that comes into the world with a penis be given a copy of Iron John at birth, and begin being taught bite-size pieces from it by the time they start elementary school. Don’t even think I’m kidding. And this is from a guy who has generally stayed away from books on masculinity, finding most of them to be cliched, one-dimensional, and sentimental. But you won’t find an ounce of that within a country mile of Iron John.

Drawing from a Grimm fairy tale, the poet Bly illumines the plight of the contemporary male with unparalleled brilliance. I cannot do this justice here. In short, he begins with the myth of the young boy who finds a wild man locked in a cage in the woods. Inside the cage is a golden ball the boy wants. But he cannot get it unless he steals the key to the cage from underneath his mother’s pillow, and thus lets the wild man out. If he does not have this experience, if he keeps the wild man locked in the cage and does not undergo the necessary rites of male initiation, he must experience the lessons of this transition in mid-life in a much harsher way.

It would take a few pages to share the story of how I felt like I was almost mystically guided to this book, how a Scripture about Joseph being thrown into the well led me like a dove into it. I have a forthcoming essay where I share this experience at length, but for now I will simply say that it was one of the most explicitly divinely ordered experiences of my life. I especially wish every man I know could read Chapter four, “The Road of Ashes, Descent and Grief,” which was literally life-changing for me. I can tell you it was as uncomfortable as comforting, because it felt like I had stumbled intoThe Neverending Story. It was almost too true too my life. The process Bly describes for a man at roughly 35 who has not yet been initiated was eerie in its relevance for me. I saw things in this book I cannot now unsee. Read at your own peril.

Very little of Bly’s book works well to quote in some ways without full context, but here is a section I especially loved:

If a lover lacks the Wild Man, he may not give enough wild flowers. He may make love indoors to much, be too respectable, lack what Yeats called ‘the folly,’ the willingness to throw away house and land for a woman…A king without enough Wild Man will be a king for human beings, but animals, ocean, and trees will have no representation in his Senate. We sense that was true of President Truman. And Reagan, we recall, ‘If you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all.’ Bishops and Popes have traditionally been lacking in the Wild Man; they take church doctrine too seriously but not the ecology of the earth.

4) A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd

I consider Brian one of my closest friends. But that is not why this book made my list. I’ll just repeat what I wrote in my endorsement of it, cause this is still what I think: “A Farewell to Mars is the best, most lucid, prophetic book written by a pastor in our time. It is peerless. Zahnd channels Dylan, Girard, Yoder, Hauerwas, Peterson and Von Balthasar. It’s a brash, bold, pastoral synthesis; so prophetic to the forces of empire as to be a work of pastoral treason. It’s deliciously traitorous. A Farewell to Mars builds the peaceable kingdom up and burns most everything else down. It’s delightful. I could not love it more.” Hey, and if you think I’m just too biased, Eugene Peterson’s endorsement is just as glowing. So if you will not receive my witness, listen to one higher than I.

5) The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart

Here’s my big claim about the Eastern Orthodox David Bentley Hart. I think he may well be our finest living theologian (Stanley Hauerwas has been the most influential on me, and Rowan Williams would be a rival). But there just simply aren’t many people on earth that match his blinding brilliance, artistry, beauty or grandiosity as a writer and thinker. Granted, in books likeThe Beauty of the Infinite, which I mostly enjoyed, the writing can be so ornate as to be over-adorned, and you can get lost in the avalanche of words. But more often than not, there is a laser-like precision to his words—even when Hart is addressing the biggest topic of them all, the nature and character of God Himself, as he does here.

Yeah, so basically this is kind of God’s biography. I don’t know if God gave David Bentley Hart permission or not, so I can’t say for sure wheter it’s the authorized or unauthorized biography. But based on the prose in this book, I’d put money down on God sending His notes straight over to Brother Hart.

I’ll tell you this just for fun: man, I would not want to be insulted by Hart. When he took on the “new atheists” in Athiest Delusions: The Christian Revolution and It’s Fashionable Enemies, it was the most awe-inspiring verbal punk-down I had ever read. But the great thing about Hart, an equal opportunity dismantler of any form of intellectual dishonesty, is that in this beautiful book about God, he gives intelligent design folks as much holy hell as he did the atheists.

Let’s watch as he actually brings all of that full circle: “It is certainly the demiurge about whom Stenger and Dawkins write; neither has actually ever written a word about God…The recent Intelligent Design movement represents the demiurge’s boldest adventure in some considerable time” (ow!)…As either a scientific or a philisophical project, Intelligent Design theory is a deeply problematic undertaking; and from a theological or metaphysical perspective, it is a massive distraction…Anyway, at this point I shall largely leave the new atheists, fundamentalists of every adherence, and Intelligent Design theorists all to their own devices, and perhaps to one another, and wish them all well, and hope that they do not waste too much time chasing after one another in circles. If I mention them below, it will only be in passing. From here onward, it is God—not gods, not the demiurge—of whom I wish to speak.” And OW.

Footnote: please remind me not to ever piss off David Bentley Hart.

6) Man’s Search for Himself by Rollo May

Sigh…I’ll file this under books I wish I had read earlier in my life. Then again, I’ve become a big proponent of the notion that we see what we are able to see when we are ready to see it, and not before. But if Robert Bly gave us a manual on maleness, Rollo May gave us an awfully good manual on plain ole being human here.

For May, the goal of human development is that we all, in Kierkegaard’s phrase, come to ultimately “choose one’s self.” There is no way this can happen unless we are given a real choice:

It is doubtful whether anyone really begins to live, that is, to affirm and choose his own existence, until he has frankly confronted the terrifying fact that he could wipe out his existence but chooses not to. Since one is free to die, he is free also to live. The mass patterns of routine are broken: he no longer exists as an accidental result of his parents having conceived him, of his growing up and living as an infinitesimal item on the treadmill of cause-and-effect, marrying, begetting new children, growing old and dying. Since he could have chosen to die but chose not to, every act thereafter has to some extent been made possible because of that choice. Every act then has its own special element of freedom.

As May demonstrates, those who have been taught that happiness and success would follow their ‘being good,’ and understand being good merely as a kind of external obedience, are not able to develop their own interior awareness and strength. Thus, “By being obedient over a long period of time, he loses his real powers of ethical, responsible choice. Strange as it sounds, then, the powers of these people to achieve goodness and the joy which goes with it are diminished.”

Like Bly in Iron John, May sees many problems in human society as results of a culture where people do not have the rites of passage that enable them to really take responsibility for their own lives. When people continue to live out of duty and obligation, keeping the rules only so that others will tell them they are good, they end up with contempt for themselves. Living contingent on the approval of others means we never develop our own sense of dignity and self-esteem…really our own sense of self.

The compulsive needs to be admired and praised — undermine one’s own courage, for one then fights on someone else’s conviction rather than one’s own…when one acts to gain someone else’s praise, furthermore, the act itself is a living reminder of the feeling of weakness and worthlessness; otherwise there would be no need to prostitute one’s attitudes. This often leads to the cowardly feeling of having co-operated knowingly in one’s own vanquishment.

It is not been happy to learn this much about growing up at 36, but May is quite the tutor. I definitely have to go back and catch up on more of his catalog now.

7) Just Kids by Patti Smith

I only know Patti Smith’s hits. I did not come to this book as a fan of her music. But I walked away from it spellbound by her writing. I mean this as a very large compliment, as I’ve read some great memoirs in recent years—but I don’t think I’ve read one to rival Smith’s. It’s so alive, so earthy, so elegant, just teeming with life. There is no explicit faith message in this book, but you don’t write this honestly about human experience without getting into spirituality, and Smith traverses sacred ground over and over through the streets of New York City. Chronicling her on-again/off-again romance/friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, beauty and heartbreak shimmer through every page.

And then you get writing like this: “Perhaps to satisfy my curiosity, my mother enrolled me in Sunday school. We were taught by rote, Bible verses and the words of Jesus. Afterward, we stood in line and were rewarded with a spoonful of comb honey. There was only one spoon in the jar to serve many coughing children. I instinctively shied from the spoon but I swifly accepted the notion of God. It pleased me to imagine a presence above us, in perpetual motion, like liquid stars.

Or how about this section, when she introduces Mapplethorpe: “His young eyes stored away each play of light, the sparkle of a jewel, the rich dressing of an altar, the burnish of a gold-toned saxophone or a field of blue stars. he was gracious and shy with a precise nature. He contained, even at an early age, a stirring and a desire to stir.

Thank you, Patti Smith—I don’t think I even want to try to write at all anymore.

8) Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

Barbara, oh Barbara. She just keeps cranking out these beautiful books, with such elegant (and occasionally deceitful) simplicity. Surely she is on the short list of our best spiritual writers before Learning to Walk in the Dark, but this accessible, lyrical meditation on all we can only see and learn when the sun goes down only cements her legacy more. I heard her preach on themes from the book this year, and she is of course just as much a force of nature as a preacher as she is a writer. What a gift her words are to us.

This year, I was especially grateful that Taylor told me what she saw in the dark, as I read it in moments when I could not see a thing. She challenges the dualisms so often held in religious circles, the way that Christian teaching often “thrives on dividing reality into opposed pairs: good/evil, church/world, spirit/flesh, sacred/profane, light/dark. Even if you are not Christian, it should be easy to tell which half of each pair is ‘higher’ and which is ‘lower.’ In every case, the language of opposition works by placing the other half farther away. This not only simplifies life for people who do not want to spend a lot of time thinking about whether the divisions really hold; it also offers them a strong sense of purpose by giving them daily battles to engage in. The more they win out over the world of the flesh, the better. The more they beat back the powers of darkness, the closer they get to God. The ultimate goal is to live with that God forever, in a bright heaven where the bottom half of every earthly equation has finally returned to dust.” If that section scares you off, or you aren’t willing to consider the prospect that God may actually have treasures buried for us in the dark, don’t read this book. On second thought—read it anyway. BBT will probably change your mind.

9) Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year by Tavis Smiley

There is nothing especially lyrical about this book. The writing is fairly unadorned; it will not knock you out. But the narrative absolutely will. There is something appropriately sparse about Smiley’s account of King’s final year, in which he takes us into the angst, anguish, and torment of MLK behind the curtain, before his martyrdom forever changed the world. LikeFalling Upward, The Grace in Dying, and Learning to Walk in the Dark, it illuminates the ways that unraveling, losing, and dying yield to the miracle of new life. But this is shown to us through narrative rather than told to us through theology or philosophy.

Smiley won’t let us skip ahead into resurrection. He takes us deep into King’s own descent, self-doubt, infidelity, and the constant in-fighting within the civil rights movement. He reminds us of a time when King was not a universally heralded hero, but a star who was fading, written off even by his most ardent supporters for fighting the Vietnam war with as much energy as he fought racial injustice. King was accused of watering down the message by not staying quiet on issues of war and poverty. Both the prophetic edge of King’s voice, as well as his most human brokenness, are brought back into the story for us here.

10) Broken Open: How Difficult Times Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser

What sets Lesser apart as a writer is her uncommon honesty. She is unafraid to shed light on her own soul and story, even the parts we might deem unattractive, and her courage gives this book a tremendous kind of authenticity and spiritual power. Lesser powerfully demonstrates the way that failure and loss of any and all kinds can transform us into wiser, more compassionate, more human creatures, capable of living with a depth of purpose and empathy we could not have known before the fall.

This is also a book that stumbles naturally in and out of Christian language, though it is not by any means a “Christian book” and is decisively non-preachy: “The journey from Once-born to Twice-Born brings us to a crossroads where the old ways of doing things are no longer working but a better way lies somewhere at the far edge of the woods. We are afraid to step into those woods but even more afraid to turn back. To turn back is one kind of death: to go forward is another. The first kind of death ends in ashes: the second leads toward rebirth. For some of us, the day arrives when we step willingly into the woods. A longing to wake up, to feel more alive, to feel something spurs us beyond our fear. Some of us resist like hell until the forces of fate deliver a crisis. Some of us get sick and tired of filling an inner emptiness with drugs or drink or food, and we turn to face our real hunger: our soul hunger.

Twice-born people trade the safety for the power of the unknown. Something calls them into the woods, where the straight path vanishes and there is no turning back, only going through. This is not easy. It is not a made-up fairy tale. It is very real and very difficult. To face our shadow—the dragons and hags that we have spent a lifetime running away from—is perhaps the most difficult journey we will ever take. But it is there, in the shadows, that we retrieve our hidden parts, learn our lessons, and give birth to the wise and mature self…If there is only one thing that has made a difference in my life, it is the courage to turn and face what wants to change in me.”

It strikes me by the end of this little piece, that talking candidly about the books I’ve read gives kind of road map of my own soul. Then again, maybe that is what the best books always do. If they don’t give us exact directions, at the very least they draw a giant red star on whatever road we’re walking, and say to us, “You are HERE.

into the abyss.

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 endYou 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