preaching to mr. bergman

I saw my first Ingmar Bergman film when I was 21 years old, and I never got over it.

The film was Winter Light, one of the three films in Bergman’s so-called faith trilogy (with Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence). Taken as a whole, the trilogy isn’t really about finding faith so much as losing it, seemingly mirroring the Swedish director’s own doubt—and ultimate disillusionment—with the faith he had known. And yet it is hard even now to remember a more spiritual experience than watching that film.

In Winter Light, Gunnar Bjornstrand plays a priest whose own soul had become hollow. When a fisherman, played by Max Von Sydow, comes to him on the brink of suicide, he comes looking for the priest to give him a reason not to kill himself. But the priest is all out of his own reasons, and can’t think of anything to say to dissuade his parishioner. So the man goes through with it. The lonely priest, who had isolated himself from the handful of people that loved him, continues to slowly unravel until the powerful final scene. It’s time for the Sunday morning worship service to begin, and there are only three people in his tiny church. The priest seems undone. It is the moment where you expect him to strip off his collar, and finally abandon the crime scene of his long-dead faith. But in the last moment of the film, he comes to the pulpit to begin the liturgy — and then the credits roll.

I think many people interpret the priest’s final action as an act of cowardice. You could say he does not have the strength to follow through on his convictions, or his lack thereof, and falls on the sword of convention instead. I am not certain that faith and cowardice are distinct to begin with, or even if they would need to be. I do think that when he retreats into the liturgy, he is doing the only thing he knows how to do. Perhaps faith is always a kind of resignation—faith is Simon Peter saying to Jesus, “Lord, where else would we go?” The 21-year old version of me found the final scene inspiring. I did not see what was so bad about retreating into the liturgy as your only way of not giving in to the night entirely, or what was so bad about preaching as “whistling in the dark,” in Frederick Buechner’s phrase—to keep your own spirits up as much as anyone else’s. I don’t know that faith is somehow faith no longer just because you return to it when you have no other place to go.

Bergman’s perspective on his protagonist’s choice is unclear in the film, but he later said it was not until filming Winter Light that he realized he had lost his faith. The son of a Lutheran minister, he was always ill at ease at the answers he was given as a child. But the big soul questions burned in him, and he could spin their fire into us from his reels. If his own questions didn’t precisely lead him back to God, at least in the ways he understood Him before, they can’t help but take us into the divine presence on sheer force of their fearless, painful honesty.

For all angst-ridden souls who dare to live the hard questions, whether we aim them toward God or into the great beyond, Bermgan was a kind of priest; his films, sacrament. They were both more visceral and more tactile than movies are supposed to be—as marked by taste and texture as a look or a style. You cannot just watch Bergman films, you have to feel them go down in you, like the bread and wine. And when you are done consuming, the images burn in you still, in a place beyond words—in a place past prophecy.

My visit to “Bergman Island”

It was in the middle of my own season of unraveling that I arrived on Fårö, the island Bergman would call home for the second half of his life, filming many of his greatest works there.

It was the last weekend that the small Swedish island, only inhabited by around 500 residents even in the summer, would still be dotted by people. The wind was turning cold. Soon, only a handful of farmers and a parish of livestock would be left here on Ingmar Bergman’s church. The harshness of the weather in the cold months demands that most inhabitants have a place on the mainland, so they migrate to Wisby or Stockholm.

Standing outside in my topcoat, I could feel the jutting rocks call to me like sirens, the way they called out to Bergman. I could feel everything about the landscape of that enchanted place pulsing with beauty and heartbreak simultaneously. Lost in the splendor of the windy, rocky shoreline, I could drink the cocktail of my own loneliness and aliveness all the way down. It is the sort of place that seems to have very old ghosts, but is also the right place for you even if you’ve already packed your own.

I walked the jagged coast in the evening until the sun sunk slowly back into the ocean, and again early in the mornings, only seen by the black eyes of the sheep and a few horses—without judgment. In the cold beauty of Fårö, my outer world could reflect the starkness of my inner one.

I was thrilled to be in the creative haunt of my film patron saint, hoping to bring him my questions, or at least interview his muses. There was a group of about 30 of us there to pay tribute for Bergman weekend, and I was the only American. I landed there feeling like a refugee, the day after arriving in Sweden and promptly getting my rental car stuck in a small alley in nearby Wisby (an incident which, hilariously, made the local paper!), and subsequently misplacing my cell phone. Seemingly unable to perform the most basic tasks in this beautiful country, I felt more like a ten-year old boy lost at sea that an adult man finding new adventure.

The day I arrived, the silver-haired lady with small spectacles, soft eyes, and a fashionable scarf—the film professor who runs the Bergman Center—greeted me warmly. But my heart sunk when she told me her friend saw the picture in the local paper of me stuck in the alley, and called her that morning: “Your American seems to be having great difficulty getting to you,” she repeated. The trip was already having the same effect that Bergman’s films have on me internally—stripping the soul completely of its ego pretensions, until you’re naked as a skeleton. I was able to laugh at all my mishaps so far.

Bergman could do a hell of a lot of things from behind the camera, but comedy was never really one of them. I had brought the comedy with my slapstick strand of errors, and they continued even after I got to the Center. The Center Director had asked a sweet retired art professor to translate for me, but he didn’t feel quite comfortable enough to do so. Thus I went to all the sessions on that first day unable to understand a word. Yet the sense of isolation, of being a stranger in a strange land, may have been the best way to experience the bleak terrain of Bergman’s films all over again. After walking the shore where Through a Glass Darkly was filmed during the day, we watched the film together that night in a small room. Predictably at this point, the remote wasn’t working properly, so they could not activate the english subtitles for me.

I had re-watched Through a Glass Darkly a few months before, and it strikes me as an awfully bleak-ass film even by Bergman canon standards. There is a lot going on in the film thematically, but the premise is basically this: A novelist, played by the same actor who starred in Winter Light, is with his son, daughter and son-in-law on holiday on an island. The daughter, recently released from an asylum, is there to recover from a mental breakdown. One evening, she accidentally discovers a manuscript where her father had been callously recording the details of her breakdown, and through it discovers that she is incurable. Along the way, she believes she has visions of God. The film climaxes when she sees what she believes to be God revealed as a spider, crawling out of a crack in the wall, coming to penetrate her. It is not exactly the feel-good hit of the year even in the best of times—but watching it without subtitles, unable to understand the words yet feeling my face pressed against the glass to behold these characters, was in its own category of desolation.

The next day my luck shifted when a kind, sixty-ish lady (who fortunately had once taught Swedish in an American university) offered to translate for me, just in time for our trip to Bergman’s former home. It seemed almost allegorical of my whole life then—to be the one lost in translation, dependent on the kindness of strangers to help me find a sense of place again. Drinking coffee on Bergman’s back porch, still feeling the chill underneath my skin, this gentle new friend spoke my language and warmed my spirit again.

She was there with her best friend since college, with whom she watched her first Bergman film when she was 20. On the bus, I asked her what her favorite Bergman film was. She said it was Persona. Her and her friend have apparently had a 40-year long debate over whether or not the two lead female characters in the film were intended to be two distinct people, or are in fact two sides of the same personality. I loved this detail especially, because it illuminated the side of Bergman’s filmmaking that had taught me so much about preaching: I had learned that bad sermons, like popcorn action movies, are forgotten the moment after you’ve watched them. But the great sermons echo the quality of Scripture itself, and won’t answer all of the questions for you. They linger long past their welcome, the way Bergman’s films do. Every once in a while, you may even hear one you could argue about with your friend for the next 40 years.

Mr. Bergman’s church

From Bergman’s house to the film locations themselves, the weekend felt like as much an immersion into the director himself than it did the island.

He was a famously tortured soul. On one hand, Bergman was beloved by the residents of his tiny island home, and the stories of his generosity are endless among the people on Fårö. But the brilliant director was notoriously difficult to get along with in his own closest relationships—with his five wives, scattered nine children and sometimes with close friends. By some accounts, his directorial genius seemed to almost plauge his personal life, with him too often trying to over “direct” the cast of friends and family.

Since Bergman was so often able to set my own soul on course through his work, I always wondered where he landed in his own experience of faith through his later years. Based on some of the fiction he wrote in the 90's, I assumed he had continued down the path he began earlier of abandoning his faith, at least in the form it was given to him, until his death in 2007.

But then we finally got to the little church—the only one on the island— where Bergman lies in the cemetery just outside. It was our last stop of the day. The lady giving us the tour was a retired math teacher and lifelong Fårö resident who had known Bergman well. As we walked through the church into the graveyard, she dazzled us with the story of his funeral—which like so much of his life, was scripted in meticulous detail. I was almost surprised that Bergman had his funeral in a church at all given his ambiguity about institutional religion. So when we finished the tour, I asked her about his relationship to the church.

Her answer surprised me. In the years after Bergman’s fifth and final wife died of stomach cancer, he went into deep depression. He stopped making films in 2003. He had a difficult hip sugery he never fully recovered from, affecting his mobility. Without his work and his companions, he felt increasingly alone. So for the last few years of his life, our guide said, he returned to the church of his childhood, attending service every Sunday. She told a beautiful story of a visiting children’s choir coming to do a concert one evening at the church, and of Bergman being moved to tears—giving them an enormous donation immediately following the performance.

Whatever judgments the younger Bergman may have once had on his priest in Winter Light, the priest’s journey became Bergman’s own. When he felt his own life fading, he went back to the only liturgy he knew. He returned to the Church and to the tradition of his father. Whether you call it an act of faith or cowardice is as open-ended as the conclusion of the film— and just as irrelevant, if faith and resignation are in fact indistinguishable.

I could not shake the image of the 89-year old director hobbling down the center aisle and taking his seat, nursing a lifetime’s worth of heartache. I imagined him sitting on the pew, just like anybody else, hoping something of the music or the sermon would fill something of the void in him, hoping for something that might alleviate his infinite loneliness. I pictured him there, watching the robed preacher climb the steps. And I wondered—did he sit on this pew just the way the same way I do at St. Peter’s Episcopal, hoping against the dark that the sermon might strike new life in him? Did he feel the anticipation start to shimmer in his stomach, hoping he could yet get lost in something outside himself again?

And then I wondered about the preacher. Did he speak tenderly into all the ache that enveloped him? What Bible stories did he tell to this master storyteller? I was seized by what struck me as a ridiculous but warm thought—that I would have loved to have preached to Mr. Bergman. It wasn’t that I was sanctimonious enough to think there was something in me that my favorite director would have needed. It was just that he had been a kind of companion to me in my own dark, lonely moments, and I would have loved to have been there for him in kind. I would have loved to massage the rough places on his heart the way he had mine. I would have loved to have spoken to him from my own heart, the way his films helped teach me to—proclaiming his belovedness to him. I would have loved to have placed the chalice in the old man’s frail hands.

Not knowing if I would ever come back to Fårö again, I lingered another moment alone in the graveyard after everyone else had boarded the bus. I imagined Mr. Bergman returning to his native wonder, the old man as bright-eyed as the boy in Fanny and Alexander—or like a boy in the children’s choir he loved so much that day. I imagined the tortured, beautiful soul melting completely at last into the sweet embrace of love Himself.

I smiled softly, thinking that the man who so studiously peered through the glass darkly of his camera had finally fallen straight into the wonder, and now sees face-to-face.

on going to (an episcopal) church

When I left the pastorate, I wasted no time finding another place to go to church.

There is no piety in that. I would not have had the time nor energy to think about “setting an example” to the people to whom I had taught the value of community. I would not have had the will to go out of a sense of duty or obligation—anything that ever rested on those pitiful pillars had already crumbled (as those twin terrors always should; they are far too weak to hold up a soul). I went out of sheer, bold-faced desperation for someone to preach the gospel to me, someone to lay hands on me, and someone to offer me the Lord’s Supper. There was no motivation more noble than hoping to not starve. I was not over Renovatus—I don’t think I ever will be. I had no idea what sort of new life I might have, just that I had to somehow clear space for any kind of life at all. I needed a place where I could learn how tobe again.

I was not aspiring to go to an Episcopal church in particular. But in my own journey, my belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist had long become the center of my faith. I was aching to find a place where I could receive the body and blood of Jesus every single week. So that narrowed the field considerably. As a Pentecostal who has been largely shaped by women in pastoral work, I wanted to find a place where women would not be excluded from serving that holy meal. That narrowed the field even further. I was also craving a place in my town where ideally I could be a regular person for awhile, where most nobody would know who I was. Okay so I’m not sure if this is still even exactly a “field” now, maybe just enough grass or concrete to find a land where I’d be safe enough to land. But thanks be to God, I landed at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.

I shuffled into the big red doors of St. Peter’s in uptown Charlotte a little awkwardly, a self-proclaimed hillbilly Pentecostal. The aesthetics of the place were foreign to me. Yet in a way, the simple artistry of the space made room for a sense of wonder, reverence and otherness that made me feel at home in a place I did not precisely know, but had longed for. I don’t remember how long it took for me not to cry all the way through every service. I could close my eyes when the choir was singing behind us, and actually felt like angels were singing over me. For all the ways some people may think of Episcopal churches in North America as rest homes for progressive white people, I can only tell you that St. Peter’s is as ethnically diverse church as I’ve been in. From the African-American male rector and white female associate rector, to the revolving door of beautiful faces on the pews around me, the church seems as integrated socio-economically and culturally as it does ethnically.

Ollie Rencher, our rector, and Joslyn Ogden Schaefer, our associate rector, trade off on preaching duties frequently. The sermons are shorter that I’m used to, but I love the focus, clarity and precision of them. Father Ollie speaks with a gentleness—a wise and weathered soulfulness—that breaks me open, effortlessly. Joslyn has something I would only know how to describe as the presence of God leaking through her eyes; a bright, sharp theological imagination; and an unforced poetry to her speech. The sermons are never overly adorned, not laden with academic or hyper-spiritual jargon—they are both authentic and artful.

I loved the warmth and compassion that seemed to radiate off the walls in there, and I loved being stone-cold anonymous. Off the grid from my Pentecostal and evangelical circles, I felt completely safe to come as I was, to receive, to just be. I loved that it never felt like the church was trying to sell me anything. I loved that really, nobody is fussed over at all—there is just is not that kind of VIP treatment for anybody. The vibe is, “this is the kind of worship we do here, and you are welcome to come and do this with us…or not.” The liturgy there does not try to coerce everyone into the same emotional experience, but in its corporate unity strangely creates space for us all to have a very personal experience of God. I have commented to friends that I have never actually prayed this much in church before.

With my own world feeling disordered and untethered, I am quite happy to be told when to kneel and when to sit and when to stand. I love that there is almost no space in the worship experience to spectate, because almost every moment invites (but not demands) participation. I have been in no position to tell my heart what to do. But because the Church told my body what to do in worship, my heart has been able to follow—sometimes. And that is enough for now.

It’s never felt like a tragedy there to not be up the guy up front speaking—I’ve been preaching since I was 19 years old. That part is only gift. Ironically, as long-winded of a preacher as I am, I love investing in a way of being and doing church where preaching really isn’t all that central to begin with. In the Anglican tradition, preaching is never the main event. Preaching is only foreplay at most. All the weight of the liturgy lands on the Eucharist—preparing for it, receiving it, reflecting on it. I love being part of a worship experience where so much emphasis is placed on the broken body and shed blood of Christ. I love that I get to come and actually kneel at the altar, where someone will look me in the eye (when I hold my head up high enough for them to do so) and give the elements to me. I’ve cried around that altar week after week. When my heart is too overwhelmed, I slip out the side door after I receive the Eucharist, where a sweet older man and woman lay their hands on me and pray for me. After years of being in healing lines down at the front of the church waiting for evangelists to lay hands on me, I surely don’t feel any shame or self-consciousness about just sliding into that back room for prayer. I go as often as I need to, without reservation.

I don’t feel any less Pentecostal than I ever have. In fact, in ways I don’t have the space to develop here, I have had some of my most mystical church experiences in the holy silence of that place. I have not disowned or detached from anything in my past that has come before. I love the Pentecostal church of my grandparents. I want to “include and expand” in my experience of God and Church, not replace anything.

The things that oriented my pastoral concerns theologically when I pastored Renovatus are still very much in tact. I still feel that the liturgy and the shout by no means need to be segregated, or for that matter, the head and the heart. I’m still crazy about the experience I had at Renovatus, however clumsy I was as a facilitator, of exploring those intersections—putting all the combustible stuff in the lab out and seeing what could explode. When I’m in churches like Sanctuary Church in Tulsa with Ed Gungor, or Word of Life in St. Joseph, Missouri with Brian Zahnd, I feel something of the same thing we had at Renovatus. For that matter, I know that she is only going deeper in her own experience of that kind of integrated worship under the leadership of Jon Stone, a wise old soul with an enormous pastoral heart, who is taking her all the places she needed to go, but I could not have taken her.

But as much as I loved my life planting and growing a church, that is simply not my life anymore, though it will mark me forever. In the meantime, my own experience of liturgy has been pretty impoverished historically. And in response to my hunger, the deep-rooted, whole-hearted worship at St. Peter’s has been beyond anything I could have hoped for. I love not being the kid with his father’s keys to a big car you don’t yet know how to drive, trying to feel my way around the city. I love being in the hands of compassionate leaders and a rich tradition that make me feel safe. By the way…I get to go to my pastors and openly tell them all of my business without shame or fear of judgment, and let them speak into my life. Who knew?! All this love and beauty, and they give the body and blood of Jesus away for free every week to anybody who wants it. I want everybody in the world to experience it, and yet to bury it as a secret from the world at the same time.

In short, I love going to church—maybe more than ever, even when I feel like I limp in and out the big red doors. I feel like I come up for air every time I walk through them, no matter how I might feel in the hours in between. I feel like I can love and be loved as a human being, without my gifts or my life being commodified in anyway.

I don’t know what any of that means for my future. Getting out of bed takes a surprising amount of discipline and focus sometimes these days. Trying to decide what I will have for lunch today alone sounds intimidating in this moment, much less how to make long-term decisions about ecclesial life. I can tell you that performing the liturgy every week is shaping me, very slowly, in ways that are subtle but deeper than my comprehension, and that there is something about this Anglican way of life that orients me when I have no other orientation.

One week a few months ago, I felt strangely compelled to visit an Episcopal Church closer to my house instead of going to St. Peter’s. It was a nice little brick church with about 60 or 70 people adults in the sanctuary, but didn’t have any of the beauty of St. Peter’s—their extraordinary choir, the architecture that in and of itself tells your soul to bow when you walk in the door. I very much liked that I could go into this very different church and know that I would just as connected to the exact same liturgy that is shaping and growing me every week. But the experience, at least within the first few minutes, frankly felt much more pedestrian by comparison.

But you know, it was funny—just a few minutes into the service, two things happened that made me feel like I understood “why” I was there. One was in the hymn before the Scriptures would be read. There was a middle-aged interracial couple sitting in front of me, and while everyone was singing the hymn with a kind of austerity, the African American woman gently lifted her hands in worship. I am not quite sure even now why that simple gesture, in that particular hymn, in that particular environment, had the effect of breaking me open so much, and making me feel so much more at home. It was just a moment that slid in between my ribs. I was irritated to once again be unable to make it through a service without crying.

The rector got up to preach. I liked the sermon just fine, but found myself wishing I could be listening to Ollie or Joslyn instead. And then he said something toward the end of the short message that just smacked me in the face like some kind of wave. He did not claim this originated with him, and I’m not sure where it came from. But he told us that in other parts of Christian tradition, when people think of worship they think of God as the director, the choir or band as the actors, and the congregation as the audience. “In the Episcopal church,” he said, “we think of the priest as the director, the entire congregation as the actors, and God as the audience.”

The air was suddenly still. It felt like I was in a sci-fi movie where time freezes for a moment, and every movement in the room was on pause. The analogy started slowly clicking through all my gears on the inside as it went down. I marveled at just how much, on a soul level, this way of thinking about church made sense to me now—how much more resonant it is to understand Christian worship not as much as being for people as it for God. I was surprised that my heart could agree with such a statement so quickly and easily. It was evidence of how sneaky liturgy can be, and how much it had messed with my insides—while I was just going to St. Peter’s ostensibly just trying not to drown outright. Sometimes you don’t know you are on the boat until you wake up already out in the middle of the ocean.

reflecting on the broad story so far

To be clear, I don’t feel like I’m Columbus discovering America over here. I always think it must be funny to friends in the Catholic and Anglican traditions when people like me say are saying things like, “Hey guys — whenever you practice the sacraments, God shows up EVERY SINGLE time! Can you believe it?!” This is just telling about finding a church that means a lot to me. I am just a guy who quite imperfectly loves Jesus and thus loves the Church, and does not know how to not talk about either. I’m an ecclesial mutt with no particular point to prove, and no particular claim to authority or credibility.

But given the context of my own story so far, I can’t help but reflect on my own experience, and how it fits into my broader understanding of Church. For all the ways I’ve lost my naivety and childlikeness, and often misplaced hope altogether, I am just as hopeful about the Church in all her diverse expressions as I’ve ever been. I don’t know how much longer Charlotte will be my city, but as long as I am here I will be happy to cheer on the kingdom wherever it may be found. I love to go to Elevation Church to amen Steven Furtick, one of my best friends. I love to go to my adopted big brother John P. Kee’s church, New Life Fellowship Center, and get down with surely the best gospel music you could find in America on any given Sunday. I see, hear and feel God in all of those places and in all of those people. And yet I am thankful for my particular place in this very particular moment of my life.

People still talk to me a lot about their own experience of trying to find their place within the Church, and it is always a conversation I am interested in. I have always thought that when you can, it’s ideal to find a way to integrate things that you need from other parts of Christian tradition into your own—while staying where you are. But there are other times where you need to go a little bit more directly to a stream that is different from your own in order to get the nourishment you need. This is such a time for me right now, though I still feel very much invested in the life-long project of trying to learn to live at the intersections of the traditions that are shaping me in some way.

Truth be told, I think it is good to stand within most any sort of Christian tradition and be nourished by it. I think it’s not so good to stand outside of any and all forms of Christian tradition, and make yourself a judge over all them. I know there are a lot of people these days coming from evangelical and Pentecostal backgrounds who, like me, are looking to connect their experience with the rootedness and ground-beneath-your-feetness of more ancient liturgy. In and of itself, I think that’s a good thing. I am sometimes concerned though about how we can be attracted to the ascetics of liturgical worship, but not allow ourselves to invest in the content and form of it. Liturgy then becomes little more than an exotic fashion statement, when we aren’t really willing to wear the clothes.

Those of us from evangelical traditions often end up going more or less outside of it when it starts to feel too constricting, without exactly going inside another tradition either. We can stubbornly refuse to reflect seriously enough on the Church in her diverse forms to have to contextualize ourselves—which is a tradition in and of itself, but only an American one. We can spend our days being outraged by fundamentalists for being fundamentalists, and feeling very good about ourselves for not being like the people we don’t like. You know—like fundamentalists. Sometimes I think it is far too easy to get used to being the smart ass kids at the back of the class complaining about all the Church is not, without ever taking the initiative to come into a tradition and humbly learn from it. And yet, we may be equally critical then if we don’t find our experience of church to be entertaining enough. “I want the aesthetics of liturgy, without the tedium of all that actual liturgy.” It’s a way of being the guy who doesn’t really want to read the great book, but wants to be able to say they read the great book. But I digress.

Whatever respective traditions we do find ourselves in and however we get there, I become only more convinced that the practice of coming to the Table together in the Eucharist is the only hope we have for any sort of unity, cohesion, and renewal in the Church as a whole. The problem in Protestantism in general, historically but much more profoundly now, is that have we far too much emphasis on getting the beliefs right. No wonder we now have over 40,000 denominations—the search for perfect doctrine is endless, and thus so are the schisms. It is one schism after another, in search of perfect belief. The thing I love about Catholic, Anglican and Pentecostal tradition (when it is rightly understood), is that they are based on shared practices rather than shared beliefs. At St. Peter’s, we recite the Nicene creed every week. But the practice of the liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer in general, and the shared experience of the Eucharist in particular, is what holds us together. Beyond that, there is plenty of room for difference. The emphasis is not on sharing dogma so much as it is sharing the cup.

I believe this is the great hope for the unity of the Church: that though we may hold almost nothing else in common we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, know that somehow Christ is revealed to us around the table, and have burning hearts afterward to prove it. The experience of God in and through this meal gives us the resources to transcend the temporal boundaries that might otherwise divide us.

I know that across church traditions, we can all fall too easily along existing cultural fault lines—skewing too much toward garden variety conservative or liberal politics. But perhaps there is actually far less difference between competing conservative and progressive ideologies within the Church than we once thought. The divisions are not just about how we interpret Scripture and tradition. They may be less about what we believe, than what we have failed to believe about the Eucharist. When we don’t believe that God is revealed to us in the bread and wine, something else will be more determinative for our understanding of church—music, politics, ideology, culture, popular current conversations about sexuality and gender. Yet being the Church can never be about being on the “right” side of these lines, but rather the abolition of these lines through the blood of Jesus. Without an over-arching belief that the love of God expressed around Christ’s table is bigger than any and all such things, we damn ourselves to a temporal tribal identity based on belief, rather than a transformational identity located in the cross of Christ.

I suspect that sounds the worst to those who find such a sentiment to be broad and oversimplified. But I would not know how to nuance it more. I want to be part of a church where the practice of coming to the table is more determinative than anything else. I find St. Peter’s to be blissfully free of bland cultural rhetoric of “tolerance”—but I’m sure it would be too inclusive for many of my evangelical friends. I am okay with that. And if you think I favor a more inclusive church experience because I fear I would not otherwise be myself included—BOOM. YOU GOT ME. That’s absolutely true. Being in great need of grace does in fact radically alter your experience of church.

I can tell you this: I have never heard less talk about passing ideological battles and culture wars in all of my life than I have at St. Peter’s, in one direction or the other. There are no secret litmus tests or cultural shibboleths. There is less of the rhetorical tumult I find in popular culture because there is too much talk of the gospel; and less time for debate because there is too much time devoted to feasting at Christ’s table. There is just the prayer book and the table spread for whosoever will.

Between those Eucharistic meals, some of these days are better than others, and some days worse. But it always does my heart good to remember that I am never more than a week away from no longer bearing the sole responsibility for my own sins. In the corporate confession, my brothers and sisters will share mine, and I will share theirs, and we will hand them over to Christ together—then hear words of absolution. I do not always know how to keep my heart open and my desires known. I feel like a secret even unto myself as often as not. But on Sunday when I walk through the red doors, the clouds will part again when Father Ollie begins:

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

learning to breathe.

Several months after leaving Renovatus, I was slowly starting to engage the world again. It was the second long block I had taken where I did not attempt to speak or teach at all. I still did not really want to. I did not know if I had the heart for it. But however broken I felt, the fire in my bones to speak good news about God flickered in me somewhere still, and I knew I had to wade back out sometime. I was both excited and terrified. So much had been shifting in my head and heart over that time, that I wasn’t even sure who this person was that was about to step behind a pulpit again. I was as intrigued as anybody else to find out.

My first time back out felt like some kind of chemistry experiment. With all my preaching muscles rusty, I was flying to Sweden to speak ten times in less than a week. As out of rhythm as I was, the prospect of speaking in a country I had not visited to people I did not know sounded daunting; and yet there was a sense of adventure to it to. That trip was also significant in that it was the first time I had attempted to do a major international speaking trip alone. To put it mildly, I am challenged at finding my way around new places (as well as old ones, really…I have no sense of direction). But I had steeled myself for this trip. Sure, I felt fragile, like my bones were all glass—but I still had the fire in my belly, and that had served me well enough before.

I had planned to do some sightseeing around Sweden for a few days before my first speaking gig. As it turned out, I was going to be there over “Ingmar Bergman weekend,” a whole weekend of festivities built around the life and work of the famous Swedish director on the tiny island of Fårö, where Bergman lived the second half of his life. Entering the second half of my own, stumbling not strutting, I was ecstatic about the opportunity. I’ve been a huge fan of Bergman’s bleak, spiritually and intellectually provocative films all my adult life. The prospect of visiting the locations where his films were shot, the places he lived and played—as well as the Bergman Center itself—was intoxicating. It was good to feel really excited about anything in my life again…it felt like it had been such a long time.

There were a number of issues surrounding the flight, and I slept very little on the way to Stockholm. But my excitement was undeterred. By the time I boarded the tiny plane in Stockholm to the medieval town of Wisby, where I would then rent a car to take to Faro, I had been awake for over 24 hours. But I was in high spirits, however discombobulated I felt. When I got the rental car, I noted it was a manual—I drive an automatic back home. I had not driven one in a few years, but I figured I could get the hang of it. Besides, I was ready to be on my way.

So using my phone GPS to guide me, I set out in the little Volkswagen, bright and eager, like it was my first day of school. You could practically hear Tom Petty’s “Free Falling” in your head even with the radio off. It felt like I was in a movie about starting your life over and finding hope again. I was ready for a taste of resurrection, and hoping this trip might be my first. As I got into the little town of Wisby, the roads got tinier — these were cobblestone streets built in the 1100’s. Most everything was one way. But my Spidey sense was too tired to be tingling. I kept following the GPS.

Siri guided me down an especially tiny side street that went through an alley, down a hill. The further I got down, the more it felt like the walls were closing in on me, like I was in a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Jet lag is a very real thing, and I thought it explained my little mini-head trip. I was near the bottom of the hill when it became painfully clear that this was not an optical illusion — the street was actually getting more narrow. You could barely get a bicycle through the outlet at the bottom.

That’s when I knew I was in trouble. I had not yet had to put the car in reverse, and I couldn’t figure out how. So whenever I tried to back the car up, I would slowly inch even further…and further…down the hill. But of course I had to let up on the clutch to try it at all, so I just kept going further down—until I was completely wedged between the two stone walls.WEDGED. As in, the side mirrors were collapsed in, and there was literally no way to even crack my door open. I was completely stuck. I could not back up, and there was no way out of the car for the time being except breaking the front windshield. I can’t believe this is happening, I thought.

Along with a string of really innovative, fatigue-induced obscenities.

You have to understand — my greatest fear traveling anywhere internationally is playing the role of “the stupid American.” I am not going to be the obnoxious, demanding American — I do have control over that. But I’m terrified of looking foolish in another culture. As I’m sitting there, big guy in a little Volkswagen, some people walked out of the pub on the corner and saw me. I was paralyzed. What should I do? Should I try to get their attention? How would I even know exactly what to ask for at this point? My brain and body were tired — I couldn’t think straight. As I’m feeling my cheeks shade deeper hues of red from embarrassment, trying to figure out how I might escape, they pull out their Iphones — and start taking pictures of me. While laughing. They went back into the pub and got more friends — who also took pictures. As the minutes passed, a whole crowd of onlookers gathered. And I am not making this up (why would I?) — by the time it was all said and done, at least 30 people had taken pictures of the stupid American trapped in his car with their cell phones.

By the time I was done with my two weeks in Sweden, I could say honestly they were the gentlest, sweetest people on earth. In fact, I would go as far as to call it my favorite country I’ve ever visited. The people I met were delightful, like they were out of a storybook. I was all but ready to become a citizen by the time I left. I want to LIVE in Stockholm, with all its old world charm and new world fashions. But in that moment, on no sleep, mostly incredulous at myself for not being able to even get to the hotel without my first mishap—I hated everyone in that god-forsaken country. I cursed IKEA, Swedish meatballs, their fabulous healthcare, and even that @#$*ing Swedish chef. I decided I would sell my white Volvo when I got home. I’m a staunch believer in Christian non-violence, but I cursed them for abstaining from wars I did not believe in. It was the one and only moment of my life I ever wanted to wear camouflage, join the NRA, and drink beer while listening to Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.” Of all the transformations/mutations this season has brought me, that one was the scariest—it was like something out of The Fly. God help me, for five minutes I became a Texas Republican. That felt a lot worse than anything else I had done or experienced.

Finally, a really nice man came out from the pub who tried to help me. Unable to tell me how to get the car in reverse, he called a tow truck. About 80 minutes later, the tow truck came, and I was back to loving Ingmar Bergman art films, streamlined modern furniture, Scandinavian luxury in automobiles, and universal health care—even for animals. I was back to wanting to marry the country of Sweden.

But here is the kicker: while he was hooking the cable up to the car, another man came around the corner with a large, professional camera with a really long lens. He was from the local paper. I saw a copy the next morning, and sure enough — there was a picture of me trapped in the car in the alley on the front page. Translated from Swedish, “Oh no, not again: American tourist stuck in Alley.” That’s right. Less than 24 hours into my trip, and I made the front page for being the stupid American. The reporter asked me why I was in Sweden — and I was not about to tell him I was there to preach in churches and lecture in seminaries. “I’m here for Ingmar Bergman weekend,” I said. The last line of the article read, “Martin, a Bergman enthusiast, says, ‘I got my own drama.’” If they only knew.

That scene felt like an allegory for my whole life in this season: feeling helpless, exposed, foolish, dependent, unable to move at all on my own — having to rely on other people to come and pull me out of where I was. It was that line from Jesus to Peter again: “Someone else will dress you, and lead you where you do not wish to go.” I had never felt more incompetent. I was no longer the guy calling shots, giving advice, saving the day — I was the one in need of saving. If I could not find some people who could come along and pull me, I was hopeless. I got myself stuck. I had no way out.

I was no longer bringing people to Jesus by the carload. I was the lame man on the mat, in need of someone else to carry me to Jesus.

Blake’s vision

Anybody who read my book Prototype has already met my friend Blake. She is one of my best friends. She is the Anne Lamott in residence in my life-salty, contrary, and deeply good…also the best storyteller that I know, which is saying something. (Aside/plug: she has written an absolutely gorgeous memoir that I’ll be plugging hard in a few months when it comes out) When I first met Blake, she was living in a lot of hurt, anger and bitterness over the hand her life had dealt her. She credits me largely with leading her into faith. Eight years later, her friend and pastor was exiting the bubble of pastoral ministry, and was as clueless about dealing with the underside of life as she had once felt clueless about living as a Christian. This time, I was in need of her help. I needed somebody to tell me, you are going to survive, one way or another. I needed to hear there could still be life on the other side of things like this, from someone who actually had lived enough from the underside of life enough to convince me. Blake was that person in my life—and still is.

It was mid-June, and I was just six weeks into whatever kind of life I had on the other side of pastoring. I felt pretty useless to the world and to myself. I’ll never forget, though, that Wednesday afternoon when she called, wanting to tell me all about this experience she just had. Blake is open to the Spirit in ways that make her a kind of reluctant, accidental mystic, in ways she never goes looking for. A couple of nights before, she had been invited to go to this class at a yoga studio, where apparently all you do for an hour is breathe, deeply and intentionally, while there is some gentle instruction and evocative music in the background. It opened her up in ways she did not expect. And to her surprise, she felt like she got caught up in a vision from God.

First, she saw a giant tree with a pea pod, and she could tell that Zyler, the one-year old son she lost years ago, was inside of it, safe and warm and protected in the presence of God. She had this sense that he had always been there, even before his birth. Then all of a sudden, she was in a garden paradise, like she would have imagined the Garden of Eden to be. As she looked around at all the beautiful plants, she was seized by this sense that God was somehow in all of this, that all the life, all the beauty was an extension of God Himself. In the garden, she saw Zyler again, twice: once as a toddler, and once as a nine or ten year old kid. To see him happy and at peace, she felt comforted by the image at first. But within a moment, the comfort gave way to rage at having to be apart from him still. But why can’t I be with him NOW?, she screamed. And the voice kept telling her gently, you already know the answer, you already know the answer, you already know the answer.

She was overwhelmed with grief, but she knew her son was safe. A few minutes later, she had this strange sense that the garden paradise and her own real life were merging, as if they had been two sides of the same reality all along. The garden world slowly started to disappear, and a light started coming to her—carrying her 16-year old son, Noah. Ever since she lost Zyler, Blake has always felt that her love for Noah has been laced with fear that one day she would lose him too. It had made her afraid of the depth of her love for him, feeling that would inevitably end in another hearbreak too great for her soul to bear. But before the garden faded, she saw a glimpse of Noah as an adult, also safe. Somewhere deep she knew that God was giving her permission to love him without fear and without reserve, to know that he would be protected and cared for. Thus she did not have to protect her heart. And because she knew Zyler was safe in God’s presence too, it was like God was saying, I’ve got him, I’m taking care of him—it’s okay…now you can take care of the people I’ve given you to take care of.

There was a kind of peace in her vision, but also a kind of searing grief. She could feel all the ways she had unwittingly bottled up guilt for Zyler’s death within her very own body, as if somehow she was responsible for the genetic defects that led to his death. To have all of that pain come rushing through her at one time felt like more than she could stand. In the middle of the breathing class, she sobbed. By the time she got done telling me the story, I was crying too. Even in my own deep darkness, there was still this strange way of being able to see into someone’s else’s heart and life, when called upon. And for the next 15 minutes, through tears, I shared all the things I felt like God was allowing me to see about her vision. She felt traumatized by the experience of seeing and feeling so much, so intensely. But it was clear that the only reason God was pressing in on her pain was to reveal it, to bring it into the light, where He could attend to her, love her, heal her. It was emotional for us both.

There was so much in Blake’s experience that both revealed the God I needed to see and know in my dark place, and yet a way that God gave me to feel like I could be useful in someone else’s real life again, too. I felt like I had nothing to offer anyone. I wanted to hide under a rock. That was the first moment after leaving the church, in what had been for me an especially tumultuous six weeks where I felt like my life was unraveling even further, that I knew without a doubt that everything God had placed in me to be and to do was still present and accounted for. In fact, I felt like I was somehow far better at being present in such a moment than I ever could have beenwhen I was a pastor. It was like I was awake in a way I could not have been before, alert in ways I had never been before. Maybe in a way it was my whole self that was finally present and accounted for.

a wild goose chase

It is from here that the story gets, if you can imagine such a thing, even stranger. For anybody looking to arm themselves against the experiential, heart-first way of Pentecostals, congratulations: you are walking into an empty gun store the day after the apocalypse, and you can get all the ammunition you want—to use on me, in particular. If you like, I can supply you with a list of pejoratives you can use. But it’s my story, the only one I’ve got, and I’ve come a bit too far at this point in my life to play any of this politically.

Two nights after my conversation with Blake, Amanda and I, very much in our own broken places, respectively, went to the Wild Goose Festival, three and a half hours away in the little town of Hot Springs, NC. I had been invited to come and be part of a small musical set with a friend of mine, where he was going to be mixing dance music while I loosely preached/exhorted/prayed over the beats. I was completely awkward with it, but I jumped into it like it was the most perfectly normal thing in the world, doing a little sermon/spoken word something around an idea that had been lingering in some corner of my mind: The Trinity doesn’t have a dance, the Trinity is the dance.

But that skips too far ahead. We got to the campground a few minutes early, and went walking around just to get a feel for the place. I had been there for about 10 minutes, not yet having spoken to a single soul, when I heard someone shout out my name from across the woods. It was my old friend Steve. from my hometown. I was glad to see him, and we exchanged pleasantries. He immediately introduced me to his friend James, who’s eyes got big when he realized who I was. Apparently, James’ best friend (who lived in Portland, Oregon) had listened to my sermon podcast for years. He had been trying to get James to listen forever, but James said he just wasn’t interested in listening to sermons. Until a few months ago, when his friend insisted that he had to listen to this one sermon—the one I described in “The Death Chapter.”

That would be the sermon after I felt like the Holy Spirit came crashing in on me while reading John Irving’s novel, In One Person. That was the sermon where I talked candidly that I felt like God had gently leveraged my own angst about the state of my own heart and life back onto me in reading this novel about sexual identity and the AIDS crisis among gay men in New York City in the early 1980's. It was in that sermon that I recounted through tears the way God spoke to me about keeping certain kinds of stories and certain kinds of people at arm’s length, because deep down I knew “they would lead me where I did not wish to go.”

That week I was preaching from John 9 via the lectionary, which is all about seeing. And I felt like God tenderly but firmly showed me that my repressed, insulated life in vocational Christian ministry had kept me from truly seeing a lot of people where they are; that He was using this situation in my life to make me see that which I would not have let myself see before. I was now going to have to see through the prism of my own heartbreak, anguish, and sin. I was going to have to see the world as as a participant in all of her brokenness, instead of an objective onlooker keeping clinical distance from a few feet above it.

He said it was the most powerful sermon he had ever heard. He said he had distributed it broadly in the LGBT community in Charlotte, where James also lived. He proceeded to tell me more of his own story, working for years behind and in front of the camera in Christian television, most of his career with Pat Robertson’s 700 Club. He told me about the books he published with a major evangelical publisher, trying to live on the straight and narrow as he understood it, while struggling violently with his own sexuality. He told the painful story of coming out a few years ago, as he chronicled in his last book, Gay Conversations with God. The transparency of my sermon moved him, and he apparently tried to send an e-mail to our office thaking me for it, that I never received. There was so much holiness to that moment, my heart could barely take it in.

But you’ve heard nothing yet. We were wrapping up the conversation so I could go and do the set, when James somehow casually mentioned the breathing class he led at the yoga studio on Monday nights back in Charlotte. I felt all the blood drain out of my face. I just stood there, stunned, almost too flustered to ask the natural next question I somehow already knew the answer to. “Um, and you were leading this class last Monday night? At Okra in Charlotte? Did you meet someone named Blake Blackman there on Monday?” And of course it was the same guy, and he had met Blake on Monday, and he remembered her (as people generally do).

Slow down for just a minute, okay? That conversation with Blake two days prior was the first time after leaving the pastorate that I felt like the calling side of me, maybe even the human side of me, wake up again. I would have described the conversation about her experience itself to be a kind of turning point for me, even though at the time I did not exactly how or what for. So now two days later, I’m meeting the man who led the class she was in a little town three and a half hours away. A man who, mind you, had listened to exactly one sermon of mine, which was the sermon in which I confessed that I felt I had unintentionally kept people on the margins of my life so I would not have wrestle too deeply with the implications of their stories in my own. I confessed that I had navigated those waters politically because I did not want to get in trouble.

I don’t believe every coincidence has to indicate some kind of divine synchronicity. And I’m aware that I’ve got at least a few Pentecostal and Charismatic brothers and sisters who are already thinking almost out loud, “yeah son, but that could be the devil orchestrating all of that, too!” I can only tell you that for me, if I’ve got any authentic belief in a God that is still moving and speaking by His Spirit in the world—in any way at all—this kind of experience is nearly impossible to deny. And especially when it is accompanied by tears, conviction, empathy, compassion, and new openness to God and others, why would I want to?

I awkwardly made it through our little music/preaching experience. (I’ve always been awkward dancing, but I suppose for all the losses, maybe that was something I was supposed to be learning how to do in this season yet still) Afterward (and I’m having a hard time keeping my composure as I write this), we went back to James’ room in a little lodge across the street from the campground, and talked to him for several hours. He gave me a copy of his book, and I devoured it through the night before I ever went to sleep. And in an act that now seems almost ceremonial to me, James, knowing we would be wandering into a town 40 minutes away to crash at a hotel, was absolutely insistent that we stay in his room, while he sleep in the little rooftop tent he brought with him. He absolutely would not take no for an answer. When I had no space, he made space for me.

holy breath

The encounter hung with me. I knew that whatever else that weekend meant for my own story, at the very least it meant that James was somehow supposed to be a part of it. So the next week, we had lunch. And the week after that, I went to do the whole breathing thing. It was the first time I had ever stepped foot into a yoga studio. I’m smelling the incense as a person raised to be suspect even of people who use incense in church. The class is open to people of all kinds, and is not explicitly Christian in its approach. But because James is a Christian, he very much understands it in those terms, and during the intro subtly makes the connection between spirit and breath in Greek and Hebrew. We are inviting God to fill us with His holy breath, to be open to wherever that breath might lead us.

I’m broken open so far at this point, and for that matter, my own life felt so entirely unmanageable—I’m open to get to God anyhow, anyway these days. I had already been going to an Episcopal Church on Sundays, where God kept meeting me in the eucharist every Sunday, where I couldn’t believe all over again that people would give the body and blood of Jesus away for free. I cried through the entire Eucharistic liturgy every Sunday, even less able to believe that such a meal could be offered to me in such a terrible state. It was funny too, because I guess I had a lot of my most “Pentecostal” experiences just opening up my heart in that liturgical worship. I don’t think I had ever prayed so much in church before! I know for people who are raised in that way, the traditions can get stale in the same way a person raised Charismatic can get bored with all the hoopla. I just know that it in the foreign, exotic land of that sacred space, it had been the only plot of land on earth where I didn’t have to feel like a stranger anymore.

But now I’m in a yoga studio, laying on a mat, with an EYE-MASK ON. Being taught how to do something as basic as BREATHING all over again…by a gay man. (I can’t even imagine how much some of my friends reading this are going to want to travel back in time, to stage an intervention) I can’t speak for anybody else, but I know that for me, like it was for Blake, the God revealed in Jesus is the only one I know anything about. And good grief—did He meet me with me in that space. The deeper in I went, the more immersed I felt in the love of God. I had never experienced anything like it before.

For one thing, I felt astonishingly safe. So when all the grief pent up in me came out, I didn’t just cry—I wailed. I lost all track of myself. I’m glad they play the music loud, but then again I was probably too far past myself to care what anybody else would have said. Every ounce of grief, guilt, came out in what felt like an eternal kind of travail. And yet I felt so completely loved, somehow beheld so tenderly by the presence of love Himself.

I knew in my head that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” I remembered Sister Anne, when I was on spiritual retreat, asking me to be mindful of God at work holding together the dirt and rocks and sand and sky all around me when I walked the cliffs. But I don’t think I ever KNEW experientially before that moment that God is not just a being, God is being itself. I don’t think I ever really knew experientially the way David described God in the Psalms, “even if I make my bed in hell…even if I take on the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea, you are there.” I don’t think I ever really comprehended that this God literally could not be outrun, no matter where I fled or what I did. The very fact that I exist means I exist in God and am sustained by God, literally with every single breath. The inescapable presence is the only reason I am able tobe…anywhere, anytime, at all.

And because I have not yet successfully alienated enough people—there was a consistent image the last few minutes of the new puppy my parents had bought, Gabi. While staying at their house, a 36-year old man feeling like a complete loser, mind you—them getting that sweet little dog had helped keep me alive. She didn’t judge anything about my life or my heart. She just loved to see me come home to this place that was not my home, and just wanted to be with me and play. The love of God was being manifest in the face of that dog, who never takes her eyes off of me, never wants me to leave, and always wants to draw me into life, laughter, and the wonder of the present moment.

I cried. Then I laughed. Then I cried-laughed, and laughed-cried. You know, it was the experience I always wanted to find in the Pentecostal altar services. And to be clear, I believe in all of that, and think there was in fact an encounter with the Spirit to be had in those places. It wasn’t God who wasn’t ready, but me. Before I was broken open by my own suffering, my own pain, even the pain I caused, I couldn’t have dropped far enough from my head into my heart and body to enter fully into such a moment. Only in the experience of feeling bankrupt in every conceivable way, an absurd man living an absurd alternate version of my own life, that I had no choice but to let go. How could there be any holding off that Presence now, when I couldn’t even hold myself together?

Oh, but it gets better. I’m drunk and near delirious on the love of God, laying on the mat in a yoga studio, in an environment where there are no explicit markers of Christian worship at all. I had been lost in all the ways I never wanted, and thus finally in a posture where I could get lost in all the ways I always did want, but couldn’t. James does little to direct the experience—he lets the Spirit work through us in the breathing. But a few moments later, I felt like God revealed to me an aspect of my life that I was carrying in a way that was positively crushing me, consuming me…killing me. While it was deep, quiet, and entirely interior in the way I understand the voice of God to most often be, it was perhaps as clearly as I felt like I had ever heard the Spirit inside me. Echoing in the deepest chambers of my being, I heard the simple words, “you don’t have to carry it anymore.” Almost as soon as the phrase formed inside me, James bent down and gently whispered in my ear, out loud: “You don’t have to carry it anymore, my brother.”

Towards the end of the session, James bent down one more time and gently laid his hand on me. He was close enough to my head to where I could hear his voice softly above the music behind us.

He was speaking in tongues.

homemade tarts

James has become one of my closest friends. These have not been easy times, and already there have been many opportunities for us to be care for each other in the trenches of our lives. It has been one of the great gifts of this season of my life that he is always there to talk, pray, and struggle out loud with me in my own attempt to follow Jesus somehow in my most desolate places. And I think I have been able to be there for him in some of his desolate places, too—such grace.

A few months later, I was getting ready to spend Thanksgiving day alone. It was just the way it worked out. I was going to have a meal with my Dad’s family the next day, but that day I had no real place to be. Like so much of my life these days, the day was going to quiet. I didn’t begrudge anyone else for being places where music or games would be playing or where children would be laughing—I think a lot of what I have been learning in this season is how to live in the quiet, where the phone seldom rings and the e-mail box rarely dings…and being more or less okay with that. But when James called and invited me over for Thanksgiving lunch, I have to admit—I was thrilled. Perhaps I was not as okay with the idea of being alone on Thanksgiving as I thought I was.

So I come over to the beautiful house James shares with his friend Greg. Strangely symbolic of my life these days, I didn’t have a dish to bring, I was just there to be fed from their table. I sat down around the table with James, Greg, Greg’s boyfriend Kai, their three doting mothers, and a young couple, a man and woman from the UK James is friends with (the young man is apparently 244th from the throne in England—who knew?). So there you have it—three gay guys, the former Pentecostal pastor trying to get his life together, three sweet southern moms in their 60's, and some vague British royalty. What kind of jokes could you make out of us all walking into a bar?

Sitting around the table that day, I had two thoughts: one, all the people in my former life who would, if they saw the scene, say some version of, “look how far he is fallen.” I could think of more than a few who would be sneering when they said it. And alternately I thought, there is no place on God’s green earth I would rather be on this Thanksgiving day than right here, right now.

No longer sitting at the head of Christ’s table with the people who decide who is or is not worthy to receive from it, I was the one in need to be loved and accepted. I was given a place at a table that was not my own. I was the wounded one, being offered bread and wine I did not deserve. There was no hope or expectation that my new friends would see Jesus in me—only an opportunity to see Jesus animated in the faces of my friends, these icons of grace.

James asked me to pray over the meal—”since we do have a pastor with us today…” “Um…former pastor,” I said, laughing. Truthfully, I think James and his friends were precisely the people I always longed to be in community with, but I would not have known then how to get to them, or them to me. So if I could be “pastor” enough for the ceremonial prayer for that Thanksgiving meal, I would take it. When we bowed our heads, it took me a full minute to compose myself enough to pray. There had never been in a place, a moment or a meal I had been more thankful for than I was thatplace, that moment, that meal. The Thanksgiving I had most dreaded was the most beautiful one I had ever had. I felt the same tremble in my lips I get when I take the chalice each Sunday, while kneeling to receive communion.

As we filled our plates with casseroles, the table was filling up with stories. Greg’s Dad had a paralyzing stroke recently, so me and his mom had a beautiful conversation about all that she was coming to see and know through her suffering. Everybody was comfortable talking about their brokenness and pain, but comfortable sharing their joys, too.

You can imagine how many jokes were made after dinner when Kai served his famous homemade tarts.

hold on, let go.

While my world was imploding, I went by myself one Wednesday afternoon to see the film All is Lost. I didn’t go into a movie theater; I went into a metaphor.

Everywhere I turned, there was language and images of sea — symbolic in Hebrew mythology of chaos, of the abyss. I knew no other way to describe the way I felt except lost at sea, adrift and alone. Which is of course precisely what the film is about. In it, 77-year old Robert Redford plays a man whose boat is torn open at sea. His communications system is beyond repair.

The weathered Redford is by himself against the elements, a speck of a human against the unending mystery of the sea. There were two shots in that film that sliced through me. In one, the camera pans up slowly from the tiny raft he now occupied, and just keeps going up, until the perspective crawls over you of just how small he is against the expanse of ocean. But there is a second shot I loved even more — essentially the same shot, but from the bottom of the raft. The camera descends lower and lower, slowly, until not only do you see the tiny raft from the opposite depth, but you see a school of sharks swimming beneath him, undetected by the protagonist.

Months later, I was sitting downstairs in a tiny little makeshift chapel on the bottom floor of a simple condo in San Diego, California. Across from me in the unadorned sanctuary was Sister Anne, a nun in her late 60’s. There were no vestments, no ceremonial attire, just a simple black track jacket. She had a dark, natural tan in the easy way people do in Southern California, her face framed by short, soft white hair and gold-rimmed glasses. Her voice soothed the storm in me. Her eyes, bright and blue and young and curious, peered into the abyss that had swallowed me whole, unflinching. I knew little except there was no judgment in this tiny woman, that love seemed to follow her in like a song. For three days she had been taking me apart, touching all my pressure points gently — I called her the Ignatian ninja.

Sister Anne was also the extremely cultured nun who apparently sees all the credible new art films. She said to me, “Jonathan, I don’t know if you have seen the film All is Lost with Robert Redford? But it makes me think of you. It is about a man who had read all these books about the sea, and had all these wonderful instruments. But it was not until he was an old man caught in a terrible storm that he finally had to learn how to use them for himself.” I could not help but laugh. Sister Anne was apparently an extremely charismatic nun too, because she prophesied over my dry bones better than a thousand faith healers.

Even before Sister Anne used the film to speak into my life, I had just enough sense even in my shattered self to know I was watching my life unfold on the screen of that little theater several months before. I was in fact a man well educated in the realm of books and instruments, but I had not yet survived my own storms. My knowledge was more theoretical than experiential. This was the season of on-the-job, in-the-storm training of the life-or-death variety. This was the divinity school with no roof, no bottom, no boundaries, and no end in sight.

I was a man out of his depth, dealing with the sea that had always been within me. But I never had the scale and perspective to see either my smallness, nor the infinite varieties of creatures that dwelled within my own depths. Of course I did not want to look at them.

hold on

When a storm breaks in the sea of your life, whether it blows in from the world outside you or cycles up from the world within you — the first response is to grasp desperately for something, or someone to hold you. It is not calculated, but instinctive — a mad, almost flailing attempt to find something to grip. There may be little left to hold onto, but there has to be at least some kind of holding on — even if it is just a tacit agreement within yourself to simply survive. In this case, it is not a holding on is not a metaphor or an abstraction. It is a way of finding a reason, however strong or flimsy it might be, to survive.

Looking for something to hold onto, I remembered the first time I could recall being told to “hold on.” It wasn’t in the context of a storm at sea, but the storm that is God and within God, the whirlwind that talks in the book of Job. It was in the beautiful but choppy waters of the Pentecostal altar call, full of hope and violence. In the kinds of churches I grew up in, the invitation for prayer down front was the main event, even more so than the sermon. There was room to dance, room to shout, room for the men in their nicest suits and the women in their finest dresses to be set free into the liturgy of burying your nose into the carpet. Many of those altar calls were in order to receive the Holy Ghost. How desperately I wanted to be haunted by love’s apparition. But I was mostly a little too cerebral for it, too bound up by own fears of God and of freedom and of my true self.

Sometimes when I came down to seek the Holy Ghost, the old saints would be yelling in my ear. The event they were waiting for was for me to speak in tongues — we placed a lot of stock in that experience in particular. But this isn’t about any of the doctrine, this isn’t even about my experience or in some cases lack thereof, but of the instructions I was given. I’d be down front with my eyes slammed shut and my hands stretched up like awkward lightning rods. And some dear sweet old sister would be in one ear shouting, “HOLD ON, BROTHER!” And there would be some dear old sister in the other ear that would shout, “LET GO, BROTHER!”

That, friends, is the Pentecostal version of paradox. I wasn’t ready to explore many others, but that was one I got baptized into early. How is it possible to simultaneously hold on…and let go at the same time? I don’t know that I can even answer that question now, but I do know that life with God exists somewhere at that intersection. That somewhere between holding on and letting go is where you are liable to stumble or perhaps even collide into resurrection. The old-time Pentecostals may have been even more right than they knew.

During my own season, there were many moments where I thought I could not hold on any longer. Somewhere between my aching and hurting and deep shame, I could not envision a life worth living. It felt like desire was dead, that hope was dead. I would check my pockets over and over again to find I was all out of reasons. Once all of the things that propped up your ego are removed, and you begin the long fall, what is there left to hold on to? And who? Even if you could hold on to God, why would you even want to? Whether or not I held on, I’m not sure — I think somehow it may be more apt to say I was held, even if kicking and screaming, by life itself, and therefore by God. I’m sure I’m still holding onto things I shouldn’t be holding onto, and maybe letting go of things I don’t need to let go of too—it is hard to say.

Survival, according to the old version of me, the prodigy preacher, would not be good enough! Our goal in life should not be to just SURVIVE, but to THRIVE. It is the fodder of a thousand sermons. But of course once the ship has run aground, survival is a pretty big deal. There is no more rhetoric about thriving, being your best you, refusing to settle for mediocrity. It takes every ounce of energy and focus you have just to do the small things you have to do in order to simply stay alive. In that kind of fog of disorientation, you easily fall of out step with your body’s most basic needs. You can forget to eat; you can forget to sleep; you certainly forget how to breathe. You forget how to be. There is so much that can change in your life so quickly, or at least there was in mine, that you actually forget how to function. My own body was in such revolt against me, those words brought me back to the most primal realities of being alive in it: of eating and drinking and resting and being. I had to remember on a gut level the things that I normally would never bother to think about consciously — what do I have to do right now to take care of my body enough just to keep it moving without full-on collapse?

If there is any of hope of getting to the shore, there will have to be a kind of holding on. But in my own experience, many of the boards you try to grasp for initially that you think may not hold you up. There are few things I think are safe to universalize here, to say this is what everyone should hold onto. As a Christian, it is tempting to say “well at least you can hold on to Jesus.” But I don’t even know how to say that without qualification.

Holding on to Jesus sounds like it would always be the right thing to do…unless you are Mary Magdalene, when Jesus appears to her first just after rising from the dead. Her world has been eclipsed by the storm. Days before, she watched the man her heart burned for be tortured and killed. Now, the dead man is standing before her. Which is more disorienting? What is for certain is that her world is upside down. Desperately, instinctively, she lunges for what is familiar — the body of Jesus, impossibly standing in front of her now, only a few feet away. “Don’t embrace me, Mary. I have not yet ascended to the Father,” Jesus says. It is not that Jesus was no longer there for her. It is that Jesus cannot be there for her in the ways that he was there for her before; she would have to come to know him in a different way.

Resurrection had not yet finished working out its terrible implications yet. There would be no time to cling to a form of Jesus, an idea of Jesus, a vision of Jesus that she used to have. She would have to know him now on the other side of the trauma that is resurrection, so that even “clinging to Jesus” was not going to work in the ways it had worked already.

You can’t even cling on to the God you knew, only the God you can know now.

Let go

So for Mary, as it is for most of us, the hardest part is not the holding on, but the letting go. That was the part I really didn’t know how to do. Because I never let go. I kept such a tight grasp on anything or anyone I claimed to love, and the more I hurt, dug my talons into anything that would seem to keep me alive. I was so afraid of letting go.

One of the main reasons I could not let go was because I knew I was propping other people up. If I let go, what would happen to the people leaning on to me? My heart was in tatters, but I stood there quivering, still clinging on to the twin pillars of duty and obligation. I was not standing strong, but I was not laying down. Besides, this was a church I had helped bring into the world. What would the church do? I was trying to stay even though everything in me said my time was over, that the only hope for me was to pull the plug and, like Herman’s family did, put real weight down on the hope of resurrection. But I had convinced myself I could not, because too many people and too many things were dependent on me.

It is fascinating to me now to see how there was something that felt pious and noble about that sentiment—it sounds like God and gospel to me, to stay in at all costs because it for someone else’s sake. It is hard to hear the whisper of the ego underneath all of that, the soft chant of demons saying, “You are TOO IMPORTANT,” their eyes full of blood-but wearing the white robes of a priest.

seeing my smallness

I was not going to be able to let go so long as I thought the world was going to collapse if I did so. What I did know was that I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown if I stayed where I was. As bad as I was at listening to my body or integrating it into my spirituality, I could not ignore it this time. So I gathered the pieces of myself that were left to be gathered and headed to that little Catholic retreat center in San Diego on just a few days notice.

That is where I met Sister Anne, the Ignatian ninja. Each day, she sent me out into the place I most tended to avoid in the indoor sport that was my life — into the wild. Sometimes to the cliffs, sometimes to the pier, sometimes up a mountain. She said I needed to clear space for myself, that I needed to get to places where I could see and feel myself from God’s point of view.

She told me to feel the energy of the waves and water and wind — to let the Spirit blow through me and enter me through them. All week, I kept thinking about the verse in Acts where Paul says, “In him we live, and move, and have our being.” I would walk the cliffs, and could not shake my consciousness that the Spirit was actually in the wind. Never before in my life had I been so aware that when I did look at the rocks or at the waves or at the sky, that God was in all of that, was holding all of it. Sometimes I would stop and lay down on the rocks, and I just couldn’t escape the truth of it — “The Spirit is in the wind, the Spirit is in the wind, the Spirit is in the wind.” The inescapability of God’s love stalked me. Whether I made my bed in the hell, whether I take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea — there is no escape from love. It fills all things. The Spirit of God — she fills all things. And I could feel her filling me, fractured and leaking vessel that I was.

I grew up thinking written liturgy was the enemy of the Spirit. I was wrong-it was actually air conditioning. No religion could help me now that insulated me from the essential wildness of things. Cut off from creation, I no longer knew how to be creature. Climate-controlled rooms delude us into thinking we can control God and the world. In reality, the thermostat is about all we can change. I needed to be away from the technology that says “you are really BIG!” Nature says, “you are really, really small.”

I was getting away from my delusions of control. I was getting back in touch with my own breath again. Sister Anne directed me to slow down my breathing, to breathe deeply, to let God set my breathing right again. In the evenings, I would go down to the little library at the center and wrap myself up in a blanket, and imagine that the blanket was the love of God itself. Sitting in the little rocker, I would let myself be held. I would tell God how afraid I was.

“The conversion moment in us is when we see from a new perspective,” Sister Anne said. “Sometimes all we can see is that this is not working for us anymore. That is all you can see, until you are ready to see from that new perspective.” Everything she asked me to do that week was about perspective. To walk along the shore and pick up small rocks, allowing them to become stand-ins for all my troubles — then fling them into the expanse of the ocean. As I did, I grasped their smallness, I heard the small plunk against the backdrop of the roar of the waves.

God looks at us and sees us the way we see ants,” Sister Anne told me one day. “We see them working so hard to build their little structures, and we think it is cute or even admirable. We enjoy their beauty for a moment. But we know the next day, someone will come along and step on their little ant colony, and all that they worked so hard to build will be gone.”

“God sees us as parents would see a two-year old child,” she continued. “They are sorry when they make a mess, but they are not surprised by it. They hate to see them hurt themselves in some way, but they are not angry at them for it. It is also true that our grandest successes, our biggest accomplishments, are like the drawings of a two-year old. He delights in them only because He delights in us, but they are no more impressive. He just likes that we drew it. But they are still very small and simple to such a great God,” she said. “That’s how God sees the book you wrote,” she added, smiling.

Slowly but surely, I was being delivered from my own sense of importance. As I now know, it is possible to devote yourself to a life of piety, keep all the rules, and even engage in the spiritual disciplines — but leave the ego largely untouched. We have developed ways that we can “be a good Christian” without ever embracing the descent into death and resurrection that would actually turn us into good human beings. I think a lot of this has to do with the project that the Church often sanctions every bit as much as the rest of the world — the life of working hard to be a “success.” In the words of Thomas Merton, “If I had a message to my contemporaries, it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, be drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but all costs avoid one thing: success…if you are too obsessed with success, you will forget how to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”

The years prior to all of this had been my most “successful” in ministry. And not just successful in the sense of climbing some ladder of temporal gain — it was the most effective preaching and teaching I had ever done. My own inner angst had driven me deeper into God in many ways, and I had never been more capable of finding insights into others or for others when needed. But there was so much of myself I had kept at bay. Sister Anne helped me to see that I was like the young surgeon she heard lecturing about suffering when she was in medical school (she was a very smart nun) — I knew all about the tools and instruments, but had not known about grief and pain before now, had not had to really wrestle with the mysteries for myself.

I don’t think I had deeply come to know love yet either. In recent years, I had repeated revelation of the love of God, whether through Scripture or books or things I would see in other people. But I had yet to really allow the love of God to settle over me in all my broken places, to come to really know divine love in the parts of me that seemed the most unlovable. My theory is that all of us elder sons of the church, the ones who spend all our lives trying to keep the rules, have a deep suspicion that if we do feel loved and accepted, it is because we are working so hard to get it right. Sister Anne said it takes some people their whole lives to come to really believe that God loves them. But that it had to be learned in a deep, experiential way — as it is the key to existence. She said that no matter how long it took, God was relentlessly determined for me to really KNOW this for myself. Sister Anne said the whole trauma I was experiencing — of going through hell, of falling apart, of death and resurrection, was for my good — so I could really know.

I went on that retreat with very particular questions, looking for very particular answers. They were all about ministry and relationships, trying to figure out what to do next. Per usual, God did not answer any of the questions I went to San Diego asking. But I did feel like God spoke to me, again in that way when you feel things in inside of you shift, and it is as if some new word has been planted in the topsoil of you — small and green and hopeful. I tried to pray a lot that week, often in its most primal forms of letting my very breath become prayer. Mindful, attentive, at peace for the first time in months, I would stand on the pier at night and watch the waves roll in and out, knowing that they were coming in and out long before I got there, and would continue to long after I was gone. Walking through a graveyard on a mountain, I tasted my smallness in a world where so many people are being born and dying, and do so with or without me. Looking out over the ocean, I saw my smallness against the horizon.

I was starting to see more. I was finally seeing the bigness of the world again, and the smallness of myself. The search for “meaning” was a quest for power I was not designed to bear, an obstacle to the grace of insignificance. What could prepare me for the breath of God (Spirit) that hums all life into being, except I be emptied of our pretensions of significance? Divine perspective most of all relativizes our importance. We are each very small creatures. Very little is contingent on us. Knowing our smallness puts us in touch with the essential lightness of created things-transitory, ephemeral creatures. Splendid irrelevance. All lives are small lives, all epic struggles are skirmishes, because we are weightless creations-deceived by an illusory sense of gravity. Inside the movie inside our head, we all feel like we are stars. It’s an illusion. We’re all extras.

The gospel doesn’t fulfill our quest for significance, but exposes its essential folly. It gives us something better than meaning: love. The love of God gives us unfathomable value despite our objective smallness. But still leaves us blissfully unimportant.

As the week unfolded, the two central exchanges in my own time with God, as best as I could discern them, went something like this:

“God, I can’t take this. I honestly think I’m falling apart.

What would be so wrong with you falling apart?”

“Well…I mean, I’ve got this thing you gave me to do. And I don’t think I can do it anymore. I think I’m going to have to go sell french fries at McDonald’s?’

Who told you that you couldn’t work at McDonald’s?”

I was starting to see: I am a creature: made, dependent, small. I know less than I think I do. I think more rides on my existence than it ever does. I was coming to see that wisdom is not having the right answers, but having a proper sense of scale and perspective. Wisdom is embracing our blissful smallness. If we think the world needs us too much, we can’t receive life as gift. And if we can’t receive life as gift, we can’t receive it at all. The tides keep coming in and out; the flowers keep growing, people keep being born and dying. It all keeps running, not contingent on us.

Destinies do not rest on our shoulders. We are given choices, but the cosmos runs with or without us. And it’s all grace.

Ask not for whom the Bell tolls…

I didn’t tell almost anyone about the last part of this story at the time. But looking back, there was one more moment at the end of that week that was actually really pivotal for me. The day before I flew home, at the end of my retreat, I spent a couple of hours with Rob Bell. That is not an attempt to name drop. I do not know Rob well. We have a mutual friend who, when she found out I was going to be in Southern California, offered to connect us simply because she thought the two of us would have a lot in common and would hit it off. I know she felt like somehow the Spirit prompted her to put us together at the time—but I don’t think she could have had any idea just how much that time would really mean to me.

So I drove from San Diego to Laguna Beach, where Rob lives, for a long lunch. I know Rob has been polarizing to a lot of evangelicals (the details of any of that are too tedious to me to even summarize here-I get bored just thinking about those conversations). I’m going to tell you this: I have met a lot of well known Christians writers and thinkers, in the Church and in the academy, and very few have made the kind of impression on me Rob did in that afternoon we spent together. I found him to be gentle, authentic, very much at home in his own skin. He deeply believes in his work and his art. He struck me as a guy who really has learned to live deeply from his soul, and the time with him did so much for my heart. There is no way he could have known what that time would mean for me—for that matter, I don’t guess I could have discerned what it meant for me either.

Through the afternoon, I felt very safe to talk openly about the storm of my life in candid terms, and he could not have been more caring or generous. But the electrifying moment for me came early in our time together. I was asking him about his journey out of the pastorate into the life he is leading now—writing, speaking, doing tv, all kinds of creative projects. I asked him if he missed being a pastor. He said he missed the people of his church, but not pastoring itself, per se—that there were so many ways that the role has come to be defined in corporate terms in North American culture that he never felt at home with. He always had a lot ambiguity about all of that. He talked about how difficult it was to leave the church he had started, and yet how much he believed it was ultimately best both in terms of him fulfilling his own calling, and the church fulfilling her own.

And then came the part that hit me between the eyes: he was talking about how difficult it was to navigate the tension of doing what he genuinely felt most built to do—in terms of shaping culture and speaking into broader culture creatively, artistically, and theologically—while wanting the church he led to be an authentic Christian community that was not overly contingent on him. I had always struggled violently with those issues, wanting to fulfill this broader call I felt on my life that seemed, in a way, prophetic (in that it involved movement building and speaking to larger matters), and yet feeling that was at odds with what I believed ideologically about pastoral work for myself.

During my sabbatical, one of the things that kept filtering back to me was this sentiment of, “we don’t want the church to be a one-man show anymore.” I took any and every personal criticism in that season without resistance (and had worse things to say about myself than anyone else would have, anyway)—except for that one. After all, I did believe in community. I was the last person who wanted our church to feel like a one-man show. I tried to always be forward about my own humanity, deflect any attempts to put me on a pedestal, and leverage any influence to point people to Jesus and others. Without judgment any other direction, we just didn’t have a bright lights, big production kinds of approach to church to begin with, because it didn’t suit the kind of community we wanted to build. I had been as accessible as I knew how to be for the size church we were (I would even go so far as to say that trying to “be there” for too many people, too much of the time, was a lot of my trouble). A lot of that sounds naive and childish to me now—there are plenty of ways to order church life liturgically in a way that would address all of these concerns constructively, but I didn’t actually know how to do any of that then. I did church in the only ways I knew how.

So then comes the line. Rob said, casually, “I got tired of having to get up and make the disclaimer every week that ‘this is not the Rob Bell show.’ Finally I had to own up to the fact that, if this many people are coming because of podcasts or Nooma videos or whatever, and there is this much is built on my teaching, maybe this actually has become Rob Bell show.” Ultimately, he came to believe that for him to do what he was most called to do, and for the church yet to become what it needed to become as a particular community, he would have to disentangle all of those ways that his platform as a leader became inextricably bound up in the platform of the church. He was humble enough to see and internalize the truth in those kinds of critiques, and not resist them.

Of course all of this was on an exponentially larger scale for him than it was for me—I had no delusions of grandeur. I was by no means on my way to “bigger and better things.”I was also well aware that his perspective on these things did not have to come for him with all of the complexities of my personal life at the time. But I knew the whisper of the Spirit was in those words for me. It was like a rope in me snapped. For all the things I had come to own about myself, that was the last untouched area of resistance.

I know that when there is an inner click like that, something in me has changed, but rarely in the moment do I know exactly what it means. I certainly didn’t walk away from that week or that conversation knowing I was going to leave the church, and to some extent, ministry for a time. But looking back, the progression is so clear. All week long, the Holy Spirit had been giving me a sense of scale and perspective to my life again, a slow, steady clarity where I could see my smallness, without resentment. Now things were starting to come full circle. Now in matters larger than my immediate crisis, I was able to accept the truth about other things too—i.e., “just because you don’t want to be this guy, doesn’t mean you are not this guy.” During so much of this season, I am only able to see what the little swath of the path just under my feet, if I’m able to see anything. I see things right when I come upon them, and sometimes while I’m actually half-past them. But I am grateful to be able to see anything at all.

It would still be a while before I came to terms with the necessity of me leaving. I knew that when a church has been built that much around teaching, around a particular leader, my leaving would be as violent for them as it would be for me. I did not want them to have to figure out their journey without me anymore than I wanted to figure out my journey without them. But I had always believed that the Church (any church, but this one in particular) was a work of God’s Spirit and not my own, that it was part of something bigger, stronger, more ancient and more eternal than anyone of us. No matter how much self-loathing I had, I had come to know enough about God that I had to believe He still had good work for all of us, somewhere, somehow—no matter how much I messed up the script. And if God in His generosity was yet going to complete His work in me—surely that had to be true of these beautiful people that I loved. I had to trust both that God was going to somehow provide for me in this terrible task of actually learning how to be a human being all over again, and that he would provide for the Church in learning how to reinvent themselves without their founder.

It was only the fear in me, for my security and for the security of the church, that was screaming, “HOLD ON! HOLD ON!” The still, small voice was much softer, but no less clear: “let go…you have to let go.

I feel ridiculous writing this even now, because there is so much I have not figured out how to let go of. I still have a death grip on the steering wheel in some ways—things, matters, people—I can’t bear to let go of. It feels like one finger is being pried off at a time, and each time I think it’s going to break from all my built-in resistance. I’m still hanging on in more ways than I would like. But I’m glad for the wind of the Spirit that keeps blowing in my life, even when it feels like a hurricane, until I’m finally grasping on to nothing.

the city beneath the sea (a song of descent).

I remember the first time I came to New Orleans in the distant way you remember some near forgotten dream. I remember her like a ghost, like a shadow. I remember the feel of her in my body more than any particular image of her in my head. I was 14 years old, and the occasion, ironically enough, was our the bi-annual meeting of our conservative Pentecostal denomination. Even now it’s hard to imagine the people who populated my childhood walking those dreamy, steamy streets.

The air felt full of sex and saltwater. Church of God preachers in their suits and ties and ladies in their long Sunday dresses were walking down Bourbon Street on their way to worship at the Superdome. Pentecostals, historically, are misfit people, products of the kind of sweaty spirituality that could only be given birth on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. But I would have never known how to put the bodily, ecstatic worship of the Pentecostals with the kind of sensuous delight offered on Bourbon Street. The churches I grew up in, like New Orleans, had a penchant for colorful characters that seemed to walk out of a Flannery O’Connor short story, the fluid, free-flowing improvisation of jazz music, loud clothes and a carny atmosphere. But the sacred and the secular were not on speaking terms; they were as distant as Jerry Lee Lewis from his infamous cousin, Jimmy Swaggart.

I still remember watching the pack of preachers in front of me walk past a stand on the right selling novelty ties made to look like penises (which instinctively seems like it should read “peni”). There was a store on the left where the maniquens were decked out in an assortment of vinyl, leather and lace. Walking past the seedy club across the street advertising women and men performing “love acts” with each other, I felt the sea in me stir — here in the city beneath the sea. Hot damn…it was exciting! And terrifying. I cut my eyes away quickly to the dirty concrete beneath my feet, scared to death by the city and my own longing. I walked the French quarter as a stranger, just a pilgrim passing through, on my way to the Superdome, where the saints were marching in, a little awkwardly — and hopefully one day to heaven. I walked the street as I walked the world so much of my life — as a bystander, a spectator, not a citizen of the parade.

Looking back, I never really learned how to be at home in either world, because I never learned how to be at home in my own skin. I longed for the ecstasy around me in the tent revival every bit as much as I longed for the ecstasy around me on Bourbon Street, but lived too much in my head to get down into my soul and my body. I was stuck in my mind and on the surface of things. In both places, I was too afraid and too self-conscious to get lost in the music. I believed in all of the Pentecostal business. I wanted the jazz in me, the dance in me, the life in me. The life Jesus talked about when He said that “out of your belly will come streams of living water.” God have mercy, I wanted the life that could only be lived from my belly. Then and now, I want to howl; I want to crackle, I want to rumble. I want to talk in tongues.

But then, I walked the streets of my own longing, an insulated boy. Twenty-two years later, I walk down Bourbon Street on a clear December morning. I taste the boozy, swampy smell in the back of my throat. The daylight settles in the French Quarter like a hangover, it feels less like today than the morning after. The city is coming awake like a slow storm rising. There’s a jazz band setting up on the sidewalk just ahead, and from a distance I hear a trombone playing outside the St. Louis cathedral. A man in a suit smoking a slim cigarette approaches when I walk past the strip club: “Come on in…we’ve got cold beers and warm nipples inside!”

I cut up St. Peter St. to get to the cathedral. There are folding tables set up just outside offering palm readings from voodoo spirit guides. As I step through the heavy doors, the smell of sex gives way to Spirit, and I effortlessly slip into the wonder. I walk, trance-like, to the third row on the right, feeling my soul already finding sanctuary in the reverence. Kneeling, I begin to pray through my beads, taking slow, deep breaths in between the Psalm I’m meditating on. St. Louis Cathedral is in the middle of the carnival, the way God always is.

Melting into the presence, awareness creeps through my very bones, and I know God is not only in this place, but all the places I walked past to get here. God in the St. Charles street car I rode in on, in the old black man in the gold and black Saints toboggan sitting beside me; God in the white man with beady eyes in the polyester suit, summoning the tourists into the cathedral with no windows, on their own search for transcendence. God in the lady with the dreads reading Tarot cards just outside the entrance to the church; God in the dazzling art that climbs all the way onto the roof of the cathedral. In the decadence and in the piety, Love itself is sustaining us, making us exist. “In Him we live, and move, and have our being,” the apostle Paul said. In the breathing, my soul knows again there is nowhere God is not. Pressing softly into the divine, all the dualisms are dissolved. There is no us and them, no sacred and profane. There is the Love that exists at the center of things, and we, like sheep, stumbling into or out of awareness of the One who calls us into existence.

What better place to learn this than the city beneath the sea? New Orleans knows that sex and spirituality, voodoo and Catholicism, are two sides of the same mystery. She knows that these little humans all want to get lost more than get found, to drift into a mystery larger than themselves. “Every man knocking on the door of a brothel goes looking for God,” G.K. Chesterton said. She knows that the ordered world is an illusion, so the things we keep under the surface she puts out on the street. She knows that whatever cathedrals we wonder into pay homage to, whether the gods on the wall are Jack Daniels or Jesus Christ, we are all looking to let go. We’re all looking to lose ourselves, into the night and into the wonder. Deep down, we all want to be all in, somewhere — anywhere — so long as we are in over our heads.

The first time I came to New Orleans, everything in my world was sharply divided. The dualisms of head and heart, body and spirit, light and dark, good guys and bad guys were already bone deep. My world was divided into “us” and “them.” That’s the floor beneath us when we are walking above sea level. The world cannot change until we fall into the ocean, or the rain comes and floods us where we are. New Orleans, a saucer twenty feet below sea level, wears these secrets like a scar. She knows that in reality, a flood is always around the corner, we just didn’t know it until we had one of our own. But the saints and sinners march on here without fear. She knows, on a cellular level, that there is life after the flood. The nightmare of Katrina had its way with the city of dreams; the levees broke. The waters were merciless and the losses unfathomable. But she dances still because she knows the secret of death and resurrection. She knows that crisis brings all her misfits together. She knows that after the flood, you make new life the same way she has always made music — by trusting the people around you enough to improvise. She knows there is life on the long side of dying.

In the old New Orleans tradition, even a funeral is followed by a kind of parade. The first line of participants are the friends and family escorting the casket. The “second line” is comprised of the crowd, any passers by who want to join the processional. She is not afraid of death, because she knows even dying is an invitation to a deeper, more authentic way of living, an invitation to join the parade.

When I came back to New Orleans, I came back after my own flood. The life that felt so safe, comfortable and familiar was under the sea, and everything I once loved was underwater. I had lost heart, lost hope, and lost myself in the depths. In other words, I was finally ready to understand the city beneath the sea. It’s no wonder, then, sitting in that open air café, watching the people outside St. Louis Cathedral, there was no more “us” and “them.” I could be kin with the Asian tourists and the grizzly bearded palm reader and the children on the field trip, more happy with each other than impressed by the austere beauty of the church. I felt like I belonged on New Orleans’ island of drunken misfit toys. Instead of judging her, I came longing that this city of second chances might make room for me around her table too. Nobody’s past is counted against them here.

New Orleans doesn’t just smell like sex and saltwater to me anymore. She smells like the gospel.