resurrection

into the abyss.

Even as is was becoming increasingly clear there would no be chance for any kind of wholeness without leaving the church, there were many moments I wasn’t sure if I was ready to step into the void—into the deep black unknowing. The last few chords of any sense of control over my life were snapping all around me, but I still didn’t know quite how to walk away. I think somewhere deep within I knew that leaving the church I planted eight years before would not just be leaving a job, but in many ways leaving the first half of my life.

I remember thinking about my childhood favorite film, The Neverending Story, especially the scenes where you could see “the nothing,” the shadowy void, consuming the land of Fantasia. I couldn’t quite tell if I was watching the Nothing slowly eat away everything I had loved about my old life, or if I myself was the Nothing — if I myself was the hungry abyss. I had kept the rules all my life until now, and been reasonably successful at everything I had ever tried to do. But now everything I touched wasn’t turning to gold, but to ashes.

I had always harbored a secret, irrational fear that I was somehow uniquely wicked, and somehow destined for damnation. And that when I basically had not known what it was to do anything seriously wrong! I wondered if there was a kind of inevitability to watching my world burn while holding the matches. I kept thinking about Johnny Cash’s haunting rendition of “Hurt,” especially hearing the man in black sing, “What have I become, my sweetest friend? Everyone I know goes away in the endYou can have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt.” I wondered if I’d have anybody left if I survived the storm at all. I certainly did not know if God would be there for me, if God could be there.

For all the ways I had preached a gospel of grace, and was genuinely convinced of the truth of it for others, my own relationship with God had always been a kind of uneasy one. It was always easier for me to speak about God than to speak to Him — maybe that is true for most of us? I don’t know. I just know that it was a very different thing to try to cling to the lifeline rope in the high seas that were drowning me than it had been to be the one holding out the rope.

the friend of sinners

Christians often speak casually about “friendship with God.” One day I was sitting in the little condo I had temporarily, shriveled away from everything and everyone I cared about — often going three days at a time without seeing anyone I knew. And out of nowhere, I thought about the phrase used in the gospels to describe Jesus, sometimes derisively from his critics — “the friend of sinners.” And somehow the word “friend” just broke me in two.

For me there is always something sweet, almost childlike about the word “friend.” “Friend” was a word that somehow put me in mind of things I thought of as gentle as a child, things I thought of as purely good. I was a soft-hearted kid. I thought of all puppies as “friends.” I loved puppets in general and muppets in particular — I thought of Kermit and Miss Piggy and Gonzo as friends, and as my friends. When I was six, they showed a movie at youth camp about this sweet guy who had a puppet ministry. Some mean teenagers broke into his workshop at night, and vandalized the puppets. The point of the little movie was the mean kids felt bad later and asked Jesus into their hearts, and became good kids. But I never got past the idea that there was anybody out there who could stand to hurt a puppet, and had nightmares about it. Now I was the mean kid who hurt the puppets, who hurt all the friends, and I didn’t know how to live with it.

I was old enough now to know that friendship was a holy thing too, especially when I read descriptions of it in antiquity, from the likes of Thomas Aquinas. I knew it too as a terrible word, especially when offered as an unlimited, irrevocable love and loyalty all the way up into the end. It is Jesus in the garden, eyes full of tenderness, not a taste of sarcasm on his tongue when he says to Judas, “Friend, do what you came here to do.”

Despite my ability to think about God and write about God and speak about God in intimate ways, I never quite knew how to relate to that God as “friend.” With hot tears rolling in waves down my cheeks, I remember saying out loud, “Jesus, I hear that you are the friend of sinners. I’ve never been good at being with friends with much of anyone it seems, and I sure enough don’t know how to be friends with you. But if it’s the sinners that you are friends with, I know now for a fact that is what I am, and I sure you could use a friend like you right now if you would have me.” I needed to know friend Jesus. I needed to know I had not run him off. I hoped I wasn’t big enough to run him off.

Some of the worst moments were the ones where I somehow knew he was still around, maybe that if anything the wreckage of my heart had pulled him deeper into it. I see now the folly of people thinking God is punitive ogre who is out to get sinners for their misdeeds, that wrath is the “other side” of God that somehow balances out the love that is what God actually is. That god is a deity with a personality disorder — he’s the Batman villain “Two-face,” where one side is pretty and one side a horror show. Christians are only supposed to only focus on the beautiful side and not look at the ugly one, because of course if we saw Him for the monster that He might actually be, there is no way we could worship a being like that. I know now that is all wrong. The God who is fully revealed in Jesus Christ is love and only love. But to look at that divine gaze from a place of guilt, the love is experienced as wrath. The love has not changed, but our perspective on it has changed — we now see through a glass darkly, not face-to-face.

I never will forget reading the Dominican priest Herbert McCabe’s astonishing sermon “forgiveness” on the prodigal son, where he says that is what sin does to us — it does not change God, but it changes our view of him, so that we cannot help but see him through a distorted lens. Hell then would be to be stuck in that horrible view of God as ogre, not allowing him to heal our eyes so we could see him rightly, and unable to snap out of our heart’s drunken haze. These were things that I knew, things that I believed, that I had preached and taught.

But looking up from my own place of desolation, I didn’t know how to see Him at all, and I could only see myself as “the nothing.” What we see when we see God always determines how we will see ourselves. We are always made in the image of the God that we see.

One day I was sitting on the bed, and began to pray for everyone else in my life that I loved, including the ones I felt estranged from. As I prayed the things that came up inside me, I could not seem to help but pray specifically for God’s hand to be on each one of them. And then came an unexpected river of lava, coming from somewhere even deeper, moving from praying to screaming. “But whatever you do, please take your hand off of me. Please just LEAVE ME ALONE. Please let go of me. Please, please, please just let me go. Please let me be.”

standing over the edge

There was another day while still on my kamikaze mission to repair my heart and life in the context of pastoral ministry where I was in a series of back-to-back meetings, and I kept feeling I was running out of breath. I kept smiling and nodding politely, but I was getting more scared with each new episode. The last meeting of my day was with a girl from Iowa who had come into town just to visit our church. I talked with her for a few minutes, and then excused myself. I ran outside, hoping somehow there was more oxygen out there than there was inside, and still didn’t feel like I could fill my lungs. I went to the emergency room, thinking surely there was something medically wrong with me. They did all the tests — nothing wrong so far as they could see, certainly not a heart attack. I wished there were at the time, just so I could know that there was something wrong with me that a doctor or medication could fix. Or maybe even not be fixed at all, so long as I could check into a hospital and out of my life.

The next morning, I had another terribly difficult conversation with someone close, and I was right back in the same state of anxiety. I was tired of being out of breath, feeling dizzy, having a high-pitched, squealing ring in my ears as much as I was. Stupidly, I got in my car and drove to nearby Crowder’s mountain, out of my mind with guilt and grief. I climbed the mountain, as I had done hundreds of times before. I went to the edge of the rock at the top, and I stared into the gorge — unmoved by the beauty of any of the things around me. In my head, I thought there was no way I could jump off that mountain. I knew it was a selfish act that would only punish the people I loved, and I would never want that. But I also was not in my right mind. Like never before in my life, I did not feel fully in control of my faculties. It was like hot pain was animating me, moving my limbs. I was consumed by it. I could not see hope, I could not see a future — which is a way of saying I could not see God. I was staring into the abyss, and all I wanted in that moment was let the darkness overtake me. Anything to just not feel anymore.

I looked at my phone, thought about who I’d text or call to say goodbye if that was what I ever had to do. Amanda texted to check on me, which I will be forever grateful for. At first I did not respond; I could not respond. But slowly I started to come out of the fog, started to come back to my senses.

There was no explicit experience with God. But I do think that day there was an experience of something God placed within us, though I’m not sure if it is more human or animal. Somehow when I walked down the mountain, I knew I was going to live, even though I did not know how to live anymore. I knew I had to live. I knew I would fight to live. I knew that no matter where the fuel came from, whether the substance was light or dark, there was still some kind of coal being shoveled into my engine, and that one way or the other the train still runs — into heaven, into hell, or more of this no man’s land in-between. I had no better idea of where my life was going or what I was going to become. Just that I had to stay in the game, and that I wasn’t bowing out for anybody.

That would have been one way of jumping into the void, not into the ambiguity but just the darkness. From somewhere in me, the animal defiance came up that says “I may feel like dying, but I actually don’t want to die.” But that did not mean the void would not have to be crossed, or that there was not a yet a kind of void I was going to have to take a dive into.

The abyss I would have to plunge into was a kind of unknowing. It was a loss of control, it was “someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” There was going to be no going around that abyss, and to jump into the other one would just be cheating. The gambler in me still wanted to play the hand, win or lose.

into the pool

A few weeks later, I took the dive I did have to take. It was a terrible thing to meet with our leaders and friends in the Church to tell them what we were doing. Some were encouraging, some were hurt, some were angry. I was more or less impervious to any of that by then, because I knew that even there was hell left ahead of me it would be better than the one I was leaving behind. I could not be a damn ghost haunting the halls of that building anymore. The animal in me had put his foot down.

My last few sermons were probably my best — they were full of heart and passion and truth. They were not noble — nobility was not an option from anywhere that I was, they just were what they had to be under the circumstances. But the rawness of them was killing me too. It is one thing to try to make your pain available to God and others in a vulnerable way as a wound for God to heal others, and I do believe that is how God works. But it is another thing to become an exhibition, to feel like people are watching you like a science experiment. Like when I put my G.I.Joe’s in the microwave when I was a kid as the ultimate torture chamber, just to see what would happen to them (spoiler alert: they caught on fire and melted into a red plastic pool of goo). I loved our people, but I didn’t care about doing any of that anymore. Another reason I had to go.

I had especially dreaded telling my parents that I was leaving. I was a third- generation Church of God preacher. The church was ten minutes away from my Dad’s house where he would soon retire, and he had an office there down the hall from mine. All along, he had wanted me so desperately to find a way to stay. I felt like leaving would be extinguishing his dream, and didn’t want to feel like more of a disappointment. But to my surprise my Mom and Dad were very supportive. They had seen me bleeding out, and they didn’t want that for me. If it would take leaving the church to find wholeness, then that is what they wanted for me.

It all felt so strange. I had been in full-time ministry since I was 22 years old. I had been thrust immediately into the role of expert on God before I knew anything about God or life or how the world worked, really. Some people thought I was some kind of prodigy as a speaker, but whether or not I was a prodigy, I had not had the time or space to develop my own soul. I didn’t care anymore about whether or not I was good at any of the things I had set out to do, I just wanted to figure out how to be a human being. I wanted to figure out how to live out of my soul rather than out of my head. I did not want to be separate from anybody else, set apart from anybody else by virtue of what I did for a living. I wanted to be a real boy.

Barbara Brown Taylor is one of my favorite writers, and I read her lovely, lyrical Leaving Church years before. But knowing that I must leave, I reread it, and this time it was like ingesting fire. They spoke so hot into my soul, it was like they came down from Sinai. There is this one section in particular where Taylor writes about being at a pool party hosted by someone in the church, and feeling the ache of being other than the people there in ways she could not bear. She tells about sitting down with a couple in adjacent rocking chairs that she was never able to enjoy, because her priority was always to be the people who were in crisis. She tells about laughing with them, while corn is stuck in her teeth. And then the section that made life bubble up in my veins, the section that felt like salvation:

After my supper had settled I wandered down to the pool, where I watched swimming children splitting beams of underwater light with their bodies. I had baptized many of them, and I loved seeing them all shrieking and paddling around together in one big pool. Suddenly to my right there was a deeper yell, the sound of scrabbling feet on cement, and then a large plop as a fully clothed adult landed in the water.

I stood back and watched the mayhem that ensued. All around me, people were grabbing people and wrestling them toward the water. The dark night air was full of pool spray and laughter. The kids were going crazy. Several people hunting for potential victims turned toward me, their faces lit with smiles. When they saw who I was they turned away again so that I felt sad instead of glad. Whatever changes were occurring inside of me, I still looked waterproof to them. Like the sick man in John’s gospel, who lay by the pool of Beth-zatha for thirty-eight years because he had no one to put him in when the water stirred up, I watched others plunging in ahead of me. Then two strong hands grabbed my upper arms from behind, and before I knew it I was in the water, fully immersed and swimming in light.

I never found out who my savior was, but when I broke the surface, I looked around at all of those shining people with makeup running down their cheeks, with hair plastered to their heads, and I was so happy to be one of them. If being ordained meant being set apart from them, then I did not want to be ordained anymore. I wanted to be human. I wanted to spit food and let snot run down my chin. I wanted to confess being as lost and found as anyone else without caring that my underwear showed through my wet clothes. Bobbing in that healing pool with all those other flawed beings of light, I looked around and saw them as I had never seen them before, while some of them looked at me the same way. The long wait had come to an end. I was in the water at last.

I love that section for so many reasons. One of the things that moved me most at the time was the way that Taylor, a literary genius, subtly plays with the motif of baptism here. Water is integral to life, to new birth. There has always been a mysterious connection between the sea, in antiquity the place of chaos and mystery, and the void of Genesis 1. There is no new life without passing through the waters, like the Hebrews marching through the Red Sea as God parted them. In the New Testament, there is no new life without joining Jesus in the watery grave. Once again, Christianity is the religion of going-through-and-not-around. I had talked about it for so long. Now it was my turn to jump into the pool.

into the watery grave

It was Easter Sunday at Renovatus. I preached on the first words of Jesus when he appeared to the disciples after his resurrection: “do not be afraid.” I said that I thought you could sum up the whole of God’s message to human throughout Scripture and throughout history — do not be afraid. I told them these are words that are spoken when it would seem to us that we have every reason in the world to be afraid. That God speaks them when He is about to do something new. And in the midst of this sermon on death and resurrection…I announced that I was leaving. Only our leaders knew we were leaving before that service. Like “The Grinch who Stole Christmas,” I felt like I was the pastor who stole Easter.

Of course I felt ridiculous announcing my departure on the Sunday with the biggest attendance of the year, when everybody has dressed up and brought their friends. But I was not going to keep grabbing every rung of the ladder on the way down, trying to salvage the unsalvageable. I was not going to stay plugged into the ventilator. The only message that I could preach was the only message my life could be at that point, and was the message of death and resurrection.

I knew that even though I would be there one more week, it had to be my last sermon. It just had to be. I could not drag the ending out any further. I was in every sense of the word done. I was Pharaoh not letting my true self go, and in doing so feeling every plague in my body. I said I would be there the next Sunday for a transition service, but I would not preach again. The message of death and resurrection had finally grabbed a hold of me, not in the way it grabs a hold of a preacher but in the way it grabs a hold of a man. I had no idea what I was walking into. I was stepping into a starless night. I only knew it was time to cash in all my chips on the hope that resurrection could be a better existence than the one I was sort of maintaining. I knew it was time.

At the end of both services, I baptized people for the last time at this church I had founded and given my life too. I felt the holiness of each of them as I gently handled wet bodies, the tour guide for their own descent. In the 9am service, I was almost done baptizing people, when Heather Shelton came out of her pew as if she was in a trance. Her lips were quivering, her face contorted in anguish. It was her father Herman who we had buried just a few weeks before, and everything about his early departure was filled with ambiguity. It had been a torturous ride for Heather, the ordeal of her father’s fall, the many hours in the hospital, the celebration that he was better and resuming normal life, the second tragic turn that led to his death, the weight of the decision to pull the plug.

Heather kicked her flip-flops off when she got down front, and practically threw her cell phone onto the stage. As she took off her glasses and I helped her into the pool, it was not the cherubic look of a new convert on her face, excited about new faith in Jesus. It was a mix of resignation, heartbreak, an almost angry determination, and yet a kind of hope too that if she could jump into the river that carries us toward death, there could be new life for her too. Already, my nerves were jangled and my heart tender, the day being what it was. But baptizing Heather that day was something other entirely — I can’t bear to not capitalize that. It was something Other.

It was my last opportunity to perform one of the sacraments I most held dear, to wash my hands in the holiness of God’s sons and daughters. Heaven was skidding into the ground, and the people just kept coming and coming.

By the time I finally got done baptizing people at the second service, I looked to my right at Teddy Hart. Teddy was our staff pastor. He was protégé and one of my closest friends. He had been with me since year one, transitioning from a life more or less biding his time in Cleveland, TN to becoming an extraordinary preacher, pastor and friend. A sensitive soul, Teddy’s eyes were already red from all the tears he shed that morning.

Teddy…do we have time for one more?”

Since it was Easter, I was wearing a suit and tie. I did not bother to change, I only took off my shoes. And I joined my people in the abyss. I loved them, and I didn’t want to miss my one and only remaining opportunity to jump into the pool with them. I didn’t have anybody else to baptize. My last official act as a pastor was already done. I was going to the pool not as anybody’s priest, but as one of them.

The water was cold. My heart was hot. Baptism has a celebratory aspect, but I had no delusions that those moments were anything less than my own little funeral. I did not yet know what kind of man I would become when I got out of the water. I had no idea what my life would become. Like the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, I only knew that angels had been in this water, and wanted my broken down body in the pool, in the wake of them.

The life I had built was over. Everything I had been, I was no longer. I had no sense that the water of baptism would make me something more, like they’d turn me from Clark Kent into Superman. But could they turn me into something human? Like Barbara Brown Taylor, I wanted in the water because I wanted to embrace my full humanity in the company of my friends, vaguely aware that becoming more human is to have the image of God in us renewed.

Teddy held his hand over my nose. I felt his tears on my head. He could barely get out the words: “Pastor…I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.” I took the plunge. When I came up, I clutched him like I was drowning rather than being baptized. I suppose in a sense I actually was, maybe they were always the same thing anyway.

I heard my friends weeping all around me. We all knew this was goodbye

the death chapter.

“I saw Satan fall like lightning,” Jesus said. If only we could be so lucky. Only Satan fell like lightning, the rest of us fall much more slowly, hitting every step on the way down.

My first conversion

Walking into the pale yellow forest that was the hospital, I thought the fluorescent lights turned them into the color of tobacco-stained teeth. I felt my stomach contort unnaturally, like a circus act. I was twenty-one, just married, and suffering was an exotic land I had no reason to visit as of yet. I was a tourist, a first-time guest, and this was the first stamp on my passport. Nothing about the place felt familiar to me.

An hour before, I had listened to the breathless voicemail from Angela, one of my best friends in high school. I knew her father, Henry (not their real names), had HIV for years. In recent months, his body gave way to full-blown AIDS, and he was dying. So I left my home country for the first time for the sake of my friend. Just before I knocked on the door, I took a deep breath to let my nerves settle.

Angela opened the door and embraced me, tightly. To me, the middle class product of conservative, tent revival religion, she was the epitome of cool. Her mom was a playwright. Even when we were in high school, she was on a first name basis with all the local black politicians. She had introduced me to people like former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, who ran unsuccessfully against our infamous Senator Jesse Helms, and congressman Mel Watt. When she graduated from college, she got her picture taken at the after party with Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Maya Angelou. She had helped open me up to radical new ideas, like that democrats were not necessarily going to roast in a low-level of Dante’s inferno. We had lived through some things, but I had never seen her hurt like this.

Releasing her, I took Henry in slowly, his dark black skin stretched thin over brittle bones. The healthy forty-something I saw the last time I was with him had been replaced with a skeleton man.

Angela quickly introduced me to Diane, the social worker who had been helping him. We exchanged pleasantries, and they caught me up on Harold’s decline in the last few days. He was unconscious and pumped full of morphine. It was only a matter of time, the doctor had said. They were just trying to keep him “comfortable.” The farewell vigil was crawling forward, and there was nothing to do but keep watch until his body gave up its long protest with death.

A few minutes later, Diane said she needed to go outside for a smoke, and Angela and I followed her out. Not for a smoke, mind you. I had never tasted alcohol or tobacco, and might not have cussed if I had smashed my thumb with a hammer. Angela was my progressive friend, but I was all old-time religion. Diane found out I was planning to go into the ministry, and she was elated. Because as it turned out, this chain-smoking angel with the short hair and crooked teeth loved some Jesus.

If I barely passed through customs into the land of pain, I was equally unfamiliar with the territory Diane inhabited. She was irreverent, bawdy, and funny as hell. During the next three days while the three of us kept watch in the little island of pain, I was utterly delighted by her. Diane’s ease with profanity was matched by her ease with talking Bible, and I equally impressed with both. She talked about that story where Jesus “whipped everybody’s asses in the temple.” And the story where Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery, and in her words, “wrote every single last one of those motherfuckers’ sins in the dirt.”

I didn’t judge Diane, but I felt under a kind of gentle judgment being with her. Not because she was anything less than loving — Diane’s profane language was baptized in unconditional love you could feel all around her. I just felt self-conscious about my one-night stand with suffering, around a woman who’d been in such a long, monogamous relationship with it. Diane spent her life with people like Henry for very little pay. She was with people who hurt because it was the life she chose on purpose. Her life more resembled the kind of selfless life I read about in the gospels than that of people like me, and my sheltered little brain just didn’t know exactly what to do with that.

For three days, we laughed together, cried together, and held each other like three little Eskimos, keeping the cold of the night at bay. There were moments of terror as Henry’s body rebelled against him, breaking into convulsions like I had only seen on the pale blue carpet at campmeeting, hillbilly Pentecostal that I was. There was no resurrection on the third day, just the sweet release of man in great pain finally letting go of his runaway body.

***

The Catholic funeral was a sea of black faces. It was equal parts liturgy and shout. I had never witnessed anything like it — the ancient rhythms of the old words with the thumping rhythm of our bodies in the church. It felt alive, authentic, sensual. I don’t know how much I recognized of the Spirit in those days, my senses yet a lump of clay not yet by the strong hands of pain or the warm hands of joy. But I recognized the Spirit that day — she moved through us like a dance, her steps both heavy and light.

I didn’t have the ecclesial stripes to officiate such a service, and wouldn’t have been ready for the holiness of such a thing anyway. But Angela was kind enough to ask me to do the New Testament reading in the service. I felt their dance lilting through me when I read the words. I got done, closed my Bible, and took three steps toward my seat, before I turned around and went back to the podium — remembering what the guy who did the Old Testament reading did at the end. Leaning into the microphone tentatively, I said “The word of the Lord.”

“THE WORD OF THE LORD,” they thundered back.

I never saw Diane again after the graveside service. She hugged me tightly, and I couldn’t believe how much the smell of her cigarettes felt like home to me after just those three days we spent together. She told me what a fine young man I was, that if I ever started a church in the area, it would be a church she felt like she could actually attend. I felt the sincerity in her words, but they undid me. I went back to the little apartment in rural Kings Mountain, NC where Amanda and I lived, the renovated barn loft over so far as I know the town’s only porn studio (these were humble times). I buried my nose into the covers on our bed and sobbed. The time in the hospital and at the funeral had been holy as an Easter mass, but it was the first time I knew I didn’t have any business leading anybody’s church yet.

I was 21 years old, and had prayed to ask Jesus into my heart in the altar of at least half of the thousands of church services I had already been to. But that was the moment of my first conversion.

Go tell it on the mountain

There are moments in life holy enough to brand us, the angels pressing the iron of love into us like holy cattle. Such moments don’t so much give us new belief systems, per se — those are less permanent, more like temporary tattoos. When the divine touches us, we aren’t given a new way of thinking so much as a new way of seeing. That is of course what Christianity has always been — not a fragile belief system to compete with the others, but a different way of seeing God and others, that, once glimpsed, is hard to un-see.

But that is not to say it can’t be done. Holy experiences are hard, dense, substantive — they don’t evaporate because we get around the common or the profane. They are waterproof and bulletproof, and will survive almost anything…except to speak of them too much. Talking too much about them will erode them the way the elements of life, of wind and sun and rain, never could.

Reluctantly, the call that took hold of my father and grandfather fell on me, and I inherited the family business. I was talking about Jesus full-time for a living, without Diane’s profanity, and maybe without her orientation in real-life, too. When you’re peddling religion like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, what else should you talk about if not your conversion?

I told about Henry and Diane every where I went, in the little rural Church of God congregations where I learned to preach, and in the mid-sized church in Gastonia, NC where I soon after went to work. I was a youth pastor. I had lunch with students at their high schools, organized the occasional lock-in, and when given the microphone, talked about Jesus like nobody’s business.

Soon after my experience with Henry, I read the story in Acts where Philip, an orthodox Jew who became a leading man in the fledgling Jesus movement, was taken by the Spirit from preaching to the crowds, into the desert. There he meets an Ethiopian eunuch, a man ethnically and religiously very much unlike him. According to Levitical law, this foreigner who mutilated himself for a place in his Queen’s high court would have been ceremonially unclean. According to Philip’s religious culture, the man’s sex organ was mutilated, but he could not deny the purity of the foreigner’s heart. Riding in his chariot, the man had been reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, his heart as hot as the desert road they had been traveling. When Philip explained that the figure in the ancient texts was Jesus of Nazareth, the eunuch received it as happily as Philip once had. As soon as they saw found a little water off the road, the eunuch insisted being baptized.

I felt like a young Philip, having all my preconceptions about who God should act upon shattered on my own desert road. Like Philip, I took a detour from the fire of the revival service, and found the fire on a dark-skinned foreigner — and found the Spirit to be more powerfully present there than under the tent where we had campmeeting. I never had the convulsions other people had on the ground beneath me in the altar services, but I saw God in Harold’s shaking body, and I was determined to tell the people in my world what I saw and heard.

In the sermon, I didn’t just talk about Philip and the eunuch — I talked about Jesus. Jesus, the friend of tax collectors and whores. Jesus, the friend of the outcasts and the misfits. The Jesus who defied the purity codes, refusing to acquiesce to the idea that anybody or anything he would ever touch could somehow make him less holy, instead infusing holiness into everything and everybody he ever touched. There was something in me that burst into flame every time I preached that sermon.

There was a rage in me too, because I knew that what I encountered in the text and in Harold’s heaving body rebelled against the kind of fundamentalism that often became entrenched in the circles I ran in. But I was smart enough not to make any of the particular points clear enough to get myself kicked out of the synagogue, and nobody felt like they could argue with the Bible. Especially since that sermon brought out an anger and an edge in me that was generally synonymous in our tradition with “the anointing.” If you were confident and a little bit pissed, then the Spirit was surely on you. I had passion if nothing else, and the “the anointing” turned me from Clark Kent into Superman — at least for 45 minutes a week.

My heart felt soft in those days. Even before the experience with Henry, I had enough friends of different cultures and backgrounds that I had long thought of even my most different friends as “my people.” I would not have hurt any of them. But in my own church context, I had to be careful how I spoke of them. It’s a fine line trying to proclaim the Jesus who is the friend of sinners, and trying to claw out your place in an institution that is often scared to death of them. I couldn’t laugh when other ministers told jokes about people I loved, but I managed an awkward smile. I remember a moment in particular when a minister I had once admired, around the table with a group of pastors, gave his reaction to a minister who had been recently defrocked after being caught in a gay affair. “It’s a good thing I’m not God,” he said. “Because if I were, I’d have frozen that man’s mouth while he had his mouth around that other man’s penis, and I’d have turned him to stone.” He was smiling when he said it, but he was not kidding. Inside, I trembled, but I wasn’t going to make the mistake of the man in question, and open my mouth at the wrong time.

A song of ascent

A few years later, I preached my signature a sermon again on a Sunday night. This time, it was in a sanctuary packed tight with 2200 people. I was wearing my best suit. It was my first service preaching back at the mega church where I had just been hired, and this was my moment. Until it was time to preach, my nerves were runaway horses. I was sweating profusely. The choir was singing the house down, and it was the last song. The last thing I wanted to do was miss my cue, so when they finished the belting out the last chorus, I bolted to the stage. And in doing so, unwittingly jumped the gun. I made it up the steps and got two steps from the podium — when they jumped back into the chorus. The lights were hot on me, and I was already all the way up there. So I did what any good Pentecostal boy would do when you blow your cue — I lifted up my hands and said, “Hallelujah!,” and praised my way through the reprise.

It was an awkward way to start. But when the choir got done and everybody clapped, I got down to business, and as it always was when the moment to deliver the word, the jell-o of my insides turned to steel, and I preached like a burning man, a fire and brimstone preacher of love. I believed every word. I told Henry’s story, like I always did. I talked about eunuchs and AIDS and proclaimed Jesus as the friend of sinners. I didn’t know how the sermon would go over in that environment. But a few minutes later, my pastor, who was my favorite preacher in the world (and the preacher who-to this day- has most shaped my own preaching with his vulnerable, heart-first approach), stood to his feet and said amen. A few minutes later, everybody was on their feet, and broke into wild applause only 75% into the message. It was without question the best night of my young life. When Amanda and I ate cheesecake in the upscale bistro after the service, I thought I had arrived.

In the years that followed, I learned to navigate the complicated un-parallel universes of the denomination, church culture at large, and my growing compassionate convictions. I was a 25-year old kid with a full-time staff underneath me in my department, and a five-million dollar outreach center to work with — while my own theology was still in an adolescent phase of development. There were wonderful people there I loved very much, and still do, from leadership on down. There were also the typical kinds of random “controversies” that are just par for the course when you’re working at a big church in the south—the guy on staff who said I shouldn’t quote C.S. Lewis (from that first sermon!) because he read online he was a closet universalist, the couple who tried to get me fired for saying “crap” and quoting an old song from the Police in the same sermon (“secular” music & all), and the parents who were on a crusade to keep our outreach center from being defiled by students with tattoos and body piercings. I slowly learned how to navigate the politics that go along with that kind of ecclesial life—perhaps too well? But in any case, I was on the perfect career path within my tradition — young, upwardly mobile, a capable preacher, even picking up some degrees along the way.

I never exactly stopped caring about the Harold’s of the world, I was just wasn’t in a position to be around them anymore. Wasn’t it just like a suburban white kid to feel like he won a gold medal for going into a moment of real suffering for five minutes and letting his heartbreak over it a little? I got banged up a little in the culture wars everybody in my world ambled into. I had my one holy story tucked inside me enough to keep my heart tender, but I talked it out of my system just enough to keep it from getting me into trouble.

Looking back, I think the storm of my second conversion was rising in me even then, but it was going to be much more painful than my first.

Opening the big tent

I do not want to be too hard on the 25-year old young man. There was a bright, naïve kind of goodness in him. That version of me was sincere — a true believer. I could only see what he could see, and could not see what I could not see, as it is for each of us. In the decade following that night, we went on to found a church called Renovatus: A Church for People Under Renovation. We said we were a church for liars, dreamers and misfits. And I can assure you, I thought about Diane a lot in those early days. She said she had a hard time finding a church in our bible-belt town of Charlotte, NC where she felt at home. And I planned to make sure the church I founded would be the kind of church where she did feel at home, if I ever saw her again. And hopefully a church that could have been a good home for Harold — God, I wanted that.

It became a beautiful community with many beautiful people. Along the way, the tent of my big tent revival religion got considerably larger than it used to be. I came to reject the idea that my native Pentecostalism was supposed to be a fiery form of fundamentalism, set apart just because people spoke in tongues. I came to believe that Pentecostalism was misfit religion, spirituality on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. I believed that when people who couldn’t find any other place to belong elsewhere came together and shared a combustible experience of the Spirit, Pentecost would happen.

The Spirit after all is the ultimate non-conformist, the archenemy of the efficiency so much contemporary church culture prizes above all else. To be clear, there are many deeply Pentecostal people that are not in Pentecostal churches. The Spirit people — the subversive people — are in all parts of the Church. But we had more than our fair share there.

We were coming to see that Pentecost was big tent religion, an open tent with no sides to it. Everyone is welcome. That was what was so shocking about the Pentecostal movement in its origins — women were preaching, blacks and whites and Hispanics were worshipping together in the same rooms all the way back in 1906. Pentecost is scandal. You can’t get more progressive than the Spirit of God, because the Spirit brings the future reign of God into the present, disrupting all our existing categories of left and right and Jew and Gentile and male and female and slave and free, makingall things new.

It was a grand experiment, and there are all kinds of wonderful stories I could tell you about. But I won’t. I told many of those stories in my first book, a book that started by revisiting those native moments of innocence and wonder that call us back to primal memories of a garden paradise. These experiences maybe even more universal than our shared experiences of naïve bliss — the story of paradise lost, of falling, losing, and having to find yourself again.

I was still the fire and brimstone preacher of love, maybe even more so. And had even had experiences in more recent years that awakened my own understanding of God’s love for me in ways that I could not have imagined. But I was also still the young idealist who lived too much in his head. I didn’t know how to fall out of my head and into my heart. I didn’t know how to fall, period. I was preaching, teaching, enlightening, and like I was in my days at the mega-church, still entrenched enough in Bible-belt culture to be dodging bullets. I was still sincere, still a true believer. I believed in grace for everyone else I knew, and may have thought I believed it for myself, theoretically. But it had never been tested. By then, I had been the guy dispensing the information through preaching and writing and podcasts, still basically living out the script I fell into without significant deviation. I was still living up to the expectations assigned to me by others and by myself from early in my life.

my terrible Augustinian moment

It was eleven years after that Sunday night sermon, now two am on a Saturday night. Once again, I could not sleep. In a few hours, it would be time to preach twice in my own pulpit. Tired of laying awake alone in the guest bedroom, I finally turned on the lamp beside my bed. It had been five months since the world I had built had gone up in flames, and it was all my fault. It was like a Hollywood make-up artist had transformed me during those long months — I saw the shadows underneath my eyes getting larger, watched the white hairs in my beard turn into wildfire, and picked a big clump of my once thick dark brown hair out of the drain in the shower every morning. I didn’t know how I was going to get up and face them again, much less my own face in the mirror.

I picked up the John Irving novel off of the bedside table, the one with the black and white cover showing a woman’s back as she unlatched her bra. Only when I read the novel, In One Person, I found out it was actually a man. I picked up the paperback in an airport a few months ago when I was on my way out of town to speak at another conference. At the time, I knew next to nothing about the story. I only knew that I loved John Irving ever since I read A Prayer for Owen Meany. Before the storm, I read about half of it. And to my shame, I put it down because I quite honestly did not know how to deal with the graphic descriptions of gay sex. The story of the young boy growing up in an all-boys school in New England trying to sort his sexual identity moved me. But it was the first novel I’d ever read where the protagonist was gay or bi-sexual. I was no Puritan — the book did not offendme. It was not intentionally lurid, like a romance novel, just frank. I just didn’t know quite how to handle such bodily frankness, especially in a context so completely foreign to mine.

So now I picked it back up that night, in a very different place in my life then. The church we planted was eight years old, and my life had still fairly upwardly mobile. I wasn’t pretentious; I didn’t think I was special because more people liked my sermons. But after living my whole life until then on the straight and narrow, never straying outside any of the parameters of the life I was born into, for the first time I felt like my life had gone out to sea.

Unlike the protagonist in Irving’s novel, I was not a homosexual. Like the protagonist in novel, I had “fallen in love with the wrong person,” and did not know how to fix any of it from where I was. I was trying to sort out my life and my marriage while still in the pastorate, going into the office and shutting the door to cry behind my desk every day, full of guilt and pain and ache. I didn’t want to be there anymore, or at least didn’t know how to be there anymore, but felt responsible to the people and to this thing we had built. I didn’t know how to leave, but I didn’t know how to stay. I was still trying to find a way to be vulnerable in the sermons without being indiscrete about all the things we were trying to work through. I felt like I was slowly bleeding out in front of everybody.

It was an odd rendition of Augustine’s conversion story, when He heard a voice say “take it, read it,” and found a section of Scripture that upended his life of youthful lust. I picked up a book about conflicting passions instead of the Bible, but was no less upended. As usual for Irving, this fiction is grounded in very real historical events — in the case of In One Person, the AIDS epidemic among gay men in New York City in the 1980’s. As the lead character loses friend after friend to the plague, the heartbreak of the book overwhelmed me. I grieved over the deaths I read about. I grieved over the pain of rejection he and his friends endured. Three hours later, I had finished the novel — and was just sitting cross-legged in the middle of the bed, sobbing.

I cried for many reasons. I cried because after being extended the grace to take four months off to try and sort our lives out, I was nowhere close to resolution. I cried because the angst in the novel both massaged and stirred up all the angst in me.

Somehow though, I knew God was speaking to me through it all, even so. Being a Pentecostal, I was raised somewhat of a mystic — I have always believed that God was speaking, not to me in particular but to all of us, and that there were moments when my antenna was up when I could hear something. Ironically, the reception seemed to be clearer in a storm, even in one of my own making. It is difficult to qualify how it is I think I hear from God, but it is like words settle within me that, for lack of a better way of putting it — just feel altogether other. It is a deep, interior way of knowing, perceiving, listening, that I fade in and out of. When the familiar voice comes, it is marked by tenderness — there is something sweet about it, and yet almost something that breaks my heart too, in all the ways that pure love does.

Somewhat to my surprise, I did not feel judged by God. I did not feel that the voice was angry, or that I was somehow disqualified for my humanity. Yet as the breeze filled the windowless room within me on my dark Pentecost, I knew something I did want to know. I saw something I did not want to see. I saw that the only way in my life I would ever have cause for such tears anymore was in the pages of fiction. Because for as much as my experience with Henry drove me into my early years of ministry, these were not the stories I was living into now. I was too busy with safe Christian work, vaguely caring but too clinically detached, and had an impervious bedside manner. I was too cautious navigating the complicated politics of ecclesial life, still very much a voice for love and compassion generally, but avoiding any particulars that could get me into trouble. That meant a kind of loving people from a distance.

I was broken open now simply because I now had my own pain, my own unresolved inner conflict, neck-deep in my own angst. And finally I saw the world again. I finally saw people. I finally was starting to see God again in the only way people ever really can — from the underside of things. I was no longer in a place of power, deciding what was up or down or in or out; no longer at the head of the table, participating in a lively discussion about who else should or should not be there. I was now hoping I was still in a place to get a few scraps from it — but I was not sure.

That was more than a metaphor. In recent years, my own theological vision had been shaped by my understanding of the Lord’s table through the Eucharist. We celebrated weekly communion at the church, and the idea that Jesus was tangibly present in the celebration of this meal became our dominant narrative — though that is historically uncommon in a North American Pentecostal church. The week after my world exploded, we went to a Catholic mass, knowing that the sacred meal would be offered, and would be the climax of the service. I went there entirely because I wanted to be in a service where I could come to the table.

I came down with my head bowed, my very bones aching for the body and blood of Christ, hoping it could nourish me even in my wasteland. The person in front of me drunk from the common cup…and when I approached, the lady with the chalice offered me an apologetic shrug. They had run out of wine. I’m sure she saw the mix of incredulity and pain on my face. It was a moment that named everything dark that I feared — that the blood of Christ was not available to me here now, that it could not reach to the depths of darkness to which I had descended. I was now seeing the world as the helpless sinner who did not know where to go or what to do with my own pain and my own guilt. I don’t know if I how found I could have ever been before, because this was the first time I was truly and utterly lost.

I wept when I finished the novel, because I knew I had held a lot of people and a lot of pain at an arm’s length before my own slow-motion fall, the long descent that was not at all like lightning. And I heard the words of Jesus spoken to Peter, gently naming the reality of my own heart — I had been the one who knew what it was to be in charge, to take care of myself, to take care of others. But now was the time when others would have to “dress me and take me where I did not want to go.” I now had the terrible gift of sight. I could not avoid real-life stories anymore just because I was afraid of where they might take me.

starting to see

The next Sunday, I was preaching the assigned lectionary text for the week — and it was John 9, a chapter that is all about seeing. It is about a blind man who is healed by Jesus, finally able to see. Since John is the most mystical of the four gospels, it is dense with allegory. The text is brimming with details about the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders who are not able to see, in contrast to the lowly man who now sees all too well. His sight is a threat to their sense of propriety and religious order. They don’t know what to do with him. Their world was more well-ordered when the blind man had his proper place in it.

When Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, the light strikes him blind for three days. And if I was coming to see anything at all, I think that was what was happening to me — I had to go blind first. I did not feel like Moses coming down of the mountain to deliver the word of God — I did not feel like delivering a word at all. I only knew that in my broken place, I could only speak of what I was actually seeing, even if my eyes were squinting and I could only see a little. Even if I could only see “men like trees” like the blind man in the gospels that Jesus touches, who can’t see with clarity until Jesus touches him a second time. The hour was far too late in my fading former life to talk about anything abstract or theoretical. There would be no escaping into my head, into my world of theological ideas. I could only speak of what I saw, nothing more, and nothing less.

It was a painful sermon to preach. I told about Henry, and all the things that happened that got me started. I told about reading the Irving novel all night the Saturday night before. I told about how I saw how my own lack of suffering had made me relatively aloof to any real suffering in the world, until my own pain and trauma, and the pain I felt for hurting others, forced me to see. That now I was heartbroken enough to see God from the underside, and the hurt in the world from eye level. I told about how desperately I wanted to see and continue to see, how I did not want to continue living with my head in the sand.

I wasn’t composed like I was when I preached about Henry at 25. My insides were blistering, and hot tears ran down my face. I was embarrassed for all the things I did not see before, ashamed to acknowledge the lack in my own heart now. I was ashamed that I had not owned the people who had always been my people, ashamed for working so hard to navigate all such matters politically.

In the days and weeks ahead, I finally began to learn what it meant to lose my life to find it. It was a long, slow dying. I was a man who had fallen off the top of a ladder, and had still been trying to grab every rung on the way now. I did not yet know that the spiritual life, like Jacob’s ladder in the Old Testament, was not just ascent but descent. I only knew I did not want to continue to the long fall back to earth.

On Sundays, I preached the assigned lectionary texts, but there was no way to detach the sermons from the pain that was simultaneously killing me and slowly bringing me to life in the way that all new life comes into the world — with a blood-curling scream, and many tears.

resuscitation or resurrection

Several weeks later, I was in a different hospital room. Once again, it was an African-American man that was dying. This time, it wasn’t a fragile, skeleton of a man whose skin was stretched tightly over his bones, but a man who looked impossibly alive. To see his 6’4 frame, the color in his cheeks — to feel the warmth in his large hands — it was hard to believe this strong looking man could be dying.

But he was. Two months prior, he fell at work and suffered serious head trauma. The doctors didn’t know if he would survive, but after several serious and complex surgeries, he was finally on the mend. In fact, he wasn’t even in the regular hospital anymore, but in a rehabilitation ward — days from going home. Until out of nowhere, he had a heart attack in his hospital bed. They were able to resuscitate him, but the oxygen had been deprived from him for too long — he was completely brain dead. The part of Herman where all the memories and motor functions resided was not going to come back. He was only breathing because of a ventilator, and this precious family was trying to make the terrible, necessary decision to pull the plug on the artificial life that was sustaining him.

I held his enormous hand as the family pressed in behind me. The holiness of the ground itself was almost unbearable. The spiritual transition that was taking place was palpable, and everyone in the room could feel it. Harold’s life was oozing out, and it was time for the people he loved to send him off. I closed my eyes to lead the family in prayer, feeling the hot tears roll quietly down my face as we felt the beauty and sorrow of the moment pressing in on us. The more I prayed, the more the family begin to lean into the prayer — with tears, with soft amens, with resolved “yes Lord’s.”

Hours later in my home, I felt the familiar presence again, and I knew there was something I was supposed to see while still saturated in the holiness of Herman’s departure. Once again, the presence was tender. Once again, the words while gentle, were also hard. I was once again seeing what I did not want to see. In the twinkling of an eye, I saw that in my life back at the church, I was choosing resuscitation. I saw that my chest was still heaving with air, I was still warm to the touch, and I could still hold someone else’s hand in my own — but there was no life for me there anymore. I was a ghost, refusing to depart from my old life. I was a dead man insisting he was not dead.

It struck me that night what a terribly courageous thing the family had to do. They did not know any better than the rest of us that Herman would be resurrected if they let him go — they had not been on the other side of that transition anymore than the rest of us have. But they chose to believe it. They chose to put their weight down on the hope of resurrection. They chose to say goodbye to a semblance of life, the form of life, in the hope of Herman experiencing the substance of life on the other side. They did not choose resuscitation. They chose resurrection. I knew I did not possess their bravery, and that I doubted myself as much as they believed for Herman. I did know that I trusted the God of resurrection, and had no problems placing weight down on that hope with them for Herman. But I did not know if I could trust it for myself. I only knew that I was being faced with the same choice.

Two days later, I had one more moment when I felt strangely inclined to pull a book off the shelf. This time, it was my own. I don’t normally do that — I’m not that narcissistic (except when I am). But it felt like there was something I was supposed to see there. I will always love that first book, because it came from some deep places. It was honest to where I was — it was true to the first half of my life. I would stand by everything in it. But those were things then I knew much more with my head than with my heart, uplifting information that was still turning into revelation inside of me.

I gave each chapter of the book one-word titles, and there was a somewhat linear movement and progression to them, a kind of flow. From identity…to beloved…to wilderness…to calling…to wounds…to resurrection…to…I stopped myself. I was looking at the pages, and was overcome with that terrible knowing, the kind that comes when the Spirit enters the room. The kind that comes from being shown what you do not want to see. The kind that “flesh and blood cannot reveal to you, only the Father in heaven.” My eyes filled again with tears, but it was so perfectly obvious now I could not help but smile at my own ignorance, however disastrous it might feel now. I had written a book on Christian spirituality, of which death and resurrection is its central motif and defining characteristic — and had moved straight from wounds to resurrection. There was nothing in that book about death, because I did not yet know what it would mean to die.

That was the chapter of my life finally being written.