The following is something I wrote in July of 2008 while in the midst of a time of deep despair and discouragement. I had not read this again until last week, and it was surreal for me to remember what I thought and felt back then.
I never posted it because I was scared by what I wrote. Looking back now, I am also ashamed of how I reacted. What happened to me is nowhere near as bad as what happens to some people every single day, and they handle their trials way better than I did. But I am posting it now because I hope it can encourage others who might be facing something similar. I apologize for the length.
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No Christian has really lived until they have stared into the glowing eyes of atheism, staggered along the gaping chasm of suicide, and camped near the smoking gates of hell. But that’s where I’ve been for about six months.
And I’m not on a sightseeing tour. I’m not taking pictures. I’m not buying trinkets to take home and put on my bookshelf and show off to my Christian friends. No, I’m here for life.
Even if I do find my way back out of this pit, and get back home with some souvenirs, I don’t have many Christian friends left to show them to. When I began this descent into depression, despair, and doubt, those that didn’t shoot at me while I fell, simply abandoned me. No calls. No e-mails. No letters. Even when I cried out for help, the most frequent response (if I got any response at all) was, “I’ll be praying for you.”
At first, I was bitter. But then I realized I brought this all on myself. You see, I grew up in a Christian home. My father was a pastor of one of the largest churches in town. I attended a Christian school, then went to a Christian college. After college, I spent five years as a pastor before enrolling in a leading Christian seminary to get a four-year Master’s degree in Bible and Theology. While in seminary, I worked as an editor in a Christian non-profit publishing and conference organization. As I neared graduation, I put together my resume so that I could get back into pastoral ministry. The placement counselor of the seminary told me that he had never seen a resume like mine, and that I could basically write my own ticket to nearly any church on their list.
That’s when my world began to fall apart. As I began to look at these churches that might want to hire me, I realized that I didn’t want to pastor a single one of them. They all had nice buildings, and lots of smiling, happy people with thick wallets. If I got a job with one of these churches, I and my family would have led comfortable, safe, and secure lives. I probably could have risen in the ranks of church hierarchy, written a few books, and been asked to speak at conferences.
But as I looked at these churches, I began to get quite alarmed. Despite all their talk about missions and evangelism, not a single one of the churches I was looking at were doing much to reach, love, and serve those in their own communities that needed Jesus most. Oh sure, they courted the businessmen, the lawyers, and the doctors, and mail checks to the missionaries in Nigeria, and send a team to build a medical clinic in Bolivia. They had groups that served down at the local soup kitchen, and a few radical souls who hand out tracts on the street corners downtown. But as I looked around these churches, there were no poor, no homeless, no prostitutes, no atheists, no drug addicts. There definitely weren’t any democrats. Apparently, such people could be prayed for, but were not allowed to actually attend church.
That’s when I realized that I no longer wanted to be a pastor in the type of church that would want to hire someone like me.
So I began to change how I prayed. And that was the biggest mistake of my life.
I prayed that God would help me love people that most churches loved to hate. Democrats, pornographers, and abortion doctors. I prayed that God would help me reach people that most Christians saw as unreachable. Homosexuals, prostitutes, strippers, and atheists. I prayed that God would help me understand what people are going through when they turn to drugs, alcohol, suicide, and crime as a way to solve or forget their problems.
In hindsight, I wish these were prayers God had said “No” to.
Jesus, out of his great love for us, came to earth to become like us and dwell among us. I guess God thought that if I wanted to reach people that many Christians weren’t reaching, I needed to become like them and experience what they were experiencing. I suspected that some of this might happen, and so tried to enter their world. But I didn’t understand how deep and how fast the floor would fall out from under me.
As I was praying, I began making attempts to enter the world of the people I wanted to love. Not knowing where to begin, I read books, blogs, and articles that challenged the way I had been taught. I saw that much of what I believed depended upon a very narrow and relatively recent tradition. That doesn’t make this tradition automatically wrong, but it did require me to honestly delve into alternative explanations.
Tragically, I made the mistake of letting some of my Christian friends know what I was studying, and what questions I was pursuing. I predicted that a few of the more fundamental types would call me a heretic for asking such questions, but I was not prepared for what happened. With the exception of two or three friends (who were having the same questions I was), all my friends banded together, tied me up, and through me off the train. I overheard one friend telling another that for the sake of the ministry, they needed to “throw me under the bus.” I kid you not.
A few, going well beyond calling me a heretic, labeled me an apostate, and consigned me to hell unless I repented and returned to their definition of orthodoxy. All of this was done under the guise of Christian love and concern. Apparently, for someone in my situation, the most loving thing to do was “hand me over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.”
Please note that at that point, I had not yet changed any of my beliefs. I just had questions. I simply wanted to study alternative explanations and different views. I wanted to truly understand these views, and why people believed them. I was told when I got fired from my ministry job that it was okay to study different views if the only reason for studying such views was to disprove them. I consider such an approach to be intellectual suicide. I believe that the truth can stand up to any and all questions and that the only way truth can be known is if we genuinely consider the arguments and ideas that challenge our beliefs. If our beliefs survive such challenges, then we come out stronger for facing the questions. If our beliefs do not survive, and we change our beliefs, then we have actually come to free ourselves from error. When viewed this way, the only negative consequences to really questioning what you believe is the potential loss of friends and jobs, and with both, a sense of worth and personal identity.
So what happens when a Christian loses their job and friends all in one week? I can’t speak for others, but for me, the initial shock evolved into fear, anger, depression, despair, bitterness, resentment, and hurt. Stress set in, and health problems arose in both myself and my wife. Though my wife and I dearly loved each other, we started arguing more. Bills piled up. Bad decisions got made.
Those few Christians still around advised me to just “Let go and let God” and remember that “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” When I asked what that meant in light of my circumstances, they said they would pray that “God will provide for my needs” while they went out to dinner and a movie with friends, bought new cars, and embarked on vacations around the world.
At church, the songs seemed almost silly, the preaching was empty, and the handshakes were cold. I became scared to pray because every time I prayed for something, the exact opposite seemed to happen. God wasn’t just saying “No” to my prayers; when I prayed for a fish, He gave me a snake. At least, that is the way it seemed.
I was frantically looking for a job, but because I was now branded as a heretic, I couldn’t get back into ministry. My friends made sure of that. I tried for secular jobs, but since my entire life and training was in ministry, no place wanted to hire someone with no experience. Since I had some office management experience, I applied for some of those positions, but was told I needed experience in the medical, legal, retail, or restaurant field to manage in these areas. They said that if I wanted to come back later, I could apply for a cash register position, or driving a forklift. Even then, I was told I probably wouldn’t get these jobs because of all the other applicants who had actual experience in these entry-level positions.
I began to drink, just so I could “take the edge off” and fall asleep at night. I had a pretty good life insurance policy (which I couldn’t pay for any more), and seriously considered how I could kill myself while making it look like an accident so that I could provide for my wife and three children. I stopped attending church, reading my Bible, and praying. I felt that if this is what God does to a person who is trying to serve and follow Him, I wanted none of it. I’d rather be a non-Christian who looks out for himself and is able to feed his family, have a nice house, and go on fancy vacations.
It was just today that I realized that if God is really behind all of this, he is probably just answering my prayer. It’s like He said to me today, “Remember that prayer you prayed before all this began to happen? That prayer about learning to love those that most Christians hate, reach those that many saw as unreachable, and understand what people are going through when they reject God and turn to drugs, alcohol, and crime? I’m just doing what you asked. You can’t love those who are hated by Christians unless you understand what it’s like to be hated. You can’t reach the unreachable unless you are beyond reach. You can’t understand what people go through unless you go through a small fraction of it yourself. I’m just answering your prayer.”
And that’s when it hit me. Though I’m staring into the glowing eyes of atheism, staggering along the gaping chasm of suicide, and camped near the smoking gates of hell, there are millions upon millions of people who have been here a lot longer than I. I’m a newcomer. (By the way…Jesus is here too. I saw him last week when a strip club owner reached out with love to a bunch of hurting girls and responded with love to a horde of angry Christians. But that’s another story.)
I have realized that however painful it is to be here, I can’t understand, love, or reach the people around me if I leave. At the same time, I can’t survive here unless they help me learn how. I’m not sure yet what that will look like, but I’m excited to find out.
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This post is part of the
March Synchroblog on Wilderness Experiences
You can also read more about this time in my life at
Oh Me of Little Faith
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Here is the list of the other synchroblog participants.
There are some great stories here, so go read them all!
- Patrick (at Dual Ravens) was prolific with a four part series called “Musings” and they can be found here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four
- Katherine Gunn at A Voice in the Desert writes What is Wilderness?
- Wendy McCaig giving us a View from the Bridge brings A Voice Calling in the Wilderness
- EmmaNadine who describes Life By List wonders about Life in the Wilderness
- Tammy Carter of Blessing the Beloved is taking a rest as she Puts down the axe
- Kathy Escobar shares the carnival in my head and writes about belonging
- Steve Hayes of Methodius describes Anatomy of exile
- Marta Layton at Marta’s Mathoms writes On Sabbaths, Mountain-Tops… and Brothers’ Keepers
- Liz Dyer at Grace Rules discovers Beauty In The Wilderness