Sacramental Christianity Won’t Win Me Back

Not everyone wants to go back to church.

Do you?

My favorite Christian author (Rachel Held Evans) recently wrote an article about why millenials are leaving the church. In it, she explains that young adults like us don’t need or want our churches to be cool. She says that we’re drawn to Christianity’s long held sacraments when they’re practiced with authenticity and inclusivity.

For many of us, that’s true. We’re leaving church because it feels wrong and we’d return if it felt right. That’s not true for all of us, though. At least, it’s not true for me.

I mean, it IS romantic to kneel on a velvet bar alongside strangers and friends. To gaze at those high cathedral arches, to echo the Lexionary across the centuries, to participate in rituals like confession, communion, and baptism- all those spiritual practices that hold us together and remind us of what our souls are apt to forget.

And as long as I attend with my erudite friends, as long as I don a sports-coat with leather patch elbows, I’m happy to rest my padded bottom on an unpadded wooden pew. I’ll enjoy those quiet moments of old-fashioned-but-never-outdated-reflection. I’ll listen to the man with the low slung glasses who speaks slowly about a tree that was cut down from his yard and how it brought to mind all the trees that Jesus interacted with: Zacheeus’s tree, the fig tree, the vine and branches, the cross itself- and I’ll open myself to whatever spiritual wisdom I might derive from trees, and Jesus, but mostly trees.

But I gotta be honest- that stuff doesn’t help me any more than the fog machine or the throbbing lights or the free cappuccinos in the mega-church lobby. For me, it’s just a different kind of inauthentic- one that makes me feel slightly less manipulated and slightly more intelligent all while in the back of my mind I’m harboring the suspicion that I’m drifting toward another abusive relationship- only this time with an older, wiser abuser.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying my perspective is the better perspective. I just think it represents some of us whose problem with church extends beyond popular Christian culture. (Also, I’m not ragging on Rachel. Rachel is terrific! Her new book is beautiful and provocative and you should definitely buy and read it.)

But as much as I love Rachel (and secretly want to be friends with her and her husband) her perspective doesn’t represent me. As a pastor’s kid, a Bible School Grad, a missionary to China for six years, a church planter, a Christian conference speaker; I’ve been on the scene long enough to know that even the most Sacramental Christianity won’t fix my problem. The simple truth is that I don’t want to go back to the church until the church dies and is born again.church bball

Not all believers want to find their way back inside the building.

If you’re anything like me, you might view the sacraments and the liturgy as good programs that good people built after Jesus left. Programs whose faithful practice has helped people follow God through the ages. Programs which should be honored and cherished and used to this very day. But man-made programs nonetheless.

I’m cool with those programs until the minute their sacraments become sacred. When people start associating rituals (communion, baptism, the sinner’s prayer), leadership structures (prophets, priests, pastors), organizational structures (denominations, theologies, creeds), and morals (sex, marriage, crime, punishment), as items which are fixed quantities that can be applied in homogeneous fashion to all- in my postmodern opinion those beliefs have themselves become calcified idols which are now undermining the very deep truths of the even deeper mystery they were originally built to point toward.

In Rachel’s new book, which is organized entirely around the sacraments, she reaches beneath the sacraments themselves to apprehend the messy, mysterious, somewhat subjective truths behind each ritual. She understands that what lies beneath is the actual pearl of great price. That’s why I’d love to share a sanctuary with her and her family some Sunday. She’s a modern day sojourner (Abraham style), rallying folks (Nehemiah style), to rebuild the broken walls of Christendom.

But at the end of the day, Rachel is back in church. And I don’t mean the ethereal line of believers strung out from Abraham to Billy Graham. I mean the institution. I mean an organization of men who lay out the rules.

And as a postmodern millennial, my mind doesn’t bend that way anymore. Our world is too wide for me to believe that God definitively does or does not want a man in Dubai to share an apartment with his girlfriend, or boyfriend. I worry that to live under the spiritual roof of men who have applied God’s precise opinion on anything from tits to taxes is spiritual abuse.

That’s why I believe that Jesus and Christianity are worlds apart. For example, what if Jesus didn’t institute communion as a formal demonstration of our proximity to God? What if he simply shared a poignant meal and said, “Hey, keep eating and drinking and remember me when you do.”?

Also, Jesus never flew a rainbow flag or carried a poster that God hates fags. Men did that. Men DO that. Men who organize around non-negotiable statements of faith.

And that’s why I can’t return to a hierarchical church. I don’t want a church to tell me that homosexuality is a sin and I don’t want a church to tell me that it’s not. I see through a glass darkly, just like everybody else, and mine is to wait and watch and love.

What I want is a church that doesn’t have an opinion for once. That doesn’t have a vested interest in my money, time, or perfect behavior. Where there are no paid professionals. Where to follow God is an amateur endeavor forever.

I’m not the only one. Many of us are fully engaged, whether we realize it or not, in our generation’s philosophical battle for faith. We want to know the extent that spiritual Truth can be objectively understood, organized, and applied. Our postmodern minds tell us that the answer is uncertain, and for some of us, a return to what we knew could only be regression.

What I’m saying is- we could start over. We could reinvent the wheel. Throw out the baby with the bathwater. Cut off our nose to spite our face. I believe the grass is greener on the other side of professional Christianity and I believe that some of us need to pack up our things and go to a land we’ve never been before.

I don’t know what it looks like yet but I imagine it as a movement of volunteers who open their homes regularly, who are autonomous except in matters affecting the movement as a whole, and who have no objective but to find God and to love people. I see such a movement burgeoning around nothing more than the belief in a God who cares, the transformation that such a belief precipitates within our ever-softening hearts, and the attraction it produces among those who suffer under the burden of fear and pride and guilt and shame.

Does this resonate with you at all? I hope so! Over the last two weeks I’ve been flabbergasted by the volume of emails and friend requests from so many of you. It’s crazy that we have so much in common yet we’ve felt ostracized and isolated- unaware of one another.

I’m beginning to wonder if we’re at the beginning of a new evolution. I believe such a leap could be catalyzed by a multitude of single-cell voices who dream a similar dream. If you’re like me maybe your voice has been languishing in silence for too long. And maybe it’s time to start speaking again, dreaming again, seeking others who are seeking God beyond the primordial ooze.

I’d love to hear about your dream too. What’s been percolating? Shoot me an email or a friend request or better yet, leave a comment below and try to make a friend on the website!

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I’m Talking To You Disillusioned Christians

Maybe you call yourself an Ex-Christian, an Agnostic, or nothing at all.

Or… maybe you say you’re a Christian but you squirm through Sunday services feeling like a fraud.

Or… maybe you quit attending years ago and you only think about the faith you inherited at family reunions.

Whatever your attitude, you grew up singing songs on Sundays, believing stories about what God did and what God wants you to do and what God wants you to believe about the world.

But something happened. Either a dramatic moment or an imperceptible shift over time. Maybe you realized your decision could cost you everything or maybe not. Either way, one morning you woke up to embrace your inner doubt.

If you’re like that, we’re a lot alike. I grew up Christian too. I sang songs. I believed beliefs. Until a slew of dissonance provoked me to think freely. Ultimately, a tentative set of fractured but honest beliefs emerged and they didn’t quite fit anywhere.BeFunky Photo

And here I am- full of questions and convictions but with no safe place and with few scattered allies. I’m disenfranchised. Disallowed from from writing my truth without being branded a rebel, a malcontent, a bitter soul, an enemy, or, worst of all, living proof that the devil sometimes wins.

I’m not alone in my plight. There are scattered millions of us. Skittish, like cats in hiding. In America alone there are 300 million citizens of One Nation Under God. If half of us grew up in church and half of us ran away from church and if I exaggerated those by half that’s still close to 40 million wanderers. Uncollected. Alone. Caught in the twilight of belief and unbelief.

And yeah, we’re different. Some of us have said: “Screw it. I’m done.” Others of us want to sleep around with a bunch of other religions to rebound. But at the indivisible denominator we are in common: Disenfranchised Christians. And as much as we sometimes try to avoid it we share a similar spiritual yearning and a similar spiritual language.

So why don’t we gather among ourselves? It’s tricky, that’s why. Nobody can talk about this stuff without making a mess. Our stories are raw, unprocessed, not fashioned to fit inside a prefabricated puzzle. They sometimes sound like personal attacks. They sometimes offend the people we love. Even among ourselves our stories are associated with alarming theological implications which we might or might not believe.

It’s just easier to stay silent. Or to shout angrily at no one in particular. But if we stay silent we wander alone and if we shout loud the Christians shout back- often louder, angrier, nastier, and with the power of their collected rightness. Whether we stalk in silence or fire against the machine we Disillusioned Christians rarely make progress.

Many of us are stuck. OK, I’m stuck. I’m afflicted with the same resentments and the same hair-trigger character flaws I’ve always had. I’m not making progress. I’m not being transformed. And I’ve failed to find and forge life-giving connections with other disillusioned folks who want to change.

This is a problem and I want a solution.

Are you with me?

I want a way forward. A vision of an alternative future where we came together. Where we agreed not to spring for fights or languish in silence.

What if the fighters among us laid down their swords? What if the avoiders among us engaged the dilemma? And what we gave ourselves permission to talk about our stories and our theories about what went wrong. But what if we didn’t stop there? What if we didn’t stay focused on the problem? What if we committed among ourselves to stay focused on the solution?

And what if that solution was to revive our collective hope in God? Not in religion. Not in community. Not in a fresh batch of laws or theology. Simply the wide open hope of a God who cares.

That’s the journey I want to be on. That the journey I want to share with a timid band of believers. Though our destination may be far from where we started, I believe that this could be our journey home.

If you’re a Disenfranchised Christian and if this dream resonates with you I’d love to hear from you. Send me an email or a Facebook message or leave a comment below. Or, shoot someone else a text. Maybe you thought of someone while you were reading this and maybe they’d grab coffee with you. You could start a conversation and who knows, it might lead somewhere. I’d love to hear about whatever happens!

Will God Take Care of Us?

Last month Dean told the story of his friend who fell off a roof in Malta and of a God who did nothing to save him. This post is my reply. It’s an old story from the summer of 1995 when I was a 14 year old infant, still pre-puberty, still ripe to believe.

Keep in mind as you read this story that one year earlier, on the opposite side of the globe, the Rwandan genocide stole 800,000 lives in 100 days of slaughter. Meanwhile, I lived in a tiny farming community in Western New York with my dad and mom and my two little sisters Melody and Micaela.

For eight idyllic summers my dad was the pastor of our purple-steepled-country-bumpkin church. Mister Barney’s pigs lived at the top of our green sloped backyard and every few days we carried a slop-bucket of egg shells and onion skins to treat them. Money was tight, but aside from clipping spaghetti sauce coupons and forcing ourselves to switch brands from week to week, our existence was a spring-bird’s song.

I never lost any sleep about the Hutu extremists who used machine guns and machetes to slay members of the minority Tutsi community. I didn’t even know that an ID card stamped “Hutu” was the only item that could save a man from constant terror, from hiding his family under a bed or fleeing for safety in the night. In my creek-bed community, the nightmare of neighbors killing neighbors, of women captured and kept as sex slaves, of husbands slicing the throats of their off-ethnic wives; that kind of fright was beyond the scope of my imagination. So too, was a God who might look the other way.

But God came into question in my own ordinary story the following summer when dad resigned his sturdy pulpit and my adolescent life plunged into chaos. Until then our evenings had been predictable. Dad prayed over the pasta as it steamed up to heaven. I squinted at my sisters through the steam. They complained, “Hey mom, Matt’s peeking!” and I pinched their palms in reply.

Sometimes after bedtime mom’s voice might spill under our bedroom doors. Her worries were as soft as the hallway light and dad’s voice was low and steady in reply. However muted their voices, phrases like “empty grocery budget” and “another tough church board meeting” kept slipping into the galaxy of my open black bedroom. But we all kept warm in our beds with the safety of ourselves and the hills and the slow moving life that came one faithful day at a time.

Until the Board Meeting when dad spontaneously resigned. That fateful Tuesday night was the first moment when grown-up uncertainty struck me in the chest. I remember staring out the window toward the cow speckled twilight, tears in my eyes, wondering if I would ever see such deep green grass for the rest of my life. It seems obtuse to fuss about it now. But when I was 14 I had no inkling to interrogate a God who permitted milk cows to moo praises in nearby pastures while Rwandan orphans, covered in their mother’s blood, wept. To my cozy palate, the resignation of my father, and the 100 anxious days that followed, were enough to unhinge me from the hope that God was good and that God would take care of my family.

When my father resigned he came home with a flushed face and said “We’ve got three months to get out!” To this day I’m uncertain if mom knew in advance of his resignation. But with that singular revelation our house ceased to be our home and reverted back to “the church’s parsonage.” I kept delivering slop buckets to the pigs, same as always, but there were only so many slop buckets until we had to leave town. It was the end of civilization as I knew it.

A plan materialized anyway. We would move to the outskirts of Rochester, NY, where a small Pentecostal Bible college was known as an oasis to folks who’d been parched in the desert of ministry. (It even said “Oasis” on the cover of their yearbooks, which dad took as confirmation.)

Dad relocated first for interviews while the rest of us stayed behind to pack. He slept in a tiny dorm at the Bible college but neither the school nor the affiliated church could employ dad, who was educated only for operating tanks in the U.S. Army, for preaching the Bible like a Wesleyan, and for teaching American History like a Pilgrim. Between interviews dad installed cable boxes- which evolved into a full time gig partly on account of Rochester’s limited demand for tank drivers.

Back at the parsonage we packed like the devil was at our backs. You should have seen the sweat on mom’s shoulders. I think that sweat was how the fear found a way to leak out since she couldn’t whisper to dad at night. But every weekend she loaded the girls into the back of our station wagon, she handed me a Rand McNally Atlas and a Rochester PennySaver in which she had pre-highlighted the rental properties, and we set off to hug dad and to secure a new home.

Hugging dad was the easy part because he kept getting skinnier. Finding a home was impossible. “Does it have three bedrooms?” Mom would ask without moving her eyes off the road. “Do they take pets?” I’d nod. “How much?” Her chin might twitch toward me for the crucial question. I remember my fingers on the newsprint, following the line again and again to every awful price-point: $1075. $1250. $1495. $925.

“Too much.” I’d say.

“How much?!”

“$925 a month.”

We didn’t visit houses priced higher than $600 unless we were in the mood to torture ourselves. One house in particular was nothing more than a condemned hunting cabin. The yard was yellow marsh grass, three feet high, barbed wire in the distance. The porch was rotten wet wood and most of the first floor windows were punched out. We only showed up because the landlord took pets and claimed to be negotiable on his $700 ask. Every weekend we visited a dozen equally depressing options: trailer parks, abandoned foreclosures, high crime neighborhoods.

BLOG car1 (1)We always reported back to dad and dad always reminded us that God was preparing an oasis for us. Which is crazy when you think about it. If there ever was a moment to temper your kid’s expectations, this was it. But my parents swung hard the opposite way. Dad believed in an oasis and mom drilled down into the sand to find it.

On one house-hunting expedition mom handed me a pen and a yellow legal pad, she eyed Melody and Micaela in the rear view mirror and announced, “Let’s make a list! We’re gonna tell God our wildest dreams for this new house.”

I gawked and the girls giggled but none of us spoke until mom confessed that she had always wanted a covered porch to watch thundershowers and a dining room for hosting and a deck for dad’s grill. Then she signaled for me to write it down item by item on the legal pad.

Micaela followed mom’s lead by announcing that she had always wanted her own room. At which point Melody exclaimed that she wanted pink wallpaper which I said was ridiculous. I wanted a paved driveway and a real basketball hoop. From there it escalated into one of those Sound of Music sequences where everyone is rosy cheeks and sing-song shouts.

“I want a basement that’s dry!”

“I want a big yard for pets!”

“I want a TWO car garage!”

“I want TWO bathrooms!”

“I want LOTS of kitchen cupboards!”

“I want bay windows with a bench!”

“I want two stories and my bedroom on the second floor!”

Our station wagon cruised up the highway while the summer sun shone down and the ideas kept popping until the legal pad list was three pages long and fifty items deep. We thought of everything but a laundry chute and if we’d thought of it we would have written it down.

Mom was careful to remind us that God was not obligated to our list, that we would maintain an attitude of trust and gratitude regardless of the outcome, and that this was simply an affirmation that God was interested even in our little cares if we would let him be. But still! It felt so dangerous to me. We kept the list on the dashboard in case we thought of something else and I kept a leery eye on it in case it turned into a snake. And if I’d been smart enough to be a cynic back then I might have felt a little selfish too.

Then one Sunday as September crept closer and the long afternoon shadows were promising winter and there was no possibility of any house on the horizon, mom pulled onto the highway toward an address that had appeared in the morning paper with an unlisted price. What was printed in the paper may as well have been a description of the moon: 5 bedrooms, 2 baths, 1 acre of land.

Melody and Micaela didn’t seem to realize the disappointment that was about to unfold and I couldn’t bear to tell them. Lately I’d even stopped pinching their hands during mealtime prayer because soon enough they’d have to bow their empty faces into empty plates.

I didn’t notice the paved driveway when we rolled onto it. I saw the basketball hoop but my pulse didn’t rise one tick. What registered was the size of the house and the hulking shadow it cast in the evening sun. It was a giant white box, it could have been a skyscraper, and it stood in a well spaced neighborhood where rollerbladers eased down the lane, waving, until an awning of trees swallowed them up.

A man stood smiling in the driveway. He led us into the house where the air immediately drowned us in an aquarium of cat piss. He rubbed his forehead, he explained that he’d a never rented a house before, that he was moving to Florida, that his wife’s dying cats had expired across all parts of the carpet, and that shucks wouldn’t it be a lot of nasty work to tear up. “Would $650/month be too much to ask?” he wondered aloud.

That one easy comment triggered the springs in my teenage legs. Our legal pad hadn’t even conjured up a house this large and I knew mom and her sweaty shoulders could tear up carpets better than any carpet man who ever lived if she put her mind to it.

I triple jumped to the second floor where Melody was exclaiming that one of the rooms was already pink and Micaela was falling in love with the tiniest room with the cutest windows. And that’s when I saw the laundry chute. Right beside the big bay window bench which overlooked the basketball court. I opened the chute and peeked inside where the wide metal duct ran all the way to the basement which I had not yet visited. It was while my head was in that chute, contemplating all the laundry that I might never have to carry again, that disbelief and belief began to co-mingle through my bloodstream.

I slammed shut the chute and raced to the basement, which was totally dry and which had an extra bedroom for no reason at all. At the back of the house a sliding glass door released me to the biggest wooden deck dad could desire. It overlooked a wide open yard where I opened my stride through the uncut grass like any fourteen year old would do.

The sun was setting and my sisters were squealing behind me. I could feel their energy like the energy of the sunset which was slicing bursts of orange through the deep green shadows stretched out across the lawn. I remember that moment in time with more clarity than any other moment in my life. It was like I was absorbed into something Other, a small particle of an Incomprehensible Whole. I’ve never been so warm before or since and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as close to the Truth as I was at mid-stride on the left side of that house when the tears outraced me, when all I could see in the blinding sunset was the image of that legal pad on the dashboard, no longer a snake and a no longer a gamble, when I believed that no matter how bad everything was that God himself had proved both interest and compassion, and that my family would be safe in September beyond the farm.

We signed the papers at dusk. We ripped out the cat piss carpets. We made a batch of memories I cherish more than others. And then, twelve months later, we moved again.

By then I’d learned about the Rwandan genocide. How the straggling survivors set up camp in Tanzania while I was feeding pigs in my backyard. How the dead were rotting on grave-less dirt while my family was signing for our miracle house. And how when we moved away the following year those ten thousand refugees remained collected in tents, terrified to return home.

It haunted me. Where was God in Africa, you know? He rarely seems predictable when you compare stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe our house was a miracle. All I’m saying is that I don’t understand God. But what I am confident of is that my mom could have accidentally careened us all over a gorge on the way to that house without ruining the miracle at all.

Because the real miracle was something else entirely.

The real miracle was that in the midst of our (mild) suffering my parents took an unlikely posture. They made no demands or negotiations. They rolled up their sleeves by day and their prayers by night and they understood exactly how tall they stood among the stars. They taught us that it’s best to believe in a God who cares. That no matter the stakes, no matter the outcome, if we’re human and we’re breathing we always have an opportunity to look for God in our pain.

I suspect some Tutsis held such a perspective throughout the entire Rwandan genocide. If so, I wonder what they might understand about God that we don’t. I don’t understand why the genocide was so brutal, or why the Bible School never hired my dad, or why my sister-in-law was killed by a drunk driver, or why one of my best friends quit speaking to me without explanation.

I still ask God those questions in the same way mom taught me. I hold them up in the air. Usually nothing happens. But usually I stop feeling alone.

Flannel Jesus

godI met God when I was five years old.

Either that or I got brainwashed by two old people.

It’s hard to know which.

The old people were a retired couple from Marion, Indiana. They were thin and they smelled like warm cookies. They lived in a small house on a flat street and my mom walked me to their door. Their house was either red or brown, I can’t remember, and it might have been made of gingerbread.

Anyway, the older couple invited me and a bunch of kids over. I don’t know why we were there but I think it was a regular thing. They gave us juice and cookies and we ran around in circles until we spilled the juice on the carpet. It was red juice and it stained the carpet red.

About fifteen kids were in the living room on the day I met God. We had stopped running and were seated on couches in front of the flannel board, – this was back in 1986 when flannel boards were all the rage. The board was propped up on a tripod and it had flannel cutouts to move around while the couple told us a story.

The story they told depicted a long and torturous murder. The thin man told the story while his thin wife stuck the cutouts to the board. When I think about it now, I bet the flannel cutouts were just cartoons, but in my head I see them as though they were HD photographs. There was blood everywhere and I can still see every bead of sweat and every tangle of hair as the victim came to life.

flannel jesusThe story began with a man being betrayed. He was taken to court and sentenced to die. The old narrator was careful to point out that the man was innocent. You could see plainly that he was innocent by white color of his robe. But they took his robe and they whipped him on the back till his back looked like spaghetti. Then his arms and legs were nailed to a pair of crisscrossed railroad ties. The nails penetrated his flesh and his skin popped and his face was twisted in pain. There was blood dripping from his beard and his back was shredded and he hung in the air all day until a soldier stabbed him in the gut and decided he was already dead.

What I remember is the closeup of the man’s face before they pinned him to the cross. His arms were cinched to a whipping post. The whip was snapping in the background above his head. There were thorns pressing into his forehead and his skin was bunched down over his eyes.

His eyes are what got me. Those flannel blue eyes. They were filled with sadness and blood and they were gazing at me on the couch. I was gazing back at them and I started to cry.

None of the other kids were crying. Only me. My feet were sticking straight off the couch and I was crying like the child I was. All the other parts of that day come and go in sharp flashes of memory, but I was so unraveled by Flannel Jesus that I have a ten minute stretch of memory which is unbroken in my mind:

I can see the thin old man standing beside the flannel board. He was speaking and his voice was soft. I don’t know what he was saying, but it was simple enough where a string of cause and effect was drawn between my life and Flannel Jesus’ death.

jesusThat’s when I began to feel something on the inside and on the outside. It was like a rumbling with my bones and my skin and with the people in the room and with the plants in the windows. The room grew brighter and warmer and there was something invisible wrapping around me. It was like I had struck upon a mystery that was hidden inside a story which would continue to unfold with me inside it.

I’ve felt that a thousand times since and it always leaves me with the significance of my insignificance. The great part is that there’s never any theology, just an Arrow pointing into the Beyond.

Flannel Jesus was still on the flannel board and I kept thinking about all the ways I was responsible for his death.

In those days, my main difficulty in life was that my Sisters-Who-Cried-A-Lot were stealing the attention from mom and dad. That’s where I knew I needed Flannel Jesus to rescue me from my troubles.

Some of the troubles were related to our upstairs neighbor. His name was Chuck and my Sisters-Who-Cried-A-Lot were in love with him. They loved him so much that one of them rejected her own name and demanded that her new name was Chuck. She stomped through the house in mom’s high heels which had come to represent the idea of Chuck’s wardrobe. If we called her by another name while she was wearing those heels she would cast herself headlong onto the kitchen floor.

She would scream, “NO, I CHUCK!” and she had the courage to pound her face and her fists against the linoleum. This was how she stole mom and dad’s attention and it made me angry as a little boy can be. So I retaliated. I stole her crayons and I snapped them in two. I pinched her chubby legs until she wailed. And if she ever dared steal the spotlight from a block tower I was building I would push her over right in front of mom and dad.

siblingsBut even for five-year-old me the vandalism and the pinching did not juxtapose well against the backdrop of Flannel Jesus. Flannel Jesus was still bleeding for me. He was still staring me in the face with those not-so-Jewish eyes. All I could think of was how kind he was to die and how he wouldn’t pinch my sisters no matter if they stole his attention or not. I kept watching Flannel Jesus and I kept envisioning the pinch marks on my sisters legs and I cried even more.

That’s when the thin lady spoke up. She said we could meet Flannel Jesus right then if we wanted to. She asked everyone to raise their hand if they wanted to meet him. I shot up my hand so fast that Flannel Jesus had no time to flinch. The husky boy beside me stared at me weirdly for a while and then he raised his hand too. We were the only two children with our hands up.

The thin lady escorted us to another room in the house where we knelt down and asked Flannel Jesus to come live inside our hearts. The boy beside me kept staring and copying whatever I did. I kept trying not to cry because he was kind of fat and I thought he was getting a kick out of watching me cry.

When we got done praying it sure felt like Flannel Jesus had moved into a room inside my heart. It was very bright in there and I could feel him radiating out of me. Mom met me at the door of the gingerbread house and I announced the news about Flannel Jesus living inside me. We decided it was worthy of a second birthday celebration so we ate cake. For years afterward mom wrote me birthday cards in both September and May and I still have them in the attic.

where's jesusYears went by and Flannel Jesus sometimes went missing at the worst possible moments.

I wasn’t always nice to my sisters either.

And then, when my life went dry I tried to work everything out in my head. But my head was as twisted as it always had been, and I almost forgot what it felt like to believe in gingerbread houses and the Sons of God.

But even then there were other moments. Quiet moments where the whispers could not be repeated or understood, but moments that were familiar in nature, and which I knew had begun in the universe behind the flannel board.

When I got older I came to wonder if Flannel Jesus ever had any intention of living in anybody’s heart to begin with. He seemed like the sort who didn’t care for attention like I did. Maybe he was content to point people toward the Mystery, and to allow the echos of that Mystery to live in the twilight where the fairies flit and the owls hoot and the lost boys always find their way home.

Anyway, the point is, that’s when I met God.

To the Window, To the Wall

jumping out a windowI sunk pretty low back in 2010.

I started avoiding all the windows above the third floor because they made my knees feel springy.

Don’t worry, I never made an action plan or anything.

If you want to know the truth, a lot of weird stuff happened around windows back then.

I don’t mean the stuff where you wave your private parts at everybody in the other building. I mean the stuff you feel in your body when you’re way up high.

When I saw a window I always scooted real close to the edge so I could see the street below. My brain only needed an extra second to conjure up the feeling of the fresh air whistling past my ears on the way down. I’m not gonna lie, it felt good. It emptied the pain in my kidneys better than a morning whiz.

After the rush of air I felt the solidity of my body against the sidewalk and the crunching of my ribs which were already tight anyway. And then my imagination would dip below the pavement and I could see years and years into the future; far beyond the minor annoyance of having to power-wash my memory off the sidewalk. Everyone was happier and healthier and more prosperous in that alternative future.

But my brain was uncertain of it. It mixed the messages with cold sweats to counteract the clarity of the impulse. And it painted a portrait of Dani in a black fur coat and a black cloche hat. My mother was in a portrait of her own and her cheeks had gone gray.

For their sake I tried to keep clear of tall buildings. Except for at work. At work I sometimes harnessed myself to the top of a Verizon tower. It was my job to paint certain panels brown. I don’t know why. The brown was ugly. It made the panels look like four skinny turds hanging up there in the sky. But I held tight to the harness and I kept on painting those turds.

I never called my relationship with windows “suicidal” because suicide sounds very dangerous. One time a therapist asked me if I had a plan. I said no. He said good. He was right. If I had a plan it would have sucked.

  1. Open window.
  2. Jump.
  3. Write a note
  4. Find a pen.
  5. Nevermind.

I’m not a planner. Besides, I prefer to think of my relationship with windows as “grieving with creativity.”

grieving with creativityAnyway, my grief really got going on the last day of 2009.

It wasn’t like somebody died or anything. Not even a pet. It was just a lame old meeting on a snowy blowy day. But it was my fault. And I wondered if it counted as real grief since I did it to myself.

Anyway, the meeting took place at the top of a staircase. I carried Dani step by step to the upper landing where I placed her in a wheelchair. I wheeled her into an office suite with an adjoining conference room. The room was crowded by bookshelves and in the center of the room stood a small laminated table.

Two middle-aged men led us into the room and situated themselves on the opposite side of the table. They both wore holiday sweaters.

I wore a leather jacket. Dani wore a skirt which she had to press down to keep modest. Her right leg was poking out horizontally on the leg rest. It was protected by a brace and covered in gauze, but if you looked carefully you could trace the line of the stitches beneath the gauze, and you could imagine where the surgeon had fitted the steel rod against the ankle bone.

The surgery was the result of a football accident in China. It had nothing to do with the reason for the meeting but it would play an important role as a cover story for the actual details of the meeting.

I was hot and cold when I sat down before the men. Dani’s eyes were glassy with pain. Our bodies still thought it was after midnight because we had flown in from China two days prior. We knew the meeting was coming.

The taller man did the talking. His voice was heavy and there was firm sorrow in his eyes. He explained that my problem was a problem that had gone on for too long and that he had already done all that he could to help. I nodded. He began to list the consequences and to unfold the plan for the changes in our future. I felt something sinking in the room and the table began to appear larger than it had before. Dani squeezed my hand and I gazed for a long time at the gauze around her ankle.

IMG_9084For a moment I traveled back to a time when Dani sat in another wheelchair. I was kneeling beside her under a small yellow porch. I had been professing my love for her in light of the car crash that nearly killed her and she had been drawing me in for a kiss. As I sat in the miniature conference room I wished she could un-kiss me for all of time. With the absence of a kiss she could rescue her future self from the hell of this meeting, from the pain that comes from loving a fool, and from the terrifying knife and the sharp Chinese syllables that had awoken her on that far foreign operating table three weeks earlier.

The heavy voice kept speaking and I kept thinking about all the yesterdays until I was struck by the emptiness of all the tomorrows. The road in front of me had suddenly vanished. It had been green and blue and vast and warm. There were people along that road, old and new. They were smiling and linking arms and traveling together toward a golden castle in the distance. But the voice unfolded a new plan and the pleasant people on my path dropped away. I could still see their silhouettes and the shadow of the castle in the distance, but now it was the dead of night and the sky was charcoal black, and instead of a pleasant path I now stood alone with Dani on the shore of a cold and enormous ocean.

Looking back now, I think that vision was the first wave of the rising tide. The waves came stronger and darker in the months to come and they went over my head. But it was at that meeting that I first dipped into the icy water. I cleared my throat and I asked the tall man who he would charge to care for the dream I had dreamed and the organization I had started. He said a name. It was the name of my friend. I was struck with sorrow for solitary nature of my friend’s new burden, and for my betrayal of the vow to labor with him for life. The tall man explained in a voice with slow rising intensity that it was the consequence of my sin.

In the end there were many consequences. My license was suspended. My vision was entrusted to others. My friendships were mostly lost or became thin shadows of what they had been before. I wrote a series of letters which were approved by a small committee and then read to the people in the various levels of leadership in my former organization. I called everyone who had given me money and I apologized for failing them and for failing their investment.

It was at that time that the windows began to look appealing. They were bright and their light was aggressive and I was always being drawn into it. Every day when I saw the sun I despised it but I also wanted to touch it. I wanted it to consume me or to transport me to Las Vegas where no one would recognize my face in the darkness of the poker rooms.

charlie brownI like to think of that as grief. It was a black crayon scribbling on my soul. It wouldn’t stop scribbling and I didn’t want it to stop scribbling because it was so perfectly dark and it was the same color as my new life without friends and without trust and without credentials and without any vision anymore forever.

If that’s what grief is, then I know it well. And I wonder if that’s why it bothered me in my last story when the widow and her children stood before the congregation that fateful Sunday morning. It made me angry that a man who presumed upon himself to guide others spiritually did not seem to know about the tide that was overtaking the family. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always thought it was better to be present in the pain than to preach.

Anyway, the two men had arranged some special treatment programs which progressed over several years. The taller man phoned me every few months at first. One day in the springtime when the windows were looking very appealing he invited me out for a sandwich. I believe I cried in front of him and I believe he ate a salad. Another day the following year he invited me to come along when he spoke at a camp meeting.

The shorter man I saw more often. He was charged to oversee me and he never once told me to cut my hair. He gradually began to call me his son. I liked him a lot and I respected both men for their roles and for the way that they pointed me toward recovery.

But neither of them sat on my couch once a week. They were both very responsible men I didn’t imagine that they would have time or energy for such an endeavor. Perhaps they would have found the energy if I had asked, but under the darkness of the waves I didn’t know how to ask, and I didn’t know what I needed, and I gave off the false impression that I wanted to be left alone.

left aloneSometimes I wonder if that happens a lot: people wishing for comfort and acting the opposite way. Maybe that’s what grief is when you get right down into it. Maybe that same black crayon writes on all of our souls; maybe the same icy water washes us alike. And who knows, maybe I was never the only one with the magnetic hatred for the light and the windows and the long corridors where no one can reach you and very few try.

I got better over time. I stopped hanging in windows and I started gathering my confidence and pasting it back together. Dani got better too. She started walking again and eventually she earned a nursing degree so that she could help other people in wheelchairs. We’re both working now; the other day I even decided to become the best employee at my restaurant. That’s an attitude I haven’t witnessed in myself for years. I suppose that means I’m still healing, which I guess means I’m still grieving too.

Maybe that’s why it’s hard for me to watch pain on other people’s faces. Maybe that’s why it’s hard for you too.

Easy Like Sunday Morning

in bedOne Spring morning when the air was wet I woke up with a strange urge.

I wanted to go to church.

The urge started while I was staring up at the ceiling and sucking in a few breaths. I could smell flowers punching through the dirt and it felt fresh. Really fresh. Like something inside was drawn up from the depths of the universe. It hit me with a rush of energy to do something healthy and I immediately resolved to eat a banana.

But I was still warm under the covers and Dani was sleeping beside me. So the idea kept evolving until I decided I should wake her up and we should visit a church. I don’t know why this was the idea that stuck. We stopped attending church a long time ago because it felt all wrong. I’m not saying it was wrong, it just felt wrong ever since I started thinking about things.

One of the unimportant reasons it felt wrong was the fog machine. I hated that fog machine. It seemed to work like Viagra for spiritual erections. Maybe that’s bad to say. I’m sorry if it is.

It’s just… they pump the room so full of water vapor it gives you the idea that Christ himself is about to descend on the clouds. I think that would give anybody an erection if they were eager for Jesus to descend on some clouds.

The worship songs got pretty erotic too. The lyrics always drifted into that strange territory where you might or might not be asking God to ravish you. Some of the older single folks clutched their chests while they sang those songs and I had my suspicions.

fog machine worship serviceIf you squinted through the fog you could see hundreds of arms swaying to the rhythm of the music. They looked like tentacles to me. Hundreds of them. Waving in the darkness to the beat of the drums and to wail of the sirens of worship. The fog became ink to my imagination, the arms became the tendrils of squids, and the darkness of the room was the depths of the ocean. My squinting eyes began to believe I was watching the undulations of a vast octopus orgy. I don’t know if octopi have orgies, but if they do, I bet they look a lot like a Fog-Machine-Worship-Service.

Anyway, we left church.

But you know how it is. Even if you doubt, you wonder sometimes if you’re crazy or rebellious or deceived. If you’re hatin’ on God for thinking different than other folks. After a while you might begin to wonder if you’re dead inside. I did anyway. I wasn’t sure if if I was missing out on God or people or both or neither.

And on this particular morning the enthusiasm struck me hard. Right when I was feeling tender. So I woke Dani up. I told her about my idea to go to church and she was not interested. I suggested we have sex as an alternative to church so we decided right away to go to church.

It was a big church with lots of people. A church we had never visited before but about which we had heard many wonderful reports. The people were smiling in the doorways and smiling in the bathrooms and you could see their teeth everywhere. There was instrumental music playing. It was familiar music and it made me feel calm. I was aware of the freshness outside and the warmth inside and of all the smiling teeth and I began to feel very happy. Springtime had come and it was nice to be back in church.

back in churchDani clung to my arm because she was still waking up and the sight of everyone’s teeth did not have the same effect on her. She saw the teeth as competition for her own teeth and she was determined not to be out-shined. I rubbed her hand and I told her, “isn’t this nice?” She smiled with all her teeth but I knew what she meant.

We found seats in the balcony. I was in the mood to watch people worship and I was kind of in the mood to worship along. There had been a softness growing in me for a while and it had even been growing on the nights when I tried to drink it away. I often found myself staring up at the open blue sky and whispering, “I don’t know if you’re real, but I think you really love me.” And then, on other nights when I felt even warmer I’d say, “You really do love me don’t you? Well I love you too, just so you know… in case you’re real.” And then I’d go back to watching atheist comedians on YouTube.

The church service got started when somebody said, “Bless the Lord,” into the microphone. He was an older gentlemen but he was very handsome and his beard was the perfect color gray. I had the immediate feeling that I was his grandson. Something about his demeanor gave me the sense of being wrapped in blankets around an old wooden stove where he was about to unfold stories about his grandfather before him and all the bravery that was done and all the wisdom that was gleaned.

the handsome preacherI began to feel my muscles relax, though Dani still clenched my arm, and I began to feel the freshness of Spring inside my body. The gray bearded grandfather spoke gently and casually and he leaned against the pulpit and I liked him very much. He talked about a picnic and about a man named Joe who was in the hospital and needed our prayers. One prayer request brought him to another and another and eventually to the moment where everything inside me snapped shut.

This is what happened:

All at once, the grandfather stopped naming prayer requests. He stood very still on the stage and he stopped speaking altogether. His cheeks above the beard went gray too. Silence filled the room and Dani squeezed my arm and I said, “uh oh,” loud enough for her to hear. I looked at her and her teeth were showing all the way down to the gums. It was not a smile this time and we both knew what was coming, though we could not have guessed how far it would go.

He inched behind the pulpit, gripped the rails, and announced that a church member had died that week. Cancer, he said. A long fought battle. A battle, he said, in which God had promised healing for the man and glory for Jesus. I got the sense that the whole congregation was witness to the promise through prophecies and faith proclamations. It became clear to me that the pastor believed that there was a reason the promise hadn’t worked out. He did not say precisely what that reason was but he seemed to scatter it across three possibilities which included lack of faith, underlying sin, or God’s prerogative to call an audible for the sake of more glory.

I wanted to like the handsome grandfather and I wanted to trust him because he looked very trustworthy. But he kept on speaking and that turned out to be a problem.

at the pulpitHe said that God really had promised to heal that man but that God was not responsible for the lack of healing. That’s when I began to bite down on my finger. Maybe it’s just me, but it sure felt tricky to have God always ending up on top, especially when you needed him down at the bottom with you sometimes.

I began to feel Dani’s fingernails pressing against the skin of my forearm. We were no strangers to death ourselves, and with every word from the mouth of the Beard we could feel it anew.

A few years earlier Dani’s sister Kelly-Jo was killed in a car accident when her little red sports-car was struck by a drunk driver. Dani was in the passenger seat of that car and she had to be pried out by the Jaws of Life. At the scene Dani saw her own body from high above, as though she was hovering outside of herself while the volunteer firefighters fought to pull her from the wreckage. The firefighters could not save Kelly, which Dani had sensed as she drifted in and out of consciousness. She awoke days later after eight surgeries and countless drug induced hallucinations in which the driver came back through a hospital window to finish her off.

So… I’m not suggesting Dani and I are level headed about this stuff or anything. But the whole time the Beard was speaking I kept liking him less and less. His grandfatherly demeanor had vanished. He said God was good when things were bad and he got loud and red and it gave me the feeling that we were in court and God had suddenly decided to shut up and plead the fifth.

I tried to use my Jedi Mind Tricks to force the Beard to another subject. I failed. It was almost like he was on the payroll as God’s Defense Attorney; like he had forgotten that real live people had gotten their hearts ripped out.

Then he remembered, but not as I hoped. He cupped his hands above his eyes and he called out into the audience. He asked if the family whose father had died was in attendance. A small voice said yes. He asked them to stand.

I gasped.

The family stood. All four of them. The widow with her long frazzled hair, a boy and a girl in their mid-twenties, and a teenage boy whose curls were half hidden by a ball-cap.

The preacher asked the family if they thought God was good. The sanctuary was silent. Then three voices came in reply, “God is good,” they said in unison. The teenage boy remained silent.

“Amen,” said the pastor from the stage, “come up here a minute,” he said. He beckoned them with his arm.

I could feel the warmth drain from my body. My mouth fell open. I began whispering “don’t go up, don’t go up, why are you going up?” But the widow left her seat and the three children followed her like little ducklings down the center aisle. The congregation, more than a thousand people strong, watched in silence as the family marched up the steps to where the handsome old man in the perfect gray beard was waiting.

He began to interview the family. The older children said they were quite well thanks to the grace of God. The oldest boy said that the family still believed their father could be raised from the dead. His sister said “Amen.” The congregation said “Amen.” His mother nodded twice before being overcome with sobs.

widowI felt bad for the woman but I also felt the sprout that had been sprouting inside me begin to shrivel. I vowed to never return to such an evil place and to never again be duped by the freshness of spring.

The teenage brother said nothing. He kept his head underneath a ball-cap and he stuffed his fists deeper into his cargo shorts. I kept picturing him in a basketball uniform with no father for a post-game hug. I liked that kid. I liked him a lot. In that moment he was the only one in the entire building I liked.

Then the pastor handed the mic to his mother, the widow. She took it and I gasped again. “Why would you do this?” I said in my heart to the man with the beard.

The woman looked like a zombie and he voice was hollow. But she gripped the mic tight and she spoke loud and clear and without faltering. She told the congregation not to give up hope. She told them that God really had promised healing and that he was a good God and that her husband was in a better place if he stayed dead but that he might not stay dead and that they needed to have more faith and that maybe he died anyway so that the gospel could be preached at his funeral. The pastor nodded along. I squeezed my skull to keep my brain from popping.

Maybe I’m weird but I couldn’t put those pieces together and I didn’t think it was prudent to try. In the years following the accident it began to seem like people in church had too many explanations for everything. Sometimes I still wonder if it’d be better if everybody agreed that nobody could make sense of God when it comes to pain.

listeningAnyway, the service kept going and the rest of it was a blur. There was no fog machine for worship, no erotic songs, nothing memorable whatsoever. I clutched Dani’s hand as I searched for the new growth that had been perking up inside me at dawn. But I could not find it in church.

It was a timid hope because it was an honest hope and it did not feel safe where the people who knew things did not seem to know anything about the pain I knew or the God I believed in. When the service ended I interlocked fingers with Dani and we sped away from the bright white smiles and the familiar music. We burst out into the cool afternoon air and we found that there was no less hope out there. You could breath deeply of the earth and you knew that life was still about break through.

But maybe I’m still missing out. Maybe there’s no flaw in the abundance of answers and the displacement of sadness. Maybe the church is still the answer. Sometimes though, I wonder if the real answer is carried in the hearts of other folks like me who can no longer abide the friction. I wish we could gather together, out among the raindrops and the wet green earth.