It took nineteen years of Christianity before something spiritual actually happened. There was no shortage of prayer, worship, and partaking the sacraments. However, I didn’t learn the S-word, the “sacrament” word until I was removed from the non-denominational church that raised me. These practices were like the tacitly accepted plot devices used in so many movies — the underwritten female characters, the fiery explosions in space, the guns with unlimited ammo. In the alternative church universe, as in movies, these tropes didn’t need to make sense for the story to move forward. I grew up in a church that memorized scripture, lots of scripture, with a rewards system for those that participated and put in the extra effort to memorize more. Turning it into a competition seemed to be one of many “the ends justify the means” systems on which we relied. That’s not to say that scripture is bad, or that competition is bad, or that those things are inherently not-spiritual. There were plenty of spiritual experiences, but i was taught to intellectualize and explain those things into less-than. What I am saying is not that they were either or, spiritual or un-spiritual, but that in my perception, these were strictly physical acts that we inherited from long ago — maybe back when they were still spiritual. They weren’t godless, per se, but they were not designed to make God visible any more than they were designed to make ourselves invisible. We weren’t toying with spirits.
“Funerals are for the living,” my parents explained once. The dead don’t actually care how we celebrate or mourn, because they’re dead. Much the same, the passing around of bread and juice was for us to commemorate a once significant event. It wasn’t stated, just known that God didn’t really care how we remembered him with our ceremony. Like the body in the casket, it was less about the physically present “person” nearby, but the memory of them.
The same logic applied to large family events. Why do we go to Thanksgiving dinner out in Boring, Oregon? The answer was some variation of tradition, because I said so, because they are family. For the group receiving me in their home, the obligation was the same. Surface pleasantries, underlying antipathy. Even hatred. And, the silent agreement stating, “Lets just get through this.” There seemed to be nothing in it for anyone. We were there to refill a reservoir of tradition, obligation, and mandated appearances — showing up among strangers, so much what the church was to me, would have been as immobilizingly awkward. Guilted for not showing up, but the relationships were plastic when I did. It was if the reservoir of tradition was always running low. What would happen, I wondered, if I failed to meet the quota? Would someone die? Would anyone notice? How much of my presence is motivated by what people will say when I’m not there? Using archaic vocabulary, the spiritual necessity of church, and family, was insisted upon while reality so loudly disagreed.
It was understood, for instance, that Jesus’s knowledge of the woman at the well’s marriage history was just “great observational skills” and not anything particularly spiritual. The water of life? Something spiritual was said in that part. We glossed over that. Similarly, medical science had mostly removed the need for miracles — praying for miracles meant praying specifically for great doctors to be available to do what they do for the person we had in mind. Most everything could be reduced to the natural, leaving very little room in my life for God to operate. My exit brought to bare the reality that my participation had as much or little impact as non-participation. What I suspected and feared for years was affirmed by those who had denied it for so long.
I found that, even in the midst of a stated respect for science as a means to prove religion, there was a missing component in the scientific method by which my home church operated. If I questioned the hypothesis of the church in any regard, my questions were sussed out or I was given a less-than-satisfactory platitude. Does any of this actually matter? Aren’t there some who are better off without this? “Just trust God,” or something along those lines. And at times it was egregious. Summer camp, where our Portland-area church would drive to a camp near Fresno, California, was a two-day drive for a five day camp. My freshman year, I asked why the senior boys would run around the camp naked at night, into the younger boys’ cabins and, if they were daring enough, near the girls’ cabin area. I asked why there were wrestling and boxing matches well into the night, with the injuries to show for it. And there were multiple others who spoke up, braver than I was, asking in front of the whole camp, “How do we know the Bible was translated properly? We all know it was translated by human beings!” This one camper, who was booed and shouted down, rambled on as best he could, about gay people, aliens, and evolution before they finally sat him down. I admit, at the time, the types of things I questioned were not those kinds of things, but along the lines of, “why does the camp’s activities involving someone trying to embarrass me so much of the time?” The socialized, traditional hazing, coupled with the authoritative system crushed my young self. I didn’t recognize the damage until much later — until I both desperately longed to be on the other side of the hazing but also hated that it seemed required, like it had to take place. There was no hierarchy of importance in my church experience, it was all flat, as if everything as mandatory. The hazing, the youth group games where someone gets spat on or mocked, and the community’s partaking in communion were all equally unquestionable and equally required. The sacred was intermingled with the lies. The breaking down of this, my breaking away from this system lead me to question everything. The hierarchy was a lie, obviously, because we can do without the slut-shaming sessions and the diatribes against gays and Democrats, but I would still like to talk about why we did those things in the first place. At the time, I wanted to question why, get a responsibility-taking answer from someone in authority, and also hear them offer some kind of “yes we can do better.”
It wasn’t so much that I wanted a better church, so much as a better God. These experiences were so much a mosaic image of God for me. The church was the means by which I experienced God, and it continues to be, and so these other things mixed in — the borderline sexual assaults, the harassment, the gossip, the institutionalized hatred of outsiders, all of these were mixed into who I knew God to be. These things were part of the sketchbook of “God moments,” and looking back, the church in which I grew up was an obstacle to God more than anything else in my life. A mask for God himself. A distraction. When tested, my image of God fell apart. God wasn’t there in those things, God wasn’t there in any of the things. I couldn’t figure out how to find God in the sacraments of worship or communion or in the obvious, destructive things. I didn’t know the difference, I wasn’t trained, and my questions were dangerous to the system that espoused them. I ended up, too, in these discussions where I had to choose between things that didn’t seem to contradict each other. It all would have been okay — the hypocrisy, the contradictions, the social pain — if I had been seeing God around the church building or hearing him respond when I prayed. That kind of thing was always for someone else. The imperfection would have been tolerable, the process would have been a necessary evil, but God wasn’t in any of it. After a while, I couldn’t do it anymore.
I didn’t hear from God until things got really bad. Until the counselor I was seeing, one who specialized in personality assessment for criminals, advised that I get an attorney. Ignorant at the time about the nature of the accusations against me, I stalled. I never ended up getting an attorney, and never actually needed one, although it may have helped ease some of the intermediate troubles. No charges were pressed, which is why I was able to come back and do ministry, albeit somewhere else. The information I had about what was said, why I was “disallowed” from Sunday morning worship and such, trickled out over nearly a year. Some of which I didn’t find out until five years later. There was unanimous agreement that I was a failed leader, understandably so, seeing as how I was an eighteen year old acting thirteen. But there was an outlier among the reports against me that precipitated the legal question to begin with. I had, and still have nightmares where the police show up at my door to “ask questions” and then haul me away. Like an episode of Law and Order, where they trick me into stepping outside and then handcuff me. There’s always two of them for some reason. Never just one, never three or more, only two police, wearing black suits. What’s strange, and strangely common is that the chain of events that precipitated my legal troubles was facilitated by Christians. I was accused by Christians, and defended by Christians, and eventually kicked out of the church I grew up in by a bunch of Christians. There were a dozen Christian men, pastors and elders, sitting around a table, having received a positive report from my counselor along with the results of a lie detector test — both of which were a waste of time, looking back — who prayed before and after the meeting in which they asked me not to come back to church. I remember their stoic discussion about an absent elder’s family troubles while they waited for the whole team to arrive. One of the more stand-offish elders was, ironically enough, a counselor who lent his office’s conference room for the meeting. That, lest we bring more troubles into the church, the building that it is. We had coffee and donuts. I was the only one who took donuts, and the only one who didn’t take any coffee. Being a team of mostly accountants and engineers, they ran the meeting by the numbers. I would find out years later that they knew the whole story within about 24 hours, but the six months of consternation and investigation were necessary window dressing. They had to keep everyone happy, so I was a hot potato, constantly falling from one reluctant hand to another. The conclusion of the official process, but for an official, written exoneration three years later, was as passive as could be. It ended with my being out; none of the other six or seven in the room would ever take responsibility for the indecision.
These men prayed that day, and those that I still know on some level are still “walking with Jesus,” still loving their families and have moved on with their lives. They were totally, completely, without disclaimer or caveat, Christian men. It was the end of my faith, at the time, and the birth of something new — a “baptism” for my spiritual life, for lack of a more neutral term. I don’t think I ever would have heard from God if I hadn’t abandoned my old faith, and told God as much. The conversation, for nineteen years being strictly a monologue, took place in a crowd. My eyebrows were furrowed harshly over my cold eyes, as per usual, and my posture screamed “don’t talk to me.” My mouth said as much, don’t talk to me, go to hell, or what fit best, among my coworkers and friends, some of whom knew the waking nightmare that I lived at times. I wanted to be able to explain myself, just affirm that I was, in fact, having a bad day. I was too ashamed of the accusations, the whole process, the history I was making for my life, to say anything — people either knew the story second hand or they just assumed I was an asshole. Most people just assumed I was an asshole. The conversation with God was a losing wrestling match. I had no power, no control, the need of these being the motivation behind nearly every prayer I had prayed up to that point. I had no leverage, no button to push on God to make him save me from this situation. And my frame of reference, my culture and history, my community, all of it had betrayed me in either the impotence of faith I had been taught by my church of origin, or outright removed themselves from my life, or me from theirs, for their own sake. Is that the kind of thing that God would do to me, too? Get rid of me so that he could have an easier day, save some time and energy, or maybe to save face in front of his friends? God didn’t need anything, certainly not friends, or so I reasoned, so it looks like he doesn’t need me anymore. Looking back, I hadn’t loved anyone I didn’t need. But then, maybe God was worried about losing some big financial supporters, and that’s why he wasn’t spending time with me at the moment — or any moment in my life. I wasn’t valuable enough, I wasn’t worth the investment, the opportunity cost was too high. Like my leaders decided again and again, maybe God chose to keep some people happy at the expense others. In my misinformed perception of God’s limitedness, I was to be the one, this time, who lost in God’s political game.
In that situation, it had thrust me into adulthood in a way that I did not expect. Most people get a speeding ticket that they can’t afford, or a pregnancy scare, and then tread lighter throughout the rest of their lives — or until the scare had worn off. My enemies went from being a dusty old idea, a space-filler, and occasionally someone at school that I didn’t like, to being an actual list of names. Erik, George, Lynn, Jon, Patrick. It killed me, it brought me to tears that they had been real before, real friends and family, and then real enemies, they were still around, and I couldn’t avoid them. It made me see red — and the physical, literal color red shows up in my eyes, I learned, given the proper emotion — when I watched God do the opposite. The “idea,” the pronoun “God” had been a placeholder for some future thing. Suddenly it became nothing. This God didn’t go the way of my enemies, where they became more real, it went the opposite. God was as invisible and distant as he ever was. The theological definitions, the constructs in which I had been raised, the apologetics were absolutely, completely, cruelly useless in the midst of my life’s biggest crisis. Besides being ready to commit suicide, ready to give up, ready to commit not physical suicide but moral and spiritual suicide, I was ready to forgo the pleasantry of faith altogether. There might be a God somewhere, but he was, at the time, too busy in his control room, or not powerful enough to do something, or too powerful to waste his time on my problems. It all amounted to a counterfeit, false God, and I would argue, an exposure of the lies I believed about God up to that point. I could have been hearing from God all that time and not recognized it, not believed it, or been expecting an answer that better fit what I wanted. And, really, what I wanted was so much justice — for me, only — in the “revenge” sense of the word, and I wanted overnight vindication.
In any case, my conception of God, when I reached out to touch it, was weak, so I reasoned that God himself must be weak. When I pushed past my frail, feeble understanding of God to the personal object of my faith, I finally touched God. He touched back. It was excruciating, a cascade of pain, in that the exit of my faith was the first message to which God responded. It seemed that, instead of praying to my own inartistic sketch of God, and hoping that my ever-evolving handiwork would answer my prayers, the destruction of that was what brought me before God himself. The destruction was personal, though. It would have been so much easier if it was just a drawing that I was praying to, maybe just a statue or something, but my idea of God was ingrained and woven into my very self, spiritually, emotionally, relationally and otherwise. An external, physical representation would have been easier, for me personally, to throw out. It was to reach out, hurt the mirror and the image on it, and have the pain reflected back. I ended up throwing out my whole life up to that point, with so many people — who had thrown me out first, if that matters — and throwing out whole chapters, rewriting them, throwing out thoughts and patterns of thought, that were hopelessly wrong, and my identity was ripped up, burned, and buried. I found that the object of my worship, my limited understanding of God, had informed my identity up to that point. And the flaws therein, when the flawed concept of God failed, my intertwined identity was crushed along with my God. It was great, and greatly painful, but worth it.
God responded to me, audibly, for the first time, as I was told him that I was leaving him.
“Where are you, God? Where have you been?” I asked, with venom flowing through my heart.
It was like a thought, from someone else, interrupting my thoughts, when the voice broke in. For anyone whose mind wanders, it would have been indistinguishable from the usual mind-noise that takes place so often, the distractions and the static of thought traffic. I think it was a special moment for tragic reasons, in that my words to God in prayer were particularly heavy to me. It wasn’t a passing, flip reaction to being cut off in traffic, or a voice inflection change in the midst of an awkward conversation — it was an adrenaline-packed, angst ridden prayer. It was the dam breaking, one filled with all of the anger, hatred, and resentment from years of Christian upbringing, being poured out over my sketch of God. It was my saying, in prayer, “you couldn’t handle the smallest, most minor crisis, God-sketch, so why would I keep wasting my time looking at you, talking to you, listening to your silence, wondering about you, trying to get you right?” When all of the vitriol washed over my conception of God, there was a real God left standing there, who talked back. I noticed, in part because I was certain that unleashing this onto God would destroy him, remove him from my life forever. The dam, spiritual as it was, must have been keeping God out of that part of my life for so long. What I found was that God wasn’t afraid or limited by the pain held behind that wall. He wasn’t threatened or afraid. He didn’t take it personally, get his feelings hurt, question my loyalty, or any of that, like a fickle friend or so many ministers, leaders, and fathers I had before I found God. It didn’t threaten our relationship, it wasn’t a threat to his character or to his identity. The destruction of my identity didn’t mean that God wasn’t real. A piece of it was, so much of my guilt and fear was projected on to God, as if he would punish me for my lack of faith by shrinking himself. Or that my doubts, my perceived limitations on God would cause him to live inside of those limitations. All of it was a shocking, beautiful, excruciating relief. I suddenly asked myself, now that God is real, what am I supposed to do?
There was something comforting before, living with a limited God. I could predict him, there were certain things he could and couldn’t do. He wouldn’t respond audibly, that was for certain. So I didn’t have to worry about sorting out my inner monologue from a divine whisper. He wouldn’t intervene except maybe once every thousand years, maybe not even that depending on how one understands scripture, so I didn’t need to look for “signs” or anything like that. My friends weren’t hearing from God either, so their words could be ignored or applied without damaging eternity. When all of that was thrown out — and for about a day, it switched to the opposite, where everything was spiritual and God-breathed, until that wore me out — I was terrified. It was my being dropped into the Sahara without a water bottle or a road map. I didn’t know left from right anymore. God could be saying and doing anything, all of the time. God talked to me! So, since that happens, and apparently it always has, I need to change everything, rethink everything, I need to rewrite the roadmap. Unfortunately, at that point, soon after hearing from God, my process became switching my old map for a new map of God. My God-sketch had to be replaced with a more detailed God-sketch, maybe with color and texture added to it. What I found was that God would constantly move the lines in which I tried to draw him. He would change the pattern, the system, almost like he was a living person. It took my realizing, and then re-realizing, forgetting and then remembering and then forgetting again, that God was and is, in fact, a real person. I can’t draw him and pin him to the wall, I can’t remember all about God, and to do so would be to be greater than God himself. I never really “got God,” and I still don’t. I hear from this person, I meet this person and experience this person, the same one fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who is known through scripture. But my grip on him is tenuous at best. He leaps out of my grip, and when I look up, I realize that I never had him in the first place. He is alive, he moves, sometimes I move away, sometimes I try to follow him. Sometimes I still get it wrong. But God isn’t this spiritual frame-able picture that I get, where I can contain him in a snapshot and reference the snapshot once in awhile when I come on a hard day. He’s alive, with legs and arms and hands, a voice. A beautiful, real, hear-able, spirit-audible voice. I can’t tell you what he’s going to say, just that he is and he will. For me, going from being a Christian, to being done, then crawling back, it was terrifying to realize that God would speak, but that there was no roadmap for that, no system to follow, no guarantee of success in it. But it was also the greatest news I had ever heard.