I will tell you of my earliest childhood memory; I was four years old when it happened. I had not yet learned the days of the week, but I did know that different days had different significances. I had learned to tell the significance of the day by the clothes that were laid out on my bed for me after breakfast. For example, raggedy hand-me-downs meant that I would stay home that day and get to play outside; contrariwise, clean, newer clothes meant that I would go into town. Then there were the two scratchy, collared, plaid button-down shirts. If either of those shirts were laid out on the bed, it meant that I would be going to church. I hated those two shirts with the kind of red-eyed enraged passion that should be completely unacceptable for a child of four to feel. If asked at the time why I hated those shirts so much, I may have replied that they were ugly and uncomfortable, if I replied at all. Nevertheless, one day after breakfast, I went into my room to dress and spied one of those plaid shirts on my bed. A blinding fury overtook me and in a brief moment I snatched the shirt up with clenched fists and began tearing it to shreds, my older brother looking on aghast as the ribbons of fabric whirled through the air as though flung about by a tempest. I was beaten twice that day. My father beat me for wasting money we didn’t have, but my mother, she beat me because she knew that, with the other plaid shirt in the laundry, she’d have to bring me to church in clothes that weren’t quite churchy enough. I can’t imagine the shame and indignity that a mother must feel at having to present her four year old before the church in un-churchy clothes—the horror… the horror. I’ve often wondered why that memory has stayed with me through the years. Perhaps it was because of the inexplicable revulsion I had for those plaid shirts, or maybe it was because I had been beaten twice for the same offense. It may be nearer to the truth to conjecture that maybe that memory has had such a lasting impression on me because it was the first time in my life that I had a sense that there was something more important in my parents’ lives than me. Either way, having since gained at least a rudimentary understanding of human psychology, I’ve come to realize that I didn’t actually hate those two innocent, albeit uncomfortable, plaid shirts; I was merely projecting. What I really hated was what the garments represented. Needless to say, I was rather dumbfounded to discover, years later, that at the tender age of four, I had already decided that there was something not quite right about church. Nevertheless, over the next 16 years or so, my indoctrination would be so complete, my brain so thoroughly washed, that I would not be able to leave the church, nor publicly admit disbelief, until well into my thirties.
Since my story is not much different than most of the other stories about kids growing up in extreme religion, especially those of the fundamental, evangelical sort, I won’t belabor the finer points of my childhood, other than to address some of the highlights. My parents were of the Pentecostal flavor, Assemblies of God for those more inclined toward precision. I participated in the Royal Rangers program, which is essentially the same as The Boy Scouts except that Jesus is the ultimate Scout Leader and I doubt the Royal Rangers will ever officially accept gays. When I was in the sixth grade, I was plucked out of public school and plopped firmly down into the Christian school where my mother was a teacher. This school was conveniently attached to the church my family attended, as was an assisted living center into which I’m sure I’ll eventually find some excuse for enrolling my parents. As you can see, I grew up, not just within a bubble, but within an entirely closed system intricately designed for controlling its inmates, quite literally, from the cradle to the grave.
I remember once, when I was around seven or eight years old, a missionary came to the church. Now, there were two types of missionaries who came to my parents’ church: there were the ones who came to tell wondrous stories about God’s love, and ask for money; and then there were the ones who came to tell horrible stories about men’s evil, and ask for money. This particular missionary had come to tell horror stories. Since the Communists were still very much in power in the Soviet Union during my childhood, many of the horror stories I heard growing up involved the terrible plight of the Christians in Russia—they were made to spit on their Bibles, their churches were confiscated by the government and turned into grain silos, and any number of other atrocities one might think of. However, the story this missionary told still sends shivers down my spine to this day. He claimed that going to church had been outlawed in Russia and that the Christians had to meet in secret, lest the government found them out and imprisoned them until they either denied Christ or were sent away to some gulag in far-flung Siberia. As the story went, one such congregation had the grievous misfortune of being discovered, and in the middle of their church service, a band of soldiers from the Red Army marched in, weapons at the ready. The soldiers pulled all of the children away from their parents and lined them up in front of the church. They, then, went down the line holding a pistol to each child’s head and demanding that the parents of each child stand up and deny Christ; otherwise they would scatter the child’s brain into more pieces than even God could count. Naturally, there weren’t very many children enjoying Sunday Dinner with their families when the story ended—a testament to the awesome power of faith, indeed. I’ve been married to a Russian for the past ten years now. When I first told my wife this story, she laughed and said that nothing like that had ever happened in Russia; she also remarked that Christians and Communists often employ the same types of propaganda. But when she asked me why I was so terrified by that story, and why I still get a chill thinking about it, my answer shocked her. I told her that I wasn’t terrified by the thought of what those poor parents had gone through, nor by the trembling of the innocents patiently awaiting their fate. I was terrified because, at the age of seven or eight, I knew that if anything like that had ever happened in my parents’ church, they would have been the first ones to stand up, point to me and my brother, and tell the soldiers to go ahead and get it over with, because my parents would never deny Christ, not even to save us.
As I muddled on towards whatever maturity my church-stunted life would allow, I remember a Wednesday night, when I was seventeen, driving home from youth group with my mom riding with me. She was determined that I was called of God to become a missionary in Europe and I was trying desperately to make her understand that I didn’t want to be a missionary, or an evangelist, or a pastor, or any other man of the cloth. I was able to fend off every argument she threw at me that night except for the last one. She told me that the Berlin Wall had just fallen, that Europe needed me to bring God’s healing, and that if I didn’t go, the blood of all those people would be upon my hands. With a guilt-ridden conscience, I applied to a private Christian college in central Florida, with Pastoral Ministries as my declared major. I won’t mention the name of the college or give any details about it other than that it has since become a University in the Southeastern region of the country. My first semester went about as typically as any American college student’s first semester. I dutifully gained my freshmen fifteen, wrote longing, passionate letters to my girl back home, and engaged in heated though rambling discussions during which all parties involved went to great lengths to demonstrate their supreme knowledge concerning the topic at hand.
It was during my second semester when I finally came across the first hurdle, the crossing of which would put me upon the path of ultimately becoming an unbeliever, but the ducking of which would have kept me upon the true course with happy unconcern. In addition to daily chapel, to which attendance was compulsory, we students also had to attend a number of classes in Theology, Bible, and general churchy-type stuff that we who would eventually lead the Lord’s work should know. One fine example of the latter was a class called The History and Polity of the Church, which we had endearingly renamed The Heresy and Fallacy of the Church. It was a lovely spring morning when the professor of this class announced to us that we would be having a guest lecturer as a special treat. I cannot recall any of the many indistinguishable features of the lecturer that day, but I remember his lecture was on how to get more money in the offering plate. Granted, church funds are always in a desperate state as is testified to by nearly every pastor in nearly every church on nearly every Sunday of the year; so the idea of getting a few helpful hints wasn’t necessarily a bad one. But when that pious little white-washed tomb of a lecturer got around to encouraging us impressionable godlings to have some ninety year old grandmother give a testimony just before passing the plate, that was just a shade more than this Southern Gentleman could stand. I called my parents that afternoon and announced that I would not be pursuing a major in Pastoral Ministries any further. They countered that, as they were paying for my education, they had every right to control the manner in which their money was spent. I told them they could keep their money; I wanted no part of ministry. After an indeterminate amount of counterlocution, a compromise was eventually drawn up wherein I would be allowed to take a degree in Secondary Education with a minor in English and they would continue to pay for it, but I had to agree to stay at the Christian college. I had always thought it would be fun to be a writer or a journalist, so the degree in English Education, I reckoned, would be helpful. Thus, with the hurdle crossed and with a comfortable major declared, I set out to endure the remaining three years of my education as best as I could.
I’d never really known loneliness until my second year in college. Consider this; if a school prides itself on having the best football team, then naturally, the most popular students are the football players and the cheerleaders. But imagine a school that prides itself on churning out the best preachers in the denomination. Who are the most popular students in such a place? Imagine further, what happens to a student who leaves Pastoral Ministries in favor of taking a degree in Education. I was an overnight reject. At first, I still tried to run in the same social circles, but that didn’t last long. With godlings, mere rejection is never enough; it has to be enhanced and flavored with a bouquet of judgment, a heavy note of condemnation, and a nice finish of self-righteousness, like any fine wine distilled from water by the miraculous hand of our Lord and Savior. So, for the next three years, I was merely a defective unit crawling around somewhere in the middle of the discard pile. To my amazement, despite being lonely at first, I found the experience wonderfully liberating. Looking back now, I realize that I was getting my first tastes of the freedom and peace I would eventually, and rightfully, claim, once I was able to put religion down for good. Naturally, I wasn’t the only defective unit on the discard pile; there were a number of others, some of whom were even Pastoral Ministries majors who happened to disagree with many of the Party Lines. I am even fortunate enough to still call some of these same people my friends, even the ones who went on to become pastors, though we do get into the devil of an argument now and again. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
To pass what free time the college would allow, between classes, daily chapel, and nightly curfew, I took long walks, shot pool at a local billiard hall, and worked hard at becoming a tolerable writer. During my junior year, I started holding poetry readings at local night clubs. I would hold them on weeknights when business at the clubs was generally slow. The club owners enjoyed it because it brought in a little more money for them; I enjoyed the exposure I was getting as a budding new poet. Unfortunately, this move nearly got me expelled from college. While I saw what I was doing as a means of ministering to the lost (most of my poetry at the time had heavy spiritual overtones), the school merely saw that I was going to places of disreputable account, thus, whatever my intentions were, my actions were clearly against the rulebook. This was not the first time I had been hauled in before the disciplinary board; in fact, I was on a first name basis with most of them. But this was the first time that I had both a dean and the professor of Humanities standing up for me. In the end, though, the Grand Inquisitor issued a decree from on high that I could either continue my nefarious breaching of Christian doctrine by reading poetry in dens of iniquity and face expulsion, or I could submit myself to the yoke of our Lord, which yoke, he reminded me, was light, and I would be allowed to continue pursuing and, God willing, eventually earn my degree. Initially, I decided to give the old bollocks to what the school thought and continue right on holding my poetry readings, but I was checkmated by my parents, whose money I would be squandering if I got kicked out so close to earning my degree. I capitulated, having no other, more sensible, alternative. This was the first of several breaking points I reached with religion before finally kicking it out of my life completely. I don’t know if that is a testament to how thoroughly engrained my religion was, or just another example of how unbefitting stubbornness is. As it happened, though, in what is arguably the most self-righteous act since God first decided that He should die so that He could save us from His own judgment of us, the year after I graduated, the University in the Southeastern region started offering poetry readings in nightclubs as one of its student ministry options.
By that time, however, I was tired enough of religion to declare that, for the foreseeable future anyway, I was done with it. The next three years or so were perhaps the happiest of my life, certainly among the happiest. When I attended church, I went to a very laid-back church peopled mainly with fellow rejects such as myself. I married a gentle young agnostic whose beauty was matched only by her kindness; she was the daughter of a former Southern Baptist, a fiery woman whose ire against all things religious made the very flames of hell seem like a mere campfire, but she had raised the most tenderhearted of ladies one could ever have the pleasure of knowing. On weekends, I sat up many a long night over pints of Guinness discussing the finer points of life, theology, purpose, and reason with my friends, and during the week, I worked as an electrician, a trade upon which I would eventually build a career of sorts. I found I was no longer constrained by the compulsions of religion. God’s calling upon my life, of which I had been compelled to believe since I first started speaking, would happen as God willed it, with or without my help. God’s plan would unfold itself in its own time. I wasn’t going to concern myself with such matters anymore. Instead, I found meaning in life simply by enjoying it. A warm pipe filled with the finest tobacco, a laugh with friends, a good single malt—these were the simple pleasures that made life fulfilling. Sadly, it was not to last.
Religion builds itself on pointless fear and sustains itself though overbearing guilt. Once instilled, this dark and sinister double threat engrains itself into the deepest nether-reaches of the host psyche, like parasitic symbiotes, quietly preying on the host in times of peace, but ferociously attacking the host when it seems that the host might be strong enough to evict them. Even in my happiest times, these two old friends of mine haunted me, spurred on with every call from home in which my parents besought my immediate return to the true flock, simultaneously lambasting the debaucherous manner in which I was living my life. I would have fits of repentance, during which I would declare before the Sovereign Lord that I was going to find a true church and start attending regularly again. I would pore over the pages of the sacred text and devote hours at a time to prayer. Then I would remember the true nature of religion, what it made of those who practiced it, and what was done to me by those who practiced it. I would resign myself to struggle on trying to find the happy medium between believing in God but not in all of the presumptuousness that goes along with it. My restlessness grew; my sleeplessness did not abate. The feeling of guilt became increasingly unbearable and with it the fear that God’s divine destiny was not going to be fulfilled in me and it would be my fault. In my dreams, when I had dreams, I saw the blood of nations covering my hands; I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?”, but instead of the victorious reply of, “Here am I!” I would hear only silence, my silence. My unanswered call… And God’s wrath that so many would die without hearing the gospel because I wanted a warm pipe filled with the finest tobacco, a laugh with friends, a good single malt. I had come so close to liberating myself. It was just within my grasp! So many years of fruitless misery could have been spared if only I had been more of a man and less of a boy. Nevertheless, with a guilt-laden conscience, I capitulated, having no other, more sensible choice. In the year of our Lord 1999, I, as had been C.S. Lewis many years previous, was dragged kicking and screaming back into the presence of the Lord.
I moved back to North Carolina, to the gentle hills of my childhood, the bosom of my heritage. My bewildered wife was by my side. I returned to the church of my parents, the church that had caused a four year old to rend his garments like the mourners of old, the church that had put the fear of Russian soldiers into the young heart of a seven year old, the church where I could finally start to wash the blood of the nations from my hands. Divorce soon followed. I was increasingly obsessed with finding God’s will for my life and fulfilling the Divine Destiny He had for me. My omni-skeptical wife, however, suspected that the idea that God had a plan for me, or anyone else in particular, was unlikely at best, pure rubbish at worst. Resultantly, although she still cared very much for me, she was not quite willing to give up the hopes and dreams she had for her own life in exchange for something which, to her, was essentially a lie. I never faulted her for this conviction; and ultimately, I grew to admire her for it. Many years later, I sent her an email to apologize for my behavior and to admit that she had been right and I wrong. She responded that she had always known I would eventually realize that God’s Will was a lie, but that, given my stubbornness, she feared that not only would it take many years, but also many heartaches, for me to finally reach that conclusion. She was right.
In the year 2000, I left home to become a missionary in Northern Ireland, in a little town just outside of Belfast. I had been prophesied over by several people independently, plus I had the evidence that God had laid a burden on my heart for the people of Ulster, so I knew that going there was God’s will for me and that I was finally going to start fulfilling His divine destiny. I was working with a Pentecostal church there in Northern Ireland and had hopes that they would eventually bring me on their full-time staff. In the meantime, I had found gainful employment with a local electronics firm and had even made arrangements to rent to own a humble little terrace house in one of the Protestant neighborhoods. Not long after arriving in Northern Ireland, I was approached by a man who, as his name isn’t relevant to my narrative, I will simply call Polite. Polite was an extremely intelligent man—a college professor, to be exact—and he took a highly intellectual view toward his faith, if such a paradox can be believed. Polite was also a member of the church with which I was working. During the course of our conversation, Polite asked me what I thought I could do in Ulster that God couldn’t have found an Ulsterman to do. In other words, what did God find in me that He couldn’t have just as easily found in someone who was already there? Arrogantly, I responded that a disciple of Christ doesn’t trifle over such questions; a disciple merely obeys the voice of his master. Although there did seem to be the slightest hint of reproof during the remainder of our conversation, I didn’t really get the feeling that Polite disapproved of my answer, or my presence in his country. Years later, as my perceptions of life, people, and the world began to recover from the stained glass blinders through which I had been taught to look, I realized what Polite’s intentions had been during the course of that conversation. His question was not aimed at knocking my faith; so much as it was aimed at knocking my motivations. Polite, I think, was hoping that I would begin to question why I was really in Ulster and he was hoping that I would see that while I might really believe that God had called me there, in reality, I wasn’t needed. Although the next six months made clear to me that Polite’s assessment had been completely accurate, I simply refused to believe it. I could clearly see that I did not bring anything into the church or even the town that any other bipedal humanoid couldn’t have brought; but God Himself had brought me there, so I assured myself constantly, I must be needed. There were two proverbs I was known for saying in those days: “Faith that cannot be tested is faith that cannot be trusted”; and “There is a thin line between faith and stupidity.” I still adhere to the latter, but maintain that the line is blurred beyond all distinction. Looking back now, I think the pastor of the church indulged me, not merely because I was still a shade on the side of young and naïve, but also because he genuinely wanted God to be able to do miraculous things in his church and I was his Abraham. I was his proof that God could do wondrous works through his ministry; I was the one he could hold before his congregation and say, “Here is a man who has been called up from the land of his fathers, a stranger in a strange land, upheld by the mighty hand of God.” I know now that we were both kidding ourselves; I wonder if he does…
The electronics firm for which I had been working had been attempting to get me a proper work permit since they had first hired me on. They were pleased with the work I did for them, though not always so fond of the arrogant manner in which I carried myself. They had been paying me from their petty cash account since they couldn’t officially have me on the books until the permit had been granted, but they made sure that I got a Christmas bonus that was comparable to everyone else’s. They really were decent people and I have often regretted what little trouble I caused them. Ultimately, the work permit that they tried their best to obtain for me was denied and it became necessary for them to terminate my employment or face legal ramifications. Fortunately, since there was nothing ever on paper concerning my employment with them, they were easily able to claim I had never worked there. Unfortunately, however, their attempts on my behalf had placed my passport under the scrutiny of the immigration office and I was contacted by a representative of that particular governmental branch. During the course of my exchange with this official, I was made to understand that I had entered the country on a visitor’s visa, that I was not entitled to work or receive wages, that if I had worked or received wages there would be consequences, and that, as a visitor’s visa was only good for six months, I had two weeks to get an exit stamp put on my passport otherwise I would be deported and denied entry back into the country for five years.
Isn’t it amazing that a government employee can clearly say exactly what he means, but the Word of God is so vague, mysterious, contradictory, and confusing? That aside, I was left dumbfounded by the circumstances in which I suddenly found myself. I had been prophesied over, not just once by one person, but many times by many people. I had known for a fact that God needed someone in Northern Ireland. I had been called to be that person. I had been… wrong? No, I simply would not accept that. How could I have been wrong? I assured myself that if God was pulling me out of Ulster, He must have His reasons. I was sure I would be back after a little while; He just had some perfecting He needed to do in me before I was really ready to help bring about the revival He wanted for the people of Northern Ireland. I told myself all the fanciful things the faithful always tell themselves, but the reality is that my faith had been shaken so hard that a couple of pieces—insignificant little shards, really—had broken lose and fallen away.
The first sermon I heard upon arriving back in my parents’ church in North Carolina was given by an Australian evangelist whose name escapes me at the moment. In his sermon, he talked about how God sometimes gives us the big picture without revealing to us very much about the details. He gave the example of God making it clear to Mary that she had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, but He failed to mention to her how exactly she was supposed to break the news to Joseph. I could certainly relate to the message that day; God had had the power to bring me into Northern Ireland, but had failed to clear it with the immigrations office first. Eventually, I learned that there is a reason why God gives us the big picture without providing any information on the details, and the reason is because the Devil is in the details.
For the next couple of months, I was adrift on a sea of confusion. God clearly had a calling on my life. I clearly had answered that calling. That calling clearly had fallen through. Clearly, something was unclear. I found work again as an electrician and started attending the weekly men’s prayer meeting. My parents’ church was a large church that offered three separate services on Sunday mornings. This resulted in the parking lot becoming a caldron of chaos when attendees of the early service were leaving at the same time that attendees of the second service were arriving and by the time the third service was coming around, it would descend into pure anarchy. The pastor in charge of men’s ministries approached me one day with a box of safety vests, a dozen walkie-talkies, and a pleading tone in his speech. He said there was a need for order to be brought to the parking lot and asked if I would be willing to be the Lord’s instrument. So, I became the leader of the parking lot ministry, where a dozen or so stout-hearted men directed the sheep of the Lord’s flock to their respective stalls in a safe and orderly fashion. If I had ever had any doubt that the hypocrisy of Christians truly knows no bounds, working in the parking lot Sunday after Sunday alleviated me of it. Men who would willingly, and patiently, endure hours of waiting to get out of the parking lot after a Panthers game could suddenly justify damn near running a man down to get to a closer parking space on the simple grounds that their wives were late for the choir. Women would bark at us that they had no time to wait for a parking space because they had to be in the nursery; then, upon finally arriving at their destination, would slowly turn down their sun visors and begin applying their make-up in the vanity mirror. Yet, this was the ministry God had for me; these were His people, the members of His body. I told myself that God was preparing me for bigger things and that I needed to be faithful in the little things so that I would be ready when He was. After all, I was called to see the nations brought to revival.
During this same time, I began to develop a number of theories concerning the bible and religion. I use the term “theory” here, of course, as it is used in the commoner’s tongue, not as it applies in scientific verbiage. One of my favorite theories was the laughable notion that when people were speaking in “tongues” they were actually speaking the common language that all humans spoke before the Tower of Babel and that the curse God placed on language as a result of said tower was the reason it was so difficult for an adult to learn a new language. I’m fairly certain Kent Hovind might even smile at the cleverness of that particular gem. I also began developing a model or strategy for taking a city for Christ through prayer. As God’s plan for my life unfolded, I planned to expand this strategy for taking entire nations. The plan, which I had codenamed “Guerilla War-Prayer”, involved sending out teams of elite prayer warriors to hit strategic points throughout the city and cover them with prayer. One team would circle the city to establish a perimeter; another would systematically tackle the strongholds of the city, such as bars, strip clubs and such. Still other teams would lay siege to their respective targets such as a team for governmental facilities, one for institutions of learning, and so forth. I believed that if enough prayer were laid down over a city, God would have to come in a mighty way and bring revival with Him. Of course, my attempts to garner interest among the men at the weekly prayer meeting to put this strategy into practice in our city were generally met with regretful explanations about how truly busy their lives were and, even though they really did want God to bring revival, they just didn’t think they would have the time to commit. I guess, now, I’ll never find out if it would have worked or not.
Around May of 2001, I received an email from a young lady whose name I will render as Fearful, since, as with Polite, her real name is also not relevant to my narrative. Fearful had also attended the University in the Southeastern region of the country at the same time I did; but since God’s plan for her was that she should become a minister’s wife, we never knew each other in those days. At some point during the time following graduation, while I was still living the lascivious lifestyle of being happily married and enjoined in well-rounded friendships in Florida, Fearful had made her way to North Carolina and had gained employment at my parent’s church. She had left before my return to the Tarheel State in order to join up with a musical group that travelled around the world performing in Catholic Churches in an effort to win the Roman Heretics over to the true faith of Protestantism. In the email, Fearful indicated that she would be flying into Charlotte on an upcoming weekend in order to participate as a bridesmaid in her friend’s wedding. She was contacting me, she said, in order to inquire if I’d be willing to pick her up from the airport and see her to her friend’s house, and perhaps, join her for dinner along the way. She further intimated that, other than the rehearsal dinner and the wedding, she had no other plans for the weekend, but would need to be back at the airport on Sunday morning in order to reconnect with her orchestral troupe. As mentioned, I knew little of Fearful, but I did recall that she was pleasing to the eye; so the prospect of spending some time with her sat well with me. I met her at the appointed time and we had a very pleasant dinner; I found her company to be quite agreeable and even stole a kiss before seeing her to her friend’s home. The next evening, I met with her again and we engaged in a lengthy discussion of our visions for ministry, revival, and claiming nations for the Lord, even as an entire double-order of hot wings sat before us getting cold, untouched. Our outlook upon ministry was so uncannily similar that, naturally, the idea that we had both suddenly stumbled upon “The One God had for us” began gaining ground in both of our minds. By the time I dropped her off at the airport, we were officially an item. She had to see out the rest of her tour with the ensemble, of course, but it would only be until the end of August. After that, we could be together and find out just how big God’s plan for us was. This event, as one might expect, did short work of restoring the faith which had been so violently shaken by my sudden and unceremonious removal from Northern Ireland. It all made sense: God had pulled me away from the mission field in order to pair me up with a helpmate suitable to the calling He had for me. It all happened according to God’s perfect timing.
Fearful and I spoke via email and telephone several times a week over the next few months while she was travelling, with the exception of a few weeks during which her group was somewhere in Latin America. It is amazing to me that love can be as blinding as religion, yet for all the grief it has caused me, I could never give up on love like I did church. Nonetheless, put love and religion together and that creates enough lumens to blind even the acutest of eyes. Throughout the course of our long-distance relationship, I was given several clear indications that things in Fearful’s personality were not quite right. There were subtle hints spoken by people who had known her in college. There were whispers among members of the church who had known her during her tenure there: tales of broken-hearted men awash in a swath of destruction left in her wake. There were tearful midnight phone calls during which she would elucidate her fears that maybe our relationship wasn’t God’s will after all, or that she didn’t know how to trust me, or that she didn’t know if she could commit to me. I would try to sift through the anfractuosities of her mind to find some means of reassuring her. I would point out the numerous prophesies that had been given over both of us and all of the signs and confirmations God had given us. I would promise her that she would feel much better once we were together. I would do all of these things; but I would not take a hard look at the evidence that suggested that she and I were simply not right for each other. I was far too blinded by love and by religion to see the warning signs along the way.
Finally, the day came when she got off the airplane for the last time. I ran to embrace her with the hope that things would finally get better for us in my heart, and with a diamond worth two month’s salary in my pocket. She readily accepted both, and for the next few weeks, we were in the full flush of love. Then I started noticing faces on her that weren’t her face. I recognized the faces, just not as hers. They were the faces of two old friends of mine: the faces of fear and guilt. I had had a taste of her fears during the few months we had been apart; but that taste, it turns out, had been mild compared to how truly fearful she was. Moreover, the guilt I witnessed her experiencing was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before or since. Anytime we kissed with just the slightest hint of passion, she would be racked with remorse for days—conscience-stricken by our lack of purity in the sight of the Lord. It was pretty much the same with any physical contact we had. She was in a state of constant penitence for sins neither of us had even committed; but reality is 95% perception and the combined effect her guilt and fear had on her perception led her to only one conclusion: that I was not holy.
Things started to grow darker between us. She was torn between her belief that I was God’s Chosen for her and the belief that I wasn’t holy enough to be the man she needed. She would go through near-bipolar episodes wherein she would run into my arms declaring that she loved me, she trusted me, and she couldn’t wait to marry me; but then 15 minutes later she would be curled up, weeping on the floor tearfully confessing that she didn’t love me, didn’t trust me, and wasn’t sure she could commit to me. I begged her at one point to just once, put Jesus aside and speak to me like a human being. I kept telling myself that if I just loved her as Christ loved the church, then the healing she so desperately needed would come. I genuinely believed that. But what had started out as merely an emotional rollercoaster for me had become a whirlwind, tsunami, and earthquake all breaking over my heart simultaneously; and in the end, I found myself in Gethsemane asking that this cup be taken from me, but resigning myself, nevertheless, to not my will but Thine be done.
Misfortune, it seems, has a way of breeding itself. Within the span of two weeks, I had been laid off from my job, lost my fiancé, and developed a toxic cyst at the base of my spine. It happened so quickly that it should be a blur in my mind; but I still remember every detail with lucid clarity. As soon as I was laid off, I decided to take Fearful to the local headquarters of the Assemblies of God to see if there were any ministries we could get involved in. I thought this move might be the proverbial stone with which two avians were slain: Fearful would be reassured of my intentions of following God’s plan with her, and I could maybe find some means of supporting myself, and eventually her, without having to rely on electrical contractors. Unfortunately, the Assemblies of God has a policy that a person who is divorced and remarried cannot be ordained as a minister; murderers, rapists, and even child pornographers can be ordained, provided they are really sorry, but woe unto the man who’s had two wives! When the minister at the corporate headquarters found out that I had been divorced and was planning to marry Fearful, he apologetically informed us that we would not find gainful employment within the denomination, and quickly hurried us out of his office. Fearful had never really been willing to accept that she would marry anyone who was not ordained and as I drove her back home I could feel the discomfort of the cyst forming at the base of my spine, as well as the pain of knowing that in her mind at least, I was just another defective unit to be thrown onto the discard pile. A few days later, she handed my ring back and made it official.
I, again, found myself dumbfounded by the suddenness of my circumstance; again plagued by the nagging questions. How could I have been wrong again? We had been prophesied over. We had been given signs and confirmations. God had brought us together at just the right time for both of us. How could it not have been God’s will? And the most nagging question of all: Why is it that every time I try to do God’s will, I always end up getting my teeth kicked in? These questions would remain with me for the next two years as I tried to recover from the emotional holocaust that my relationship with Fearful had been and move on toward learning to forgive her. I still believed God had a plan for me; or maybe I didn’t. Maybe I just wanted to believe that; or maybe I just believed it because I had believed it my whole life and didn’t know how to believe anything different. All I really knew, in the aftermath of Fearful, was that I was tired of God’s plan for my life being so painful and confusing; and I hoped the next chapter He wrote for me would be happier and more stable. Something deep down inside of me had been broken. I didn’t know if it could be repaired, but more significantly, I wasn’t sure if I cared whether it got repaired or not. Additionally, my faith had once again been shaken to the point that pieces of it had fallen away, and it would take more than the strings and duct tape of doctrine to hold what was left of it together.
The next two years were most definitely the blurriest years of my life. I vaguely remember the pastor of my parent’s church talking the congregation into taking a loan in excess of $12 million in order to purchase and renovate some properties across the street from the church/school/retirement center campus. I vaguely remember that there was a scandal months later when not a penny of the money could be found. But the struggles of my spiritual life were becoming increasingly overbearing. I had believed in an all-powerful God, but His plan had been too weak to even match up to the bureaucracies of an immigration office. I had believed in an all-loving God, but His plan had left my heart, not merely broken, but ground into a bloody pulp in the carpet by a cavalier wench who still had the audacity to take the moral high road and claim that my unholiness had nearly cost her God’s plan for her life. If mustard seeds could move mountains, then surely the amount of faith I had displayed should have shaken the very foundations of the earth; but it hadn’t…
Coupled with the struggle to stay spiritually alive was the increasingly difficult struggle to stay physically alive. 9/11 had worked the economy over to the point that Charlotte had gone from being one of the ten fastest growing cities in America to a place where a tradesmen was hard-pressed to find enough work to keep body and soul together. I found myself constantly being laid off when work would get slow for one electrical contractor, finding work a few weeks, or maybe a few months later, and getting laid off again after the job was finished. The days were growing darker and the nights more desperate, yet the rider on the white horse still showed no signs of appearing on the horizon. An insidious thought began to worm its way through my mind: God’s plan isn’t working. I had always expected that God would launch me out into His destiny in some powerful and mighty way. I had never doubted that I was special, chosen, anointed. I believed that I would be sent to the nations and that God would do extra-ordinary things through me. Now, I began to question if I really had time to wait for God’s plan any longer. I began to wonder if I could even endure God’s plan any longer. Moreover, after the turbulent vortices of Ulster and Fearful, what guarantees did I have that God’s plan wouldn’t ultimately be the very death of me?
I found myself stuck in an increasingly untenable position. I could never find steady work; money was always tight, but God still wanted His 10% every Sunday. The denomination wouldn’t ordain me to be a minister, and my parents’ church was happy to just keep me out in the parking lot directing traffic. With God in charge of things, I wasn’t making any forward progress at all. I started to think that maybe it was time I started taking charge a little bit more. After all, I was still youngish; I still had a few talents and gifts. Maybe if I took control and started living my own life, I could at least accomplish something more productive than waiting around for God to show up. Then again, I thought, the Lord was a jealous God, perhaps if He started to see how much better I can manage my life than He’d done, that will be the very catalyst which motivates Him to finally start pushing His calling on my life forward. My two old friends, fear and guilt, kept coming around and explaining to me that my doubts were sinful and that my thoughts were wicked in the sight of the Lord. I was inclined to listen to them at first; they were my oldest friends who had never steered me astray before. But instead of letting them talk me into or out of anything, I decided to give God a chance to show Himself.
I remember clearly telling my mother that if her prayers garnered any clout with God at all, now was the time to use them. I told her that God had until a certain date to prove himself, after that, I was going to take the reins of my life into my own hands and He could ride shotgun. She gave all of the correct responses: Do not test the Lord thy God, you’ll be miserable outside of God’s plan, the devil is leading you astray, etc. But my mind was well on its way to being made up. If God really wanted to use me, if He really had a plan for my life, it was time for Him to reveal it. I know my mother prayed as fervently as she knew how. Remarkably, so did I. I still really wanted God to be all that I had expected and believed Him to be. I still wanted to see the nations brought into His loving mercy. I still believed that Christians could be better people than Fearful had been. More than anything, I wanted to see God come through for me, just once.
So, when the appointed day arrived, I waffled and granted God a six month stay of execution. I decided that I had waited faithfully and worked diligently for His plan for so long, I could wait another six months. I also wanted to be absolutely certain that I was doing the right thing and with fear and guilt still loitering about my mind, certainty wasn’t going to be easy to come by. During that six month period, the most incredible thing I could have ever imagined happened: nothing. That actually is pretty incredible, if one considers it. An all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God is challenged to prove Himself to a weary, broken soul in the hour of darkest need, and He doesn’t even show up. How awe-inspiring! Where was the God of Moses who appeared in a burning bush? Where was the God of Job who appeared in a whirlwind? Where was the God of the Israelites who appeared as a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night? Where was my God?
I was ready to give up on God. I had pleaded my case before Him and He had treated it with contempt. I had granted Him ample time and space within which to demonstrate His character and He had rejected my invitation. My mind was set and my decision made. I would pilot the ship from here on in to the final port of call, come gale, tempest, or deadly Nor’easter. My only problem was that I had no instructions on steering the vessel. The instructions I had for living life—trust God, pray, read the Bible—obviously didn’t work in the real world. I was completely ill-prepared for advancing myself toward the goals and dreams I wanted to fulfill before my time was up, let alone for living from one day to the next in a constantly demanding and ever changing life. In truth, I didn’t even have the capacity to make sound, well-reasoned decisions at the time. I needed guidance from someone who lived in the real world.
As my good fortune would have it, I fell under the tutelage of a man who, like Polite and Fearful, and for the same reason, will simply be called Wise. Wise’s background had been entirely different than mine, yet he still somehow managed to have many of the same misperceptions and misconceptions about life that I had. Wise had liberated himself from these ill-guided perspectives by declaring himself to be intelligent enough to make up his own mind about what God was like, and letting go of the interpretations, doctrines, and dogmas of others. Wise had thus gained an experiential spirituality completely divorced from the rigors and compulsions of mainstream religion. In our first conversation, Wise stated bluntly that the relationship I had with God obviously wasn’t working and suggested that I try something different. I was compelled to ask him how he knew anything about my relationship with God when he had only just met me five minutes previous. Other than a slight chuckle, his knowing stare was the only retort he offered. Over the next few weeks, Wise explained to me that any God, who is small enough to be explained by just one book, isn’t a God worthy of praise; and any God, who is simple enough to be understood by any one individual, isn’t a God capable of saving anyone. He patiently explained that each of us had the capacity to understand God as He revealed Himself to us individually, but that none of us could ever hope to understand God completely; and that even if we pooled our understandings collectively, we would only discover that God is a gestalt entity wherein the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. With this in mind, he encouraged me to think about the things that I believed were true and compare them with the things that I knew were Truth. He suggested that I consider what traits a truly loving God would have and compare them to the traits that the God I believed in had. As I slowly began moving away from The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost, I fully expected fear and guilt to hound my every step; remarkably, they remained silent.
Once I had accepted the idea that I could believe in a God other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Wise discussed the very concept of belief with me, hinting that I should examine my beliefs by asking myself which beliefs did I hold because I really believed them, and which did I hold because someone else told me I should without offering a single scrap of evidence as to their validity. To my amazement, upon conducting this exercise, I discovered that I really didn’t believe anything at all—every single belief I had, had been planted in my head by someone else, and outside of the Bible, personal experience, and divine revelation, not a shred of proof had ever been offered. Wise then asserted that I was, in fact, a square peg, and that all of the misfortunes that had befallen me during my sojourn in Christendom had been a direct result of my having been forcibly jammed into a round hole and compelled to remain there within.
Seeing the truth of Wise’s analogy was the most liberating moment of my life, but the most precious nugget of wisdom I would glean from him was the parable he told about how a person should live in relation to God’s plan. He said that the world was like a field on a hillside that was constantly being washed away by the storms and that God was like a farmer who wished to sow the field with grass to stop the erosion from happening. After dutifully cultivating the soil, the farmer then sowed millions of seeds into it, knowing that some would be eaten by birds, some would fall by the wayside, and some would fall upon the stones. But the farmer also knew that enough of the seeds would grow until the field was covered in grass. The farmer would never demand that one seed alone should prevent the erosion of the entire field, any more than he would expect that one single snowflake would turn the hillside white. This simple truth set me free from a lifetime of guilt and fear. I could now know with certainty that God’s will for my life, His Divine Destiny, had never existed; the blood of nations had never stained my hands and that my fate rested solely on my own shoulders.
I was fortunate enough to remain under Wise’s mentorship for approximately nine months before the circumstances of his life compelled him to move to Florida in order to see his aged mother through the autumnal years of her life. During this brief time, I gained more wisdom, insight, and perspective about life than I had during the thirty years I had spent in the church. The transformation that ultimately occurred in my life, I credit mainly to Wise’s sage counsel.
In deconstructing my beliefs, I had originally intended to use what beliefs remained in order to rebuild an experiential spiritualism similar to what Wise had. However, when I set my mind free and allowed it to function without barriers or predetermined boundaries, I discovered, and quite to my amazement, I hasten to add, that my brain is a highly critical, skeptical, and scientific machine. Having believed for so long without evidence, my brain was starved for proof and simply would not allow me to believe something on grounds no more solid than that I just wanted to believe. Instead, I had to start with something that could be proven and quickly found myself happily entertaining the question of whether the universe provably existed or not. This led me to the basal assumptions that have to be made if any philosophical progress is to ensue. In the beginning, I trusted science; by the end, I loved it. Trusting science allowed me to take the initial step of assuming that the universe does exist; cogito ergo sum quickly followed. I started studying the sciences in real earnest, particularly biology, though I did dabble a bit in chemistry, physics, and astronomy now and again. Of conspicuous interest to me were the relationships between different species within defined communities. I had been taught that God had created the harmony in nature; but with a budding understanding of natural selection, I began to see that as communities developed and as environments placed selective pressures upon the species living within communities, harmony would, of necessity, be one of the main by-products. I therefore had explanations for the universe, my existence, and the nature of life; and since none of them required the explicit presence of God, I could simply accept them as they were. Many other discoveries awaited me.
Throughout this period, I would like to note that I was still praying, though not to Yahweh, Jesus, or any other God that I knew of; I was also still meditating, though I no longer expected any sort of divine revelation. I suppose the reason I was doing so, besides habit, was that a part of me still wanted to believe that there was a god, or at least a higher order of being. As a result, when it happened; I didn’t even realize it. I never felt any strange sensation, any tingly spine or goose bumps. I simply and gradually came to the vague realization that something in my mind had been corrected. It was almost as if, subconsciously, I had known all along; all that remained was for me to admit that what felt like the most natural thing in the world, really was the most natural thing in the world. So a few weeks after it happened, while getting ready for work one early spring morning, I looked into the mirror, straight into my own eyes and uttered the most natural statement I have ever made: “I am an atheist.”