"Dark Night of the Soul"
Read the complete story, parts 1-4 in my story section
After seminary I started a chaplain internship. The program was called Clinical Pastoral Education, sometimes referred to as Tear the Young Minister a New One."
I trundled my candy-ass, educated self to the hospital. I was fresh out of seminary and used to sitting around talking about higher criticism.
This hospital gig was just the kick in the ass I needed.
You see, people facing death don't give a fuck about your interpretation of II Timothy. Some take the bloodied, but unbowed road, but most dying people want to pray with the chaplain. And they don't want weak-ass prayers either. They don't want you to pray that God's will be done.
Hell no. People want you to get down and dirty with them. They want to call down angels and the powers of the Almighty. THEY ARE DYING and the whole world should stop.
I threw myself into it. I prayed holding hands and cradling heads. I prayed with children and old men. I prayed with a man who lost his tongue to cancer. I lent him mine. I prayed my ass off. I had 50 variations of every prayer you could imagine, one hell of a repertoire.
I started noticing something. When the doctors said someone was going to die, they did. When they said 10% chance of survival, about 9 out of 10 died. The odds ran pretty much as predicted by the doctors. I mean, is this praying doing ANYTHING?
I'm sophisticated enough to understand the value of human contact, but prayer is supposed to affect the outcome, right?
I began to feel the ping of a tiny hammer, tapping away at my faith.
Then I met Jenny.
30 something. Cute. New mother with two little kids. Breast cancer. Found it too late. Spread all over. Absolutely going to die.
Jenny had only one request. I know I'm going to die, chaplain. I need time to finish this. It's for my kids. Pray with me that God will give me the strength to finish it.
She showed me the needlepoint pillow she was making for her children. It was an alphabet blocks and apples kind of thing. She knew she would not be there for them. Would not drop them off at kindergarten, would not see baseball games, would not help her daughter pick out her first bra. No weddings, no grandkids. Nothing.
She had this fantasy that her children would cherish this thing - sleep with it, snuggle it. Someday it might be lovingly put on display at her daughter's wedding. Perhaps there would be a moment of silence. Some part of her would be there.
I was totally hooked. We prayed. We believed. Jesus, this was the kind of prayer you could believe in. We were like idiots and fools.
A couple of days later I went to see her only to find the room filled with doctors and nurses. She was having violent convulsions and terrible pain. I watched while she died hard. Real hard.
As the door shut, the last thing I saw was the unfinished needlepoint lying on the floor.
Ping. The hammer fell and preacher came tumbling after.
It's funny, when your faith finally caves, it goes all at once. You realize you were just a shell held together with hackneyed rituals and desperate hopes. You are not strong. You do not have answers.
I don't remember the walk back to the office. I must have had the classic, Young chaplain just got the shit kicked out of him look because people left me alone.
I looked in the restroom mirror and said, I do not believe in God. I knew this was the truth and felt the need to say it out loud. I was on the other side now. I was an unbeliever. It was like waking up in Tokyo and noticing to your great surprise that you've become Japanese. You weren't raised in Japan, and you have no idea how to use chopsticks. What the hell are you gonna do with yourself?
It wasn't the experience with Jenny that caused my break with God. It was the kids in Mexico, my difficulty in believing parts of the bible, the phony Christians I met along the way, and the hundreds of prayers that seemed unanswered. Jenny was just the last ping of a hammer that had been working on my foundation for a long time.
St. John of the Cross calls it "The Dark Night of the Soul." He says those seeking God will walk the paths of others but eventually those paths will end and there will be no path. They will be left with Nada, Nada, Nada. Nothing, Nothing, Nothing.
It broke my heart. I grieved in joint and marrow. My reptilian brain cried. I was sad all the way to the bottom.
Next: The Preacher's Story Ends"Faith Reborn and Rediscovered"
"College, Seminary, and Disillusionment"
Read the complete story, parts 1-4 in my story section
I felt the call to ministry after high school. Let's just say I had a strong desire to be of service to God, and I wanted to learn more about the now troublesome bible.
I went to a University and majored in Religious Studies with minors in Greek and Philosophy. Except for the philosophy, that's a standard pre-seminary degree. Eye opening time! I discovered most serious bible scholars had moved beyond a simplistic reading of scripture.
The bottom line: Not everything in the bible should be taken literally, and, more importantly, not everything in the bible applies to MY life.
After college I spent four years in seminary studying further. I managed to work out my problems with scripture and now believe the bible won't cause insurmountable problems for anyone willing to study it with integrity.
I was, however, experiencing disillusionment of another kind. The source of this new trouble was my growing dissatisfaction with a lot of the Christian people I was meeting.
Sometimes it seemed Christian people literally took leave of their senses. Once I was at a gathering with Christians who were singing some kind of spiritual song. One of the lines included this hideous phrase, I've never seen God's children begging for bread.
I was sickened. What about those kids I saw in Mexico? Were they suggesting those hungry kids were not God's children? I decided these people were living in a dream world. All they wanted to do was sing songs about Jesus and pretend the world was wonderful. The world IS wonderful, but it also contains great evil and sadness.
It seemed to me that many Christians saw what they wanted to see. They needed the world to fit easily into their categories.
Over the 8 years of my formal theological education, I encountered many such examples of Christians who, I felt, were not living honest and authentic lives.
By the time I was out of school and ready to be an employed minister, I was having some serious problems with the church. That's not good. My options were pretty much minister or you want fries with that?
I believed then and still believe that many Christians are not honest about their own failings, sins, and disappointments. Like Martha Stewart, they try to sell a sugary, imaginary world of happiness to people who are hurting and looking for real answers.
I believed then and still believe that many Christians use manipulative techniques in order to gain converts. Converts are counted and boasted about. I shit you not. They wouldn't call it boasting, but that's what it is. Retch!
I believed then and still believe that many Christians have created a sub-culture with it's own language, customs, and myths. Ministers even have their own dialect and hairdos. Weird. This sub-culture is really more about worshipping America than God, more about achieving than receiving, more about competition than grace. The problem with a religious sub-culture is no one else gets it, and you are isolated from the world you are called to SERVE.
I became increasingly disgusted with the institutional and bureaucratic nature of churches. It seemed to me that many churches were worshipping the idols of wealth, power, and prestige. It seemed to me that many churches existed solely to support the Christian sub-culture.
I could write for an hour about each of these, but the Preacher counts brevity as a virtue.
In spite of these troubles, I still believed that something beautiful was possible for the Church. I dreamed of finding a small community of people, dedicated to Christ and to bringing God's love to the world. These people would be bold enough to live authentic lives and not be tied to a Christian sub-culture.
I would say I longed for a spiritual journey and not a religious assimilation.
Coming Next: The Preacher's dark night of the soul.
On Sunday, Dec. 8th in "The Preacher is Tired Tonight" I mentioned not believing in God at times. I'd like to write about that again.
Belief and unbelief are deeply rooted in my history. Here is the first in a series of several posts where the Preacher tells his life story – greatly abbreviated.
The Preacher's Story Part 1 I am a strange mix
Read the complete story, parts 1-4 in my story section
The preacher grew up in a devout Baptist family in Texas. Some of you are imagining a domineering father and endless hours of religious abuse punctuated with occasional beatings.
I have a great family. My parents were and are gentle Christians who put a premium on living a Christ-like life and helping the poor. We lived near the border, and my parents were actively involved with a group of Christians who were constantly throwing their resources at the piteous poverty that co-existed with us just on the other side of the Rio Grande.
I spent a lot of time in Mexico as a young boy. The preacher knows the mingled smells of outhouses, kerosene, and poverty. It's something you never forget.
One year during a bitter cold spell my father and his friends showed up at the border with a load of blankets and coats. The forecast was for temperatures well below freezing that night, and they knew a lot of families were going to be cold. The Mexican government forbade them from entering. Some bureaucratic bullshit, I guess.
My dad said his kinder, gentler equivalent of fuck it and became a smuggler on the spot. He and the others made numerous trips across the border that day in different cars with blankets, food, and jackets crammed under the seats and hidden in the trunks.
My dad felt that one's calling to serve God was higher than one's calling to obey the law. For Christ's sake, he and his friends couldn't let children freeze.
For Christ's sake packs a punch when you mean it literally.
My family went to services 3 and 4 times a week. Ours was a nice church filled with good people who cherished one another. I enjoyed being a part of the community and learned to love Jesus in that place.
I came to understand that it was the teachings of that same Jesus that led my parents to fight poverty and want in the border town.
These were the Christian people who nurtured me and taught me my faith.
There was a leeetle problem though. Early on it became apparent that something was different about me. I couldn't make myself believe some parts of the bible. I was a natural born skeptic.
When told the Noah and the Ark story in Sunday School, I quickly figured out that two of every kind of animal would not fit on one boat. No one else seemed to be doing the math. I could no more believe the ark story than I could believe the sky was green. I wanted to believe. Believing seemed nice, but I couldn't. I COULD NOT.
I felt strange and out of place because everyone else at church seemed to believe everything.
I kept my believing problem to myself because I thought something was wrong with me.
Thus was born the strange dichotomy that has become the Preacher. A passionate love for Christ and his teachings mingled with a fierce skepticism that would only grow stronger as I grew older.
Coming Next - The Preacher's Story Part II College, Seminary, and disillusionment.
Is that the scariest thing you've ever heard, or what?
First, you should know that I have a thing for pockets. One can never have too many pockets, that's my motto. I like secret pockets, little pockets, zipper pockets, all pockets.
My wife disagrees with me. She thinks one CAN have too many pockets. Especially when those pockets are plastered up and down the sides of a ratty looking pair of old hiking shorts. Ahem.
So I'm watching TV and I see this amazing commercial about these Dockers with secret side pockets for all your high tech gadgets and gizmos. The guy in the commercial is shuckin and jiving and shoving phones and computers and all kinds of guy stuff into these pockets. All the while he's dancing and zipping the pockets up and down to the rhythm of the music.
We're at an interesting point in our relationship, sort of like the 3rd date. Typical of me, I've been talking a mile a minute since we met. Now the conversation is slowing a bit.
In my mind, this is the first awkward silence.
Preachers tend to get in a rut and only talk about God stuff. We think people expect it of us. I don't know, maybe you do want me to talk about God all the time. Maybe that's the only thing that makes me interesting. At present I think I'm the only preacher with a blog. I know my colleagues pretty well. Most likely there will not be another.
Okay, there will probably always be a tinge of God and faith in what I write here. I warn you though, I might cut loose and do anything.
I got three different things in the works. One is a goofy piece called, Look What's in the Preacher's Pants.
Is that the scariest thing you've ever heard, or what? Given much that has come to light of late, what's in the preacher's pants is the LAST thing most people want to know.
"Look What's in the Preacher's Pants" is mostly a funny thing. A silly side of me that doesn't get out in public much.
Or we could go straight for the jugular with Why the Preacher Believes in God. This one interests me the least. I know we will eventually go there, but let's not rush things. The preacher likes lots of foreplay.
I'm also thinking of opening a confessional. Not you confessing to me, but me confessing the sins of the Church to you. Kind of a backward way for the preacher to call his own people to task. It's a way for me to describe the church I wish existed but does not exist and will never exist. I've always been attracted to things we wish would come true but probably won't. Our deepest desires and our unrequited loves say a lot about us.
We're at that awkward place in our relationship and I'm not sure which way to go.
What do you think I should do? I'll watch the comments and see what you have to say.
When I was in seminary I worked as a security guard at a local retirement community. This was light security – no guns and lots of cookies. Those darlings were charmed by the young, idealistic seminarian, giving his life to the ministry. (moment of silence please) They responded with cookies. The soon-to-be preacher gained a pound every time he made his rounds.
A few months before graduation a new security guard was hired. Earl looked so much like Lurch from The Adams Family that people stopped and stared. I was speechless when I met him. 6' 9, gaunt, deep voice. Real scary. Earl had an absolutely flat affect. Never joked. Never smiled. Extremely nice but no fooling around.
The first night we were sitting at our desk in the security office. I asked Earl what he had done before coming to the retirement home. Grave digger he said, in his flat tone. He saw nothing funny in that.
Sunday Night, 12-8-02
Sundays can be a bitch.
I get up way before daylight and head for church. I open up the joint. I putter around and straighten hymnals. I make ready. I preach the sermon 3 or 4 times. I talk to myself. I talk to God out loud. I light candles and pray. Sometimes I throw a nerf football around the sanctuary while I get my mind straight. You should try that sometime if you can find a church that will let you get away with it.
None of this is what makes Sunday hard.
What's hard about Sunday is that I don't matter on this day. Sunday is for the folks who come to church. It's their day and not mine. I must be up when everyone arrives. I must be emotionally ready.