For those keeping score, this story takes place in 1999 when Foy Davis was married and the rector of a small Episcopal church in San Antonio.
On Monday afternoon Foy stopped by the church. Monday was his day off, but sometimes he came in anyway. He nodded at Judy who was on the phone. She smiled and raised her chin in a greeting without stopping her conversation. He went down the hall to his office and found his battered copy of the Common Lectionary.
Let’s see. Proper 19, year A.
He flipped through the pages until he found the right Sunday. He scanned through the available texts. The Old Testament text was from Exodus chapter 14. He skimmed it quickly, reading parts of it aloud.
“The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud…Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back…At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire…”
Foy made a rumbling noise at the back of his throat.
Okay Paul, what have you got for me. Romans.
“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions…Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables…Those who eat must not despise those who…”
Foy made the rumbling noise again. He reached over to a corner of his desk and picked up a Nerf football. He used two hands moving opposite directions to flip the ball into a spiral. He quickly caught it and did this a few times. Then he turned back to the book and skimmed further through the Romans passage.
“Who are you to pass judgment…we do not live to ourselves…for it is written, every knee shall bow…”
He let his head fall back until his hair touched his collar. His mouth popped open, and he rolled his head around a little, trying to make his neck click. He shot the Nerf football like a basketball toward his trash can. It hit the side of the can and bounced crazily around the floor. Foy groaned, long and slow and deep, letting his voice rumble slowly. He put his chin in his hand and let his gaze drift over to a stack of papers on his desk that had been growing for several months. He was avoiding the stack because he knew that if he started digging into it, going back in time with the layers like an archaeologist, he would find something he should have done and did not.
He took a deep breath and looked at the gospel text.
“Matthew, give me something good this week. You’re my only hope. Help me Matthew-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope. And I do not want to fight with the text this week. I need something smooth. Something I can see."
“Chapter 18…Then Peter came and said to him, Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.”
Hmm. Maybe. Yeah.
He read further.
Oh yeah, that parable about that one guy whose debt was forgiven but he didn’t forgive that other guy. Yeah, I can work with that.
Foy’s eyes dropped quickly to the end of the parable.
“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Foy sighed. It had been so much easier when he was a Baptist, preaching revivals right out of seminary. Preaching whatever text he wanted.
“Well, Matthew it is. Okay Matthew, Sensei, I will let you thoroughly kick my ass all week…”
He put his hands in a mock Kung Fu position and made a silly, high-pitched martial arts whine, like something in a Bruce Lee movie.
He spoke in a deep voice, like a badly translated Kung Fu movie. “But in the end I shall master you and you shall deliver to me everything that you know.”
There was a tiny tap at the door and Judy said, “Foy, are you talking with someone in there?”
“Just having a little chat with Matt. C’mon in.”
Judy peered around the corner of the door. Her eyes traveled across the room. The Nerf ball was at her feet. There was an Etch a Sketch on the corner of his desk. On the floor by the bookshelves was a Hungry Hungry Hippos game. It looked like someone had been playing with it.
Foy held up the Bible.
“You know, Matthew, Mark, Luke…Olivia, Newt, and John.”
“Oh,” she said, as if she understood, but she left just enough lilt in the “oh” to express her concern.
“Jenny wants you to call her.”
She backed out of the room.
Foy smiled. Judy had been the secretary at the church since the Han Dynasty. She didn’t approve of the toys and some other things which he had to admit were a little odd.
That’s as far as I need to be on a Monday. Matthew it is.
He got up and turned off the light. He looked back at the Lectionary book on his desk. He held up the index and middle fingers of his right hand.
“And I forgive you, Matthew, for putting such a terrible ending on that passage. What WERE you thinking?”
“Another week of the Bible messing with my mind.”
In the early part of the week, Foy kept picturing Jesus standing with Peter. He ran the scene a number of ways in his mind.
“So how many times are we supposed to forgive? I mean, you have to admit there must be an ending point. So, I don’t know, some people say like four times maybe? Seems like you want a little more than that. Maybe seven times?”
“No no. Putting a number on it is not…that’s not the way of…okay, you want a number? All right. How about seventy times seven. There you go, there’s a number for you.”
“What? That’s like…” Peter’s lips moved and he touched the fingertips of
For the last couple of years our church community has been burrowing a path through the dense brush of our land. We've not been in a hurry; we don't even know for certain where the path is going. We've tried to be as gentle as possible, avoiding more permanent plants and taking the direction that nature seems to be offering. So our path winds its way whimsically through the woods, three feet wide and bordered with limestone rocks that we found lying around. Most of the time its surface is nothing more than the packed earth beneath our feet. Occasionally the juniper trees lay down a soft mulch made of their shedding evergreen, and we walk on that.
This path is as gentle and nature-friendly a thing as can be imagined, and yet Mother Nature seems to hate it and is doing everything in her power to destroy it. Along with a vacuum, Mother Nature abhors trails, pathways, walls, slabs, roads, landscaping, parking lots and buildings. My friends and I have been trying to impose the order of our path on Mother Nature, but she is having none of it....
A disclaimer before I go on:
I am in no way an expert in any behavioral science. Nor have I made a disciplined and thorough, academic study of psychopathic behavior. I’ve read a lot, thought a lot, and engaged smart people in conversations. Here are my thoughts, for whatever they are worth.
Serial killers have strange sounding names. Corrl, Chickatello, Fish, Dahmer, Gacy. Or maybe they have the power to ruin a name, to twist it somehow, so that it sounds off-key in our ears.
See what I mean?
Clearly serial killers have embedded themselves, almost mythically, into our cultural consciousness. We are afraid of them, and even mentioning their names gives some people the shivers.
“They’re psychopaths,” people say. And then, as if you didn’t get it the first time, they repeat the word. “PSYCHOpaths!”
Psychopaths are people who cannot feel for others. They don’t feel pity or compassion. They seem to be missing some precious human component that most of us take for granted. Psychopathy exists on a continuum, as does almost everything. Serial killers are on the far end of that continuum. There are many people in our world who have a hard time feeling compassion. That doesn’t make them bad people or likely to become serial killers. Most of them do the best they can. You have probably known people like this. These are people who seem rather cold and distant. They can be a little selfish or even narcissistic.
I’ve read about psychopathy, but I can’t understand it at a gut level. If the psychopath cannot imagine what it means to feel love or compassion, I can’t imagine what it would be like NOT to feel those things. What I’ve looked for is some explanation of what a psychopath experiences, what life is like for him or her. So far I’ve not found anything that describes the condition emotionally in ways that help me to understand it.
So, like any good writer, I simply made something up. After a number of years of trying to understand the mind of a psychopath, I’ve come up with a way of thinking about how their minds work. I offer this to you for your consideration and with the complete understanding that it is simply my best guess.
I will describe this imaginary person as a man, because almost all serial killers are men.
Imagine that you are in a room full of people. All of them are holding bricks. To your great surprise, these people seem very attached to these bricks. They dress them in little clothes, coo at them, and tell stories about them. They take turns holding each other’s bricks, and they pet the bricks gently with their hands. Everyone seems to be having such a good time with the bricks.
Suddenly, a brick is dropped and broken. The entire room is seized by a collective spasm of grief and horror. Some people run over and desperately try to put the brick back together. Others stand about crying and sobbing uncontrollably. All the while, you stand there, stony-faced, trying to figure out what is going on. You’re a smart person, so you obviously understand that everyone likes these bricks a lot. But you cannot muster any feelings for them, either positive or negative. They are just bricks. So what if one is broken?
People look strangely at you because you aren’t showing emotions. You solemnly nod and try to look sad and concerned because you want to fit it. But it is impossible to make yourself feel something that you do not feel. No one can do that. You can't make yourself feel compassion or sympathy for a brick.
Over time you begin to understand that there is something missing inside you. And you can tell it is something that is very important and wonderful. You pretend to care about other people because you need to get along and because you would like to be a part of the game of love that everyone else seems to be enjoying. You become rather sophisticated at this, saying and doing the right things at the right time.
You do feel something that you call love, but it is only a very selfish and primitive kind of love, though you have no way of knowing that. For you, love feels more like possessing someone, having them for your own. You also have a sex drive. You understand that need. You are fascinated by women and drawn to them sexually, though you aren’t able to care for them as individuals. This causes you a lot of difficulties as you repeatedly try and fail at one relationship after another. Having the sexual drive without the caring component means that all of your attempts at romance have been stilted, awkward, and unsatisfying. You have a few relationships, but certainly not with healthy women. Over time you develop some very unbalanced ideas about women, and your anger grows.
There is one feeling that you have and recognize. It is the wonderful feeling of having your own needs met. When you get something you want, you feel a surge of happiness. Every human experiences happiness, of course, but since you have fewer avenues to find happiness, you cling to this one kind of happiness with an obsessive need that is very dangerous. You will stop at almost nothing to get what you want, because other people don’t really matter, and getting what you want is the greatest feeling in the world.
I don’t know how close to reality this picture is, but I believe it is a better way to think about serial killers than simply calling them monsters or saying, derisively, “They don’t feel anything!” as though they have some control over that. The psychopath is dealing with a limitation that causes extraordinary problems living with other people, and we should recognize that no one ever chooses to be a psychopath.
The psychopathic personality is but one component in the volatile mix that ultimately produces a serial killer. There are at least three components, as far as I can tell.
First, there is the psychopathic person, who is created by a combination of genetic, biological, and environmental factors that are not clearly understood by experts. I'm not sure our experts are even close to understanding these factors.
Second, there is the present environment or situation in which a psychopath finds himself. In the right environment and with some help, perhaps this person finds ways of coping. In other environments, his condition worsens.
And finally, there is the most mysterious component of all – human choice. Most people in the worst circumstances still do not become serial killers. There is the matter of our freedom and our choosing. In all human behavior, one choice leads to another. Choices along a certain path become both easier and harder. It is easier to hurt someone the second time and easier still after that. And it is harder to say no to an addictive need the farther you go along the addictive journey. But at the beginning, somewhere, you had some choices.
At the end of many paths are extreme behaviors that seem insane to most people. There are people who weigh 900 pounds and cannot get out of bed. They are not the only people with eating disorders, and they did not fall into that situation easily. There are men whose entire lives revolve around the acquisition and consumption of hard-core pornography. The end-of-the-line stuff. Any reasonable assessment of the content of that pornography would reveal that it is not beautiful or sensuous in any common definition of those words. Those who crave it might not even enjoy experiencing the acts depicted. But they lust after their pornography with an intensity that is frightening. In most of these cases, there were combinations of emotional and/or mental illness AND personal choice all along the way.
So too, those who lack any recognizable ability to love and feel for others. Some of these find themselves in some unique or tragic environment that feeds their psychopathy. And some of these, in weakness, make a series of choices that lead them down an unthinkable path to the end of the line. By the time they reach the end, they have very little freedom of choice left, if any. But it is this critical choice element that means they are responsible for their actions. To take away their responsibility is another way of dehumanizing them.
Serial killers must be held responsible for hurting others, but our growing understanding of the complex nature of their personalities must guide us as we decide how to deal with them.
Coming next: What we should do with serial killers when they are caught, both from a cultural and a spiritual point of view.
I'm reposting a three-part series on evil that I did a couple of years ago. The third part was published at the Christian Century website. I'm reworking parts 2 and 3 extensively for other purposes. Since they are taking up my writing time (That and an essay I'm working on for Christian Century) I'm going to post them here again. Most of you probably never read them the first time. Or if so, perhaps the reworked part 2 and 3 (most extensive reworking) will be interesting to you.
In interviews given while on death row, Ted Bundy seemed confused over the great concern about his crimes. He just didn’t get it. He couldn’t understand why so many people cared about a few missing girls. “After all,” he mused, “There are so many people.” *
This point of view, or perhaps I should say this lack of a point of view, is fascinating to me. I want to understand it. It seems important that I understand it.
I date my interest in serial killers to the summer of 1973 when my family moved from the desert climate of El Paso to the oppressive humidity of Houston. The weather change was like a slap in the face. I remember sitting on the curb with my brother and wondering how air could possibly feel like this. Wet was the word. Everything was wet, sticky, and green. The ground was squishy beneath the grass. The air was hot and heavy with moisture. It pressed itself upon you, squeezing your head until perspiration oozed from your scalp and collected on the ends of your hairs, binding them together in little clumps. Even the water in the pools was warm. It felt like diving into a bath.
I was eleven that summer and about to start junior high. Only two months earlier I had been kneeling on the ground of my school playground, one eye closed, shooting marbles into a big circle. I didn’t know it then, but that world was gone. Adolescence was about to roll over me with its smells, hair, and powerful feelings. Who can stand before the awesome power of puberty?
Your time in the garden is over, buddy. But while I have your attention, take a look at the incredible fruit hanging from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Looks good doesn’t it? Trust me on this; it IS good. Like girls and peaches.
That summer they began digging up bodies on the other side of town. Elmer Wayne Henley and Dean Corll had been killing teen-age boys for quite some time. They strapped them to homemade torture tables made of plywood and handcuffs. They did unspeakable things to them, unmoved by their pitiful cries for mercy, until finally the boys would die and then be buried under a boat shed. Every news channel in town was camped out at the burial site. Information and video came pouring out of our television sets and into our homes. Even the children could not be protected from it. What they didn’t see on TV, they heard from their friends.
These things happen in our world. They are horrible to consider, but particularly shattering when you are young and have no idea that anything like this is possible. I listened to the part about the plywood and the handcuffs. After that I couldn’t keep the images out of my mind. Laughing men sticking knives into naked boys and slowly peeling off their skin. It was unthinkable. A nightmare and a horror movie, but for real and right in my own hometown.
And then there were the television images of clay-colored bodies pulled one-by-one from the ground. Twenty-seven of them in all. Stiffened, body-shaped clumps of soil that came out of the earth with a sucking sound and were put into the backs of ambulances that came and went, shrieking, from the crime scene.
That wetness again. The wetness of the crime produced its own kind of horror. Tears and blood and sex and trembling flesh and Houston earth. The wet, sliding sound of a shovel plunged into clay. In all of its stages, life is wet work. The beginning of life and the ending of life and even the retrieving of bodies.
This horrible thing laid hold of my mind like my grandfather’s strong hands twisting the legs off cooked chickens. He would twist the leg until the flesh popped and the tendons broke free. Then he would hand you the greasy drumstick with little tubes and shreds of fat hanging from it and a white, knuckled bone sticking out the bottom. Tuck in.
I used to look away when my grandfather would seize a chicken leg and start twisting. But once you’ve seen a man twist the leg off a bird, you know what food is and what life and flesh are. You understand that it comes down to this. You’ve taken up this knowledge or had it thrust upon you, but there is no laying it down again. No going back to the garden.
And once you’ve seen wet bodies spaded from the earth and laid before weeping mothers, you know what life is and that sometimes it comes to this.
Here is the knowledge of good and evil, little boy. Tuck in.
What I’m trying to tell you is that there were some weeks in late July of 1973 when this knowledge came to me and would not leave. I swam in the wetness of Houston and death. I lived in a humid world of ugly knowledge, chunky, raw, and uncut.
I remember staring at the newspaper pictures of Elmer Wayne Henley and Dean Corll. I was both fascinated and repelled. Why would grown-ups do this to boys? And perhaps more disturbing, how could they have enjoyed it?
Mercifully, school started and the news coverage slowed and then stopped. Junior high gave me more than enough to occupy my mind. There was a girl I loved at church, another I kissed at school, and one I worshipped from afar. There were football and the locker room and whispers of sexual things. It’s strange, but now that I think about it, adolescence was wet too. Wet kisses I hungered for. The sweat under my arms that I suddenly noticed and became obsessed with. The spray of antiperspirants and the splash of my father’s Old Spice. The fights and the fears were wet. Love was wet. The longing and the sorrow and the desperation were wet.
Henley and Corll faded from my mind, and I thought no more of them. I lived in my body and in the present, as teen-agers tend to do. But the questions never left me. And they remain with me. I am still fascinated and repelled by serial killers. They are the bogey-men of the modern world. Because of them, we still fear the darkness. They are legendary and powerful in our minds, though in person they are weak and pathetic. And having entered the God business, so to speak, the existence of evil in our world has become something of a professional concern.
What is the deal with these guys? They hide in the shadows and prey upon us. The pain and suffering of others does not repel them or awaken in them any human compassion. No, pain and suffering excite them. They get erections when they stand in the presence of a tortured and suffering human being. Watching it helps them achieve orgasm. How is this possible?
* "Ted Bundy: Conversations With a Killer "
by Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth
Coming next: Some thoughts and observations after twenty years of trying to understand evil.
Well, what would you have titled this?
Because there is really one one fitting title for this piece about the little present I found recently at the communion table. And turd is the only word that works in that title. Because turd is a great word. When you drop turd into a sentence, it shouts its presence with a coarse, rolling resonance that sounds like a springy sound effect in some cheap comedy.
My wife and I joined two friends recently in leading a retreat at a lovely retreat center on the Frio River in the Hill Country of Texas. The retreat ended, and we four presided over a communion table to celebrate our final time of worship with the group. I was setting up the communion elements while people were filing into the room for the service. That’s when I noticed a mouse turd sitting right in the middle of the table.
At this point in the story, I’m afraid it’s going to become quite clear that I’m not a normal sort of person. Your average person would have hurriedly disposed of the turd, following this with a thorough cleaning of the table. I, on the other hand, ran to get my camera. I began snapping shots of the turd. Close, far, with the macro function, without, turning the camera this way and that.
“Okay, mouse turd, work the camera. Yes. Beautiful. Give me some attitude. Sweet!”
“Why, why, why?” you ask me, shaking your head in disbelief. “Why would you take a picture of a mouse turd on a communion table?”
I was driving the other day. The August sun was pounding on the car. Everything felt heavy. Things were moving slow and the traffic noise was incredibly intrusive, like it was from some other world. How dare this awful noise break into my world, into my inner world, into the place where I think I know who I am. The noise reminded me that I had so much to do. So many obligations - family stuff, money stuff, work stuff, life stuff.
And then Elton John came on the radio. It was Rocket Man, but it could have been Philadelphia Freedom or Someone Saved My Life Tonight. They all work the same for me. Elton always takes me back to the late '70s, when I was a boy turning into a man and my life was fast and muscular and uncomplicated and pushing the edges of innocence. My hair was thick. It hung raggedly over my collar and you couldn’t see my ears. When I would sweat the ends would clump together in pointy little spikes.
I remember that world so well. Rooms were dark with paneling and thick with shag carpet. The appliances were harvest gold or avocado green. Plastic was heavy and shiny and durable. Faux-leather bags were lined with felt so that they were stiff and stood upright. Their zippers were fat and designed to last 100 years. There was a lot of new technology, but it was still in wooden cabinets with meters behind glass that measured things you didn't understand. The switches and buttons clunked into place with a solid feel that you knew meant quality. Solid State.
Curvy was cool back then. Curves in your hair and in your bell bottoms. Fat, curving shoes with thick heels. We threw frisbees in giant, arcing curves, and when we danced in the school gym we tried to make our bodies nothing but curves and waves. Curving, parallel lines you drew on your paper when you weren't paying attention in class. You drew the curves all the way to the edge of the page, and you never knew why you drew them. School films would get hung and the expanding curve of a bubble would melt the celluloid. The teacher would come running to fix it with little panicked steps, and you would turn and talk to your friends in your world while she tried to fix hers. Curves were bubbling and breaking. Music was changing and the hippies were fading and taking corporate jobs. The '80s were coming, and none of us knew what that was going to mean.
And every summer was the summer of love. A girl would walk by in her designer jeans and Farrah hair, and my head would tilt a little to the side while I watched her. I wondered if there was some secret to knowing her because she seemed to be a beautiful creature from some other kind of world. Sometimes I would say the right thing and her face would light up with a smile, or maybe she would even laugh with a bubbling sound that made my heart seize in my chest. Oh God, when I fell in love I was gone. Out of my mind, pining, adoring, cherishing, dreaming. And when my heart was broken the sorrow hit me like a fist in the chest. I would go to my room and howl like a gut-shot dog. A kiss was everything to me in those days. Walking her to the door and trying to find the courage to kiss her, and it was like being on top of the world. A soft, romantic kiss outside the door before her father turned the porch lights off and on.
Broken hearts and sorrow. Passion and joy and exhilaration. Love was one glance away and death had no place in our world. Faces drift by. Girls I loved and boys who stood by me back in the day when we stood together against the world. The song fades. Traffic noise. Heat. Remembering things done and things left undone. Don’t go away Elton. Don’t leave me here. The memories hurt so good. Hurt me again, please. I’m not ready to be old and burdened and slow and out of shape and balding. I’m not ready to have my desires and feelings muffled by such a heavy cloak of responsibility.
The old Gordon is gone. He had his day, but now he is sinking below the horizon like the Big Dipper dropping so Cassiopeia can rise and point us to the North Star. I can see him just before he goes into the darkness. He’s flipping a football around in his hands, and it’s so natural the way he does that. The last thing I see is his wavy hair and boyish smile that is so pure because it is so innocently selfish.
He will go into the darkness, of course. Every season of life has its turn. But every season also leaves its mark. The mark young Gordon left on me is desire. It is a painful desire, yet I love it. My mind returns to it the way your tongue probes a sore place in your mouth.
That desire is for one last soft kiss at the door before her father turns out the light.
Foy decided he would like to ask Suzanne to have dinner with him, but the thought of picking her up and driving her home felt too much like high school. He had no idea how adults date, having not been on a date since the early 80s.
Is it like it was in high school? Pick her up, eat, drive her home, then get nervous and wonder if you should try to kiss her? Good God, I hope not.
He dropped by Suzanne’s cubicle and asked her. She agreed to have dinner with him and seemed happy about it. He asked if she would mind meeting him at the restaurant.
“No, that’s fine. I actually prefer that for the first date anyway,” she said.
Her eyes opened wide, and she brought her hand up to her mouth.
“I didn’t mean that there would be other dates or anything. Not that that would be…uh, but what I mean is this is just two people having dinner. We both know that, so…”
Suzanne pulled her shoulders up close to her ears and sucked her breath in audibly between clenched teeth. She lightly clapped her hands a few times and then rubbed them together.
“Okay,” she said.
Foy chuckled. “Don’t worry. I know what you meant.”
Suzanne tightened her lips and nodded slowly and deliberately as a humorous admission that she was embarrassed. She pulled her lips apart with a sucking noise and said, “Yeah.”
They agreed to meet for dinner on Friday night at 7 pm at a local restaurant that was not fancy but was quiet.
Foy arrived at the restaurant first. He liked arriving early. He was seated by 6:45 in a booth where he could see the front door. He tried to read a book he had brought with him, but he kept being distracted by a desire to look and see if Suzanne had arrived.
She entered the restaurant a few minutes after 7:00. She glanced around, looking for him, and when her eyes swept across his part of the restaurant, Foy waved. She moved quickly to the table, looking at the ground in front of her feet as she walked. She slid into the booth across from him and flashed a smile.
“Hi,” she said.
"Hey,” he responded. There was a brief silence. Suzanne looked around the restaurant as if she was sizing the place up. Foy watched her eyes moving around. She returned her eyes to him, noticed he was looking at her, and dropped her gaze to her napkin, which she unfolded and set deliberately in her lap. She then interlaced her fingers and placed her hands on the table as if a meeting were beginning. She looked at him as if to say, “Let’s begin.”
Foy felt as though they had crested a hill together, paused at the top, and were going to hold hands and run to the bottom. He had a momentary sense of discomfort and fear, but he relaxed easily because he knew that talking to Suzanne would be very much like running downhill. It would be hard to stop. And Foy could talk to anyone; there was always that. In that brief moment, Foy understood exactly what part of himself to let out. He slipped on his charming, socially adept persona like an ancient priest putting on a robe for the thousandth time.
“You know, when I first met you I noticed you were carrying around a bunch of printer sheets with numbers and accounting stuff all over them. I know you work in accounting, but I still don’t know exactly what you do. I probably won’t understand it, but I’m curious.”
Suzanne cheerfully told him the story of her professional life. She had gotten a college degree in English, but a natural ability with numbers and math had led her into various accounting jobs. She wasn’t a CPA but had earned many of those kinds of responsibilities over the years. She supposed that she liked her job pretty well. “It’s a living I guess,” she said.
She was fascinated that he was once a priest and asked a number of questions about that. She seemed to grant him a certain wisdom and goodness based on his history. He recognized this in her tone and appreciated it, though he would not have granted as much to someone in his same situation. In particular, she wanted to know what had caused him to leave the ministry.
Foy said he had no idea how to describe his spiritual journey through professional ministry and out of it. Then he proceeded to spend 20 minutes doing just that. He fell into the narrative of his life easily and spoke of his early love of scripture, the joy of his theological education, and his discovery of the beauty of tradition, archetype, and myth. He spoke easily, vulnerably, and with great passion, bringing himself almost to tears several times.
“The story of Christianity is handed down to us in the language of archetype and myth. That doesn’t say anything negative about the story or the history behind it. That kind of story language is understandable to people from every age and from every social and economic level. I mean, the gospels are a beautiful collection of stories that will break your heart if you let them. It’s gorgeous. It’s… And yet somehow being a minister began to feel false to me. You can’t get paid for being spiritual without that damaging you somehow. I don’t think you can, anyway. Maybe it was just me. But I got to where I couldn’t tell the difference between myself and the role, you know?”
She nodded slowly, deeply engaged in listening and thinking.
“I don’t know what it would be like to lose yourself in that role, of course. But I know as a woman what it’s like to have a pretty heavy role laid on you and a lot of expectations. And those expectations are good things that you want to be or do, but also things that you could lose yourself in. So yeah, I think I understand.”
Sometimes he would lean across the table toward her, as if he could bring her into his life by drawing their faces nearer to each other. When she spoke he rested his chin in his hand and alternated between watching the way her mouth moved and looking directly into her eyes. Foy didn’t realize that this conversation was very intimate for a first date. As a minister he had become accustomed to getting intimate with people quickly, enjoying the experience, then moving on. He finished his story with a light and humorous description of the office from his point of view, his confusion in the secular world, and the funny things that had happened to him in his new profession. By the time he was done they were both laughing easily, talking rapidly, and gracefully interrupting each other as though their conversation was a dance.
He had no way of knowing how vulnerable she was to such an encounter. He did not know how disappointing her marriage had been, for she had not spoken of it. Her parents had not had much intimacy together, so she had been ill-equipped to know what it meant to find love. And she had been young when she met her husband. After a few years she realized that she was married to a man who could not look her in the eyes and have a conversation. All attempts to draw him emotionally closer to her had failed. He didn’t have much to talk about beyond television, movies, budgets, or lawn care. In fairness to him, she hadn’t been interested in anything beyond that when they had met. It had surprised him when she suddenly wanted deep and abiding conversations with him about life and love and God and everything. The divorce was finalized about a year before Jeremy got sick, so she had gone through that experience alone.
It was strangely appropriate that they had spoken of myth, for she created her own myth in the space of one evening, molding Foy into her perfect image of a man and deciding that all along the problem had simply been that she had not found her soul mate.
By the end of the evening they had covered so much ground that neither could have mapped where the conversation had taken them. Foy couldn’t help but notice how happy she seemed, and this delighted him. In his mind - which was the mind of a writer - he saw the whole thing as a romantic story. Two lonely souls finding each other one evening. She had grieved the loss of a child while he grieved the loss of the Church. How perfect that they should find each other like this. And yet, in that way that is curiously common to writers, he stood somehow apart from it all, doling out his feelings and his language from a detached place, as if he was standing off to the side.
They hugged when they parted. Not a sideways hug, like the one at the office, but a full-on hug with arms around each other. He felt the soft crush of her body as they pressed together, and the smell of her hair filled his nose and made him feel light-headed. She was shy when they parted, and he saw everything in her eyes. And seeing it, he told himself that it was good. It had to be good because she was so happy and so was he.
The following Monday at the office, when Charlene asked how the date had gone, Suzanne replied with only four words.
“Can I keep him?”
There are 15 Foy Davis Stories. This is an ongoing project. I have no idea where it is going.
It’s hard to know what to do when you have friends whose children are sick or hurt or dying. You want to do something, of course, but what should you do?
I’ll tell you. Do what they want and need you to do. You have to find out what that is. When you know, just do it. Some very close friends will have intimate things to do. They will help in intimate ways. Other friends will listen and watch and be a listening ear when needed. You can pay attention. You can remember that it’s all about them. It’s not about who loves them more or who is a closer friend. Just quietly find out what you should do and then do it. And if it seems right to back off, do that. Just back off and wait. I can’t tell you how to find out what you should do. But if you are gentle and cautious and more quiet than loud, and if you’re trying hard to find out what you should do, you’re probably okay.
I currently have two friends in this situation.
Rohan is a man who did a lot of the work on this blog. He works with Tim at Jethro in Australia. He has a daughter who was born without eyes. Her name is Caitlyn. I am in no way a close friend of the family. But I know the work Rohan has done, so I feel that I know him in some small way. I know about Caitlyn. I’ve prayed for Caitlyn. The family has a website for her, and it seems to be a really nice thing for them when people visit and drop them a note to let them know. Rohan has recently written about their first year with Caitlyn.
Maybe it helps them feel less alone when people drop by to read. And when you have a child who is sick or hurting or facing some kind of challenge, you can feel very alone sometimes.
If you are a praying person, you can read about Caitlyn and pray. If not, you can read about her and think and nod. You can send a quick note of encouragement. Those are small things but also good things.
I think I will write Caitlyn’s name into our church prayer book, the one I look at every Sunday when we pray for people. She can join Zane, who is a young man that we pray for because his father asked us to, even though we’ve never met him.
So I'm putting Caitlyn in the book with Zane. That’s a small thing for me to do. Don't be ashamed of doing small things. I think most of the really great things that happen are small things.
I’m also sad to tell you that Thomas Bickle has died. Thomas is the son of two dear friends. (I don't think any of us are ready to say "was" yet.) I am not one of their very closest friends, but I’ve always considered Sarah and Scott to be kind of secret, special friends. The kind you don't see much because life didn't put you close to each other geographically, but when you do see them it's great. Especially Sarah, whom I’ve loved as if she was a little sister for years now, ever since she was in 8th grade and I met her at a Bible study. Sarah wrote a guest blog here about her last days with Thomas.
For Sarah, I watched the phone in case she called needing to talk. That was my small thing. And going to the funeral with David Gentiles was something I was supposed to do. I felt that inside. David had to speak at the funeral. I only had to sit and watch and listen and allow myself to be sad with them.
When you have friends with sick and hurting children, you don’t have to be a hero. You just have to find the small things you should do, and do them.
Remember those things and you’ll be fine.
UPDATE: I've shut down the email@example.com email address. So don't bother composing something and sending it there. I have numerous emails to go through with a good representation of a number of views.
Thanks to all who responded.
I have begun a study of the what the Bible has to say about hell. I’ve read all four gospels and written down every passage that seems relevant. I have looked up every reference to “hell” and “hades” in the New Testament and read them. I’ve read the book of Revelation to see what it has to say. And I’ve looked up some other passages. My intent is to continue studying the rest of the New Testament until I feel I know everything it has to say about hell.
Maybe you can help me. I want to know why you believe what you believe about hell.
Hell was a serious part of the religious tradition I was raised in - evangelical Christianity. It was just part of the deal. You either believed in hell or you were some kind of liberal who was just too much of a boo-hoo crybaby to accept hard Biblical truths. As a liberal, it was said that you trusted your heart and your feelings more than holy scripture. And that was said to be a very bad thing, because once you start letting your own ideas and feelings determine your beliefs, you’ve basically invented your own religion.
Now there are three basic components to what might be called the traditional view of hell. And you have to believe in all three of them to hold that traditional view.
First, and somewhat obviously, you have to believe that hell is real. There has to be a literal hell, a place where certain people go to be punished. There are two schools of thought among those who believe in a literal hell. There are the actual flames and brimstone people, who believe sinners will be burned slowly and excruciatingly in hell. This is an unthinkably horrible notion, but they believe that’s what the Bible says, so they have to accept it no matter how terrible it is. And there are the “it’s probably just some kind of sad and lonely separation from God” people. The people who believe in flames tend to look down on the separation from God people, who seem a little liberal. Not liberal enough to reject the whole idea of hell, but certainly liberal enough to be suspect.
Second, you have to believe that non-Christians are the ones who are headed for hell. It is often a little surprising when people find out that in traditional evangelical theology, it is not bad people who will go to hell. Hell will be filled with people who did not become Christians. And this is true even if they never heard of Christianity. Yes, it is believed that even a young woman raised in a primitive culture in an isolated jungle will go to hell if she dies without becoming a Christian. That’s why we have to get missionaries over there, chop chop. To save her and others like her. True, our arrival will destroy her delicate culture and expose her people to deadly diseases and other Western things that will undoubtedly be harmful, but all other concerns pale when compared to eternal torment, do they not?
Third, to have a traditional belief in hell, you have to believe that hell is eternal. That’s what hell-believing Christians say. Once you go to hell, it’s forever and ever and ever and ever and ever. Forever. And ever. Planets will be born and die while you are in hell. Solar systems will spin into and out of existence. Galaxies will slowly grind through each other and twist outward into the expanding universe. And there you will be, hopefully just bored out of your skull, but if those who believe in literal flames are right...well, I don’t even know how to think about something like that.
Evangelicals have no way around this horror. Catholics invented the idea of Purgatory, which is not found anywhere in the Bible. It is a temporary place of punishment. If, as Robin Williams said, you had to smoke a turd in Purgatory for 1000 years, that would be awful, but at least there would be an end in sight. Evangelicals, who claim to limit themselves to what’s in the Bible, do not have such an easy out.
So that’s hell in a nutshell. That’s what we were taught. It is a literal place where you are sent. You are sent there for not being a Christian. And once you are condemned to hell, it is forever. There are no second chances.
Now let’s make a turn and talk about something else. One thing is for sure - you wouldn’t believe in hell unless the Bible was so clear about it that you were left with no choice. No one really WANTS there to be a hell, right? Please tell me no one wants hell to be real. Because if you are the sort of person who likes the idea of hell, you might be the devil yourself. While conservative seminarians discuss whether or not the devil exists, liberal seminarians are discussing whether or not you really exist.
If you ask me, a person would have to be pretty sure of himself before he would tell people they were going to hell. If you say that hell exists, and it is for non-Christians, and it is fire, and it is forever, you better be sure of yourself. Because I can’t imagine a worse blasphemy if it’s not true. That would really make God angry, wouldn’t you think? You running around and ruining God’s reputation like that.
It’s funny - hell Christians always act like we who don’t think everyone is going to burn in hell are the ones taking a chance. “Uh oh, you’re getting liberal. Aren’t you afraid God is going to be really mad at you for not believing in hell?” Well, maybe. Maybe I’ll smoke a turd in some back closet of heaven for being too nice. But if you’re wrong, you and people like you have trashed God’s reputation for 2,000 years.
I think I’ll take my chances with the liberals.
Okay, so here's the deal: if you believe in hell, I want you to help us understand why. I invite anyone who believes that non-Christians are going to an eternal hell to make your case. We’re going to play by your rules too. Bible arguments only. Don’t explain why you think there should be a hell. Don’t tell us that your preacher told you there is a hell. Show us in the scriptures you say you love so dearly.
Because if you’re talking about hell, you better damn well be able to open your holy book and show us why. And if you can’t...well, maybe you shouldn’t be talking so much.
THE GROUND RULES
1. Email only - We’re not going to slug this out in the comments with crazy people dropping in crazy stuff and other people getting pissed off and replying. ANY COMMENT LEFT ON THIS POST THAT MAKES A CASE FOR OR AGAINST HELL WILL BE DELETED OR EDITED. ANY COMMENT THAT IS ABUSIVE OR DISRESPECTFUL OR FLIPPANT WILL BE DELETED OR EDITED. This is a serious inquiry, and I want those who respond, whatever they believe, to be treated with respect.
Make your case and send it to me by email. Send it to hell@RealLivePreacher.com. That email address will function while we’re engaging in this exercise.
2. New Testament only. You can’t drag verses from the Hebrew scriptures about Sheol into this discussion. Sheol isn’t hell. Even conservative scholars agree on that. If you are building a serious Christian theology, you have to use the New Testament.
3. You can’t base your argument on statements like "he will be cast into the outer darkness." You can use those kinds of statements to a certain extent, but you can’t build your whole case with them. You can’t get your ideas about hell from Paradise Lost and bad television, then read those ideas back into an ambiguous phrase that could mean all sorts of things. You need to make a good, solid New Testament case.
4. You may need to answer any opposing scriptures that I send back to you. If you send me one passage that seems to suggest something, and I email back 10 opposing passages that are clear and right from the mouth of Jesus, you have not made a good case.
5. Remember, you need to provide scriptural evidence for all three elements of hell.
a. You have to give scriptural evidence that hell exists.
b. You have to give scriptural evidence that it will be non-Christians who will end up there.
c. You have to give scriptural evidence that hell is forever.
I’ll tell you right now, b and c will be tough for you. And of all three, b is the most critical, in my opinion. Imagine how embarrassed you will be if you show us that your own scriptures say there is a literal hell, but you are the one going there for your lack of love, compassion, and care for the poor.
I’m just saying...
5. The last rule is for me. Serious responses will be treated with respect. I have no desire to laugh at anyone or poke fun. I’m in earnest. I want to know how you justify your beliefs. I will feel free to post anything that is sent to me, but I won’t use your name if you don’t want me to. If I’m not satisfied that you made a good case, I simply won’t post it. You’ll have to trust me on this.
Bring me your scriptures. I want to know the truth. I’ve been reading the New Testament, looking for the truth about hell. I’m still doing my study, but maybe you can help me. Serious cases made by a serious students of the New Testament will be posted here. And I’ll invite you to come by and converse with us in the comments if you like. Or if you wish to remain anonymous, that’s okay too.
I have my reasons for doing this. I think it’s high time we got this whole thing out in the open.
Real Live Preacher
There is only one righteous way for you to be saved if you’ve spent too much time in the Church. You must lay your religion down. Lay it down hard. Drop it. Leave it on the trail and walk away from it. And you have to mean it. You can’t fake this. You have to renounce religion and leave it for good. As far as you know, you’ll never pick it up again.
After that you can walk freely in the wild places where faith can still be found. As you walk, stretch out your arms and touch the foliage on either side of the trail, because these trees are the borders of your faith and this earth your true home. And every leaf jutting into your path is itself a fossil, laid down before the ages, suddenly exposed and within hand’s reach along the cut-edges of the trail.
Who laid bare these leafy walls? Who cut this covenant trail and left these leaves exposed to my eyes and my hands and my mind?
If fear has seized your heart, and you want to look back at what you left behind, hear this: There are no religions of The Word. Because if there is a Word our frail ears can’t hear it. What we have are religions that clamor after The Word and talk about The Word and market The Word and brand themselves as keepers of The Word. It’s all best guesses and hearsay, and if you can’t own up to that and still keep faith with your brothers and sisters, you’re just fooling yourself and maybe that’s okay with you. That’s all some people want - to be nicely and gently and comfortably fooled.
I know the Bible, for I have spent half a lifetime looking there, but it cannot give you The Word. And if you treat those words as if they were The Word, then the Bible will be dead to you. The stories will turn their faces away from you, fold their robes over their shoulders, and go to sleep.
So you won’t have the Bible to cling to. I’m sorry.