October 21, 2017

iMonk Classic: To Know We’re Not Alone

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From Sept. 2004

It was 1973, a year before my high school graduation. I was sixteen, a young preacher-boy at a revival meeting at a church in our community. I remember the tiny church being packed, but I don’t remember anything about the service, or the sermon or the preacher.

I do remember something that happened at the conclusion of the service. Something that has stayed with me all these years and haunts me.

I see the face of a preacher, looking at me, looking out across the room, to see if he is alone, or if there is someone who understands what it’s like to be human. Is there anyone else hurting like this? Is there anyone else this broken?

His face comes back to me across the years, and as I think about my own brokenness, failures, and the desire for common humanity that drives me to nail my thoughts to the door of the world, I wonder if he wasn’t showing me the face of every man and woman I’ve ever met.

You see, the invitation concluded, and that preacher began talking. His words were nervous, not the sure and confident tones of the sermon, but the halting, breaking, fearful tones of the guilty confession. He wasn’t in preacher-speak. He was speaking differently. Humanly. It bothered me.

In my church, our pastor seemed super-human. He was God’s man. A Spirit-filled man. He was different than all of us. He spoke differently. He dressed in suits all the time, even on hot summer days when he was doing yard work. He knelt behind the pulpit when he prayed, even though it was a very large church. He cried and shouted in the pulpit. He declared the Word of the Lord, and pled with sinners to come to Jesus. He was an embodiment of heaven’s man on earth.

He was not like the rest of us, and we knew it.


He did laugh, but not in the same way or at the same things. His wife was saintly, and always dressed like royalty. He could be tender, but he could also be frightening. You knew he spent hours with God, and was different as a result. He was a holy man.

As a young preacher-boy, I wasn’t a thing like him. I’m not sure that I wanted to be. I had walked the aisle and “surrendered” to preach, but could I ever be like that? Holy and separate? Anointed with power? I did believe, I am sure, that being a preacher meant I would be different. God would give to me…..something. The mantle of the prophet. The fire of the preacher. A light in the darkness. I wouldn’t be like other people. I would be safe and protected.

But this evening I was looking at another preacher, not my pastor. And he was not supernatural or holy or other-worldly. He seemed small and frightened. He was talking about his wife. He’d come home, and found his wife with another man. He just said this, to the whole church, as if they must know. He wept. His fear and self-loathing oozed out of him and into the atmosphere of that revival. Everything changed.

His wife was not present, though we all looked around to see her. I was uncomfortable. I wasn’t the only one. I wanted him to stop talking. He was scaring me. Real humanity, and the mess of a broken marriage, weren’t welcome in this revival, or in my world.

He said he and his wife had a lot of trouble, and he’d been taking medicine. But the medicine hadn’t done any good. Now his wife was with another man, and he wanted the church to pray. We did not know what to do with this. It was too much. Too much. Too real.

This was the pastor. The pastor was talking like this. I felt sick. I wanted to leave. Eventually, we did leave, and I went straight to my car and drove home.

Something had changed, though. The world was different. There were Christians- preachers- who were messed up. Christians and preachers with mental problems and wayward wives. I didn’t want this to be true. I wanted Christianity to be a safe zone, a magic place of protection from such terrible brokenness.

I did not realize until many years later what had happened that night. The preacher was calling out of his darkness, calling into a room of other people, looking for something. What? He was looking to know he was not alone. He wanted to know if anyone else knew and understood what it was like to be human, to hurt and be a failure. To have failed at marriage and now, to have failed at being a “good Christian.” Did anyone care that his life was a wreck, or would they just condemn him? Would they pray for him, or did they just want him to go away?

I have no idea what he found. In me, he found the shock that comes from being confronted with my illusions. I wanted this to be a freakish exception to the rule that God makes us all better and makes everything all right. I wanted this to be a bad dream that would go away, because I did not want to think about the waking realities of infidelity and mental illness and desperate, despairing people. I did want to think that the man standing in the pulpit with the answers might not have all the answers for himself.

My faith rejected such a vision. I thought of that preacher as a sick fool. Today, I know better. He was a window into my own soul. A picture of the human race. A representative of the our true nature. And even more, he was, for that moment a sacrament of honesty in a religion of pretense. He stood there, falling to pieces, asking, “Am I alone? Am I the only one?” But we couldn’t let the secret out. We had to say the “amen,” and go home to a religion that protects us and makes us better.

Some twenty years later, that preacher took his own life. I do not know his path, I only know that in the end, he could not live with himself.

How many times did he stand and tell others to trust in a God of love, mercy and grace? And what did we hear? Did we hear the truth….or did we hear, instead, the invitation to paint ourselves in colors of self-deception and denial, and pretend another week, another year?

Over and over, Jesus reached into the lives of people like that preacher. The last, lost, least, losers. The unacceptable, the unreformable. The failures and the frauds. Those whose lives could not be tidied up with a little cultural religion. And from that, we have constructed a Jesus who prefers the “good Christian.” A Jesus who wants moralizing and religious superficiality. A Jesus who hardly needs to die for us, because a little exhortation to do better and keep on the straight and narrow are more our style. A Jesus without a cross, but with smiles and blessings for our homes and marriages full of “Christian moral values.”

The preacher stood there in his honesty, asking, wondering, reaching….not so much out to God as to his fellow humans. He looked at us and asked, “Am I alone? Am I the only one?”

I still hear him, and I still see his face. And I wonder what I would do today? Would I sit there….or would I embrace him as my brother?

Comments

  1. This is AWE-FULL. The victorious limp. I wonder if Michael sought out and embraced this man in heaven? It would be just l like him to do so.

  2. Its posts like this that attract me and keep me here at Internet Monk. I can very much identify with that Preacher…oh can I!!!!!!

    Often times evangelical Christianity means one must be super human. When I lived in California I was Catholic and Catholics are more open to making mistakes, expect if it involves pregnancy or abortion. In Montana I was under the Mormon kool-aide and in that culture anything can be mistake including having that cup of coffee because you are going again Joseph Smith’s teachings. In California, Wisconsin, and Washington, D.C. I was evangelical and I felt like I had to be super human.

    Often I felt alone…

    I’d go on retreats in crusade and share my demons and often I felt alone. The superficial nature of small groups at McLean Bible and other churches taught me that one couldn’t be human. In contrast…one must be perfect. Today having a lot of distance from evangelicalism I can see a lot of parallels between modern evangelicalism and Mormonism.

    How many times was it from the stage of McLean Bible or in a Campus Crusade retreat did you hear one say, “I used to drink, be promiscuous then I found Jesus was born again” and thus all problems went away. Thus everything became perfect.

    No one struggled with alcohol
    No one struggled with doubt
    No one struggled with adult porn
    Every marriage was perfect…
    Every child was obedient
    No one had difficulty at work
    No one had anyone in their family who was mentally ill
    No one had financial difficulties
    No one was frustrated or scared about having aging parents

    No….everything was perfect. As you can tell I lived in a lot of areas of the Untied States. But when it comes to Christianity the one that feels real superficial is here in Washington, D.C. When being honest about your demons can mean losing that job on Capital Hill, or the Department of Treasury, FBI, CIA, etc.. then it means that the superficiality or dishonesty must be notched up considerably to be way beyond super human. That’s why Christianity here in Washington, D.C. is really ugly. The image or facade must be protected at all costs.

    I don’t know if I can really be a Christian again….I’ll admit some of my views changed due to my recent medical crisis. However, I really feel like that pastor. Honest, and alone. Christianity has to be one of the loneliest clubs on the planet. That pastor choose suicide because he couldn’t live with those demons from humanity. Plus that was his escape from Christianity. My escape from evangelicalism was different. I just dropped everything and walked away. And here’s my dilemma when it comes to evangelical Christianity. Is the tent big enough? Can the tent accommodate someone who struggles with their demons, who also rejects end times theology and is a firm believer in evolution? Can the tent live with an intense doubter who struggles with so many doubts while trying to accept faith? Honestly I don’t know…. I really don’t. For me honesty is huge. I saw a lot of dishonesty in Campus Crusade, Mclean Bible, and so many other churches. And I don’t want to live like that. I want to be honest. And I’ll say this…if I can’t be honest in Christianity I’d rather walk boldly into hell being honest about myself and knowing I was honest than being a good Christian. It’s that simple….

    • Eagle bro, I hear you. Been there in some similar ways. The only respite I’ve found is in the cessation of trying “to be a good Christian”.

      I read this yesterday and it resonated. Robert Capon from the last chapter of Between Noon and Three;

      Your life in grace is the life of a cripple on an escalator: as far as being able to walk upstairs is concerned, you are simply dead; there is nothing for you to do. But then you don’t need to do anything, because the divine Floorwalker has kindly put you on the eternally moving staircase of Jesus — and up you go.
      What you do and think about yourself as you ascend will be delightful, or sad, or terrifying — depending. Delightful, in¬sofar as you celebrate your free ride. Sad, insofar as you fight the escalator. Terrifying, insofar as you forget you’re on it and go back to dwelling on your own inability to walk. But while all of that will matter to you, none of it will count against you. You’re on your way. All you have to do is believe it, and even the sadness and the terror become part of the ride up.
      And therefore the last rule of the life of grace is that nothing can separate you from it. Not your faults, not your vices, not your being a brat about refusing the cross — not even your rubbing salt in the wounds of Christ or kicking God when he’s down. Because he took you by a voluntary crucifixion for your sake, and he takes it all as the price of taking you. Eventually you will cry about that, and those tears will be your repentance. But there isn’t even any rush about that. He knows he loves you, and that’s all that counts. You catch up as you can.
      And none of your terrors can separate you from that love, either, because they will all, late or soon, go down into your death. You can’t hold them forever, and therefore they won’t hold you. In the meantime, of course, they remain terrors, and the death out of which you live by grace remains no fun at all. There will always be worse deaths than you expected. But he says he raises you from them, and if you believe that, you’re finally free.

      And there, I suppose, is as good an end as any. The only impedi¬ment to our freedom is our own unbelief; the only thing that jams out the joy that is set before us is the static of our unwilling¬ness to take the leap into our own death in the faith that Jesus is there.
      All I can think of to add is that you mustn’t fuss much over your faith, either. If only once in your life, for the space of one minute, you trusted him to be there, you would for that minute know the joy of your freedom. Even if you never managed to do it again — even if you never managed to do it even that once — it’s still true that if he’s there, he’s there. And if he is, you’re free.
      In Jesus, we have never been anywhere but on the youngest, freshest day of the New Creation. We live in the grace that takes the world between noon and three — at that still point of the turning world, where the Word who is our end and our beginning speaks us reconciled in the Land of the Trinity:

      That we too may come to the picnic
      With nothing to hide, join the dance
      As it moves in perichoresis,
      Turns about the abiding tree.
      There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.

      Tom

      • Capon uses some powerful analogies in his writing. But I can’t help but wonder how he reconciles his vision of “radical grace” with Jesus’s own words from Matthew 7:21-29…

        21“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ 24“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” 28Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

    • Eagle, when I was “investigating” Christianity I got a Gospel of John and began to read it. What struck me was how honest Jesus was. I remember thinking this man speaks the truth and I have been lied to all these years. And it seems to me that no one respected honest doubt more than Jesus Himself. I have been through some experiences since being a Christian that would make your hair curl as they say. But what I have found through all of it (including a time of deciding whether I was going to press on or not) is the freedom to set other Christians free. Now, I don’t expect anything of them. I am content to allow them to be who and what they are. It is a very joyful way to live as I realize that there is only one who “lived it right” and that He has invited me to follow Him. When I got to the end of my “evangelical rope” I remember saying the same thing to Jesus that Peter did. Where else I am going to go? You ALONE have the words of eternal life. The scary thing is that Jesus offered his followers the opportunity to leave if it was too hard. Honesty.

      • I totally echo your final statements…”where ELSE could I possibly go?”

        And to those who think it sounds defeatist or like being trapped, it is the exact opposite to me. I stick with Jesus because I know He is Truth. I am Catholic because I believe the Roman Catholic Church has MORE of His truth (certainly not ALL of His truth, and I am not trying to convert anyone, just sharing Pattie’s faith) than any other Chritian expression of Him.

        It took me most of my life to finally trust Him, however. I have been through trials, like most of us…..death of beloved family, illnesses, wayward kids, family rifts, money woes, unemployment, and several bouts of depression where the only reason I did not commit suicide was my fear of spending eternity separated from God. Yet…..here I am. I trust that however MISERABLE something in my life is, that somehow He is using it for good somewhere, and usually that it will go away or get better or I will develop the strength to deal with it.

        So…no happy, clappy Christian here, and I do not KNOW why some evils exist. Luckily, I don’t have to understand, just trust that it will all make sense on the others side of the veil. And in my little parish, it is not unusual to see crying and dirty laundry being brought to Mass, to be offered up as well as shared with friends. We ALL carry our very own cross, and sometimes need an extra hand to carry it for a little while.

        • Beautiful Pattie. I just got home from church and as we were walking out the door I noticed a woman wiping tears from her face. I went up and just hugged her and then she began to tell me her story – everyone has a story. Then she said that she hoped one day she could come to church and not cry. I told her I don’t entirely agree with that. After my time of loss I told her that I now feel that tears are a prayer. She seemed to never have thought of it that way. Anyway, as we parted she didn’t thank me for my words. She said, “Thank you for putting your arms around me. I will never forget that.”

      • ‘Eagle, when I was “investigating” Christianity I got a Gospel of John and began to read it. What struck me was how honest Jesus was. I remember thinking this man speaks the truth and I have been lied to all these years’

        This is it. This is the answer. I recommend, Eagle, the Gospels. Combine those with the Holy Spirit and you meet a very different Jesus than the one hawked all over Christendom to build little empires.,

        btw: I believe the internet has been wonderful for those of us who have come out of the institutions and have found one another….same questions. Same disgust with what we have seen out there.

  3. Joseph (the original) says:

    Something had changed, though. The world was different. There were Christians- preachers- who were messed up. Christians and preachers with mental problems and wayward wives. I didn’t want this to be true. I wanted Christianity to be a safe zone, a magic place of protection from such terrible brokenness.

    yes. amen…

    🙁

  4. Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. Why have we hitherto thought so intemperately about man and his frailty and temptability? We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others — and especially to our weaker brethren — is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for men’s sake.
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Letters and Papers from Prison.

    I’m not Lutheran, but I can appreciate wisdom. (I have a feeling this quote will be a lifelong lesson).

  5. I remember as a young man in Bible College, engaged to a beautiful young woman and battling ( and failing ) sexual temptation. When I asked my friends and brothers if they were dealing with the same defeats, I was assured that they were living a ‘victorious and pure’ life. (One of my good friends did admit to having trouble, but he was the only one who did.) Later, after I was married, the campus security guard ( who was not a Christian and sent to the school by his parents in hopes of converting him) ridiculed a large bunch of guys hanging out in the campus lounge by saying that my wife and I were the only couple on campus that he had not caught having sex..
    I was pretty pissed off, because many of these guys had ‘admonished’ me about ‘purity’ while they were screwing like rabbits, behind campus buildings and even in the prayer chapel of the dorm. Is it any wonder I am no fan of Holiness/Pentecostal denominations?

    • David Cornwell says:

      You’ve got a point, it’s like they must force their sanctification to work. Making claims about holiness and sanctification is a dangerous road. I’ve seen and heard students pray loud and into the night in attempts to find this assurance. The thing is it goes on and on night after night (or did way back when I was a student). Usually I had the feeling that it was some specific sin that was prohibiting that attainment, usually sexual in nature.

      The most well adjusted students seemed to be those took this all in stride, served God as best they could, had fun, and even took risks with the college rules.

      Anyway I like what you wrote here.

  6. how little we know people sometimes . . . we see what they want us to see, but behind that can be tremendous pain. This post of Michael’s brought back to me the lines of an old poem, this:

    Richard Cory

    Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
    We people on the pavement looked at him:
    He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean favored, and imperially slim.

    And he was always quietly arrayed,
    And he was always human when he talked;
    But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    ‘Good-morning,’ and he glittered when he walked.

    And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
    And admirably schooled in every grace:
    In fine, we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    So on we worked, and waited for the light,
    And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
    Went home and put a bullet through his head.
    (Edwin Arlington Robinson)

  7. This is a powerful writing with uncomfortable proddings! It convicts me with the images of people who have passed or that I have passed by. In my mind or in my inattentiveness in the world I live in. In that we live a mystery of a close loved family member who took their life, I am deeply challenged by the Spirit to walk more compassionately with less “judgement” ! Thank you for this. Transform me Lord!

  8. Bill Metzger says:

    It;s why I am a Lutheran Christian (by the grace of God). “Sin boldly, and trust in Christ even more boldly”.