April 26, 2017

To Know We’re Not Alone

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?

________

I’ve also written on this subject at Internetmonk.com: When I Am Weak.

Comments

  1. This one hit home. I could feel your sickened feeling realizing that a sinner had sneaked into your midst.
    I am so thankful when I meet a human at church, it’s so easy to see saints when you just say hi in the lobby. I probably need to spend more time with my brethren outside the sanctuary; that’s where us people live.

  2. Gee, and I thought I was pretty much defective for feeling the same as you do. I used look at all these people in our church and inside I would just think “Who am I fooling, look at all these happy people. No problems, no worries, no sin…..they have it all together.” ” I can never be like that….and I realized over time that I don’t WANT to be like that either. I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay when it is not….I don’t WANT to pretend I am perfect, for I am not….and I surely don’t WANT to pretend that the Bible is a magic book, and all my problems would go away if only I studied it more.

    I have been a lurker at the Boar’s Head for some time….and something you wrote awhile back stuck with me, how the Bible is used by some many as a magic book, the ultimate self-help guide. When you pointed this verse out to me, I grabbed onto it with all my might:

    John 5:39
    “You search the Scriptures because you believe they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!
    5:40
    Yet you refuse to come to me so that I can give you this eternal life.

    Man, that nails it….

    So I continue on in my journey, not denying who I am, but falling down and with God’s grace getting back up.

    I can’t pretend that life is perfect since I became a Christian. Actually in many ways it has become much, much harder. When I hear people talking about how once they gave their life to God everything is just hunky-dory I see someone who is pretending, or who hasn’t been broken yet. I used to pray that I would be spared from life’s miseries, now I pray for grace to get thru them.

    Instead of pretending that all is well I rejoice in the fact that I have been broken by life…..I struggle with doubts. I sin, fall on my knees, and then get up again.

    I wish that more people would own up to this….I suspect that alot of happy faces are holding back tears, guilt, and unresolved anger.

    Many people refuse God’s grace for themselves and to others by pretending. When my father committed suicide I remember thinking:

    “I can’t agree with his choice, but I sure as hell can understand it.”

    I also remember that for a long time I couldn’t share this thought with anyone, and when I did finally, how shocked everyone in our small group study at church reacted. Shocked that I even brought it up, much less that I could identify with my Dad’s brokenness.

    The church needs to get over itself to stop pretending it is a museum for saints instead of a hospital for sinners. It is not just a social club, a food pantry, or a teaching of morality. All these things have a place, but the church is should be a conduit of God’s grace. And until we stop pretending we are saints, and not sinners we are resisting both God’s grace and denying it to those who need it the most.

    The world is broken, we fool ourselves by thinking otherwise, and if the world is broken why would we think we are to be spared. There glimpses of happiness, don’t get me wrong I don’t want to be completely negative. But that happiness is tempered by pain….and is rendered so much sweeter as a result. You can never know what happiness truly is until you have felt the pain. You have never known redeemtion until you haved sinned (and fully acknowledged it). You can never know Grace until you realize that every single day you fall down, and with God’s grace you get back up.

    The world and ourselves are broken, the only thing that keeps me going, is that God said “Someday I will fix it and you as well”

    It is the only thing I can truly hang onto….and I hope that God continues to bless and keep you as well.

  3. It’s a terrible moment isn’t it? When what we want so devoutly to believe, in someone or something being pure and wonderful and maybe even holy is shown to be human and imperfect just like us. At first we get uncomfortable then we get angry. Yet more often than not it’s not the fault of the other but our own. We project the image that we want, that we demand. Then we punish them when they can’t hold to that pinnacle (as if anyone could).

    Nice piece of writing.

  4. Beautiful post – thanks for sharing.

    Personally, I’ve given up on “church”, and instead I’m spending my time looking for a room where that preacher would have fit right in.

  5. Imonk,

    A very powerful piece. You have an amazing writing ability, I felt like I was 16 again and sitting in that pew.

    Grace and Peace

    {{{Candleman}}}

  6. THis reminds me of something that Brennan Manning said:

    The letter of James counsels: Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16 ). This salutary practice aims to guide us in accepting ownership of our ragamuffin
    status, but as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted, “He who is alone with his sins is utterly alone. It may be that Christians, not withstanding corporate worship, common prayer, and all their fellowship in service, may still be left to their
    loneliness. The final breakthrough to fellowship does not occur because, though they have fellowship with one another as believers and as devout people, they do
    not have fellowship as the undevout, as sinners. The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everyone must conceal his sin from himself and from their fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners! At Sunday worship, as in every dimension of our existence, many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently, all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven. As a result, our whole spiritual life is
    pseudo-repentance and pseudo-bliss.
    -Brennan Manning

    Thanks for sharing Micheal. I always find the drunk-a-logue…er…Pharisee-a-logue one of the best parts of your blog.

  7. BlueSkyJedi says:

    Sometimes, Many times, Most times,

    Our “services”, whatever form they take, are one of the real reasons we aren’t real. We treat our liturgies and their accompanying time tables as sacrosanct. We can’t stop and “be” real because the schedule is the slave driver, we have to get it done with because let’s face it, if we actually stopped the “service” we would have to take time and actually know people in all their messiness. Nothing would go smoothly. (Oh the horror!) I can hear all the questions and excuses: “But how would we worship?”, “Well, we have small groups for that” etc etc.

    We see new people, familiar people, but we rarely enter into their existence. “Ah, the “Service” is going to start” The Church of our Lord needs to quit treating the Body as an organization and treat it as an organism and each member as someone that needs tending to and nurturing. We need to quit leaning on our leadership for the things we are responsible for. The worship is, to borrow from Michael Card, “to take up the basin and towel” That is the service God is looking for, not some ever-orchestrated narcissistic show that keeps us from fellowshipping the body of Christ and truly serving one another.

    Blessings from Iraq,

    V