The Mysterious Presence
Ever since I was a little boy, I have felt a mysterious Presence. I felt it traipsing across the hills of the Palouse with my dog, Brute. I heard it in music. I felt it in my family. I touched it in the wilderness of Idaho, where I spent summers backpacking with my dad.
I called this mysterious something “God.” God was the most real thing in the world to me. I wanted God more than anything.
This hunger led me to become a pastor, start a church, to get a Ph.D. in New Testament, to learn to read the Bible in Greek, and to become a seminary professor. Surprisingly, all this didn’t make God more real. It turned God into a ghost.
My First Clue Something Was Wrong
My first clue that something was wrong came almost immediately, at my first job in a big church as a youth pastor. This was my first look at behind the scenes of a church. I was shocked.
The whole thing was put together with duct tape and baling wire. There was a sense that at any moment it might come crashing down. It reminded me of a hastily constructed Hollywood set.
The polished front, on display on Sunday mornings and in all the materials, featured love and inspiration. Behind this false front was turmoil. Some people didn’t like the pastor. Some people didn’t like each other. They disagreed about their beliefs and questioned each other’s salvation. They fought over how things should be done and who should do them.
As I said, this was my first look behind the scenes. I assumed it was an anomaly. But over the next decade I encountered the same thing in every church I was a part of: the front did not match the back.
Okay. So church wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. So what? Jesus was the path to God and church was path to Jesus. The only thing to do was make the best of it. In my youthful arrogance I figured when I was in charge, I could fix this. Things would be better. I was eager to try.
My First Church
At age 29, I became the pastor of my very own church. I went in determined to wrap my arms around everyone. I would make the front side match the back side if it killed me. It nearly did.
After a short honeymoon, the church became polarized over the issue of abortion. If you had shown up on a Sunday morning you would not have known this. You would have seen people smiling and greeting each other. You would have sung about the love of God and heard an inspiring message. Someone would have taken you to lunch. We kept the front side tidy.
Behind the scenes was a sharply different reality. The head deacon, who smiled and led the singing and made everyone feel like his best friend, was a master manipulator. He could talk about the love of God while simultaneously stabbing you in the back. When he decided the church would be better off without me, it took him just three weeks to put me out on my ear. He played me like a violin.
In the aftermath, the church went through a split that ripped apart families and ruined lifelong friendships. I vividly remember sitting on my in-laws couch on the Christmas after it happened, my stomach in knots. How could such good intentions have led to such terrible results?
It wasn’t just that I failed at my first church. My whole existence had been undermined. Church turned out to be a nightmare. But God and church came in a the same package. To question church was to question God. I had dedicated my life God and spent the last ten years training to serve the church.
So there I sat, out of a religion and out of a job, with no idea how I would support my newly pregnant wife.
New and Improved?
A group from the old church wanted me to come back and start a new one. I hesitated. Did I really want to go through this again? But maybe I wouldn’t have to. Maybe things could be different. I had been studying Rick Warren’s new church model. With a blank slate and a new approach, maybe church could be salvaged.
We became a “Purpose Driven Church” and prided ourselves on not being like the other churches with their stuffy dress code, inefficient organization and outdated music. River Valley was the hottest brand going. A couple of hundred people were showing up on Sundays. We were a success! Or so I thought.
An elderly couple who had become like grandparents to Julie and me became offended and left because I didn’t wear a suit and tie in the pulpit. I never heard from them again.
Then, a few months later, the people who had convinced me to start the new church, the people I considered my closest friends, called a secret meeting to undermine one of my proposals. The next Sunday, the proposal failed by one vote.
What bothered me was not that I didn’t get my way. It was that I was back in a Hollywood set.
Julie and I were totally disgusted. We priced land in Oregon and seriously considered moving there to start a farm and raise our family as far from the drama of church as possible. We should have. I just couldn’t.
In spite of all I had been through, I still wanted God more than anything. Church was the path to God. It was the only way. To walk away from church was to give up on God. As hard as it might be, I couldn’t do that. I bandaged my wounds, picked myself up, and got back in the game.
Twenty Years as a Pastor
For twenty years, I pastored that church. I loved God. I loved the people. But I never stopped hating the organization. Like clockwork, every few months, a conflict or crisis arose, inevitably generated by church beliefs, church policies, or church practices.
These had nothing to do with the Kingdom of God. It was debate about the music we sang on Sundays, the way we ordered the service, the limits on what women should be allowed to do, the exact nature of God, as spelled out by our creed. How those who violated our moral code should be handled.
Inevitably, the result was hurt feelings and broken relationships. Over the twenty years, every single person who was a part of the founding group left the church, offended by this, that, or the other.
The mysterious Presence I had loved as a boy was far off in my rear view mirror. I knew I would have to leave a lot of things behind to become a pastor. I just didn’t expect God to be one of them.
Each day I put one foot in front of the other and took the next step. Each day, the universe closed in on me a little more. I had a family, a mortgage, and a career. I was stuck.
I had nightmares of being buried alive. Some nights I literally work up gasping for air. I wondered if I was losing my mind.
People who knew my only by my Sunday appearances may find this surprising. I was more transparent than most pastor I knew but I shared only the pieces of my life that wouldn’t blow the church to bits. The back side had to be kept separate from the front side. People come to church for answers, not confusion.
Imagine if I had stood up one Sunday and said, “I’m not sure how we missed the boat, but by God we have! Let’s call it quits, go home and watch football.” As certain as I was that something was wrong, I had no alternative. Also, church seemed to work for some people. Why burst everyone else’s bubble just because mine had?
The day came when I couldn’t take another step. I resigned my church, left my job at the seminary, and scrapped every pretense of knowing anything. A few people congratulated me for my courage. But it wasn’t courage. It was exhaustion.
Universe Gone Wild
After leaving church, my inner and outer worlds completely unraveled. It felt like someone had spilled my soul all over the sidewalk. I didn’t have the first clue about who God was. I didn’t even know who I was. A few of my church friends tried to reach out to me but their solution always involved coming back to church. That was the one thing I knew I could not do.
I stopped calling myself a Christian. I stopped calling myself anything. I had no idea where my confusion would lead, or if there would ever be and end to it. Gone was the world I knew and understood. Gone were were my career and my future. Gone were my friends. Gone was my God.
It has been over four years now. I’m finally starting to make sense of what happened to me.
I came across a picture used by Richard Rohr to describe spiritual transformation. He describes it as three boxes, moving from order, to disorder, to reorder, like this:
- Box #1 Order: You begin in a world that makes sense with a God who you understand.
- Box #2 Disorder: Something happens that destroys the order. You enter a world of confusion, uncertainty and despair. Disorder is the price of transformation. It’s the cross between the old world and the new one.
- Box #3 Reorder: You recover your equilibrium and reestablish a new order.
As much as I liked this, it didn’t quite capture my experience. I didn’t like the third box. Having just escaped a box, I had no desire to live in another, even if it was new and improved.
A better picture is found in the movie Room.
Jack is a little boy who spent the first five years of his life locked in a room with his mother by a psychopath. He never leaves the room. Never. “Room” is the only universe he knows. Its walls, its ceiling, and the few things inside are his whole universe. Then, one day, he steps outside.
Imagine what it would be like to look up at a sky that just kept going up and up and up. Imagine seeing clouds and birds, and a terrifying ball of fire up there. It would be like falling into infinity—terrifying and confusing.
That’s what leaving church was like for me. Church had been my Room. I didn’t just live in Room. It was my job to define and defend it. I knew its four walls and every item in it. I knew its god.
But the longer I lived in Room, the harder my job became. Unlike Jack, I had been outside. I remembered the wild, mysterious Presence. No wonder I had nightmares about being buried alive and felt like I felt like I was suffocating. It was the walls of Room closing in on me.
No wonder I lost most of my friends when I left church. It wasn’t that they stopped caring about me. They had a place in their hearts for me. They just didn’t have a place in their world for me. I don’t take it personally. I don’t fit in Room anymore and they don’t fit out of it. It stinks. But that’s the way it is.
In place of Rohr’s order-disorder-reorder, I like this diagram.
- Box #1 Order. I began in a world that made sense with a god I could explain, my Room.
- #2 Infinity. I stepped outside, into infinity. It blew my mind.
- #3 Acceptance. I came to accept that the universe is infinite and God is beyond comprehension.
I am learning to live in a world without edges. My eyes are adjusting to the brightness. My depth perception is improving. I am starting to feel an exhilarating freedom. I’m still in awe but I’m not quite so terrified.
I have not found a new box called “Reorder.” I accept an infinite universe and a God beyond comprehension. I am learning to live outside.
My Big Surprise: Jesus Lives Outside
When I left church behind, I assumed I left Jesus behind too. I turned to other sources to feed my soul.
I read and studied the Bhagavad Gita. I meditated. I consumed stacks of self-help books. I tried calling God “the Universe.” I watched the Cosmos series, (both Carl Sagan’s and Neil deGrasse Tyson’s versions). I read Yuval Harari’s mind-blowing book, Sapiens. I tried to imagine a world without God. I disappeared into the Sierras to read John Muir wrote. I devoured Emerson and Thoreau.
When I lived in Room, I told people these ideas were bankrupt and dangerous. Occasionally I considered them, but always with the goal of dismantling them. Now they were feeding me. It didn’t matter that they didn’t fit it into my system. I didn’t have one.
One day, I went back and re-read the stories of Jesus with new eyes. I made a discovery that astounded me: The Jesus of the gospels does not live in Room. He is clearly on the outside. If fact, his whole message is based on calling people to leave narrow religion and embrace the wideness of the Kingdom of God. He didn’t preach a box. He devoted most of his energy to smashing them.
Rather than presenting a systematic theology, Jesus told stories. These stories didn’t tidy things up. They blew them so bits. Jesus would tell a story that shattered people’s understanding of God and walk away, leaving them to stare at the ruins.
Jesus didn’t teach a new and better Room but spoke of a transcendent reality called the “Kingdom of God.” The Kingdom was full of mystery and wide as all outdoors. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” was not the command to leave one religion and take up another. It was an invitation to step out of religion altogether.
Who hated this most? Religious people. In other words, people like me, people who made their living defining and defending religious systems. Jesus’ ideas did not fit their system. They invited him in. When they declined, they turned to threats. When this failed, they killed him.
Make no mistake: It was not sinners who killed Jesus. It was the revered and respected religious establishment. Jesus did not hate these people. But he had no patience with their narrow system that turned God into a devil and locked people out.
In the Kingdom of God, there is one human family, eating around the same table. Prodigals are welcome. Sin is forgiven. Love is supreme. The only ones who miss out are those who will not come, those who, like the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son, cling to their religion and will not come to the party. These are the ones who are shut outside, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Reading the stories of Jesus with new eyes, I was transported back to my childhood, when God was a mysterious Presence, not a theological puzzle.
When I lived in Room, I told people that Jesus stood at the door calling to passersby, “Get in here!” But it’s the other way around. Jesus stands at the door. But he’s not telling people to come in. He’s inviting us to come out.