Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Have I Run Too Far to Get Home?

Snapshot, 1992: Filling an overnight bag, getting ready to go to an in-city youth retreat sponsored by the church I grew up in, Temple Baptist Church. I am quickly recording "Would?" by Alice in Chains onto a cassette to listen to in the car. The lyric "Am I Wrong? / Have I Run Too Far to Get Home?" resonates in my head with ideas of sin and redemption, and the parable of the Prodigal Son. I view pop culture through the lens of my faith: I cannot see a film, hear a song, or read a book without attempting to relate it to my faith theopoetically. 

That lyric has been haunting me lately. Lane Staley's passionate vocals plaintively asking if a line has been crossed, a line which forbids a return trip, the clich├ęd point-of-no-return. The story of the Prodigal Son suggests that there the possibility of return to the Father's arms always exists, and yet I find myself in an ongoing "dark night of the soul" unlike any I've ever experienced.

When I was a younger man, my dark nights of the soul were self-induced, brought on by a combination of a restrictive moral code and lapses into transgressive behaviour: in hindsight, they were mostly the natural outcome of trying to live under spiritual disciplines in my '20s. They were not moments of doubt in the nature of God, but rather doubt in my ability to live in the way I believed God wanted me to. What I experience now is far more difficult.

It's difficult because now it is about the nature of God. I'm pushing forty--I don't have the same opportunities for those transgressive lapses I once did. I'm not so hot-tempered, nor given to passionate whims.These doubts are not melancholic episodes. They are part of this season of life.

I did not come by these doubts suddenly. I did not have a bad experience and then turn away from the Church. I have a grocery list of train wrecks from my years in the Church. When people tell me why they've left faith or abandoned a particular church, I have to stifle a grimace, censor my own desire to say, "Pussy. I've got at least five stories like that one." But they are not the only reason I sit in the desert. I am in the desert because I slowly rejected aspects of the Evangelical-Christian subculture, becoming more and more honest with myself, until one day I realized I'd dropped nearly everything that used to define Christian to me. I don't believe in the complete inerrancy of the Bible, or a literal seven-day-Creation, and I think people who believe in either are stupid. I don't believe homosexuals are some uber-class of sinner. I support gay marriage. I refuse to hide that I read fantasy and horror and love it. I only recently began attending church regularly after a two-hiatus. I find it challenging to read my Bible devotionally. Real prayer is rare and sporadic.

I was like the frog in the boiling kettle, not sensing the problem until it became a crisis. But that's the other difficulty. I'm not terribly alarmed. After all, I'm not physically boiling - I don't feel pain, just a sense of loss and regret. I would like to believe the way I once did, but I don't. Worse yet, I don't know if that's because I've stopped believing, or if it's because I need to find a new way to believe.

I speak at a camp this upcoming weekend. The old me would have called them up and canceled, believing that my doubts render me a poor candidate for speaking about faith. I won't cancel: first and foremost because it's unprofessional; second, because while I have all these doubts, I haven't given up. So long as the prodigal wonders about going home, the possibility remains that he can return home.


  1. Amen, Mike.

    By the way, Augustine (and other Church Fathers) didn't believe in the complete inerrancy of the Bible or a literal seven-day creation, and for most of Christian history, daily devotional reading and extemperanous prayer were generally unheard of. By not holding to a modern conception of Christian faith, you're in good company - at least I hope so, because that's about where I fall also.

  2. Leslie10:09 PM

    In my sixties I'm rejecting the trappings of church culture and Christianity, which is just a religion; but that makes Jesus (the Living Word) and the Bible (the written word) all the more precious to me. At the same time I see that congregations struggle similarly to the way individuals like me struggle, and I want to be part of that struggle with my brothers and sisters to "throw off everything that hinders" and get to what is actually Jesus instead of us.
    Jesus knew scripture and He talked to His Father constantly (wisdom has got to come from somewhere). And in His wisdom, He rejected what the religious authorities had turned worship into. Following Jesus, not the culture of the church, is the way to get wisdom.
    By the way, the early church was mainly Jewish. They memorized scripture, prayed 3 times a day and saw God do a lot of miracles among them. The church kind of lost its power and became a political entity around the time of Augustine and the other church fathers.

  3. Mike, I really appreciated the honesty what you shared here, as I find that it reflects to some extent where I have been walking recently.

  4. Michael-always glad to have your perspective - it's good to know I've got company!

    Leslie - well said, although I'm still a strong advocate for Christian community (not religious authorities, although sometimes those can become one and the same). We need the ecclesia, the gathered believers, as part of our journey.

    Calvin - thanks. I'm just glad to finally be able to be this honest.