Updated (with link to video): John Marks reminds me of my struggles with faith – and that we don’t have to be right
Here’s a recent video of author John Marks being interviewed on The Bully Pulpit. It’s a great way (if you’ll take the 45 minutes or so to watch) to get a sense of where he’s coming from in his book and why I was so fascinated by it.
Original post from April 2008:
A little while ago I bought Reasons to Believe: One Man’s Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behindby John Marks, which I’d heard about while clicking around TV, the subject matter of which resonated strongly with me. (Here’s a fair review.)
Marks, a former evangelical Christian, was researching the phenomenal success of the “Left Behind” series of apocalyptic novels for an item on the CBS program 60 Minutes. An elderly couple he was interviewing asked if he, himself, would be ‘left behind’ when, as they believe, the Rapture occurs. If the question was a little disarming in its frankness, his answer is the basis of this book which, indeed, is a journey. It will surprise many readers – Christians, of all descriptions, and non-believers alike.
As for why I was drawn to the book, there was a time – in college – when I took what my liberal Christian family correctly saw as a rather abrupt leap to an evangelical church.
The explanation begs more than a little context.
It was my first year in college, some six hundred kilometers from home, and I was spending a winter weekend with a couple who, unbeknownst to me, had been “born again”. These were people I knew to havebeen raised in churches similar to mine, albeit in congregations more conservative. The fact remains that increasing the numbers of the “born again” was not a major thrust of those churches’ work – which was to serve as part of their pitch to me. Was I, and there were implied questions about the rest of my family, truly Christian? Had I, as was their version of the minimum requirements, accepted Jesus as my personal Saviour? They brought out some evangelical Christian music for me to listen to in my quiet times there, and dubbed cassette copies for me to take home.
Before I left, to hitch-hike back to college, they gave me a couple of pamphlets from Campus Crusade for Christ. (This was long before the internet and its mass evangelizing potential.) One of those brochures featured stick-figure drawings of “man”, sin, (Hell maybe, too?), Jesus and the throne of God. If I could not be sure where I’d go, were I to die that night, there were simple instructions and a ‘sinner’s prayer’ to change that. I followed those instructions, and prayed that prayer beside my bed, when I got back to the four-bedroom duplex I shared with three classmates.
That evening I visited the pastor of an evangelical church. I had attended one or two of their services, at the behest of the landlady from whom I had rented a room briefly, at the beginning of the academic year. Fresh from the evening service the pastor’s door swung open and he greeted me warmly, then ushered me into the living room where the church music director and his wife were visiting. I told them what had happened and, of course, there was great joy in the room. The pastor then told me of the upcoming baptismal service on Easter Sunday – in just a week or two.
Of course I’d be baptized, my childhood baptism seen as null and void by evangelicals, and it would be by full immersion – in a narrow, step-down pool behind the choir loft only uncovered for such occasions.
So, while it was no surprise to my parents that I would not be home for Easter, having just returned from Reading Week with them, my Easter plans were quite a shock to say the least. I sensed their disappointment over the phone, no question that this was a departure from my church upbringing, and so they were quickly on my prayer list. My baptism, along with a line of others dressed in the choir’s old gowns, went off without a hitch.
There remained, however, at least one obvious inner conflict. I was struggling with the eventually-undeniable fact that I was gay. There were some me-thinks-he-doth-protest-too-much incidents such as my having a letter published, in the national news magazine of my family’s church, critical of the church’s move toward ordaining gay clergy (which eventually passed). The double life was even more distressing, however, as I discovered gay bars, and other meeting places that I would frequent, only to seek solace at church on Sundays.
I even sang a couple of solos.
My association with the evangelical congregation and, to a lesser extent, its theology (more about that later) ended when the pastor wrote a letter to a local newspaper supporting police actions against gay men and bath houses in a mass arrest one hundred kilometers away. I angrily left the church without explanation as I easily identified with those arrested and the circumstances in which they had been found.
I flung myself into the civil disobedience and mass demonstrations which followed and, in so doing, found a community which showed signs that it would help me begin to accept my homosexuality. I also learned of a church, with special outreach to the LGBT community, and became convinced – about as fast as I was “born again” a few years earlier – that I could be both Christian and gay.
Emboldened, and trying to be as self-affirming as possible, I wrote a letter to my parents telling them that I was gay and that I now believed I could still be a Christian. Only my coming out was news to them. They told me that my older brother, at the time still studying to become a church minister, was also gay. It was as if our individual struggles had taken place in emotional silos!
That was in 1981.
My church life continued, commuting to the city on weekends where I indulged my sexual desires and then worshipped at Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto (MCCT). It still had a double-life feel to it as I tried to keep separate my enthusiasm for the church and my enthusiasm for sowing wild oats. Yet the misgivings and guilt were nothing like I used to feel. If I had convinced myself that my sexual orientation was not a flaw, it still remains to be seen whether I can completely shake the feelings of guilt over my sexual behaviours. Having been told, even convinced, by Jerry Falwell and the like, that homosexuality was a sin and that AIDS was God’s retribution for it I had practically set myself up to be diagnosed with it. That self-fulfilling prophecy came in the form of a diagnosis of HIV infection in 1990 and, when blood samples from a year earlier were re-examined, it’s clear that my sero-conversion had begun in 1989.
“If anybody deserves AIDS, my thinking went, I do!”
That long-held belief would take many more words to unpack. Suffice to say that I do not believe illness or misfortune is deserved, nor can I believe in a version of God that would willfully mete out life’s bumps, let alone this way.
It gradually became clear to me, too, that I had a substance abuse problem – more prevalent per capita in the gay community than in the general population – and I remain “in recovery” to this day.
Not too long after my HIV/AIDS diagnoses I left paid employment and have been living on a combination of private and public disability pensions ever since.
Having wandered from MCCT in the mid-1990s, associating myself with an off-shoot congregation briefly, I found my way back to the United Church of Canada – to an Affirming Congregation called Trinity-St. Paul’s United – in 1999. It has been my church home ever since. The community aspect of the church is important to me. To be without a church home, or to be without the members of other support groups, seems inconceivable. This is not to say that I accept all church doctrine, nor all the ‘suggestions’ of the recovery fellowships. The nice thing about Trinity-St. Paul’s, or TSP, has been the sense of freedom I feel to air difficult questions – of the faith, life, and so on – without fear of judgment. In fact such questions are encouraged and celebrated.
In addition to my substance abuse recovery I am also being treated for the concurrent disorder of Bipolar II and longstanding issues requiring counseling. I know that neither spirituality nor formal religion hold all the answers. Shit happens. I do not believe God to be a master puppeteer, pulling strings in the world from some lofty place, letting – as Rabbi Harold S. Kushner put it a generation or more ago – bad things happen to good people.
My beliefs have evolved a great deal, needless to say, since the occasion of my baptism by immersion. Yet, like the author of Reason to Believe, I have a from-the-inside understanding of where evangelical Christians are coming from – and it’s often not the place of secular caricatures.
Indeed, and I recognize this may seem contradictory, I still have such a passion for music – even the “praise” music of the evangelicals. However much I no longer accept a good part of the doctrine in the lyrics, I can easily be swept up in the emotions, even just the tune, of such music.
There’s a song that I listen to a lot, and repeatedly since Craig’s death in 2007 – a song that would not find its way into my congregation, I don’t think. And even though my ideas of the nature of The Divine are ever in flux, and can be more accurately described as ‘Mystery’, I can settle on the comfort of a familiar Jesus figure when I sing along with Third Day. (You may need to change “Jesus” to something else mystical; seeking comfort need never be limited to religion.)
An embedded Youtube video I had inserted has been disabled “by request” so I can only transcribe the lyrics:
To everyone who’s lost someone they love
Long before it was their time
You feel like the days you had were not enough
when you said goodbye
And to all of the people with burdens and pains
Keeping you back from your life
You believe that there’s nothing and there is no one
Who can make it right
There is hope for the helpless
Rest for the weary
Love for the broken heart
There is grace and forgiveness
Mercy and healing
He’ll meet you wherever you are
Cry out to Jesus, Cry out to Jesus
For the marriage that’s struggling just to hang on
They lost all of their faith and love
They’ve done all they can to make it right again
Still it’s not enough
For the ones who can’t break the addictions and chains
You try to give up but you come back again
Just remember that you’re not alone in your shame
And your suffering
When your lonely (when you’re lonely)
And it feels like the whole world is falling on you
You just reach out, you just cry out to Jesus
Cry to Jesus
To the widow who suffers from being alone
Wiping the tears from her eyes
For the children around the world without a home
Say a prayer tonight
John Marks might think I haven’t let go as thoroughly as he has. Inasmuch as I still struggle with faith, he would be right.
But do I believe in the Rapture of the Left Behind series? No. Or in a reunion with loved ones after death? No. Somewhere deep inside, however, I find a strength and wisdom which – while they may well be mine - are not inconsistent with the qualities ascribed to the God of many names, of many religions.
Finally, in the spirit of not taking ourselves too seriously, I direct you to Rapture Letters. It’s a place where The Book of Revelation, and the convenience of email, merge (and is apparently a genuine service).