I recently found an unexpected e-mail in my in-box. It was from Joe, my youth pastor from over twenty-five years ago. I haven’t spoken to him in as many years. He was reaching out to apologize for any spiritual harm he had done me all those years ago. The e-mail got me reminiscing.
Joe was one of those youth pastors who seemed to have a sure calling, the kind of guy people called on fire for the Lord. He preached fearlessly, with the zeal of a prophet; unlike others I’d encountered who believed they had the gift of prophecy, Joe did not see it as an excuse to be a loud and judgmental ass. He was open and honest, transparent about his struggles. It drew kids to him. He and his wife opened their home to us, were endlessly patient with the teenage noise, hormones, strife.
Joe’s Sunday school classroom was packed. He led emotionally-charged prayer meetings and revival gatherings, full of crying and repentance. He had a beard and crazy hair, and eyes as wild as John Brown raiding Harper’s Ferry.
I remember an anti- rock and roll wave that swept through the group after going downtown to a rally in which they played The Eagles and Led Zeppelin and ELO backwards—and, yes, Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”—so that we could hear the satanic back-masked messages. After that, Joe instructed us to bring all our secular cassettes to his house, where they were burned in a green wheelbarrow on the front drive.
We stood in a circle as the black smoke twisted inky from the melting plastic and coated our nostrils and throats with the taste of chemical poison. Boys took turns squirting lighter fluid to make flare-ups.
I caved into temptation when my friend Danny tossed in his Pink Floyd The Wall cassette and it fell to the edge and rested there intact. Pink Floyd was my favorite band. Though I felt horrible guilt, I slid it into my pocket when no one was looking. The case was a little melted, but the tape played fine.
We sang songs, and took turns praying. We sang, “It Only Takes a Spark,” one from Joe’s youth, among other songs. It was his personality that pulled us along. Attempted by a different youth pastor, this could have been uncool in the extreme and failed miserably.
Not long after that, Joe loaded us up and took us to a Petra concert—“God Gave Rock and Roll To You” Petra—before what is now called Contemporary Christian Music, offering us an alternative to secular rock and roll. His approval of rock music—Christian or not, the beat itself was used in Africa to call up evil spirits, we were taught—was a problem in the church back then.
It was Joe’s honesty however that got him into real trouble. It started with the Bible. In front of the youth group Joe puzzled over our denomination’s stand on inerrancy. He asked honest questions, and though he always came to acceptable conclusions in front of the class, I could tell he wasn’t comfortable with them.
This was too much for the church leadership. He was too unpredictable. Too inconsistent. Joe was effectively shunned. I don’t know if he was asked to step down, or if he quit, but his leaving was abrupt. I was not sure where Joe’s journey took him after his leaving our church until recently.
His Facebook page makes it clear that he is back in the church with a vengeance. I’ve watched his posts with interest. He did not return to a Baptist church. He is attending a hyper-charismatic church now—a church considered, at least when I lived in that area, to be one pastoral revelation away from being a cult—and it suits his temperament.
I see that he and his whole family are now doing street ministry, finding the dropouts, the indigents, feeding them, clothing them, and of course laying on hands and praying over them. I see posts in which he exults over numbers saved, numbers healed of physical infirmities, drunks who are miraculously sober after a prayer.
Joe prays and preaches, and sometimes rants, in his posts. This is the Joe I remember: He is nothing if not passionate. When he commits to something, he holds nothing back.
And that’s why, when I see posts about his having been in the wilderness for twenty years, I wonder. Not about his present religious activities, or whatever will inevitably follow. I will not be surprised when I see that Joe’s wild, passionate nature has swung him to some other extreme of belief.
What would have surprised me would have been to find that he was no longer a generous man, giving of both his time and money to those in need. The compassionate man I see now—crazy as some of his posts about signs in the sky and the impending rapture seem—working among the down-and-outers, giving with an open hand, is the same man I knew before he left my childhood church.
I would be surprised now to find that in those twenty years he feels he wasted in the wilderness, he was not still that same generous, caring man, helping countless people. That seems to be the one consistent thing about him, his good heart. So what if he had been consistent in his doctrine and his church attendance all these years, and had not charity?
I want to say to him, so you were in the wilderness? Maybe those years weren’t wasted just because you weren’t on fire or in a church. Maybe this was your calling, right where you were meant to be all along. Maybe that’s where the people who needed you were.