“I would see a man with a whip in one hand and a map to the underground railroad in the other.” That was the actual quote of the old retired preacher in my taxi three years ago.
At the point this excerpt of Chapter 21 of my books was written, my belief in the institution of the church was gone. My faith in God was slipping quickly. I always thought something like that would be sad. It was freeing. I was free of trying to make a deity happy or worrying if it were angry. I just lived each day the best I could and saw the wonder of the universe and everything contained in it. The retired pastor and I were very much cut from the same cloth. Idealistic young man have to face reality often.
Why am I sharing old stories from the taxi from time to time? It is important to include aspects of my deconstruction from faith to better understand my parenting choices and the tension religious figures and I have.
So, without further ado, the first half of Chapter 21 of “Night Moves: An Ex Preacher’s Journey to Hell in a Taxi”.
Chapter 21: The Spiritual Dialogues
There are a lot of religious people that ride in your cab. They speak of their faith or beliefs openly. Sometimes they try to invite you to their way of thinking and worshipping. Most of the time, they just express gratitude to their version of the divine for the things in their life or speak of the beauty of their church or faith tradition. I have a regular who goes to her Catholic mass once a week and loves to talk about it. By the time she is done, I am half ready to attend CCD and convert. On the other end of the spectrum, I had a woman who tells me that the end times are upon us and if I do not want to burn in Hell, I need to convert to Evangelical Christianity now. After more than a decade of professional ministry, I know the playbook but hers has a twist. According to her, Obama and Pope Francis are secretly raising the anti-Christ child together.
One February Sunday, I had two conversations of note. Both of these conversations showcased the beginnings of the change in me and the future of some in Christianity.
Old cities have some unique arrangements in zoning. There was a time when cities were not as regulated as they are today. In the older parts, you will see commercial and residential buildings sharing spaces. I received a page to pick up someone in a residential section of one of the city’s older neighborhoods. When I pulled up to the address, it was a church in the middle of a block of residential homes. It looks like it used to be a house.
I pulled up and an elderly African American came from the building. I instantly knew he was a pastor. It is hard to explain why. There is something about an old school black minister. Maybe it is the well-cut suit of a style that can span decades, the short brimmed hat, the very large black bible, the impossibly perfect posture with chin held high. There is just a vibe. If you have had the exposure to old school charismatics and Baptists like I have, you know it when you see it.
He got in the back and said, “Good afternoon young man.”
“How are you, Pastor?” I risked.
He chuckled and said, “I’m retired but I did preach the word today. How did you know?”
“Lucky guess. So, I have never seen a church quite like this. Was it a church plant?”
If he could light up anymore, he did then. “Boy. We met in the garage years before anyone used the words church plant or house church. We grew. But we stayed there. Just took over the house. Used to be my house. Someone else runs it now. He’s a fine young man. Holy Spirit knows what he’s doing. But I preach the word sometimes. He has to deal with all the headaches.” He chuckled some more.
“I’ve heard of the denomination on the sign but I’ll be honest, pastor, I don’t know much about it. What’s the elevator pitch?”
He told me in a few sentences their basic tenant of faith and the hook that they focus on. I reflected it back to him in different words to make sure I understood what he was saying.
“Seems I ain’t the only preacher in this cab, boy. You a pastor?”
“I was once. How did you know?” I asked.
“I could lie like you did and say lucky guess, but I know.”
I gave him the Reader’s Digest version of my life. He was silent for a moment before making his thoughts known.
“So you’re a quitter.” He said firmly.
“You heard me, boy. You walked away.”
Now my ire was up.
“No. Just because I am not doing parish ministry anymore does not mean I walked away from life. There are missionaries, teachers, chaplains, and strange, mixed-up cab drivers that ran a youth outreach. Yeah, I don’t like parish ministry anymore but that doesn’t mean I am not useful or a quitter.”
“I called you a pastor. Not a minister, not a missionary, not a reverend, not a chaplain. I called you what you are. So what’s your problem, boy? What’s your problem with the church? Why ain’t you preaching anymore?”
“Because I see the night. I see the vacuum without us. We are so busy inviting folks to our temples and competing for market share while fighting a culture war we created and we are not doing jack to go among them. Jesus did not go out among people and help them find a synagogue home. He invited them to live together in the trenches. You would think that 500 years after the reformation, we would have a church that does that. No, the legacy of sola scriptura is forty thousand denominations with no end of the division in sight. I don’t wanna play anymore. I don’t want to pretend that is what Jesus had in mind and that I am right and they are wrong.”
“Maybe if you were part of a Bible-believing denomination you would think differently.”
“Pastor, don’t give me that line. I don’t know any denomination that says they don’t believe the Bible. They see it differently than the other denomination does but I have yet to see a tag line that says NOT a Bible believing church. Have you?”
“No, but it is obvious that some don’t.”
“Obvious to whom? You? Some bishop somewhere? Who decides who has the Bible right and who has it wrong? Can you tell me, after a lifetime of service, that you have it all figured out and can you tell me with 100 percent honesty that your group has the market cornered on perfect understanding on the Bible?”
“Bull. What about unicorns?”
“Unicorns. They are in the King James Bible but in some translations they are oxen and others they are beasts. We don’t have unicorns anymore and we did not have them prior to the King James.”
“We know more about the Bible now than we did.”
“Will we learn more, Pastor?”
“Well….I suppose we will.”
“Okay, pastor. Do you believe the Apostles Creed?”
“Of course I do!”
“So if we are one Holy Church, how can you call some churches not Bible-believing? Doesn’t that fly into the face of what Paul said in Corinthians about the body? Isn’t that the hand saying to the foot, ‘I don’t need you?'”
“Keep going, boy.”
“Okay, let’s take the gay issue.” He stopped me.
“Let’s not, use a different example.” He was firm.
“Okay. Slavery. During abolition we had some churches that fought for freedom and others that defended the ownership of other human beings. Both used the same Bible. Now, if we are one Holy Church and one body, what would you see if you were a slave and the church were a person?”
“I would see a man with a whip in one hand and a map to the underground rail road in the other.”
“Would you trust that man?”
There was silence.
“I’m sorry, pastor.” I felt bad. He seemed upset. I struck a chord.
We pulled up to his apartment building in silence. He paid me with a very generous tip. He got out of the cab and walked to my window. I rolled it down. He said his peace. It went something like this:
“I used to think like you. During the King years, me and a white priest tried to be one. No one else wanted it. I had to make a choice. Toe the line or quit. I toed the line. I spent decades hoping to see one and all we have is more division. More fighting. More hate. I used to have black Muslim friends. I was told I had to stop it. So I did. What you say is dangerous. What you speak is prophesy. Prophets hear the Spirit and they die for it. Don’t be an old man who kept his mouth shut. If you live to be an old man, you won’t see any change either but at least you spoke up. But I’m going to tell you this. I know a pastor when I see one. God bless you, pastor.”
That thing about being a pastor still. I get that a lot. Not just from christians. I get it from people in the secular community too. I have never been sure what to do with that. It is triggering and makes me angry for reasons I cannot quite explain.
I do not believe in prophets, but I speak up. The old man was right about that. If you remain silent nothing will change. If you speak up, maybe there will be no change, but it is worth fighting for and at the very least, you spoke up.
I would be curious as to your thoughts on the matter.