Part One – Bring Us Your… Vulnerable
I always knew the day would come when I would be accused of murder. I just didn’t expect the allegations to be lodged by two old friends bearing evidence of my involvement in two separate incidents that led to the death of someone they loved. I must confess at the outset that indeed, I’m guilty of both allegations and plead no contest. The first incident has haunted me in recent years, the first of countless similar regrets. The latter, on the other hand, after almost two years of deep reflection, I’m learning to live with and can’t bring myself to offer any such remorse. Nor should I.
Enough people have been asking about my uncharacteristic absence over the last year or two – relatively quiet on social media and blogs, delaying book releases, turning down from various speaking opportunities, etc… As such, I figured it was worthwhile to share a snapshot of my personal life, during which time one person would end up dead as another teetered on the razor’s edge of taking their own life. Don’t worry, this series isn’t going to be as much about my own trials as it is meant to serve as a cautionary tale for the many others in similar positions of trust and influence.
Disclaimer: I should warn you that this is not a happy story and I’m still not sure how it will end. Because many people involved in this story are no longer speaking to me (though, I’d suggest for all the wrong reasons), I have not obtained permission to share this story from all involved. As such, I’ve changed names and locations while obscuring various dates and details in order to protect everyone’s privacy.
You might be wondering how it is that I’m able to write this from my comfortable home office rather than a cramped prison cell. Simply put, because I didn’t act alone I will never be charged with a single crime. However, my primary accomplice not only walks free, but is held harmless in the events that transpired as he continues to hold a position of tremendous power. Against my lawyer’s advice I would suggest that if we lived in a world where similar actions were taken half as seriously as the average misdemeanor, none of the following events would have ever transpired. Yet, this is not the world we live in, so I am free to strike again – over and over and over. As such, it is my hope is that one day these essays will help others better understand and avoid the inherent dangers involved with playing spiritual matchmaker and put an end to the practice of protecting and promoting those who do so for fame and fortune.
But, first – as so many Christians claim to rely on, a little context – how, in a moment of extreme vulnerability I found myself unwittingly shepherded into the fold of Christianity and took my place in the machine of evangelistic outreach.
Part One: Bring Us Your Vulnerable
It has been over twenty years since I came close to killing myself over a something as trivial as finding my fiancé in bed with a close friend as I came home to celebrate the completion of the last final exam of my college career. Of course, this might indeed sound like the exact sort of melodramatic made-for-tv atrocity that one would understand if a young man lost their mind over and chose to swallow a bullet over your average betrayal. Ahh, young ‘love’ – such drama. But, please… someone rubs their nasty bits against another person’s nasty bits and I’m supposed to stand on a bridge contemplating the worth of my own existence as if the universe owes me something? Sheesh! Yet, that’s exactly where I found myself night after night, elbows on the railing of the Ross Island Bridge high above the Willammette River in Portland, OR.
Now, before all of the suicide experts out there start judging me – I didn’t have a gun, so that was out of the question. I also hated taking baths or seeing blood, so mixing the two just seemed extreme. I didn’t have a car or a garage, so sucking a tailpipe wasn’t an option. Pills made me gag, I was afraid of traffic, and disobeying the government warnings on a box of rat poison seemed like blasphemy. Instead, there I stood, every sunset for almost two weeks, imagining just how “sorry” the young lovers would be once they stopped bumping uglies long enough to even notice I was gone (of course, underestimating the myopic powers of a lust-filled orgasm). I had no thoughts of my family, loved ones or other friends, just revenge through guilt – that’ll teach ‘em. Speaking of revenge, I had no idea that revenge sex would have likely scratched the same self-centered itch without having to end my life. That sure would have been easier (and more fun), though, it’d likely give me a series of other ‘itches’ to worry about.
The only problem was that I became pretty sure that the fall from the bridge wasn’t high enough to actually kill me. Every night I’d reimagine flailing in the river before being fished out by rescuers on the nightly news, such an embarrassing failure in the eyes of family and friends. I’d eventually chicken out and head home to rock myself to sleep by silently chanting, “I just wanna die. I just wanna die. I just wanna die.” Today I can’t even imagine becoming so distraught over something so trivial. Yet, at the time, fueled by hormones and a youthful penchant for drama, I had convinced myself that I was truly broken, desperate, alone, and, most of all… vulnerable.
One evening I was preparing for my pilgrimage to the bridge by pumping up my bike tires on my apartment balcony when Jackie and Brian, a couple of college friends, stopped by out of the blue. Making no effort to hide their intention of checking up on me, they invited me to a “concert” to which, well wouldn’t you know it, they just happened to have an extra ticket. Something about Hell’s Bells, or Hell’s Gates or something that made me think it was an AC/DC cover band. While it was good to see their faces, the first friends I’d seen in over a week of self-loathing, I did my best to decline before being forced to accept when it began to rain. Hard. Damn you, Portland! Something about killing myself in a downpour over college infidelity just seemed, well… pathetic, even as far as angsty suicides go.
I don’t remember anything about the car ride, still imagining my own death, annoyed that my friends were keeping me from my plans for the evening. It wasn’t until I was being ushered into a row of folding chairs near the back of an enormous church (where nobody ever asked for our tickets, I might add) that I realized what was happening. Surrounded by countless smiling strangers who insisted on shaking my hand in order to welcome me to their “home,” I was more than relieved when the room went dark before the cheesy instrumental rock music started blaring and the light show began.
After the opening song, it became clear that this wasn’t a concert, but an ambush. The church was hosting a traveling evangelistic theater group that used local members of the congregation as characters in series of (horribly acted) soap-operatic skits intersected with overly repetitive music designed precisely to brainwash any unknowing guests into eventually drinking the KoolAid that would be served at the end of the show. Each skit was based around an “every day” scenario where characters were just going about their daily lives when the topic of God would come up in the unnatural course of conversation.
“I’m getting tired, I think I’ll head to bed.”
“You know who never gets tired?”
By some apparent miracle of statistics one character in each skit just happened not to believe in this God character everyone else was so wild about. They would be witnessed to and given an opportunity t speak the words, “I believe,” before naturally, some cataclysmic event killed everyone on stage and the atheist would find him or herself alone at the pearly gates separated from friends and family forever. They would beg and plead to get in, but – too late, they’d had their chance. Satan himself then arrived on stage to drag the poor wretch into a glowing pit of screaming tortured souls in front of the stage that continued to grow with each skit of death.
Looking back, I now see this play as a cautionary tale that anytime someone asks you if you believe in God, don’t answer, just get out of the way before the piano falls or the train derails.
The show was nothing but emotional blackmail, pure and simple. However, despite how cheesily heavy-handed it all seemed, I must admit that it was _effective_ emotional blackmail. By the end of the evening I found myself on the edge of my seat. I never actually imagined myself dying in any of the scenarios, mind you, but skit after skit I imagined my own mother burning in hell, my best friend drowning in the lake of fire, the child I might one day have, being tortured for all eternity – all because, as the pious grieving “actors” behind the pearly gates would claim, “They just weren’t willing to say two simple words, ‘I believe.’”
Wait, there is uncontrollable grieving in heaven? What’s the point? Bah…
As the evening came to an end, the event organizer returned to the stage, “Someone here might feel broken.” Two hands went up. “Someone here might feel alone.” Four more. “Someone here might feel rejected,” more hands as his cadence and volume rose to match the driving beat of the swelling music. “Keep your hands raised so the Lord may see his children’s needs.” More lists of ailments, more music, more lights and lasers, more hands raised. I might be imagining it now, but it felt like anytime there was a lag in the raising of hands, suddenly there would be a series of shrieks and wails from the makeshift hell at the edge of the stage. More hands would go up as members of the audience began wailing in ghastly replies. Jesus!
I dare you to scroll to the 1:00 hour mark. A little over the top, eh? Yep, coming to a church near you…
On he rambled, “Is someone suffering from an illness here tonight?” Hands raised. “Amen, the Lord sees your need. Is someone suffering from addiction here tonight?” More hands going up, more amens. “I’d like to ask those of you who are brave enough to tackle your demons to come forward so that our team can pray with you tonight, a special life changing prayer.” It seemed as if everyone had an affliction that needed healing as the pews began to empty with nearly the entire congregation forming lines. Also in hindsight, I can’t help but notice that out of all of the challenges and infirmities mentioned from stage that night, the pastor just happened to avoid naming the one he relied on… vulnerability.
[It wouldn’t be until years into my own ministry that I’d come to understand just how many of the previously “saved” had to “re-saved,” to be counted by the host ministry in question again and again and again. After all, as you might guess, “conversions” are the key to successful fundraising efforts of evangelism ministries. Likewise, not surprisingly, if you make it a habit of attending outreach events, you might begin to notice how it is regularly the same familiar faces of staff members and devout ministry team members who raise their hands first in order to prime the crowd into submission and get the party started.]
“Yes, yes – praise the Lord,” he went on, unrelenting. “Someone here tonight might be so deeply broken, so far from God that they have considered taking their own life. Raise your hand.”
Wait… what? None of the other endless skits or the never-ending list of maladies applied to me. How could he have possibly, magically, by the blatantly obvious chance of probability have ever guessed that in a room of 600 people, at least one had given thought to suicide recently? I felt Brian hand on my back and my face became flushed with, what? Conviction? Embarrassment? Then Jackie’s arm wrapped around my waist, and my hands began to shake. I felt trapped, pressured, vulnerable. She placed her head on my shoulder, whispering through her own tears, “Don’t be afraid, we’re here for you. You’re not alone, Horus, we’ll go up with you.”
Even Effie Trinket would have to admit, the odds were NOT in my favor. There I was, surrounded by countless other (vulnerable) people being preyed upon, rather than prayed for. That was the night I had no choice but to surrender and accept Christ as my personal Lord and savior. Surrender… an interesting choice of words to be adopted by the church and required of each member. Hmm…
I left that night armed with a leather-bound Bible with my name embossed on the cover (thanks be to Jackie and Brian and the embosser that just happened to be set up in the lobby). I could already taste the zeal only afforded to newly born-again Christians intent on saving everyone from the fiery depths of stage-hell. I began day-dreaming of who would be the first notch on my belt of similarly coerced salvation decisions.
A month later I was settling down in my new town, starting a new job, attending a new church, making new friends. It was then that I first ran into a woman, literally, who would change my life forever