Hi and welcome back! On Sunday, I showed you something that happened to me in my freshly-deconverted days. That wasn’t the only thing that happened that day, however. See, the pastor of that church accidentally let slip something huge to me. It turned out to be a truth I really needed to hear. Today, let me show you what else happened, and what it revealed to me at a very critical stage.
(For the full story about the Japan trip, start here. Related posts about community and whatnot: Clan of the Cave Jesus; Penguins and Meaningful Community; Everyone Doesn’t Need Their Product; The Fury of the Tribe; Love in the Time of Culture Wars; Christianity’s Sordid Underbelly; Sowing Discord and Harvesting Love. Also, see The Power of Prayer: Part One.)
In early 1994, Biff and I moved to Japan — and crashed and burned there. As it happened, Jesus either had a cruel sense of humor, had been flat-out wrong, or hadn’t been talking to Biff at all about the wild success we’d experience if we went there! Whoops! Who’d’a thunk?
So we came back nearly-penniless and in emotional tatters. We’d stashed our car and a few things with Biff’s dad in Montana, so we flew there to fetch everything.
While there, we began to gather what few resources we still had. It wasn’t much.
Immediately, I set to work to find us housing and work. We’d already decided to live in Portland, Oregon, so that at least gave shape to my efforts.
The job hunt turned out to be easy. I’d last worked for a huge, nationwide business doing computer stuff. They’d loved me, so it was an easy matter to slide into a good position in one of their locations in Portland. It’d pay enough to care for both of us, even better yet. (Biff was always, shall we gently put it, extremely challenged in the finding-and-keeping-jobs department.)
Housing, however, turned out to be way more difficult to secure. We lacked funds for an apartment deposit and had no way to get those funds.
A Ray of Hope.
At my careful direction, Biff called our old pastor (the first one) for help.
Biff explained the situation we were in, then asked for a big favor: could this pastor please contact a denominational peer in Portland to find us some crash space?
Biff had volunteered with this pastor’s youth ministry for years. I’d volunteered extensively as well. We’d talked with and visited this pastor more times than I could even count. If anybody could vouch for us, it’d be him. And if anybody could impress a pastor across the country, it’d definitely be him. He was a rock star in our denomination. His name was, and still is as far as I can see, pure gold.
Moreover, Biff definitely planned to volunteer again in the new church, wherever we landed.
Even if I never went to church again, I still expected all of these facts to matter.
Our ex-pastor consulted his directory, recognized a name there, and said he’d give him a letter of recommendation. I called this pastor and spoke to him by phone as well. We’ll call him “Joe.” He had heard of our pastor, though they’d never met. (So much for clout.)
Yes, Joe told us. He would be happy to pray really really RILLY hard and check with people in the congregation to see if anyone could give us a space to crash for a couple of weeks until we had enough money for the deposit on an apartment. He was certain that something would turn up by the time we arrived in a few days.
Also, he really looked forward to getting a fervent, active volunteer for his church. It was a fairly large church, too, nearly as big as our first one had been, so you know he must have been constantly prowling for volunteers.
I ignored the gnawing doubt blossoming inside me at Joe’s hemming and hawing. I’d already learned what “I’ll try” meant.
Instead, both Biff and I felt hugely relieved and thankful. I soon found a sure-thing apartment complex in nearby Vancouver, Washington. We spoke by phone with the manager to arrange a visit once we got to town.
Yes indeed, everything seemed like it was working out great. We relaxed for a few days, mostly free of stress for the first time in forever.
Even before we arrived in Portland, though, things unraveled almost immediately.
First and foremost, right before we left Joe still hadn’t heard a thing about anybody willing to put us up. But we had to go. I’d already secured a job. I had to start work that Monday, or I’d lose the position. So we drove to Portland anyway.
As we came into sight of the city, I think on Saturday evening, I called the pastor on a pay phone one last time to beg for his help.
After even more hemming and hawing, Joe revealed that he’d still found nobody willing to put us up.
Nobody. We were on our own.
Could he maybe help us with funds to find a hotel for the night, so we didn’t have to sleep in our car at least?
No, he could not.
I was spitting mad, but I thanked him for checking, told him we’d figure something out, and hung up on him.
Joe’s about-face led to a hell of a scramble that night, then a hotel stay we absolutely couldn’t afford that was an hour’s drive from Portland. Thankfully, the next morning that apartment manager in Vancouver took pity on us. She let us move in right away, then pay our various deposits off over future months. I have no idea what we’d have done if she hadn’t been so kind.
I began work on schedule that Monday.
It all worked out, no thanks at all to that pastor and his flock. I could not believe Biff still wanted to attend that church after all that mess.
On that fine Mother’s Day service, Joe sidled up to me after the altar call. Biff was off swanning around somewhere up front, while I waited patiently toward the back for him to finish sniffing butts.
Very awkwardly, Joe apologized for leaving us to it regarding housing.
I suppose Biff had let him know I had been supremely displeased. Or maybe I’d made that point myself in our phone conversation the day we’d arrived to town. I’m told my voice is very expressive anyway, and well, folks suffering from PTSD can get really extra under stress.
I thanked him for the apology, and he moved on to talk to someone else.
I felt strangely cold as I watched him mosey off. His lack of follow-through didn’t matter anymore. Well, I mean it did, just not for the reason he imagined.
By then, I completely understood why he’d done what he’d done.
Reality Wins Again.
Reality had collided hard against my beliefs.
See, evangelicals labor under two completely contradictory and compartmentalized mindsets.
In Christian-Land, Jesus is totes for realsies and Christians have a “church home,” which makes its congregation their “church family.” They call each other “brother” and “sister” and sing songs about how much they love each other and how they’re this big ole prayer army for Jesus, conquering the world with love, blah blah blah. That’s why I’d called our first pastor and then Joe for help. If nothing else, I thought that the social capital we’d invested in our tribe over so many years mattered and was something we could draw upon when we really needed it.
In Reality-Land, however, Christians don’t act any better than any other group. Many times, they act considerably worse, as we’ll discuss next time. They can be incredibly flaky, with a serious lack of follow-through on their promises. Churches tend to be absolute hotbeds of drama, infighting, squabbling, and power-grabs. And as our gaze moves to the more fundie end of the Christian pool, their hypocrisy only grows worse and worse.
Years before the Japan adventure, I’d learned subconsciously not to hold Christians to their word, ever. If I hadn’t been beyond desperate, I wouldn’t even have asked Joe for help. I’d already have known better.
Well, I found myself in Reality-Land, not Christian-Land, on that fateful April afternoon at the pay phone.
What Joe Revealed.
In not helping us at our hour of greatest need, Joe accidentally revealed the truth of his own beliefs.
He’d behaved like a person in Reality-Land, even though in doing so he contradicted every fundagelical belief about their tribe.
If Jesus wasn’t real and the Bible wasn’t actually true, then of course Joe wouldn’t — and couldn’t — just trust us sight unseen. He hadn’t been unreasonable. I mean, really now: we were total strangers! Our ex-pastor had vouched for us, but so what? It’s crazy easy for terrible people to fool Christians.
What’s weird is that Joe had expected me to do what Christians always seem to do when confronted with the reality of the tribe: shrug and keep warming the pews, and continue to sing the tribe’s praises and look down on ickie heathens who didn’t know what community was, and just forget that our tribe operated in the same way — and maybe in worse ways — than non-Christian groups did.
What Happened Next.
If my faith pool had been full, as indeed Biff’s was, maybe that’s exactly what would have happened, because it’s exactly what he did.
But mine was already empty. I’d already realized that the tribe’s claims about the supernatural simply weren’t true. Now I fully recognized that their claims about themselves weren’t true, either. I now had no reason whatsoever to hang out with any church communities. They had nothing whatsoever to offer that I couldn’t get elsewhere for way less trouble.
In a strange way, I’m thankful to Joe for revealing the truth through his behavior. I’m glad he did so at such a critical stage in my deconversion.
NEXT UP: A review of an evangelical classic, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.
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