Christians make me nervous. Especially the evangelical ones.
There, I’ve said it. I just needed to get that out in the open, right off the bat. As I’ve been preparing to tell the story of the rather strange journey of faith I’ve been on for the last 40 years or so, I’ve been struggling with what I originally thought was just a really, really bad case of writer’s block. But last night I finally realized what was behind the writer’s block. I’ve been afraid to start writing, afraid to put my life on paper, because I’ve been worried about what people will think of me. Not just people, mind you.
That’s right, other evangelicals. I’m one of them. Or at least I think I am. Or at least I was. Truth is, I'm not really sure anymore.
Most of the time I cringe at the label of evangelical, because of what the term has come to mean. Tell non-evangelicals that I’m an evangelical and immediately I’ll have their preconceptions thrown on me like the cheesy “Miss Texas” sash that a beauty pageant contestant wears with dubious pride. Mr. Evangelical: A conservative, right-wing Republican, for whom opposing abortion and gay marriage are the most important political issues.
At least with most non-evangelicals, that’s where the preconceptions generally end. What’s much harder for me is that the expectations of what I should be as an evangelical actually seem to be more rigid and dogmatic coming from other evangelicals. Because if I’m really an evangelical, one of the true believers, not only should I vote along conservative Republican party lines, but I’m expected to endorse and embrace a host of other positions as well. I must believe that unless a person “accepts Christ” before the moment of death, he or she will be damned to an afterlife of eternal torture. I must believe the Bible to be inerrant and historically and scientifically accurate, and that its every word is straight from the mouth of God and that it contains God's definitive answer to every complex question facing every culture in every age of world history.
In my conservative evangelical upbringing I was taught to judge the authenticity of other people’s faith by comparing their beliefs and lifestyles to a certain standard. I was taught that a true Christian must not only subscribe to specific doctrinal propositions, but behavioral standards as well. If I'm really a true believer and a committed Christian, I was taught, I'll live a pious life and refrain from such worldly things as listening to raunchy music, watching raunchy movies, using raunchy language and telling raunchy jokes. In general, I'll live a raunch-free life.
Oh, and then there’s the drinking. I was taught to believe that if I really take my faith seriously and am a truly committed follower of Jesus, I certainly shouldn’t need to drink. If someone needs to drink, after all, they must be an alcoholic. Nevermind that the first miracle Jesus ever performed was to make more booze at a party.
The problem is, I really like beer. So you can see where some of the schizophrenia has come from.
I recently spent six years of my life as the founder and president of a non-profit organization called Healing Waters International. The mission of Healing Waters is to help local churches in poor countries move beyond traditional evangelism and become a tangible solution to the suffering and disease and death in their communities that come from people drinking contaminated water. Starting Healing Waters and growing it into a thriving non-profit was an intense and thrilling journey full of some crazy and even life-threatening experiences, and that story is a big part of the tale I want to tell in this book.
What makes my story unconventional as a journey of faith is that although I was a Christian, I was not a straight-laced conservative evangelical poster boy. I was an unemployed pothead when God first lured my wife, Dana, and me to the Dominican Republic to serve as "missionaries" of our church in the US. We spent a year there working with an extremely legalistic church that saw its primary mission as converting as many Catholics as possible into true believers like themselves. Our time there was a very difficult one and a time of great disillusionment with the traditional evangelical approach to missions. It was out of that frustration and disillusionment that Healing Waters was born. We founded Healing Waters based on the philosophy of service embodied in the Saint Francis quote, "Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words." We'd grown weary and cynical of the focus on making converts, and created Healing Waters not to convert people in the name of Jesus, but rather to serve them and help them and heal them in the name of Jesus.
By the time I left Healing Waters, it had grown to the point of providing clean water to more than 100,000 people on a daily basis. But as rewarding as the experience was of building Healing Waters out of nothing, there was always a gray cloud hanging over my head, especially when I was with the evangelicals who made up the majority of our supporters and partners. “What if they find out who I really am?” I constantly worried. What if they find out I lean more Democrat than Republican? What if they find out I don’t believe you have to “accept Christ” to be saved? What if they find out that I have more meaningful worship experiences listening to Springsteen singing My City of Ruins than I ever have singing along to the Christian Top 40 “praise songs” we sing in church? What if they find out that “shit” is one of my all-time favorite words? What if they find out how much I like beer?
I’ve now moved on from Healing Waters and have left it in the care of others, but I still care about the organization we started and don’t want to hurt it in any way. So I worry about the implications of telling my story the way it really happened, and presenting myself the way I really am. Because the fact of the matter is that I’m still a really lousy Christian, at least by the standard I was taught to use when making such a judgment. My story is not the miraculous before-and-after story that you typically hear from Christians giving their testimonies. “I was a deceitful, self-destructive and misguided person before I met the Lord, but after I was saved things in my life fell beautifully into place and I’m happy to say that I now have my act together.” To the contrary. You see, I became a Christian when I was five years old. So unlike Chuck Colson or Ted Bundy, my worst sinning did not happen before I became a Christian. I’ve actually performed my most despicable deeds since becoming a Christian. What’s more, I don’t seem to be becoming all that much more virtuous as the years progress. While God’s been good enough to allow me to overcome a few of my bad habits over the years, most people would be horrified to know how I still think and act 40 years into my walk with Christ.
Which brings me right back to my fears about what people will think if I write honestly about how and who I really am. What will the more conservative supporters of Healing Waters think? Will they stop wanting to support the organization? Should I alter my story or edit my story so as to not to offend these people, people who I genuinely respect and appreciate and don’t want to offend? Losing their support worries me a little, but losing their respect and friendship worries me a lot.
I’m sure it sounds ridiculous, but I’ve now spent almost a year worrying about this. I left Healing Waters on February 1, 2008, feeling a strong pull from God to step out of the organization and focus on writing my story. But today is January 15, 2009, and I’ve hardly made a dent in the writing because I’ve been paralyzed with fear. Will they think I’m a heretic? Or, what would feel even worse, will they doubt that my faith is genuine? Will they think that I was a phony in the way I presented myself? Will they doubt how earnestly I’m really trying to follow Jesus?
The fear and anxiety over all this was becoming downright debilitating, and seemed to be building to a nervous breakdown crescendo. Then, last night, by the grace of God, I was given a gift. I believe that God speaks to each of us differently, and custom-tailors his communications to us using words or ideas or images that will resonate with us and that our unique minds will be able to understand. That’s exactly what happened to me. The supreme God of the universe, creator of all that is good, the most high and holy God, spoke two words to me to help me overcome my fear of what everyone will think of me. Two words, two beautiful words, which God knew would contain all the freedom and grace I needed to be able to move forward. The words were these:
With those two words, God let me know that it was time to stop worrying about what anyone will think of me. The only thing that matters, I finally realized, is what God thinks of me. And thankfully, after years of confusion about that, I now know what God thinks of me—he likes me.
He doesn’t just love me. I know that God loves me. I’m sorry, but that’s not enough. God has to love me, because that’s who he is. God is love. But not only does God love me, I’m coming to believe that he actually likes me. I’m serious—I think he actually likes me. The God of the universe likes me, so why would I worry whether anyone else likes me or not?
Now, I have to admit that I’m only 95% sure that it was God who spoke those exact words to me. I've never been 100% sure that it's been God on any of the handful of occasions that I think he has spoken to me. There's always that 5% of doubt that keeps me wondering and requires me to act on faith. And I admit that whenever anyone else tells me that God spoke to them, I usually think they're full of shit. So I won't be surprised if you're skeptical. I don't expect that you'll believe that it was really God who spoke those words to me.
No matter what your theology is regarding cussing, the only way for you to really determine if it's actually been God speaking to me is for you to read my story and decide for yourself. The way I see it, each of our stories is like a painting. The painting speaks for itself on a number of different levels, and can be interpreted in different ways. So as you read my story and read what happened after I decided to go forward in faith on the occasions when I thought God had spoken to me, you can judge for yourself if it was really God speaking to me or just something I made up in my head.
When God speaks to us, I think he speaks to us holistically. He speaks to our minds, hearts and souls simultaneously in what I would describe as meaning rather than words. It's the meaning that matters. It might be my own being that puts certain words to the meaning—the F-word, for example—but I kind of doubt that God cares what words my subconscious puts to it as long as I grasp the meaning that he wants to get across to me. On the other hand, I believe that God speaks to each of us uniquely, and I wouldn't put it past God to drop the F-bomb right into my gray matter. The Bible is full of instances where God uses some really weird ways to communicate to people—Balaam’s ass comes to mind—and I've come to believe that he'll use whatever means necessary to communicate to us in ways that fit the way we're wired.
Like he has with each of us, God has given me a very distinct personality and perspective, and, along with a strange combination of gifts and abilities, he’s woven all that together into my very weird self. He’s given me a life to live that is unlike anyone else’s life, and I’m pretty certain that he now wants me to tell the story of my life—complete with my bad habits, character flaws, schizophrenia and all—because he wants others to come to see that no matter how far away from being a “good Christian” we may be, if we simply trust his goodness and his love for us and make ourselves available to him, he can use us to do some pretty amazing things.
My life has been as schizophrenic as my psyche, and my journey has been both literally and figuratively all over the map. I’ve driven across the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains while hallucinating on acid, and I’ve seen the Holy Spirit descend on a group of Dominican high school kids and knock them unconscious. I prostituted myself as an ad whore for years and won Best of Show at an advertising awards show emceed by the politically incorrect comedian Bill Maher, and I’ve also been one of only seven guests at an intimate dinner party with evangelist Franklin Graham in the mansion of a conservative Christian multimillionaire. I’ve been invited to the government palace in the Dominican Republic for an official visit, and I’ve politely ingested fried bugs and countless plates of rice and beans in homes with leaky tin roofs and no indoor plumbing. I’ve earned more than a million miles on American Airlines, and I’ve logged thousands of miles driving around the chaotic third-world country that boasts the world's second highest rate of road traffic deaths per capita. I’ve witnessed the drowning of a good Catholic friend only to have his mother blame “the evangelicals” for his death, and I’ve participated in remarkable reconciliation between evangelicals and Catholics in one of the world’s hotbeds of violent conflict between the two groups.
God has led me on a wild adventure in life and has shown me great favor, and he hasn’t seemed to have been bothered very much by the fact that I’m still the same confused, arrogant, idiotic, perverted dumbshit struggling with pretty much the same sins I’ve struggled with since I was a teenager. Over time I’ve come to believe that God is genuinely pleased by my faith—as seemingly neurotic and unorthodox as my faith may be—and frankly doesn’t give a damn about my sinful nature anymore.
I imagine that I’ve lost a lot of you already; at least a lot of you for whom my words so far have made you uncomfortable or maybe even made you mad. I’m sorry about that. I really am. I'm not trying to intentionally upset or offend anyone. Like I said, I believe that God speaks to different people in different ways, and I think he wants me to write this story for a small group of people who might glean some inspiration or hope from it. My hope is that if you're not in that group, and don't agree with what I'm saying and how I'm saying it, that you can just ignore it and not judge it and that you can be open to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, God has some kind of purpose in it, as farfetched as that might seem to you.
So, if you don’t want to read any further, I understand. Maybe it’s better if you don’t. But as for me, I need to keep going.