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A Chaplain of Pirates: Chapter One

October 30, 2009

All right, dear readers, this is all you are getting. Enjoy.

Chapter One: Me Own Yarn

            Donald Miller wrote that our lives our often like movie scripts. I have begun to realize to quote a student, “a villain in my own film”. This villain had to be shown his own capacity for doubt and questions.

            First, everyone should know, I’m a creed confessing, bible reading, Jesus loving fool.  I believe that God created the world (over a long period of time using  natural processes). I believe humans were created in God’s image, that we sinned and fell from our image bearing role. I believe that sin is the source of all human suffering and pain. I also believe that God entered into our pain through the person of Jesus Christ.

I fully believe that Jesus was fully man, or as I have told my sons, he laughed, he cried, he hurt, he farted and he picked his nose.

There, I said it, the farting God.

 I believe He offered himself up in our place and took on not just our sins, but our pain and suffering. I believe He rose again on the third day. I believe He will come again to restore the world and make things right. I don’t believe He is coming to take us away to happy heaven land, but to restore this earth in all of it’s goodness.

My story isn’t that dramatic. I didn’t rebel, smoke pot or get a girl pregnant. I don’t have any “I was on drugs, but Jesus saved me” type of moments. I seriously doubt I would ever be asked to give a testimony at a Christian summer camp. Instead, my road is one long battle with my doubts, my faith, and trying to work on both in the context of the church.

I grew up a good German Catholic boy in a small Indiana town. I still have a very soft spot for the Catholic church. It’s where I learned the Nicene Creed and all the basics of my faith that still guide me.  I went to mass everyday and loved it. I didn’t have daddy issues (and still don’t). My family loved me and didn’t shove faith down my throat. I was allowed to explore, to create and to love my world. I especially loved the natural world of rocks, bugs, trees, and creeks.

My dad had to take a job in St. Louis when I was in sixth grade, and it changed my world. I was thrown into a world I didn’t understand at all. My nice quiet, small town bubble had been broken, and I was thrust into a world that scared me. Don’t get me wrong, I loved St. Louis and the fact I could go to a Cardinal’s game anytime I wanted, but the childhood illusion of safety went out the window.

Along with that went my childlike faith. Even as I write this, I remember the pain of that experience. I couldn’t really define it at the time, but now I realize I had begun to question God and His goodness.

When doubt enters into the life of Christians, they react in two different ways. They either embrace it and let the doubt fuel their faith, or they ignore it and throw themselves passionately and wrecklessly into the faith. That usually results in a know-it-all, pedantic, pharisee. That’s the route I went and the worst of sins entered my heart. I threw myself into a nondenominational Charismatic world. 

Jesus once told a story that has gotten a bit distorted over the history of the church. See if you recognize it as I tell it. There once was a man who had two sons that hated him and wished he was dead. One hated him by taking money from him and going nuts. The other hated his father by staying at home and expecting rewards from him rather than just loving him. Somehow the Father forgives them both, and the elder brother resents it.

Recognize the story? It’s the Prodigal son story told as it was really meant to be heard. Everyone has always focused on the screwed up younger brother who takes the money, gets wasted and loves too many chicks. But such a reading of this parable is only half of the story. Notice, if you ever get a chance to read it, how half of the parable is focused on the older brother, his pride, his arrogance, his refusal to love and forgive his younger brother and even worse, the resentment of his father, the father who debased himself by running after the younger brother who had disgraced him. For further mediations on this, read Tim Keller’s amazing book, The Prodigal God.

In high school, I was that older brother. Even as I write this now, my cheeks are flushed with shame at some of the stunts I pulled to get attention. I used Jesus to get my teachers and peers to think I was something special (I went to a private Christian school). I used Jesus to get girls to like me and get a little laying on of hands and speaking in tongues. I used Jesus to condemn sinners, preaching in chapel, badgering my classmates and basically doing everything a modern day pharisee would do. I didn’t listen to any “secular” rock music (except U2, which was always a bit daring for me), I went to Christian music festivals and listened to romantic love songs to Jesus, ala “Faith Plus One”.

The Mandy Moore character in Saved? That was me.

Beneath that mask I was covering a gnawing sense of doubt that I was full of it and Jesus was full of it. I knew I was a sham, so I mistakenly thought maybe everything I believed was a sham, that people just used Jesus the same way I did. No one was to blame for this. Not the environment I grew up in. Not my parents who always tried to teach me to give grace to people. It was only me.

And I knew it.

After a few life failures, I was a pretty broken person when I found my way to Chattanooga, Tennessee and Lookout Mountain at Covenant College (a beautiful place to go to school, with  mountain sunrises and sunsets). I was among educated Christians for the first time in my life. It was in that atmosphere that God transformed me from my failure through a time where I questioned EVERYTHING.

Questioning everything is a habit I’ve had throughout my whole life. It drove my parents mad, especially in high school. Now having a son who does the very same thing, I feel very sorry for what I put my parents through.

You see, I like questioning everything. I can’t imagine not doing it. It’s ingrained in me, and I consider it God’s gift to me. Yes, it’s God gift, the ability to question everything. Because you see, He invites it. He loves it. He uses our questions to show His grace to us.

I gave a talk some months ago to a gathering of Ohio Skeptics. They were gracious enough to allow me a forum to talk about how God calls us to be skeptics about everything. You see, they have an impression of Christianity that you are not allowed to question anything. You believe what you are told and that’s what a simple, childlike faith is. Didn’t Jesus say that we should have the faith of a child?

It’s true, He did, but we really haven’t thought that one through unless we have thought about the lives of our own kids. Kids question everything. My four year old asks every question in the book when I get home from work, “Where did you go? What did you do? Why did you have to go to work?” My six year old is more mature, and his questions are penetrating. I find it much easier to answer the questions of adults than kids.

This is what Jesus meant.  God doesn’t just allow questions, he invites them. Think about it. Job is one long question to God. It’s true, God doesn’t necessarily answer the questions, but He allows them. He could have just struck Job down for daring to question God and His actions.

Need more? Check out Psalm 88. The whole book of Ecclesiastes.

How about Jesus’ words? “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is the greatest example of questioning. It’s God Himself questioning God. It’s a paradox. It’s a mystery. And it’s invitation to do the same by putting “God in the dock” as C.S. Lewis says. The thing to notice is that God puts Himself in the dock.

I explained this to the skeptics in the group and it was interesting to see their reaction. No, they didn’t come running down the aisles to accept Jesus as their savior. Anyone who thinks that atheists would do that doesn’t know atheists. Rather, they loved the presentation because they had been told all their lives by Christians not ask uncomfortable questions. What they realized that day is that God of the Bible, if there is one, invites them to ask whatever they want. Even though they don’t believe in God, they found that very comforting.

So, why don’t Christians present that God and allow for people to ask the uncomfortable questions? There are two answers: one is our fear, and two is that, in all Christians, there is a latent elder brother inside, crossing our arms, frowning at the way that God does things.

Fear. All of us feel it. There is no shame in feeling it. Not to be cliché, but we all felt it on September 11th. Fear comes from the unknown. It comes from being pushed into areas were we aren’t just mildly uncomfortable, but into situations were we are completely undone.

Fear isn’t the problem for Christians. Jesus felt it himself in the garden. It’s what we do with that fear that becomes the problem.

We forget we are products of grace.

This is why when we get pushed, such as in the recent success of the “new atheists,” we are pushed out of our little safety net. We are asked uncomfortable questions like, “How can God allow suffering? Why did He command the Canaanites to be slaughtered? Did you know that science is making God obsolete?”

Most of the time, we don’t know how to answer those questions, and because we don’t know, we react in fear. We react in fear not because God is challenged, but because our idols have been called into question.  Those are the idols of American Christianity. We bow before the ideas that Christians should be in power in this country. We cut our flesh in honor of the Baal of comfort by walling ourselves inside the church. To be more graphic, we become whores, chasing after our lovers.

            Strong words, yes? Intense pictures of an unfaithful people, which can apply to us, the church here in America. Because, when we spread our legs for our idols, it breeds the bastard of fear. And with that fear, we create an atmosphere that destroys the Gospel and any credibility we might have with atheists. We have become a disgrace, because instead of relying on humility, grace, and peace when we talk to atheists, we try to play apologetical power games. We try to “overwhelm” them with evidence and we can’t. We treat atheists with contempt. And this contempt breeds into something more horrible, a grim desire to see atheists done away with and a refusal to engage them on any personal level.  

            Whenever I talk to Christians about the work I do with atheists, I show them a video by Penn from Penn and Teller. He is a very strident atheist who uses a part of his magic show in Los Vegas to directly go after the whole idea of God.

            Penn has a video blog and one day a very curious entry appeared on it. He talked about an experience he had after one of their shows in Vegas. A man came up to him, told him that he loved the show and gave him a bible. They talked quite a long time.

Penn goes on to say, that while he is not moved to believe in God, he really respected this man. His explanation is very interesting and should make every Christian pay attention. He says, “I have always said that I don’t respect Christians who never proselytize. I don’t respect that all. If you believe there is a heaven or hell, and you think it’s not worth telling them this because it would be socially awkward. And atheists, who think you shouldn’t prostyltize, well, how much you have to hate someone not to proselytize someone? If you know a truck is bearing down on someone and you don’t save them, what kind of person does that make you?”

I love watching Christians react to this video. I think it must have been the same way Jonah reacted in Chapter four when God reveals Jonah’s hard heart. There are wide eyes, mouths dropping open a bit, and a realization of the truth at Penn’s comments.

It’s in these words that I found my calling to be a chaplain of pirates.

I always knew that I was called to ministry. I tried to answer that call through pastoring two churches, one in Illinois and one in Florida. I tried to be a good pastor and preacher, but I couldn’t connect with folks. I wanted to be a good leader. I wanted to be a good pastor. I wanted to be a pastor of a church.

God had other ideas.

It all started with a website called, “Cygnus Debunks the Bible”. I came across the message boards in the later part of my time in seminary. I went there to debate the atheists and started to make friends. They gave me an education on what atheists were really like. They were real people. They had families and real, human concerns. They weren’t the evil bogymen and women I had imagined.

In fact, I identified with their frustrations, questions, and the desire to know the answers.  I began to realize that what lit me up in ministry was to talk about those issues. I didn’t get them much in the church. Oh, that’s not to say no one had them. It’s just not very polite church conversation to talk about doubting your faith.

If you did, you would probably get offered a book.

Finally, God brought the full realization through a call into campus ministry at The Ohio State University. Even then, I hadn’t really intended to make atheists my focus. I wanted to go after Christians who were struggling with faith in a university setting.

God changed that immediately as I began to build relationships with atheists on campus. I found that I really loved them and their questions. I still do. For some reason, they love me. It’s more than just getting along, they have invited me to be one of the crew. I have been accepted, not as an atheist, but as a chaplain.

So, come meet my motley crew of scurvy scalawags.



3 Comments leave one →
  1. AdamK permalink
    October 31, 2009 10:50 am

    All we’re getting? Geeze.

  2. November 3, 2009 12:09 pm

    I think you should solicit some opinions from atheists on why they like spending time and talking with you. It would probably give you some good quotes for the book. Maybe you already plan on discussing that in more depth, but I think it might be one of the most enlightening parts of the story for your readers.

  3. thomas2026 permalink*
    November 3, 2009 12:22 pm

    Great advice and I’m on it. 🙂

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