Um, this is weird. I could have sworn I posted this already, like last week! But it’s still listed as a draft. On the other hand, my brain has been AWOL a lot this week, so no telling what really happened. Anyhow, here it is.
Interesting title for a book, huh? Reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. In fact the author, Simpson, references this book. He read the book as a teen and was a bit disappointed that it ended with Lewis beginning a relationship with Christ. For Simpson, the was the beginning of the journey and he wanted more.
I was excited to get this book because I’d enjoyed Simpson’s previous book, What Women Wish You Knew About Dating. His combination of humor and raw vulnerability made it an enjoyable read.
Assaulted by Joy was no exception. While personal journey stories can be yawners, Simpson uses his humor/vulnerability to great effect. Additionally, he addresses a topic I’ve talked about often with others in my same boat: how is it those of us who have been Christians for most of our lives go through periods of life that range from dry spells to flat out rebellion. Instead of feeding us more answers that we already know, Simpson takes us on a journey–his–to show how God never leaves us and has more in store for us than we can imagine.
This line near the beginning resonated with me.
The way I understood it, the closer you were to God, the happier you would be. The less you sinned and the more you followed God’s Word, the more your life would be meaningful, happy, and complete. In my years as a follower of Christ, however, I’ve discovered that the opposite is often true. Don’t get me wrong–the most ecstatic, victorious moments of my life resulted from having a relationship with Jesus, but so have the most aggravating and painful ones. Only now am I learning to live in this tension and discover that it can’t be any other way.
This book reminded me a lot of another favorite book of mine this year When Answers Aren’t Enough. Check both of them out. I think you’ll find you’re not alone in your questions.
It is time to play a Wild Card! Every now and then, a book that I have chosen to read is going to pop up as a FIRST Wild Card Tour. Get dealt into the game! (Just click the button!) Wild Card Tours feature an author and his/her book’s FIRST chapter!
You never know when I might play a wild card on you!
and the book:
Zondervan (October 1, 2008)
Stephen W. Simpson has a PhD in clinical psychology and an MA in theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. The coauthor of What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew about Sex, he teaches psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary and also has a private psychotherapy practice. Stephen and his wife, Shelley, live with their four children in Pasadena, California.
Visit the author’s website.
List Price: $ 14.99
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Zondervan (October 1, 2008)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
I’m returning from a four-mile run at 8:30 a.m. on a Friday. A chorus of “Dada!” greets me as soon as I open the door. Hayley looks up at my baseball cap and shouts, “Daddy wear funny hat!” and breaks out laughing. A court jester had replaced the docile little girl of only a few months before.
My wife Shelley scurries past me, carrying a laundry basket.
“Are you ready to take over?” she asks.
“Let me change shirts,” I answer. “I’m pretty sweaty.”
In confirmation of this, Ella points at my shirt and proclaims, “Daddy all wet. Daddy sticky mess!”
“Right you are, El –Belle,” I say, kissing her on the forehead before rushing off to change clothes.
At one year and three months, the children can walk without falling, but they have yet to develop the speed and agility that will turn them into a roaming toddler hit squad. They are coordinated but not dangerous. Thus, we can now care for our children without the assistance of the National Guard. I can even take care of them by myself sometimes, though it isn’t easy. At first, I was petrified whenever Shelley left me alone with the kids. I thought that one wrong move would land somebody in the hospital. Now I’m learning that the stakes aren’t so high. I take one-hour shifts before I go to work in the morning. Friday mornings are the best because I get up early and run first. The exercise wakes me up and elevates my mood. That way, the children get to spend time with their father instead of some monstrosity that needs two cans of Red Bull before he can do more than grunt.
I emerge from my bedroom wearing a clean shirt and a fresh coat of deodorant. As soon as I walk out of the door, my son Jordan barrels into my legs. He stretches out his arms for me to pick him up. He points to the light switch on the wall and shouts, “Lights!” I hold him up to the switch and he flicks it on and off, laughing with delight. When he’s finished, I put him the ground and he bolts down the hallway like he’s running the hundred-yard dash. Jordan regards walking as a poor substitute for sprinting. Since he’s built like a cinderblock, it’s like having a miniature locomotive in our house.
I walk into the living room and see our daughter Emma sitting in the corner playing with big Leggo blocks. I kiss her on the top of her head and she giggles. Then I notice something odd about the Leggos. She isn’t stacking them like she usually does. When I realize what Emma’s doing, I gasp and call Shelley.
My wife, Shelley, darted down the hallway and into the living room. She had a worried look on her face, because I usually only call her when there’s trouble.
“Look at what Emma did,” I say.
Shelley looks. Then she squeals with delight.
“Emma!” she shouts. “You’re so smart! I am so proud of you.”
At only fifteen months of age, Emma has arranged the Leggos according to size and color. One row had large green blocks. The next had small green blocks. Then there was a row of large red blocks, followed by a small red row, and so on.
Shelley gives Emma a hug and Emma basks in her mother’s affection. Then she picks up the blocks and starts making a tower.
I head to the kitchen to grab a bowl of cereal, but Ella stops me with a large cardboard book in her hands.
Breakfast can wait.
I sit on the on the ground, put Ella in my lap, and start reading. Ella repeats everything I say. Then someone accosts me from behind. It’s Emma, tickling me and laughing so hard you’d think I was tickling her. No one is safe from a tickling ambush while Emma’s around. I let out a desperate laugh until Emma is satisfied that she’s subdued her father with mirth. I return my attention to Ella and the book, unaware that Hayley is about to take a nosedive off the couch.
I jump up, making sure not to topple Ella, and rush over to Hayley. She’s face down on the ground.
“Hayley Rose! Precious, are you okay?”
For a few seconds, she’s silent. Then I hear, “Heh heh heh heh . . .”
I roll her over to find a big, mischievous grin.
“Kaboom!” she shouts.
“You little rascal!” I say and started to tickle her. She rolls around on the floor, squealing with delight.
Hayley’s quiet demeanor during her first few months of life was nothing but an act. She was waiting in the wings, observing her audience before she took center stage. She is now a bona fide ham and the biggest comedian in the family. The sinister thing about this is that she knows how to make her father crack up on cue.
The next thing I know, all my children are on me at once. I submit and collapse to the floor on my back. Everyone crawls on top of me, laughing. They are all trying to put their face on top of mine. I kiss each one of them and they kiss me back, laughing. We frolic around on the floor like this until Shelley, walks in.
“Why aren’t the kids dressed yet?” she asks.
“Because I’ve been waylaid by Lilliputians!” I shout. The tired look on Shelley’s disappears as she shakes her head and smiles.
Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I don’t recognize what I see. Where did the angry young man go? Who is this father and husband gazing back at me with crows feet at the corners of his eyes and thin lines on edge of his smile? But then I take a second look and realize that I know him, but it’s been a while since we’ve hung out. He’s reemerging from years of cynicism that are being chiseled away by grace.
You see, I’m a jerk. That’s the first thing you have to understand. The second thing you have to understand is that you probably are too sometimes, and we both enjoy it too much. We get a little tickle inside when someone ignores our advice and screws up as a result. We like shutting down people who get in our way and avoiding people who annoy us. We watch Benny Hinn for entertainment value, congratulating ourselves for being too smart to buy what he’s selling. We disregard people who don’t get our jokes and we don’t suffer fools gladly. We’re not evil or even malicious most of the time – just jerks. We have compassion and love, but it doesn’t take much for us to roll our eyes and mumble something sarcastic under our breath.
I’m probably more of jerk than you are. It drives me nuts if something interferes with my life. I don’t like being bothered and I don’t want any help. If you catch me when I’m in the mood to socialize, you’ll love me. Work with my schedule and I’ll deliver the sun and the moon. Otherwise, I hate being told what to do and I have problems with authority. I’m short-tempered when I’m under stress or in a hurry. I start yelling inside my car when another driver cuts me off. As a bonus, I have Attention Deficit Disorder, which means I get impatient, irritated, and bored faster than normal people do.
I am not the guy you’d pick to be the father of quadruplets. But we’ll get to that later.
I became a Christian when I was seven years old. I always thought my story would be boring because I met Jesus as a child. Turns out I was wrong. The scary and suspenseful stuff happened after I became a Christian. Sometimes, it happened because I was a Christian. In C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, his conversion to Christianity comes at the end of the book. The first time I read it, I felt a little cheated by the last page when Lewis realizes that he’s a Christian while riding a bus. I wanted to know what happened next. I couldn’t relate to a story that ends with becoming a Christian. In my experience, that’s where the story begins.
When I walked down the aisle of a Baptist church as a boy to receive Christ as my Savior, nobody told me that being a Christian is difficult, dangerous even. That information must have been in the fine print. The way I understood it, the closer you were to God, the happier you would be. The less you sinned and the more you followed God’s Word, the more your life would be meaningful, happy, and complete. In my years as a follower of Christ, however, I’ve discovered that the opposite is often true. Don’t get me wrong—the most ecstatic, victorious moments of my life resulted from having relationship with Jesus, but so have the most aggravating and painful ones. Only now am I learning to live in this tension and discover that it can’t be any other way.
I think most Christians know this, but don’t like to talk about it because such confessions don’t make for the neat, linear success stories that we like to hear. Telling people that being in a relationship with Christ can be maddening and exasperating isn’t effective evangelism. You wouldn’t put it in a tract or a revival brochure. But I wish someone had told me at some point. They didn’t have to tell me when I was seven, but they could have clued me in around age fourteen when my theological roof started to cave in. If they had, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me decades to figure out that a relationship with God involves a lot of scary twists and turns.
If you’ve been a Christian for a while, your relationship with God has probably frustrated and frightened you more than once. Maybe you’ve been confused, angry, or afraid. Maybe nobody told you that was part of the deal when you opened the door of your heart and let Jesus walk in. You also probably didn’t realize that some of your brothers and sisters in Christ were going to drive you insane, doing and saying things you find appalling. It’s hard to live with all that frustration and confusion when you thought that becoming a Christian guaranteed a life of love and peace.
When I discovered that a relationship with Christ wasn’t always warm and fuzzy, I became frightened. Then I got mad. Then I stopped caring. God gave me plenty of opportunities to pursue joy, but cynicism always felt safer. So, instead of offering me joy, he assaulted me with it. When he brought quadruplets to the fight, I had no choice but to shout, “Uncle!” and submit. That’s when the brown and God made the brown, stagnate rivers in my life flow with golden wine. I drank deep and was born again . . . again.
Chapter 1: Rock and Roll Rebel
“There’s no such thing as Christian rock,” said Brother Jeff. “It’s all the devil’s music.” Was he throwing out such inanities just to make me crazy? Did he want me to lose my temper so he could kick me out of youth group?
“How can you say that?” I asked Brother Jeff. “There’s nothing about it in the Bible.”
My words echoed off the white walls and cardboard ceiling tiles. I could hear the neon lights in the ceiling humming from behind foggy Plexiglas panes. Everyone in the junior high youth group sat in tense silence. Some just stared at the faded green carpet, averting their eyes from the conflict. Others slumped down into the old, overstuffed couches, venturing sheepish glances as they clutched throw pillows. Most of my pubescent peers, however, were the edge of their seats, transfixed as the forty year-old associate pastor and I, the fourteen year-old youth group president, tried to bludgeon each other with words.
“Rock roll is the music of rebellion,” said Brother Jeff. “Even if the lyrics are supposedly Christian, the music makes people lustful and contentious.” His mouth was smiling but his eyes were narrow.
“But it doesn’t say that in the Bible!” I shouted. Brother Jeff was wearing me down with edicts that sounded authoritative but made no sense. Every time I presented a reasonable argument, Brother Jeff shot back with something asinine wrapped in a mature, patronizing tone. I was about to pop a blood vessel, but Brother Jeff was as agitated as I was. His face bore a pleasant smile, but the pale, freckled skin beneath his fiery red hair was getting pinker by the second.
“Psalms 98 talks about making all kinds of loud noises before the Lord,” I said. “That sounds a lot like Christian rock to me.”
“You are perverting God’s holy word with that interpretation.”
“I absolutely refuse to accept that,” I said.
“Then you need to ask God for wisdom,” he said with an eerie calm. “You need to respect the leaders God has given you. After God, you must respect and obey your parents. After them, you must respect and obey your church authorities. That means me.”
Then he turned to the rest of the kids and said, “If you don’t believe that rock music makes people rebellious, just look at who’s rebelling.” Then he laughed. I heard somebody in the back whisper, “Oooo . . .”, the universal confirmation that you’ve just received a verbal smack down.
I gritted my teeth and lurched forward. I might have even growled. One of my friends put a hand on my arm and eased me back in my chair. I had lost this battle, but the war was just beginning.
I grew up in Lexington, Kentucky. On the surface, Lexington is about three things: basketball, horses, and shopping centers. Children are breast-fed on the first two. If you meet someone from Lexington whom you find shy and reserved, ask him or her about horseracing or University of Kentucky basketball. You’ll hear more than you ever wanted about Secretariat and Seattle Slew, including their bloodlines and the farms where they were bred and trained. You’ll be informed that Keeneland racetrack is far superior to that tourist slum, Churchill Downs. Want to see a real live nervous breakdown? Just bring up the game winning shot by Duke’s Christian Laettner in the 1992 East Regional Finals of the NCAA tournament. It halted UK’s run to the Final Four and sent the entire state into a coma. That game is the Alamo for Wildcat fans and no one in the Bluegrass State has ever recovered.
The shopping centers you won’t hear about. While I was growing up, Lexington spilled over its borders, swallowing up farms and turning them into parking lots encircled by Wal-Marts, Blockbusters, Payless Shoe Stores, and frozen yogurt bars. Stick an Applebee’s in the middle and you’ve got the building block of Lexington consumerism: the high-fat, middle-class strip mall.
Downtown Lexington, however, stands steadfast amidst the city’s suburban sprawl. Stately stone buildings from the early 20th century line Main Street and Vine in solid indifference to the commercial aspirations of the periphery. The two skyscrapers look like an afterthought, gaudy glass trees in a baroque stone garden. The neighborhoods downtown have housing projects, historic brownstones, and beautiful houses that are eighty years old. Artists, black folks, students, and college professors reside in these, politely ignoring the rest of the city. Attempts to put in chain restaurants or big retail stores usually fail, while small businesses thrive. The best food, the most exotic clothes, and the only art that isn’t a painting of a horse or a sketch of basketball jersey can be found downtown.
The horse farms rest just outside town, where the suburbs surrender to green fields cascading over rolling hills. White and black picked fences create boundaries for the dark, gleaming horses that sustain all this beauty. Majestic barns – more opulent than any house I’ll ever own – sit atop hills like castles of feudal kingdoms. Out there, the culture clash between urban and suburban becomes irrelevant. Out there, you just feel lucky to live in Kentucky.
Though I loved the horse farms and found downtown fascinated and alluring, I was a child of the suburbs. I spent my youth running through manicured subdivisions and shopping centers. The suburbs were also the place where big churches popped up like mushrooms. Evangelical Christianity was the second largest religion in Lexington, right behind basketball. My family attended a mammoth Baptist church that, like many, had moved away from downtown so it could swell and spread on the edge of town. My parents started attending the church because of its large, vital youth program. They wanted my two sisters and I to have a place where we could grow in the love and knowledge of the Lord. And that’s what happened.
When I was seven years old, I began a journey with God that would be the source of more frustration and fear and more joy and wonder than I could imagine. The high school choir had returned from their summer tour to perform a homecoming concert. This was a big deal at my church. The youth choir practiced all year long and toured the country for two weeks every summer. The congregation welcomed them back as conquering heroes and the homecoming concert was one of the major events of the year. There was always a lot of laughing, crying, and hugging, the climax of which was an invitation to receive Christ that went on for at least thirty minutes. We sang “Just as I Am” ten times in a row, the organist doing her best to mix things up as she reached the seventh chorus. But nobody seemed to mind. People, mostly teenagers (some from the choir, even), flocked down front to accept Jesus as their savior.
Despite all the commotion, I was bored and fidgety. I spent most of the concert drawing pictures on the offering envelopes. I drew everything from spaceships to army men to Batman giving the Joker a much deserved beat down. But when the invitation began, something happened. I had feelings I didn’t understand and couldn’t name. Looking back, I’m pretty sure the Holy Spirit was at work. It had to be, because, before the invitation, I was only thinking about when the service would be over. All of a sudden, I felt a strange urge to become closer to God. It wasn’t about salvation or avoiding hell—for a reason I can’t explain, I wanted to graduate to higher level of faith. I wanted that relationship with Jesus that I’d heard so much about.
When I told my parents that I wanted to go down front, they looked surprised. They must have wondered why the fidgety kid defacing church bulletins all of a sudden wanted a religious experience. My mother wore a floral dress with a shiny broach and my father had on sport coat but no tie because it was the evening service. Mom looked at me with her trademark sideways gaze beneath raised eyebrows. When she saw I was serious about going down front, she smiled. Dad leaned in close and said, “Do you understand what this means?”
I nodded my head. He put his arm around me and squeezed my shoulder.
“All right, buddy,” he said. “Go ahead.”
I scurried down front and the pastor took my small hand in his gigantic one. It was red and warm, like my father’s. He asked me if I was certain that I wanted to receive Christ as my Lord and Savior. I told him that I was. He told me to sit up front with one of the deacons until after the service.
After the concert, the pastor took me back to his office. There was shiny wood everywhere and more books than I’d ever seen outside of a library. I sat in a chair that was too big for me and the pastor sat down across from me, leaning in close.
“Do you understand what it means to commit your life to Christ?” he said, his voice deep and rolling. It felt weird to hear him speaking to me alone instead of the whole congregation.
“I think so,” I said. “It means I become a Christian.”
“Yes,” said the pastor. “But that means you ask Jesus to forgive you of your sins and come and live inside your heart forever. Are you ready to do that?”
To my seven year-old brain, having Jesus live inside my heart sounded like just about the coolest thing in the world.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m ready to accept Jesus into my heart.”
The pastor led me in prayer, asking me to repeat after him. When we were finished, he told me that I was a Christian now. He said that I was going to heaven and that God loved me. It felt like I had joined a special club. When I left the pastor’s office, my parents were waiting for me. I started prattling about going to heaven and having Jesus inside my heart. My father said that he was proud. My mother kept asking me what lead me to make this decision. Was it the sermon? The music? But I couldn’t tell her. I just knew that I wanted to become a Christian and now I was one. I was elated
We left church went to Shoney’s. My stomach started to growl at first sight of the twenty foot Big Boy, with his wide-eyed smile and red and white checkered overalls. I got a burger as big as my hand with cheddar cheese dripping down the side, accompanied by fries that were thick and salty. I cleaned my plate and felt good about it. As I got into bed that night, I felt safe, full, and warm.
For the next seven years, I went to church whenever the doors were open. I loved not only the people, but the building itself. It was big, austere, and mysterious. It contained dozens of secret places—kitchens, alcoves, storage closets, baptismal pools, and large meeting halls. I explored every one of them. The building was almost a metaphor for God—large and strong with endless mysteries to investigate.
I also read the Bible constantly and pestered adults with a million of questions about God. I wanted to be involved in everything and adults described me as “wise beyond my years” and “a young Bible scholar.
Now, before you start thinking I was a budding young saint, let me explain the other reason I loved church. I didn’t have many friends at school. I was fat (I weighed more at age 14 than I do right now) with bucked teeth, and the most severe case of acne in the history of Western Civilization. Making matters worse, my pituitary gland went off like a hand grenade at age eleven, dragging me into adolescence two years ahead of my peers. I shot up a dozen inches over my friends, but I didn’t get any thinner. Instead, my acne got worse and I developed body odor. I started shaving with my Dad’s electric razor in sixth grade. This produced a red razor burn across my neck that made me look like I’d been hanging from a noose. Oh yeah, and my eyebrows grew together, creating a uni-brow.
The prepubescent world did not react kindly to a massive, hairy man-child with skin like a leper. Kids called me fatso, pizza face, lard butt, and the like. I hung around other unpopular kids at school, arguing about who would win in a fight between Luke Skywalker and Superman. The only consolation was that nobody tired to beat me up since I was the size of a duplex.
At church, however, things were different. From the time I was ten until I was sixteen, everything at church revolved around two things: The Bible and singing. By the time I was twelve, I knew more about the Bible than most of the adults at the church. During Sunday School and Bible Study, I felt smart and important instead of fat and ugly. When we weren’t studying the Bible, we were in choir practice. Our church had a large, active music ministry and they started asking you to sing not long after you could walk. I’m not Pavarotti or even Barry Manilow, but I sing pretty well. Sometimes I was even asked to fill in for someone in the adult choir if they couldn’t make a Sunday morning. I was singing solos by the time I was thirteen. So, between my Bible IQ and my vocal chords, I almost passed for cool at church.
God had granted me a place to escape the pain of the world outside and fall in love with him. Heaven and earth merged as I studied the Bible and spent every spare minute at church. The people at church took care of me. I loved them, we all loved God, and everyone was happy. The solution to life’s problems could be found in each other, the Bible, and a God who could do anything and save anybody. Life was perfect and I believed it would stay that way for eternity.
I was wrong.
* * *
When I was almost fourteen, my parents and I moved to a new house and they ceded the entire basement to me. My sisters, eleven and fourteen years older, had long since moved away, so there was no competition for space. That basement became my escape from the rest of the world, albeit a very loud one.
By eighth grade, I had constructed a massive stereo system. The components were mismatches from different eras of technology. It was an ugly, hulking thing that leaned forward like some aluminum tower of Piza. But it sounded good. And it was loud. I had four speakers in my den and strung wire under the brown shag carpet to juice up two more in my bedroom. All around the basement, rock and roll spewed forth from trembling woofers behind black mesh screens encased in particleboard.
I had enough music down in that hole to wait out a nuclear winter. When I was a teenager, the digital age was still twenty years away, so I had albums. Stacks of albums. At $7 a pop, my allowance and money from part-time jobs helped me buy four or five records a month. By the time I was sixteen, I had over two hundred rock albums. Old records, new records, imported records, used records, and bootleg records stood in teetering columns around my basement. I spent hours listening to them while gazing in wonder at the artwork on the sleeve and pouring over the liner notes. Whenever my father told me what a waste of money it all was, I just looked at him like he was out of his mind.
The basement’s seclusion from the rest of the house gave me solitude, but the music made it my sanctuary. Music was my elixir, the only other thing than prayer and the Bible that made me feel quiet inside. One night at a party, I saw a girl on whom I had an obsessive crush kissing another guy. I returned home shaking with rage and sadness. But that same night MTV televised a concert that the radio was broadcasting at the same time. This was before every TV in the world offered hi-fi sound, so hearing music from television in stereo over 100 watt speakers seemed like a miracle. And, by a divine stroke, my favorite band was performing: Queen. While not the most morally pure band in the world, their music was amazing. Freddie Mercury pranced around the 20” screen while the speakers hummed to life with the sound of Brian May’s guitar. I knew every song by heart and lip-synced the words, dancing around the room in a hypermasculine imitation of Freddie. By the third song, I had forgotten that nasty kiss. When the concert was over, I went to bed fell into a deep sleep without dreams.
You’d think rock and roll fanaticism wouldn’t go over well in a fundamentalist Baptist church, but that wasn’t the case. Though our leaders had evangelical fervor, they weren’t legalistic. They encouraged us to be obedient to God and were quick to correct us when we got out of line, but they weren’t rigid or heavy-handed. Brother Rob was our youth pastor back then and he was a man of passion and talent. He nurtured everyone’s gifts and took an interest in our lives. On a bus ride once, Brother Rob sat next to me and listened to several Queen songs in a row as I prattled on about the intricacies of the music. He did his best to seem interested, poor guy. He cheered along with everyone else on the bus as I played air guitar during “We Will Rock You,” looking like wooly mammoth having a seizure. Brother Rob and our other leaders were conservative fundamentalists, but, as long as God remained top priority, they didn’t sweat the small stuff.
They even knew how to disagree with me. They expressed concern about some of the music I listened to, like AC/DC (hard to argue with that one), but they always listened to my perspective. One year, our church went through the inevitable “spinning records backwards to unmask the devil” phase. I watched in horror as beloved leaders spun records backwards and told us that the resulting gobbledygook said things about worshipping the devil. Though it drove me nuts, it was also one of the most exciting times I had in church because my leaders allowed me to debate them. They let me lead an entire youth meeting providing an alternative perspective on rock and roll and all this back-masking nonsense. They didn’t always agree with me, but they respected my right to challenge them. They let me play almost anything I wanted to on summer mission trips as long as the lyrics weren’t too sketchy. And I could play Christian rock all day long. The music might sound like someone murdering cats with chainsaws, but as long as the lyrics were about Jesus, they didn’t care.
But Brother Jeff cared. He cared a lot.
Brother Jeff became the associate pastor of my church when I was in the eighth grade. In addition to his administrative duties, he was in charge of the youth program. On his first day, the youth and their parents gathered in the gymnasium to meet him.
The senior pastor walked in to the gym escorting the thinnest adult male I had ever seen. He had a comical head of curly red, almost orange, hair. His freckles gave the rest of his skin a similar orangish glow. He looked like a carrot.
“God bless you,” said Jeff the Carrot. “I have been praying for this church, praying that God will guide me and continue his great work with the young people of this congregation.” He talked for over an hour in a nasal southern drawl about his vision for the youth program. He told us “God’s gonna do this” and “God’s gonna do that” and “God’s gonna bless y’all.” I still knew next to nothing about Jeff except that he looked like a carrot in a red clown wig that talked like it was yanked out of the dirt somewhere in South Georgia. The only relevant thing he told us was that the youth were allowed to call him by his first name. How magnanimous.
The adults asked questions first. “What is your vision for our youth ministry?” “What are your outreach plans?” “What’s your philosophy on Biblical teachings for teens?” Blah, blah, blah. No one in the room under twenty cared about any of this. The “young people” only cared about one thing. Could we hang out with this guy? Was he cool? I don’t mean “cool” like hip or even youthful. Nothing is more embarrassing than an old guy trying to act young. We wanted to know if he was someone we could trust. I took it upon myself to find out.
I raised my hand and the senior pastor recognized me.
“What’s your favorite Christian rock band?”
Though a silly question, I wanted to give Brother Jeff an easy way to connect with the youth in the room. The question got a few chuckles, which lighten the mood in the room.
But Brother Jeff did anything but laugh or connect with the youth. He breathed a heavy, affected sigh and rolled his eyes toward the heavens.
“Stephen, or is it Stevie?” he asked without waiting for the answer. “I’m afraid you might not care for my answer, which saddens me. But ultimately I answer to God and not to you or any of you other wonderful young people. My answer to your question is this: None. I think Christian rock is an abomination of all the other wonderful music that God has given us. Those rancid screeching guitars and that horrid pounding beat are, I believe, unleashed from the pit of hell. I despise Christian rock. Secular rock is worse, of course. I will abide none of it on my watch. No form of rock music will be played at any of our activities.”
He looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry”
My stomach lurched upward as I tried to comprehend what was happening.
Jeff inundated us with a whole new list of prohibitions, ones of which I had never heard nor imagined despite years of fundamentalist religion: no card playing (a sure-fire gateway to gambling), no ghost stories (a guaranteed way to conjure demons), no celebration of Halloween (more demons), and no movies unless they were rated “G.” He also forbade us to wear shorts, even though our mission trips visited states such as Georgia and Louisiana in the middle of August on a bus with no air conditioning. When I heard that, I could contain myself no longer. Without raising my hand I blurted out, “No shorts on our summer mission trips? The bus has no air-conditioning. We’ll all melt. And we’ll stink!”
That got a lot of laughs, but His Carrotness didn’t back down.
“I know it will be uncomfortable. But that’s nothing compared to the discomfort Christ experienced dying for our sins. Our mission trips will be the most important time for us to set an example to the pagan world and we will not be wearing shorts.”
A low whistle of amazement came from the back of the gym. Jeff’s eyes darted around looking for the culprit before he regained his composure and flashed an ultra-white smile.
No one asked any more questions after that. The senior pastor smiled and said something about us having plenty of time to get to know each other. He said it like it was a good thing.
I thought I was going to puke right on the gym floor. I had fought a long and hard battle for rock and roll at my church and finally gotten my mentors to listen. Now some guy shows up and, with a wave of his hand, banishes all music featuring guitars that plugged in, along with all other benign comforts of the flesh. I was in the middle of a bad dream.
Most teenagers would have stopped coming to youth group or just paid lip service to the new rules and gone about the time-honored practice of rebelling in secret. But not me. I declared war. This was my church. Church was the only place where I felt safe, understood, and respected. It was the only place I had fun. Now some dogmatic cleric was trying to ruin it for me. Over my dead body.
Poor Brother Jeff had no idea who he was up against. In a Southern Baptist Church, the Bible is the litmus test for everything. Ever since I’d walked down the aisle at age seven and taken the pastor’s hand, I’d been reading the Bible. I didn’t just listen to what my teachers told me about the Bible in Sunday school, I studied the thing. By age thirteen, I’d read the entire Bible (well, almost—I got the K.O. from Numbers in Chapter Three). I knew that Biblical support for Brother Jeff’s list of “don’ts” was thin at best and I wielded the word like a sword in our theological debates. I was certain that my knowledge of scripture would help me triumph over this new regime of the absurd.
I debated Jeff steadily for the next year, always using what I regarded as solid Biblical arguments. I prayed for him and for our church. I did my best to be a good example and a solid leader so that my disagreements with Jeff didn’t look like reckless defiance. I tangled with Jeff in public, in private, and in writing. I fought my war with prayerful diligence and refused to back down. For a long time, I thought I was winning. There was no way that this man could continue imposing ridiculous rules that were Biblically unsound, not to mention wildly unpopular. Well, at least they were unpopular at first . . .
One day I was talking to another guy in the youth group whom I liked and respected. He was a couple of years older and I’d always considered him cool. He was had introduced me to Christian rock, telling me about bands like Petra and Servant. We went to Christian rock concerts together and danced and sang and went bananas in the name of the Lord.
One day I commiserated with him, “It’s not right that Brother Jeff won’t let us listen to Christian rock.”
“There’s no such thing as Christian rock,” he said with a blank expression. “It’s all of the devil.” He didn’t elaborate, just looked at me in mute finality. I didn’t say anything because, in that moment, I realized that there was nothing to say. It didn’t matter if I was right or wrong about rock music, wearing shorts, playing cards, or whether the earth was round or flat. My friend’s mind was made up. The validity of my arguments was irrelevant. Brother Jeff had given an edict and my friend accepted it without question.
For the first time in my life, I felt nervous and alone at church. That might not have been so bad if I didn’t feel nervous and alone every place else.
* * *
On the first day of school in ninth grade, a cute girl cute called me “piggy” without provocation. I gave her a dirty look, but that night I lay in bed crying. Jeff had invaded my last safe haven, abandoning me to a place where pretty girls likened me to swine. Life couldn’t continue like this. Drastic times called for drastic measures.
First, I started taking the medication Acutane, a drug that eliminates acne with the gentleness of atomic radiation. I endured nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, and wisps of hair falling out until the medication ran its course and my face no longer resembled a map of the Himalayas. Next, I lost weight. I dropped fifty pounds in six months. Despite my girth, I’d always been strong and athletic. I could outrun kids half my size, and I could bench press 200 pounds by age fourteen. I lost weight mainly through running long distances and cutting out sweets. As a result, I lost more fat than I did muscle. By the last day of ninth grade, I had changed from an acne-covered behemoth into lean, muscular jock with unblemished skin.
That summer, I went to a Christian camp with one of my friends from church named Gordon Green. Gordy was a stud. He was good looking, smooth, and had no trouble with the ladies. On our first night at camp, Gordon spotted a brunette he found attractive. He dispatched one of our female friends to inform the young lady of his affections and ascertain her level of interest in him. Ten minutes later, our friend returned with the verdict.
“So, does she like me?”
“She says that you’re cute,” the emissary replied as a Casanova grin spread across Gordon’s face.
“But she thinks Steve is cuter.”
Gordon was speechless; I was thunderstruck.
“Could you repeat that?” I said, partly because I wanted to make sure I heard her right, but mostly because I just wanted to hear it again.
Despite the nice ego boost, I entered high school in the fall with my head down. I looked different but I still didn’t have many friends. The first day of high school is hard for anyone, but going through it alone is anxious drudgery. I zipped through the hallways avoiding eye contact with everyone. On my way to second period, someone grabbed my shoulder and spun me around.
“Lookin’ good, Simpson. Looks like you’ll be ready to wrestle this year,” said Mac Wood, a senior on the wrestling team with me. That was the first time he’d said anything nice to me.
“Thanks,” I said, wondering if I was supposed to say something cocky or funny instead.
“See you in practice,” he said and disappeared.
In third period Biology, a popular member of the football team took a seat next to me.
At lunch I sat down alone, but my friend Bill asked me to sit with him and four of his friends who’d never talked to me before. Later that week, we all played basketball at Bill’s house. By Christmas, we were sitting together on the bus. By springtime, we were hanging out over the weekend.
It was surreal. I figured that losing pounds and zits would make things easier I didn’t know that it would make me need church a whole lot less.
* * *
In March of my tenth grade year, I told my mother that I didn’t want to go to youth group anymore. She said that she didn’t care; I was going anyway.
“You don’t forsake the Body of Christ just because you don’t like one it’s parts. Is Jesus still the most important thing in your life?”
“Yes, mom,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Following him isn’t always easy. Sometimes we have to show Christ’s love to people we don’t like.”
I knew she was right, but I didn’t like it. My father’s take on the situation made sticking with church a little easier.
“If you think Brother Jeff is wrong, you need to stick to your guns. If you leave youth group, that means he wins. You’ve let him chase you off. Stick around and stand up for what you believe.
Now that I could do, though perhaps not in the way Dad imagined.
That summer, I went on the youth mission trip as I had every year. Since Brother Jeff wouldn’t let us wear shorts, I boarded the bus wearing mesh, see-through sweat pants over my shorts, obeying the letter of the law while gleefully defying the spirit. When Jeff saw me, he just shook his head, frustrated but impotent because I’d conformed to his rules. I whispered ghost stories to the other kids just because it wasn’t allowed. I organized card games at the back of the bus. Whenever Brother Jeff wandered back, we’d chuck the Jacks and Queens, whip out a deck of Uno, and beam at him like little cherubs. But the real coup de tat was smuggling rock and roll onto the bus.
I stuffed a bunch of socks with cassette tapes and hid them in the bottom of my luggage. Thus, the 1985 youth mission trip rolled out of town carrying every album by Queen and U2, along with a strong sampling of The Who, The Clash, Rush, Van Halen, and anything else that sounded like something Brother Jeff would hate. My buddy Gordon was the only person I told about it, which turned out to be a big mistake.
After eating lunch at a Cracker Barrell, we got back on the bus and discovered Gordon sitting in my seat holding my boom box. Ozzy Osbourne’s “Revelation Mother Earth” blasted out of the speakers at about 5,000 decibels. One of the adult volunteers told Gordon to turn it off. Gordon protested, saying that he thought the music sounded awesome. I shot Gordon a look that said, “I am going to kill you with my bare hands.” He turned the music off and apologized. Gordon didn’t rat me out, but he didn’t have to. It wasn’t hard for anyone to figure out who snuck Ozzy on bus.
When Brother Jeff found out, he gave me a look of contempt … and nothing more. I expected dire consequences, confiscation of my tapes at the minimum. But he didn’t do anything.
The next day, we had three hours to wander around in Jefferson City, Missouri. The place was filled with novelty shops, theme restaurants, and other attractions that teenagers live for. They also happened to have a palm reader, which piqued my interest.
At a Cub Scout Halloween party in second grade, somebody’s mom dressed up like a gypsy and read our palms. The whole thing was a joke, but the palm reader said something that stuck with me. She said I was going to marry a girl named Jenny. It just so happened that I’d had a crush on a girl named Jenny since seventh grade. Jenny was with me that day in Jefferson City as we passed a palm reader’s hut adorned with flashing astrological symbols.
I had told Jenny about the palm reader back was when I’d been fat and ugly. That was when she’d told me she liked me, “as a friend,” the label that every adolescent suitor regards as a curse. But things were different now. Jenny had been flirting with me lately. Maybe it was time to reintroduce the subject.
“Hey, Jenny, remember the story I told you about that palm reader saying I would marry a girl named Jenny,” I said, pointing to the palm reader’s hut.
Jenny flashed a feline grin and said, “I remember. Maybe you should get a second opinion.”
I needed nothing more. Without a second thought, I ducked in to the palm reader’s lair.
Five minutes later and five dollars poorer, I had no new information regarding the name of my bride to be. (For the record, my wife’s name is not Jenny and her parents never even considered that name.) I laughed it off as confirmation that palm reading was a bunch of hooey.
Since I have a big mouth, I told half a dozen people about the palm reader. Someone tattled. At our next stop, Brother Jeff and one of the volunteers cornered me. They took me into the sanctuary of the church that was putting us up for the night. Brother Jeff suggested we sit in the choir loft. It felt like being in the penalty box at a hockey game.
“Steve, the fact that you went to a palm reader grieves me, but I hate to say that I’m not surprised,” began Brother Jeff as the volunteer frowned and nodded in agreement. “I have sensed this sort of lawlessness in you from the first time we met almost three years ago. In those three years, things seem to have only gotten worse. What on earth gave you the notion of going to a palm reader?”
I told him the story about the gypsy at Cub Scouts and Jenny. I didn’t want to, but I thought Jeff would cut me some slack if I humiliated myself.
Jeff furrowed his brow and nodded.
“It’s all starting to make sense now. If you went to a palm reader in Cub Scouts, that would have opened you to demonic influence at a vulnerable age. That’s probably the reason you’re so obsessed with rock music. It explains your contentious nature.”
That just made me mad. I forgot about trying to get out of this unscathed.
“I told you that the palm reader at Cub Scouts was just a joke. I went to the palm reader today just as a stunt to impress Jenny. I promise you, Jeff, no demons were involved.”
“The Prince of Lies wants you to think that.”
I rolled my eyes. Bad move.
“You might not care about your own spiritual welfare, but I care about this youth group. You have opened the whole youth group to demonic oppression through this act. We have to intervene with prayer.”
So far Jeff had said nothing about calling my parents or sending me home. My worst fear was that he would make my parents come and take me home. This would result in nothing less than being thrown in a dungeon and forced to eat spiders until I was forty-five. So when Jeff told me that all he wanted to do is pray, my insides broke into applause. I let prudence prevail.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s pray.”
We bowed our heads. Jeff and the volunteer were silent for a few seconds. Then they started doing that humming thing. Not speaking in tongues, just a lot of “Hmm . . . yes, lord . . .” When Jeff finally started to form complete sentences, I thought it might have been better to be sent home.
“Demon of divination, demon of rebellion, demon of contentiousness . . .”
Was he talking to me? I hoped that he was just using hyperbole and not-
“We cast you out of Stephen in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost and by the power of the blood of the Lamb.”
Oh. No. He. Didn’t.
“Dear Jesus we ask that, through the power of your precious blood, you release Stephen from demonic oppression and set him upon a righteous path. Bring him back into your glorious light and renew his heart and mind. Please build a hedge around this youth group. Send your angels to protect us from any demonic influence that this palm reader may have introduced.”
The volunteer said “Hmmm . . .” so many times that he sounded like a bathroom fan. I was trying not to scream, “Are you out of your mind?” at the top of my lungs. But, since I didn’t want go get pinned me to the floor and doused with Holy Water, I started saying my own silent prayer instead.
This is stupid, Lord. You know that I don’t have any demons inside me. I’m sorry for doing something wrong to impress a girl. I thought of it as a joke but I should have been more serious. But demons? You gotta be kidding me! I’ll tell you what, God. If I really am under demonic influence, make that clear to me right now. Give me a sign and I’ll go with this. I ask it in Jesus name.
I felt nothing. No physical, spiritual, or emotional signs that I was possessed. I felt convicted over committing a sin. I even felt bad about upsetting Brother Jeff. Other than that, nothing. I stopped praying and returned my attention to Jeff, who was still casting out demons.
Something started to freeze inside me. My anger drained away, replaced by cool apathy. I no longer wanted to debate Jeff. I didn’t even want to rebel against him. The absurdity of what was happening was too much. There was no way to change Jeff’s mind. The only sensible thing to do was stop caring.
* * *
In that moment, a cynic was born, but it’s not Brother Jeff’s fault. It’s mine.
I chose to handle my anger and pain by killing off the passion that created it. I had my nice, safe little Christian world and I threw a fit when someone changed things. I couldn’t handle it when I didn’t get my way. I couldn’t accept the fact things weren’t perfect anymore, so I made Brother Jeff the enemy. For years, well into adulthood, I imagined Brother Jeff as an evil despot who stomped on a vibrant faith with legalistic oppression. That’s what cynicism does—it splits the truth in half. In your preoccupation with the things that hurt you, you forget the things that nurtured you.
Cynicism begins as passion. This is especially true for Christians who fall in love with Jesus when they’re young. We give our lives to something beautiful and pure, believing that it will never be tarnished. We embrace our church and the warmth and love of its people. We experience spiritual highs that set us ablaze with fervor for Christ. We want to tell other people in hopes that discover this same joy. We pray, study the Bible, and become enraptured by our relationship with God and his church. For a little while, it’s like walking in Eden with God.
Then a serpent shows up and tells us about a fruit that will make us smarter. In a moment of selfishness and fear, we take a bite. Then everything changes. We see that the leaders we idealize are flawed and broken. We look around the garden and see hypocrisy and deceit. We see people twisting our beloved Scripture to bully people who disagree with them. People we love and trust hurt us, sometimes through malice, but more often weakness. Our peaceful, perfect garden becomes a forest filled with monsters, and we flee.
Beneath the surly and sarcastic exterior of a cynic lies a broken heart. Most cynics once believed in something with all their heart and mind. Then that same thing causes pain and disappointment. It’s so terrible that we vow never to let it happen again. We stop trusting, We suspect anyone who proclaims simple truths. We think that pat answers are for suckers, because we’ve been the sucker before. So we stop going to church or, if we do, we don’t get involved. We don’t just question religious authority, we mock it. We refuse to be vulnerable and embrace the love we once knew because we’re terrified that it will leave us again.
Oscar Wilde wrote,“A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” A cynic can tell you all about the painful cost of religion, but they no longer know the joy of depending on God and others. After I became a cynic, I still longed for the passion I once felt, but I refused to be fooled again. I refused to be hurt again.
The story about Brother Jeff is one-sided. I told the truth, but it was the cynical truth. I didn’t lie, but I didn’t tell you the whole story. I left out something really important, because it’s painful to think about: Brother Jeff loved me.
For years I imagined that our former leader, Brother Rob, was the one really cared for me. That’s not true. Brother Rob was great, but Jeff nurtured me more. Yes, we fought a lot, but Jeff took an incredible interest in my life. He was legalistic and stubborn, but there is no question that he cared about me. We didn’t always argue. We would talk about God, the Bible, or just chew the fat about topics that didn’t lead to an argument. Even when were fighting, Jeff invested time and energy in my life. The guy spent hours of his personal time debating a pimple-faced punk about music.
The guy was also a Bible scholar. He taught us things about early Christian history, Greek, and Hebrew that helped me see the Bible in the whole new light. He could give rousing, sincere sermons that inspired and convicted. Despite my anger at Brother Jeff’s rules, my knowledge and love of the Lord grew under his leadership.
And the guy was funny. He was a great practical joker with a lightening fast wit. He was open and gregarious most of the time. He even made fun of his appearance, saying that his red hair and freckled skin made him look like a reject from the Partridge Family. He could be cocky, but he could also show humility and confess his sins. For years, I didn’t allow myself to remember that. The cynic could never admit that his enemy was so friendly and so much fun. I was too busy judging him. In other words, I was too busy sinning against him.
I stopped going to youth group after the palm-reading/exorcism incident. I still attended Sunday morning services because my mother would have shaved her head otherwise. Then, in the spring of my junior year, I visited Methodist church down the road because a cute girl invited me. The youth group was almost identical to my old one—passionately evangelical, active, big choir, summer trips—except for Jeff’s rules. I got to listen to all the rock and roll I wanted, wear shorts, play cards, and nobody tried to pluck any demons out of me. My new youth pastor, Allen, was a wise and gentle mentor. He got past my suspicions, helped me assimilate into my new group, and became a trusted friend. He was exactly the kind of tender, listening leader that I needed to help me recover from the pain of losing the church of my childhood.
But I hadn’t heard the last of Brother Jeff. The summer between my junior and senior year, I got a letter from him, though I hadn’t seen him in months. In the letter, Brother Jeff asked me to return to youth group. His words bore no condemnation or judgment. He just said that things weren’t the same without me and he wanted me to come back. He invited me to go on the summer mission trip. He wrote, “Just call me up and say, ‘Jeff, I’m going.’ You don’t have to say anything more than that and you’ll be welcome to come. Otherwise, who’s going to ask the tough questions? Who’s going to keep me in line?”
Who’s going to keep me in line? This maniac was inviting the very thing that I thought he hated about me?
Jeff, I’m going. That’s all have to say? After so much strife, three words will set things right again?
Despite Jeff’s vulnerability and courage, his words rolled off me. I didn’t believe him. I couldn’t tolerate the idea that I was important to him. I couldn’t believe that I’d impacted his life. He drove me crazy, but he cared enough about me that I drove him crazy, too. That’s danger of passion. The things we love, the things that bring us the most joy, make us crazy. Whether it’s God, a person, a church, or a cause, to love something is to sacrifice peace. The world and all the people in it are broken. Love cannot exist without pain. I think this is what Jesus meant when he said, “I came not to bring peace but the sword” (Matthew 10:34). I doubt that he was war mongering or undercutting pacifism. Maybe he meant giving your life to something results in strife. You cannot have passion for something and be free from pain.
This was a lesson I would not learn for a very long time. I’m still not sure I get it. God’s tried to teach me again and again, but I have difficulty accepting it. But I’ve got to get used to it, because the other option is despair. It’s the way of the cynic, who sneers and makes a stone of his heart because passion is too dangerous. Being a Christian is supposed to be dangerous. It means being vulnerable, taking risks, and having communities of imperfect people. It means leaving our comfort zone and kissing it goodbye forever. Being a Christian means exchanging comfort for something so much better: joy. Comfort is nothing more than a lack of pain and aggravation. It’s about what isn’t there instead of what is. Joy comes from passion, love, and commitment to something and Someone bigger than you. Passion, love, and commitment come at a price (just ask Jesus), but it’s a price worth paying, because God’s joy provides a sense of meaning and a depth of feeling you can’t get any other way.
I never wrote Jeff back and I never saw him again. Caring was too difficult, so I stopped. I wasn’t willing to walk the dangerous path that leads to joy