“…I also deny Zeus and Jupiter and Odin and Brahma, but this causes me no qualms. I observe that a very large portion of the human race does not believe in God and suffers no visible punishment in consequence. And if there were a God, I think it very unlikely that He would have such an uneasy vanity as to be offended by those who doubt his existence.”
Introduction to Eagle's Story
The two of us believe that Eagle’s story is important for the current Christian world to hear. Eagle came to our blog looking for answers. He had been hurt and blown off by various Christian ministries. And he was in the process of blowing them off as well.
Many Christians do not know how to deal with those who have walked away from the church. It is far easier to write them off and not deal with their hard questions or their pain. Some people were more concerned about his speech and anger than about his questions and his hurt.
However, far more of you cared about Eagle and engaged him on many levels not the least of which was friend. You saw beneath the surface to a man who was seeking God in spite of his avowed agnosticism. You saw the lovable, big-hearted person that was there all along. Your love, patience and kindness made inroads into his hurt. Your willingness to take on hard questions made a difference. Your refusal to let him go drew him in.
Over the next few Mondays, Eagle is going to take us on a journey into his life. He raises many issues that this blog deals with. His story culminates in one of the most remarkable responses to the love of Christ that we have ever heard. It is book worthy and it happened because of you.
People say that a community cannot be formed on the Internet. We disagree emphatically. We have a new and dear friend and have been privileged to be on the front lines as we watched this happen. Dee still remembers the day when Eagle called her and said, “Thank God you’re home. Something terrible happened to me.” At that moment, hearing the story, Dee prayed. It was an event that could have led to a permanent loss of faith. But, the Hound of Heaven was still in pursuit.
That event led to a remarkable story of life and liberty. This is a story of true humility, the real kind, not the “celebrity pastor buy my book” kind.
We thank God for Eagle. We thank him for his friendship and his encouraging tweets. We thank him for letting us invade his life. We thank you for allowing us to go with our guts on this one. Our lives will never be the same.
Eagle, buddy, we love you.
Dee and Deb
Eagle's Story – Part One
This is a story of a faith crisis. It’s a story of falling away, wondering in the unknown, struggling to find faith, and finally hitting bottom. It’s a journey of coming to terms with my evangelical past and slowly finding a way forward. It’s an intimate yet painful journey. And it’s a journey that took me away from Christianity, brushing up against atheism and fundamentalism simultaneously. It was a journey that took me to the largest atheist rally in United States history while on a personal quest to finally find peace.
Just to make you aware this will be a long story (shared in installments), and that is with omitting a lot of experiences. I find it unique that I have come to embrace evangelicalism given my past, and yet after exploring secular humanism, I slowly came to realize that this is where I belong, even though I will be a very different evangelical who will not fit the mold. For me the “official” closure I sought to my 5-6 year faith crisis occurred with baptism. In order to be able to move forward, I was baptized on Sunday, November 24, at Fairfax Community Church, in Fairfax, Virginia. One more important point is I detest Christianese, I don’t consider this a testimony, rather a narrative story of my life.
Before I continue, I want to thank those who walked with me as well as those whom I met when I walked away from Christianity. I cannot tell you how much the people listed below mean to me. However, it's important to state that they are not the only ones I met during this faith crisis. Two names in this story are pseudonyms. That said I’d like to thank:
Chaplin Mike of Internet Monk
Jeff Dunn for keeping Internet Monk going after Michael Spencer’s death
Dee Parsons of The Wartburg Watch
Deb Martin of The Wartburg Watch
Scott of a Homeless Rescue Mission in Kansas City, Missouri
“James Crestwood” of National Community Church
“Andrew White” of Sovereign Grace’s/Acts 29 Redeemer of Arlington
My initial religious experiences
I grew up Roman Catholic and came close to converting to Mormonism in college while living in Montana. I looked upon Mormonism with fascination and thought it to be a serious faith. I was particularly drawn to it because of its structure. I dreamed of getting married in the Mormon Temple and attending grad school at Brigham Young University. Mormonism, however, was not what I thought it to be and after realizing what I was getting myself into, I pushed away. I came close to baptism but resisted the pressure to be baptized.
After Mormonism, I returned to Catholicism and discovered the Charismatic Catholic Church. I became involved with it from 1997-98 until 1999. My experience in evangelical Christianity began at Campus Crusade for Christ at California State University Fresno in 1999. Shortly thereafter, I experienced my first service at Fresno Evangelical Free Church, where I was baptized on April 16, 2000. It was both in Crusade and Fresno Evangelical Free that I experienced my first Bible studies. My very first Bible study in Crusade focused on Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the Book of Daniel. I still remember being wowed by the story. I moved to Milwaukee in August of 2000 to attend grad school at Marquette University, where I helped plant a Cru chapter and fellowshipped with many guys from Cru at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.
The next two years were full of Bible studies, retreats in Lodi, Wisconsin or Lake Geneva, and Christmas conferences in Minneapolis with Crusade. I have many fond memories of hanging with people on the East Side of Milwaukee, movie nights, late night breakfasts, etc… During this time I also found this eccentric church in a middle of a cornfield in Colgate, Wisconsin called Wooded Hills Bible Church. It was a Third Wave, charismatic church.
My pastor, Joe Jenkins, gave some good talks and we had these praise and worship events we called “Winds of Worship”. They largely consisted of Kevin Bryum, a guy addicted to bodybuilding, jumping up and down on stage singing his lungs out. You had to see it to believe it! It was at Wooded Hills Bible where I became a member of “the local church” for the first time. That took place on July 13, 2003, and several other people were presented to the congregation after Kevin gave a memorable talk called “Who Picked These Guys?” discussing how the Lord calls many to follow him. Wooded Hills was an interesting mix of theology, and there were many people there that I loved. We also did Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life as a church-wide campaign.
During this time I thought highly of John Piper and read much of his material. His book Don't Waste Your Life had the biggest impact on me. I remember traveling to Cleveland on a business trip in 2004 and visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Having just finished John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Life”, I recall walking through the Hall of Fame, looking at all the exhibits and thinking to myself how the museum was such a waste because none of it glorified God. Then several years later my Mom was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. Amazingly, she beat it because it was caught early. When she was first diagnosed, I gave my Mom John Piper’s “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.” Finally, I had memorable experiences in Bible studies at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Studies led by guys like Rooster and Danny Yunk made an impact on me.
I moved to Washington DC in 2005.
It was in 2005 that I moved to Washington, D.C., believing that I was following the Lord’s will. In 2006 my path crossed with James Crestwood, who invited me to National Community Church. James, who is from Salina, Kansas, attended Bethel in Minneapolis and worked on Capitol Hill. Even though he was much younger than me, he would have a deep impact on my life. He was someone whom I grew to love, deeply respect, and look up to. I also had connections to McLean Bible Church with which I did a mission trip to South Hall, London in the summer of 2007.
In 2008 my life crossed paths with Danny Risch in a D.C. area Panera Bread. I was wearing my Fresno State t-shirt, and Danny came up to me and asked if I attended there. Danny, who was one of the team captains on the Fresno State soccer team, was also a Bible study leader in Fellowship of Christian Athletes. That chance meeting led to a deep friendship here in D.C., and Danny became one of the blessings in my life. He was loving, kind, and deep. Today as I reflect on what was about to happen spiritually, I can’t help but wonder if the Lord (knowing how my faith would bottom out) brought alongside both James Crestwood and Danny Risch to help me walk through it.
My faith collapses
In late 2008 and early 2009, I began to wrestle with difficult faith questions which, until this time, I had never considered. I struggled with growing doubt ,which began to tear me apart. I had planned to go on a mission trip to Kenya with the National Community Church and work in Nairobi at the largest slum in Africa. As I struggled with my doubts they just continued to grow, and eventually I became angry enough and dropped off the mission team even though I had raised all my financial support. I knew I would be lying if I had gone to Kenya since I struggled to believe many parts of Christianity. As the doubts kept growing, I began to question all of my previous evangelical experiences.
In October 2009 my grandmother passed away. I am grateful that she and I were at peace. I still remember our final, loving phone call, and the last time I told her “I love you” . I had no idea it would be our final conversation. When she died, I became even angrier because I had been encouraged to read the works of John MacArthur who holds to a dim view of Catholicism. During her funeral and later in the cemetery, I began to seethe in rage as I recalled the ignorance and arrogance that is promoted by many evangelicals towards Catholics like my wonderful grandmother. While I was wrestling with her death, my family and I had learned new, unknown information about grace and love that my grandmother had shown people in her life. During this time, I also heard an alcoholic who while expressing his condolences told me and my father how my grandmother’s love and occasional financial help and grace helped keep him sober and away from alcohol. However, my wrestling with John MacArthur’s teachings at a funeral and during my time of grief just increased the anger. And as I learned, fundamentalism has a way of coming back to haunt you during a vulnerable time in life such as death, or an illness.
It was also during this time that I had a sexual purity partner with whom I shared a lot of personal information. This accountability lasted for years, and in the end, the accountability backfired in a horrific way as there was a great amount of dishonesty. Today, I view accountability as suspect and believe it smacks of legalism. However, at the time this situation filled me with a great amount of rage. Experiencing all these evangelical faith system situations back to back, combined with overwhelming doubt, felt like a horrific betrayal. Faith was not supposed to function in such a way. This only contributed ammunition to my growing anger and disappointment with Christianity.
I also began to wrestle with understanding God’s will and began to see how Christians could manipulate “the will of God” to justify one’s choices for one's personal advantage. For example, there are Christians who use “God’s will” to break off relationships, convince others to enter into relationships, change jobs, etc… I always found it disturbing when you heard someone say for months or a prolonged period of time how they wanted to change jobs, etc… and then suddenly they say “I prayed about the job offer and I am accepting it because this is God’s will.” It is during those times that I think to myself…is it really God who wants you to change jobs or is it strictly your personal choice?
I found myself struggling with many doubts that erupted and confronted me upon being in the real world and out of the evangelical bubble for a few years. The doubts below consumed me, and I went back and forth from one to the next, and back to the original one. It was like a frantic, anxious, dark time of uncertainty where the chair was kicked out from under me. I felt like I was torn in many different directions and was so overwhelmed that the answers I had before just didn’t work. Here are the doubts and issues with which I wrestled:
The Second Adam
I often wondered about the evangelical definition of sin as portrayed in the second Adam. Why was I held responsible for another person’s sin which took place long before I was born? Why did this issue “taint” me? What kind of loving and forgiving God would allow and hold sin against me – even when I didn’t commit it? And why couldn’t God just forgive that sin? Also why did Jesus have to die? Is God a sadomasochist who took pleasure in murdering his son…especially when this infinite and sovereign God who created the world and brought order to it could have simply said “I forgive you”?
Genocide in the Old Testament
I realized how screwed up Evangelical Hermeneutics can be. You read about this God of wrath in the Old Testament. Then suddenly, you are to “turn the other check and forgive your enemies” in the New Testament. It appeared that God was schizophrenic. Add to that, the massive loss of life in the Old Testament with the flood, the destruction of the Canaanites, etc. It made me wonder….how is this genocidal God any different than Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin or Pol Pot?
The Prosperity Gospel
It was obvious to me that this “gospel” did not square with the Bible. I was shocked at how widespread this thinking permeates evangelical groups, both overtly and also insidiously. My analysis is that 90-95% of Christianity struggles with prosperity theology in some context.
The Problem of Pain and Suffering and End Times Theology
I observed that the evangelical cultures can appear, and sometimes act cruel, to those struggling with pain and suffering.
It seemed to me that Christians were not allowed to be disappointed and angry with God. Why is it that, up to this moment, all I mostly heard was this “happy clappy” God is good, etc. I came to realize that I had never really heard any ministry leader openly talk or teach about their disappointments or frustrations with God.
I began to question the serious flaws in some evangelical perspective on disasters and end times theology. So many events like September 11, the Iraq War, Iranian nuclear weapons program, and the current Syrian conflict are placed as proof of an end times perspective. When this happens, there can be devastating effects. I would even go so far as to say that Hal Lindsey and John Nelson Derbyshire have brought great harm to American Christianity due to how their teachings have led some Christians to view horrific events of war, terrorism or natural disaster to be construed as being “good news”. Why? Because it means Jesus is coming soon, and the rapture is around the corner. Instead of empathizing it has led some Christians to have this perverse sense of glee in other people’s suffering.
This brings up an important question. When an evangelical minister claims that events in the Middle East “prove” the End Times are upon us and nothing happens…how is that minister any different than Joseph Smith or Brigham Young? It’s just a thought….
The Eternal Destination of Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel
I began to wonder why someone living in Wuhan, China in 400 B.C. would be condemned to hell because he never even heard the Gospel. The Gospel wasn’t even invented yet so why would that be held against someone who never even had a chance to place his faith in the Lord? This made no sense, especially for all the descriptions of the Lord being just.
Sexual Abuse By Church Leaders
The hot button issue for me is child sexual abuse. I first became aware of this issue in 2003-04 when I was deeply involved in the 20 Something Ministry in Elmbrook Church, in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Several years earlier (in 1999) Daniel Varga, the popular youth minister, was found to be a sexual predator who abused a number of young adults, and the scars from that still hung over Elmbrook. For me it was hard to wrap my mind around the idea that there could be a sexual predator in a position of trust. How could this be? The scars of such abuse last a lifetime for the victim, haunt a church and compromise its mission for years. Yet, the evangelical church often covers up and excuses such activities, carrying on as if nothing has happened.
Corruption in the church
Churches can seem no different than secular businesses. Money, nepotism and cronyism often take precedence over the truth and faith. Many parts of Christianity have become a business with money to be made in publishing, conferences, music, etc… There were times when I attended a Christian concert and cringed at the commercialism surrounding it. Nepotism and cronyism are major issues in evangelical Christianity, and it has amazed me how some pastor families can have a lock on a church or Elder board. This could turn a family event into a church meeting without the congregation even knowing about it.
The Problem of Prayer
I wondered…What good is prayer to an omniscient God? Does prayer serve any purpose in illness? Why do some seem to get answers in prayer and why does God seem to be silent in other instances? What purpose does prayer even serve?
The Problem of Evil
This was the hardest question for me and the tipping point which finally drove me away from the Christian faith. Evil is everywhere, and its not something you can escape. For example, in Canton, Georgia in December 2011 a maintenance worker in an apartment complex abducted, molested and murdered a 7 year old child. It garnered national attention. Eventually, the police found the body in a trash compactor. In Newtown, Connecticut a gunman killed 27 people – mostly students in an elementary school in one of the worst school shootings in history. And lastly who can forget one of the most evil acts in recent history that is the defining point for a generation? Terrorists flying airliners into skyscrapers, smoke pouring out of the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Who can forget the images of people jumping from the highest floors of the Towers because that was the better option?
So why would I worship an omniscient God who allows evil to occur? Why is such a God considered good? (I’ll talk about it later, but I would also suggest that in many parts of evangelicalism today words are being redefined. The word “allow” is one of many.)
Withdrawal From the Faith Community: Slipping Away
In 2009 I began to withdraw from all of my faith communities. The more I pondered the evangelical faith, the more sick and disheartened I became. I felt like something was dying inside. I recall times when I laid awake in bed and felt like something was leaving me. The more I fought these doubts, the more serious the problem became. And it felt like darkness just spread internally.
As I shared my struggle, I also had to contend with platitudes from some evangelicals, such as “read your Bible more” or “pray more”, which only made the situation worse. At church, I felt like I was shutting down. First, I couldn’t sing in church, then I got to the point where I couldn’t stand, and then after a long illness in May of 2009, I stopped going altogether.
My thinking was changing and I began to look at evangelical Christianity as a sham. I made a decision to pull away from as many people as I could. If someone was an evangelical, chances are I wanted nothing to do with them. I was filled with rage and looked upon Christianity as a cancer. I believed that Christian leaders and teachers had lied to me and that what they taught was the result of living in a bubble removed from the world. Much of the evangelical community lived in a bubble, which is where it thrives in ignorance. I felt betrayed and full of rage because it appeared that what I invested my life in had crumbled. At the thought of an evangelical culture and its teachings, I became livid because much of it wasn’t working. I then went out of my way to burn bridges, pull back from long relationships and shun some people. I told some evangelicals never to contact me. A number of books, notes, stuff from Campus Crusade, etc. went in a nearby dumpster. I probably walked away from 90 to 95% of the friendships in my life since most of my life centered around church activities.
Over the next several years, I began studying atheist material. I read websites like ExChristian.net, other skeptical websites and blogs by people like Richard Dawkins, Herment Mehta (The Friendly Atheist), Greta Christina and others. One book which made a deep impression on me was Losing My Religion by William Lobdell. I stumbled upon this book by accident in a Borders in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. Lobdell, who was the Religion writer for the Los Angeles Times, chronicled his journey into atheism and out of Christianity. He wrote about how he converted to evangelicalism, taking a look at historic Protestantism, and then started the process of converting to Catholicism. He talked about the scandals, faith difficulties, the stories that he covered for the Times and how it all affected his faith. In the end he couldn’t convert to Catholicism due to the pedophilia cover up and realized he was an atheist and that maybe God just didn’t exist. In a front page column in the Los Angeles Times, Lobdell wrote about how he lost his faith and how he became a reluctant atheist. It was a post that generated a strong response from many people who could empathize.
I tore through entire chapters of the book, stunned. I was unable to put it down. I was glued to the chair in Borders, and I could identify with some of the issues he was pointing out, especially church corruption, pain and suffering, and evil.
In 2010 I continued to avoid all Christians and wanted nothing to do with any form of church. I went from a very active social life to an inactive one since most of my friendships came from within the church. However I continued to talk with Danny with whom I felt safe and with James, but had little contact with other Christians. James and his wife had recently come back to the United States having been missionaries in Kenya for the previous year. He had gone back to Kansas and told me that he was returning to Washington, D.C., where he wanted to hang out and talk. At one point I tried to shake James but he refused to walk away. Because of his tremendous loyalty, he would be the only person who knew me before my faith crisis, watched me pass through it and see me emerge on the other end.
But it was during this time that I felt intellectually and emotionally free from faith. And that is what I wanted…..
Lydia's Corner: Obadiah 1:1-21 Revelation 4:1-11 Psalm 132:1-18 Proverbs 29:24-25