- “To you I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the Loyal Opposition." Woody Allen link
- “If you don't get lost, there's a chance you may never be found.” link
- "If a man happens to find himself, he has a mansion which he can inhabit with dignity all the days of his life" James A. Michener link
Reminder: We will post on the suicide of Braxton Caner tomorrow and then not post again until Friday. Believe me, there will be much to discuss.
As I reviewed Eagle's post, I remember walking through much of this with him.The thing I remember most is Eagle's persistence in pursuing his questions. There were many long talks, late at night, as we wrestled together on the issue of grace.The other thing we discussed is the overall Scriptural narrative and how, in the big picture, the Bible seems to answer many of the big questions. However, questions will remain until we see Him in glory. Are the answers we do have enough? And so, his story continues. Next Monday will be the big reveal. Deep disappointment and betrayal leads to a changed life. Its almost …biblical.
As 2010 started, I lost a good portion of contacts through pulling back, shunning and avoiding many Christians. I was angry, wanted space and needed to be alone. I felt betrayed by Christianity, and I felt sick at the thought of God. At this time I identified with agnosticism. With the exception of Danny and James, I really didn’t interact with any Christians at all. Danny I maintained because I trusted him. He was caring and compassionate, and I didn’t feel like he was a threat. I knew that he would love me regardless. Plus, I didn’t feel like I was his project or a trophy to be won. I trusted him, and we began to have discussions which were helpful.
The relationship with James was frazzled for reasons I won’t go into. I tried to shake him at one point, but he clearly told me that he would not walk away. I harshly hammered him while he was in Kenya. But James still pursued the relationship with me from abroad, as well as when he returned to the United States. He told me that when he moved back to Washington, D.C., he wanted to hang and talk. I slowly had a yearning to speak to someone and engage in deep intellectual discussion regarding philosophical issues and matters of faith.
I was not going to attend a church, as I didn’t trust most churches. I hoped that someone would come along who would be different than other evangelicals; someone who would be kind, loving, and able to engage in deep discussions. Given where I was, I also wondered how I could find a way to maintain a such a relationship since we would be on opposite sides of the spectrum. I would be an agnostic, and he would be a Christian.
Finding a Fellow Train Nerd
In February of 2010, one such person crossed into my life. I stumbled across him on Facebook by accident. In order for you to understand the next part, there’s something you need to know about me.
I’m a train nerd. I’m a member of a train club in the Washington, D.C. area, and I *railfan* CSX Transportation in Maryland. I’m a member of the railroad historical societies for the Milwaukee Road, which was the last transcontinental railroad built in the United States, as well as the Northern Pacific, which was the first transcontinental railroad built across the northern part of the country.
During a discussion on a model railroad page on Facebook, I happened to cross paths with Scott. Through Facebook I discovered that he worked in a homeless mission in Kansas City and was a graduate of Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. I was impressed and hoped that we could have deep discussions about theology. Furthermore, I noticed Scott is also a train addict who likes to model the former New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad (called the Nickel Plate Road).
So after wrestling with it for a few days, I initiated contact through Facebook in February. I explained my story, what I was looking for, and asked for a forum in which we could discuss theology. Scott responded warmly, and we built a relationship. By having a mutual interest in trains, we had something we could both lean on during difficult conversations.
I would throw difficult questions at him through email, and he would respond. Some of the emails he sent me were 2 to 3 pages long. For the next 3 years, there were so many emails and discussions that it was really incredible. I threw a lot at him. If the discussions got too heated, we would change the topic over to trains. I would ask him detailed questions about the Nickel Plate Road. He would ask me questions about the Montana Rail Link and Milwaukee Road electric operations in Montana. And that was how we carried on.
In late 2010 I had a chance to travel to Kansas and Missouri for a wedding, and I met Scott. One of the neatest experiences in life was standing next to him on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe mainline in Kansas City and just talking theology and asking questions while watching trains. But there was another thing that Scott did that touched me deeply. He told me that no matter how my faith turned out, he wanted me to know how much he loved and cared for me. This still moves me. He became a lifeline in addition to James and Danny.
While all this was transpiring in Washington, D.C., I had not told my family in California that I couldn’t believe in God. I dropped a couple of hints while in Butte, Montana for my grandmother’s funeral, but for the most part I kept it to myself. I believe it was Christmas 2010 when my family was gathered around the dinner table. My Mom, who sat across the way, beamed at me and said, “You’re not going to church anymore are you?” I was stunned and blurted out “How did you know?” My Mom looked at me and said, “I’m your Mother, Eagle, I know these things…” It amazed me how Mothers have that sixth sense. The fact that I had stopped going to church altogether deeply disturbed my Mom.
As much as I enjoyed talking to Scott, I hoped that I could have this kind of conversation with someone in the D.C. area. This was already occurring with Danny, but I also wanted to talk with someone else. I was frustrated, trying to figure things out and I felt this sense of urgency to find a resolution to this stage of my life. I still had no idea where things were going and was drowning in questions.
In November 2010, another person finally crossed my path in the D.C. area. I still wanted nothing to do with church and continued to feel sick about Christianity. However, I did want to discuss my concerns. It was during this time that I met Andrew White. He made some comments about faith to me. I took a huge gamble and opened up to him about my loss of faith. Andrew didn’t mix faith and politics like other evangelicals, and he came across as sincere. Plus, I was impressed with his demeanor. I was anxious to find someone to speak to, and Andrew was quite willing. Andrew responded with warmth and was excited with my bravery in opening up the discussion. He decided we needed to meet over lots of coffee.
Andrew had been involved in the Navigators and was currently a Care Group Leader in his church. At our first meeting he gave me a $40.00 ESV Bible, which I took home and didn’t touch. He also told me that he was involved in a church that was part of a family of churches called Sovereign Grace Ministries. I was not yet familiar with SGM, and I was grateful that we could have discussions. Since I felt sick about church, with Andrew I felt like I found a channel outside of the church to discuss faith. During the next few years ongoing discussions were occurring simultaneously with Andrew White, James Crestwood, Scott, and Danny Risch.
During this time of searching, I discovered something that would became a part of my life. In 2010 I Googled “Where does a Christian go during a spiritual crisis?” and one of the top items that appeared was a blog by a guy known as the Christian Monist. He was a burned out Navigator missionary who had hit bottom and had to rebuild his life. I read his post and began to think there were others who might understand what I was going through.
The Christian Monist led to another great blog called Internet Monk which talks about problems and issues in the “Post Evangelical Wilderness”. I became involved in Internet Monk first by lurking and then commenting. My questions were bold and brash. I also know that they were very argumentative. Around September 2011, I stumbled across The Wartburg Watch and met Dee Parsons and Deb Martin. It was like an oasis in the middle of a desert. Finally, someone was analyzing John Piper, modern Christian trends, and other issues. I was even more impressed with the passion and determination of these two women. I had hoped to get answers to my questions about the problem of evil and other issues in cyber space, and I felt comfortable having these discussions in this venue.
It was during 2010 that I descended into online communities creating nicknames or using established ones that encompassed modern Christian issues and trends. For example, a Fundagelical was an evangelical with fundamentalist tendencies. The Reformed Industrial Complex meant Christians consumed by books, books, books, conferences, conferences, conferences and, oh yeah, more books. John Piper became known as Pope Piper the First, and his followers became the Christian Taliban. Fundamentalism 2.0 referred to those who in Neo-Reformed theology. In many ways these blogs became my refuge from the wasteland that is modern evangelical Christianity. It was also there that I held no punches and was pretty bold in ranting about how Christianity is a cancer in the United States.
A Friend and Sovereign Grace Ministries
It was during 2011 that Andrew started to invite me to his Sovereign Grace church. His first invitation came when we were exercising together. At first I said no to him, because I was still burned out and wanted nothing to do with a church. I still was not ready to attend church. When eating with him once he mentioned a Sovereign Grace blog called SGM Survivors and how another friend warned him about the organization. At the time I thought nothing of it and assumed that it was disgruntled former member. But, due to the invitation to Redeemer of Arlington, I eventually decided to research the organization. As an aside, not long ago Redeemer withdrew from the SGM 'family of churches', but many of the pastors and members came from other Sovereign Grace churches.
With that, I read, read, and read about Sovereign Grace Ministries. When I finally got my mind around the organization, I was shocked and deeply disturbed. I found a number of blogs and websites that reported on spiritual abuse, domestic abuse, child molestation cover-up and pastors coaching members not to report crimes to law enforcement. At the blog SGM Refuge (no longer online), I was stunned by the story of Esther. She was a member of Sovereign Grace Chesapeake. It was a horrific case of domestic violence in which Esther was beaten by her drug addict husband. She was allegedly ordered by the pastors to stay in the marriage. As I recall, she said she was counseled not to seek protection or help from outside the church.
I read the story of Happymom and Noel and how their children were sexually abused. This was allegedly covered up at Sovereign Grace Fairfax which was just down the street from where I live. I read about Taylor, whose husband molested her daughter. The pastors at this particular Sovereign Grace church allegedly told her not to go to police. They also allegedly advised her to put a lock on the inside of the daughter’s bedroom door and to submit to and make herself more sexually available to her pedophile husband. She talked about how scared she was that her husband was going to molest her daughter again. Plus she mentioned how sick she would feel after having sex with her husband while trying to follow her SGM pastor’s advice.
I followed the online debate by former members as to whether or not Sovereign Grace Ministries is a cult. More and more, I couldn’t believe what I was reading about this "family of churches" by former members. On the SGM Survivors and SGM Refuge blog, I was stunned by the number of SGM churches being discussed in a similar negative light. These included Covenant Fellowship Church (in Pennsylvania), Covenant Life Church, SGM Fairfax, SGM Fredericksburg, SGM Bristol, as well as churches in North Carolina and Florida. It appeared that Sovereign Grace Ministries had embraced elements of the shepherding movement, which was rejected as being un-Biblical and dangerous by many orthodox Christian groups. The problems appeared to be system-wide and involved many of the 100 or so churches that make up the SGM network.
I was horrified with what I was finding and could not understand why Andrew would want me to attend such a church. During this time, my faith crisis kept getting darker and I was drifting further into agnosticism. I became concerned about Andrew’s ability to practice discernment due to his choice of church.
During this bleak time, there were two main issues that deeply disturbed me. First, I was fearful of getting sucked into an SGM church through a friendship. Years earlier, my friendship with James Crestwood caused me to become involved with National Community Church. Secondly, given my dalliance with Mormonism, the Sovereign Grace survivor blogs reminded me of the Ex-Mormon blogs which educated me about the issues involved with the Latter Day Saints. This was the first time since my exploration of Mormonism that a religious organization had set off red flags. Andrew kept pressuring me to come to his church, and I began to wonder….what am I being invited to?
Regrets on My Part
Before I continue, let me state that there are a number of things that I said to Andrew in the heat of the moment of which I am deeply and personally ashamed. Parts of this are hard to reflect upon, but I am writing this so you can understand how much of a mess this became in my life. There are things that still haunt me — things I wish I could take back.
Both Andrew and I deeply hurt each other at times. I take full responsibility for the things I said. Andrew was kind, loving and caring…probably one of the nicest individuals I have ever crossed paths with in my life. I was increasingly bothered by our growing conflict, but I was deeply concerned about Sovereign Grace Ministries.
Consequently, I was working through a faith crisis and now, due to Andrew, I had to contend with the growing issues I had with SGM. In all honesty, this was the last thing I needed. As these faith discussions with Andrew became heated arguments centered around SGM, I also began to post questions on the SGM Survivors blogs about Andrew's church, Redeemer of Arlington. As I asked questions, people warned me that the organization was not healthy. I was contacted by a couple of former members of SGM who expressed a number of concerns. For me the message was crystal clear, and I became determined to avoid SGM. As an agnostic, I decided that I would not explore Christianity at Redeemer of Arlington.
One day over on the SGM Survivors blog, I read a transcript, which alleged that C.J. Mahaney had blackmailed his ministry partner Larry Tomczak, threatening to disclose personal information. This drove Tomczak away from People of Destiny International, which not long after was shortened to PDI International and then transformed into Sovereign Grace Ministries. This calculated move allowed SGM to adopt Reformed theology.
I could not understand why people would follow Mahaney. I contacted Andrew and told him that I believed C.J. was a fraud and that I believed such a threat (involving Larry Tomczak) was a heinous crime. Andrew blew up at me and got terribly upset. He later told me that he became so disturbed that he couldn’t get any work done that day.
When Cancer Is Not a Gift
In December of 2011, I was at home visiting my family in California. I was sitting alone in my old room with the door open. My mom came in and asked to speak with me. The conversation wasn’t planned at all. She closed the door, pulled up a chair and told me “Eagle, cancer is not a gift…” and she started to cry. When I realized what the conversation was going to be about, I became frantic. I felt like I wanted to die. I wanted to crawl into a hole in the wall and disappear. My mom was referencing the John Piper pamphlet that I had given her years earlier when she was recovering from pancreatic cancer. I got passionate and pleaded with my mom for forgiveness. I explained that I had a different fundamentalist mindset at the time.
My mom boldly and bravely confronted me. She continued to recall her fears when she dealt with pancreatic cancer. She told me about how worried she was for my father and wondered how he would survive without her. She expressed concern for my sister as well. It was a painful conversation. This was an example of how fundamentalism can bite you later on. While crying, my mom, who is Polish Catholic, told me that she dealt with pancreatic cancer by offering her suffering up to God since Jesus suffered for her on the cross. She said she hoped that I hadn’t given John Piper’s pamphlet out to other people. I sat on my old bed and couldn’t believe we were having this discussion.
Also my mom was deeply upset that I wasn’t going to church anymore and even more upset that I had told her I couldn’t believe in God due the problem of evil. She didn’t want her son to be an agnostic. My Mom forgave me for giving her the John Piper pamphlet years before. However, I couldn’t accept that forgiveness because I was so angry with myself. As the conversation drew to a close, my mom got up out of her chair, and said, “Eagle…evangelical Christianity really screwed you up.” At that point, having seen the harm that fundamentalism can do, I was in full agreement with her. Evangelical Christianity did screw me up.
Phillip Yancey Makes Sense
Although I had thrown out many of my books, I discovered that I still had Disappointment with God by Philip Yancey. To this day, I don’t know why I kept it. Is it possible that I thought the book was an atheist work? Possibly…I was really puzzled by the title because after all…who is disappointed in God? In the years I was an evangelical — from my time in an Evangelical Free Church to Campus Crusade(CRU) to National Community Church — I never heard a pastor or ministry leader give a sermon or talk about how God let them down or express why they were disappointed with God. Mostly, what I heard was the *Happy Clappy* story.
I started to read it and was blown away. When I read the story of Richard in Chapter 2, I thought I was reading about myself. Richard was a grad student at Wheaton who had a major faith crisis. Pain and suffering, along with frustration with God, helped him reach his tipping point. He took a lot of his Christian material to a outdoor grill in the middle of the night and started burning it. He took particular delight in burning his Bible before the local Fire Department stopped him.
While I read atheist material online and listened to YouTube presentations, Philip Yancey would soon become the only Christian author whom I would read during this time. His topics on pain, suffering, evil, etc… deeply resonated with me. When Borders was going out of business, I purchased his What Good Is God?, Soul Survivor, Where is God When It Hurts, The Jesus I Never Knew and What's So Amazing About Grace.
Escalating Conflicts With Andrew
The relationship with Danny, Scott, James and Andrew continued into 2012. With Danny it consisted of meetings at Panera Bread and having deep discussions on the problem of evil. Scott and I continued talking by phone, email, and text. The relationship with Scott actually grew to be quite deep. We spent a lot of time talking about theology and trains. And James still texted me, wanted to talk and hang out. He stayed close and wanted to be involved. As time passed, my love for James grew. I was grateful that the friendship with him survived. The one relationship that had the most tension during this time was with Andrew and that was due to his devotion to SGM. We had a cycle of a blow-up, forgiveness and trying the friendship again.
What made the relationship especially difficult was that after we’d reconciled, more information about Sovereign Grace Ministries would hemorrhage out onto the Survivor blogs. I would ask him questions and then we would have another fight. Andrew called the blogs “stupid". I looked at them as red flags. As I told him once, I would be asking lots of questions if I saw a large online community of hurt people at a blog called “National Community Church Survivors”.
I couldn’t understand why someone would want to be closely associated with a church movement that was the focus of such horrific stories of spiritual, physical or sexual abuse. Also, a new angle developed with Andrew because he was a Care Group Leader. On SGM Survivors, I had read stories of Care Group Leaders who would write up reports behind members backs and submit them to church officials. The reports were of those who disagreed with pastors, raised concerns, etc., and these reports were allegedly often used to shun and discipline those who didn’t toe the line which would drive them out of the organization.
This sort of action was a form of spiritual abuse that was a trademark of the shepherding movement. Some of the earliest members and leaders of SGM (called TAG back then) had ties to the shepherding movement. Honestly, I have to say the more I learned about SGM, the more stunned I became. It appeared to me that they had created a sort of totalitarian police state that would be the envy of the East Germans and the Soviet Union. Due to Andrew’s position as a Care Group Leader at Redeemer and the discussions we were having, I wondered if our conversations were being written up and submitted to Redeemer of Arlington.
So I confronted him and he pushed back, claiming he would never do such a thing and that he had never heard of anything like that. But I had also read at SGM Survivors that Care Group Leaders are taught to deny this when confronted. I struggled to understand whether Andrew was telling me the truth. Because of these reports, I had difficulty trusting Andrew. I told him point blank that he was involved in a cult and asked him often, “Where does Sovereign Grace end and Andrew White begin?”
I really hammered him at times, and some of this would eventually cause me to be filled with deep shame. I had become so argumentative, but it was awkward because I was also under pressure by Andrew to come to his church. That pressure came in emails, text messages, phone calls, and personal face-to-face invitations. Sometimes he invited me when he knew my answer would be no, which became increasingly uncomfortable in my life.
The relationship with Andrew was filled with a lot of conflict. In reflecting upon this, I wish I would have acted differently in many ways. I think Andrew wanted to be the evangelical who saved me, but the difficulty rested in the fact that I had read up and informed myself about SGM. Once Andrew remarked that I was a hound chasing after all of this information. He also called me an encyclopedia for what I knew about theology. He declared that I had a good knowledge of Scripture, especially in our Bible discussions where I pushed back and asked hard questions.
However, I don’t think Andrew understood how deep my faith crisis had become. I knew he cared and loved me as a friend. But I don’t think he appreciated how far I had descended in agnosticism. At the same time, I don’t think he comprehended how scarred I was from my Mormon experience. The more I learned about SGM, the more my defenses went up.
Andrew had a big and loving heart, but I don’t think he fully understood me. Two positive experiences with Andrew include the following. Early on in the relationship, I introduced Andrew to James, and we had pizza one evening in James’ apartment. On another night, Andrew introduced me to a friend of his from Redeemer. We had a discussion about pain and suffering. His friend talked about the loss of a loved one, and it was a meaningful dialogue.
During this time the invitations to Redeemer kept coming. At one point (while in a Smoothie shop) after being invited to Redeemer of Arlington yet again, I told Andrew directly that I would not explore Christianity at any Sovereign Grace church because there were too many red flags. I did tell him that if he was involved in any other church and he invited me to meet with his pastor, go to church, etc., I would have no problem giving it a try and I would give it an honest effort. Andrew sat there for a couple of minutes and stared…just frustrated by my insistence to say no.
My Father’s Illness
On January 12, 2012, my family’s life was turned upside down when my father was diagnosed with a Stage 3 brain tumor. I couldn’t pray for my father at all, since I just didn’t believe in God. So I did the next best thing. I asked others to pray for him. Andrew and James responded quickly. Andrew said I could call him and wake him up if need be. The news from California kept getting worse and worse. Finally, in the early morning hours, James said, "Why don’t you come on over?" So I drove in the middle of the night to Capitol Hill and showed up at James' door around 2:00 a.m. We hugged, I cried, and we spoke briefly before I tried to get some sleep on his couch. It was comforting to know that I was not suffering alone. The next morning Andrew called to see how I was doing. Andrew’s kindness and follow up meant a lot to me as well.
Andrew Yells at Me in Public
One of ugliest things I ever saw a Christian do came from Andrew in early 2012, and it happened in a crowded eating area. In a booth he ordered me to stop asking questions. He leaned across the table, pointing his finger just inches from my face. He spoke loudly with an authoritative tone and declared: “I want you to have what I have!” He was referencing his faith. I thought of how stupid his action was due to his threatening demeanor. As an agnostic, I was also amused, thinking, “What’s he going to do? Yell me into Christianity?…Are you kidding?”
Being yelled at in a public eating area was not only embarrassing to me, but it reminded me of something I used to see in Milwaukee. Before attending Marquette basketball games in the Bradley Center, there used to be a guy who would yell Christian messages through a bullhorn at people who were walking into the entertainment complex. It was ugly, making Christianity look horrible. The difference, of course, is the guy outside the Bradley Center didn’t know the people he was yelling at, whereas Andrew — the guy sitting three feet across from me — did.
There were other times that he embarrassed me. He could be condescending and arrogant. To his credit, he admitted to me that he realized he could act this way. Once I raised objections to the ESV Bible and he scolded me and said, “Get over it!” When I saw the crowd that endorsed it, CJ Mahaney, Mark Driscoll, etc… my reaction was “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!!” and that Bible eventually went back to Andrew.
Are you wondering why this relationship continued since there was this much conflict? The answer is that I had a difficult time finding people with whom I could speak about these issues. In spite of the help offered by Scott and Danny, my doubts were literally on fire. I was consumed and controlled by my questions. During this time, I had the strength to pop up at different churches such as non-denominational, Evangelical Free, Presbyterian, etc… and try to speak with people and pastors. But I was stunned about how hard it was to find someone to speak to. As an outsider, it startled me how many places spoke about evangelism and reaching people but when an agnostic walked through the door asking difficult questions, many places didn’t know how to respond or how to engage someone. It seemed to me that many evangelical churches live and operate in a bubble.
Meanwhile, in an email to James, I baited him to attend a presentation on the concept of an Evil God which was held on March 5, 2012, by the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Center for Inquiry. Here is an example of their ad campaign. The Center of Inquiry hosts many atheist events and pushes secular humanism and science. I believe Christopher Hitchens was involved with this organization.
To my surprise, James agreed to attend. I was stunned when we got to the Bus Boys and Poets restaurant in D.C., and he walked into this room full of hard core atheists, sat at a table on the side and pulled out a Bible and laid it firmly on the table. The woman sitting next to him gave him an evil eye. James was quite courageous, and I was impressed that he was willing to come.
That same day, tornadoes brought about destruction in the state of Indiana. After thee Center for Inquiry presentation, on the Internet Monk blog, I ranted about how I always associate tornadoes with John Piper. Pat Robertson is predictable when it comes to hurricanes, and John Piper is predictable when it comes to tornadoes. Since I believe that John Piper is nothing but a Reformed Pat Robertson, I privately wondered when John Piper would tie this horrific disaster in Indiana to ”God’s wrath”. Piper did not let me down. Desiring God published his post on March 5, 2012. The next day Chaplain Mike wrote a follow-up rebuttal at The Internet Monk. What can I say? Fundamentalists are easily predictable.
The Reason Rally and the Beginning of a Shift in My Thinking
On March 24, 2012, the Reason Rally on the National Mall was held in Washington, D.C. It was the largest gathering of atheists in the United States. Depending upon the source, 10,000 to 20,000 people turned out for it. A partial line up of speakers for the event included: Jessica Ahlquist, Greta Christina, Dan Barker, Nate Phelps, Herment Mehta, David Silverman and Richard Dawkins. I attended the rally and looked forward to the day's events. That Saturday morning was overcast, drizzling and cold; and I had wondered whether I would see evangelicals picketing the event. Speaker after speaker talked about the dangers of fundamentalism and religion. The crowd was lively and diverse in age, sex, and since many were standing in a light rain, you also had the dedicated people in attendance.
I listened to Herment Mehta speak followed by Jessica Ahlquist. Jessica successfully sued to have a prayer removed from a high school auditorium in Rhode Island. In the process she dealt with harassment, hate mail, death threats, and was called “an evil little thing”. In her speech, explaining why she took a stand as an atheist, she also called all of the people at the rally “evil little things".
In a moving speech, renowned atheist blogger Greta Christina listed all the reasons why atheists have a right to be angry. I listened and cheered. Early in the talk Greta Christina roared about how she was angry that there are evangelical preachers who teach women to submit to their abusers in a marriage. I cheered as she railed about this topic, thinking about John Piper’s teaching on why a woman should “endure domestic abuse for the night”.
Christina railed against the Catholic Church cover-up of the sexual abuse scandal. When she was talking about sexual abuse cover-up, I thought of some of the stories I read over at SGM Survivors. She closed out her speech saying:
“Atheists aren't angry because we're selfish, or bitter, or joyless. Atheists are angry because we have compassion. Atheists are angry because we have a sense of justice. Atheists are angry because we see millions of people being terribly harmed by religion, and our hearts go out to them, and we feel motivated to do something about it."
And this captured perfectly how I felt about evangelicalism.
During the rally, I got a text from James telling me that I needed to step back or I was going to become so full of hate. I ignored it and continued to listen. I stopped by some of the tents and booths they had there, and I saw something that slowly began to bother me. Almost every booth I visited had paperwork about doctor-assisted suicide or end of life options. With my Dad struggling with a brain tumor and with his fate unknown, I was puzzled why there was the strong doctor-assisted suicide identity. Is this a knee jerk reaction by atheists to many Christians who are opposed to abortion?
Due to the cold weather I stepped inside one of the Smithsonian museums before going back outside. It was at the Reason Rally that my thinking started to shift. It had begun to dawn on me that…
I had traded the fundamentalism of John Piper for the fundamentalism of someone like Richard Dawkins.
Agnosticism and atheism were a faith system, and I realized that I had run from religion only to find myself neck deep in another one. I was crushed and personally disillusioned. In the end I hadn’t moved very far from where I started.
This posed new problems for me. While I still didn’t believe in God, I now couldn’t believe in agnosticism either. It made me quite uncomfortable, so uncomfortable in fact that I left the rally early and headed on over to James’ apartment on Capitol Hill. After discussing with James what happened that morning, I left and noticed a Catholic Church on the corner. I went in and sat in the back thinking about what I had experienced.
I felt stuck and didn’t know how to proceed. With this development I felt more of a need to somehow find a resolution, but I didn’t know what to do. I had problems with God, and I had problems with agnosticism. I didn’t know where to turn. From this point, I still proclaimed myself to be agnostic publicly, but privately I knew I was experiencing tension over that proclamation. I became anxious to find a resolution to this conflict.
Throughout 2012 I continued to speak to Denny, Andrew, Scott and James. I was consumed by my doubts and was looking for new material to read. During this time I also stumbled upon Greg Boyd’s Letters to a Skeptic and read part of it. On Internet Monk, Jeff Dunn wanted to read and have a discussion on Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster, which dealt with a genocidal God. (We never discussed it by the way!)
I still did not know how to deal with the problem of evil. Through the Internet and email, I reached out to crime victims who were Christians and asked them, “How could you worship a God who knew your child was going to be molested?” (or whatever happened to them.) Their answers startled me. However, I just couldn’t accept that they still loved God. It made no sense to me why anyone could worship an omniscient God who allows evil to occur.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
In late January, I saw a movie by chance called Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which portrayed pain and suffering. It is the story of Oskar Schell who lost his father in the World Trade Center on September 11. Oskar calls it “the worst day”. The movie shows how different people react to suffering, such as Oskar’s mother who has to continue living and moving on. It featured Oskar, being stuck and searching for an answer, as well as his grandfather (I believe), a man who survived the Fire Raids in Dresden, Germany during World War II and who couldn’t speak. He never recovered or found a way to deal with the issue of pain and suffering.
In the movie two themes are developed. One is that there are some questions for which there are no answers. In this following scene the thought was planted in my noodle that there is no answer for the Problem of Evil.
Secondly, everyone suffers to some degree…suffering with cancer, a divorce, illness in the family, long-term disease or disability, that their child is not going to become the person they had hoped, scars from a spouse cheating on them, job not going as well, family tension, betrayal from a friend, maybe even a veteran with mental wounds from war. Everyone suffers. In this tender scene, Oskar came to his own personal closure with suffering, his father’s death and his realization that he could move on.
Further Experiences with Andrew
There was one personal conflict internally that continued to grow. I was willing to walk into a church and meet with pastors or other people to discuss the doubts which were raging within me. Each place I visited, I researched beforehand. I did this while I kept telling Andrew that I would not attend a Sovereign Grace church. Due to this growing tension, I felt like a terrible friend to Andrew for constantly turning him down, while accepting other requests to visit churches.
Andrew still was incredibly persistent in inviting me to Redeemer while pursuing a lot of faith-based discussions, some of which were heated. In one such conversation, we came close to a shouting match. He defended his church as the healthiest he had ever been involved in. He told me that his pastor and elders were godly and that he wanted to imitate them. I was puzzled…isn’t the goal of the Christian to be like Jesus? Yet, Andrew wanted to be like his pastor. In my usual blunt fashion, I told Andrew that he looked at Eric Simmons and his elders in the same way that Mormons look upon Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. I couldn’t see any difference. Andrew was livid. I was seeing more and more behavior from Andrew that reminded me of what I had experienced in Mormonism years ago. None of my other Christian friends behaved in this manner. I was baffled by what I was seeing in Andrew.
However, I don’t want to give a distorted image of Andrew. Not every conversation was always tense. There were tender and loving times as well. Sometimes he sent me caring text messages which said that he was praying for me. When I met with another pastor to talk about my doubts, he said he would pray during the meeting. He told me how much he loved me as a brother. There was one time where he came to church with me to check it out. Andrew had a big heart. He wanted to help, be involved, and be engaged. I respected his motives and, as I said earlier, I believe that he wanted to be the evangelical who would save me.
Please remember what contributed to this tension was the fact that I was in a severe faith crisis. I didn't know who I was or was going to be — a reluctant agnostic or a Christian — although at this point I didn’t see how that was even possible. I was in a very dark place; and at times I reacted in ways I wish I had not. Recently, in the privacy of my home, there have been times I have cried over some of the things I said to Andrew. As I reflect back on this entire season of my life, I wish he knew how much I grieve for the conflict that took place.
During this period of my life, I thanked him for his spiritual concern from time to time, and I felt bad for hammering him so much on SGM. Due to how much he was evangelizing me, I told Andrew that if I ever decided to become a Christian, he could baptize me. In one text message I joked that, for all the ways I hammered him on SGM, I would let him hold me under water for an additional five minutes. Andrew texted me back and said it would be ten minutes.
One of the doubts that tore me apart was solved in his kitchen. Andrew had asked me to come over to his condo to talk. He started the conversation by saying, “I’ve been doing some thinking, and I don’t think you’re an agnostic. I think something happened and you became incredibly angry at God.” I had not expected to hear that point of view. We had a discussion on the issue of the Second Adam. It was like a light bulb went off, and just like that, one of the doubts that tore me apart was resolved.
At this stage in my life, I didn’t think I would ever get out of the agnostic period I was in, and that conversation with Andrew gave me hope to continue wrestling with other doubts and not quitting. At this point I felt I was on the verge of quitting, and that conversation kept me moving forward. So there were times when Andrew was deeply helpful to me spiritually. And there were times I was thankful for some of the conversations he and I had.
A Visit to Redeemer of Arlington
Finally, I agreed to attend Redeemer of Arlington for one service on Easter 2012. I had gone to another church service in the morning and lurked in the back thinking or picking apart what was being taught. Andrew texted me the details of when and where the service was to be held, and I returned the text by saying I’ll read up on SGM Survivors before showing up in the afternoon. He responded by saying that I needed to repent of reading the SGM Survivor blogs!
Throughout the afternoon I had a growing feeling of uneasiness in my stomach. I drove there and sat outside in the car. Looking out the window, I saw Andrew and his wife speaking to a couple of people and felt sick to my stomach as I thought of all I had read on the SGM Survivor and SGM Refuge blogs. I considered driving away, but I had remembered my promise to Andrew. I said to myself, “Listen Eagle…you went to a number of Mormon services earlier in life and you got through that…you can get through one service at a questionable church.”
And with that I grabbed my NLT (The old fundamentalists were KJV only, while the new fundamentalists are ESV only; thus I had to be a rebel and use my NLT 😛 ) and walked into Redeemer of Arlington. Due to what I read on SGM Survivors, I eyed the congregation and the service like a hawk (or an Eagle!). I was on guard for any love bombing, a common tactic in SGM churches. I saw Andrew, walked up to him and slapped him on the shoulder. He lit up when he saw me. “Where do you want to sit?” he asked. Jokingly I said, “Well…the car would be nice.” He laughed and we chose a seat.
Eric Simmons was to speak on Colossians 3. The service, however, began with a testimony. A member of Redeemer spoke about how his best friend committed suicide just so he could know Christ. I sat there and wrote a note in my Bible and asked Andrew, “Did God foreordain this suicide?” Andrew said he’d explain later. One thing I learned about Andrew is that if it was controversial, difficult or went against his church, he avoided the entire discussion. So he never followed up on my question.
As Eric Simmons preached I took out my pen and decided to write down how many times Jesus was mentioned (out of personal curiosity). I have observed that much of Neo-Calvinism has what I would call “Christ-less Preaching”, meaning you preach more from the Gospel of Paul than the Gospel of Jesus. I kept track of how many times Jesus and Paul were mentioned. In the end Jesus beat Paul out ever so slightly. I didn’t see any love bombing when I was there.
Two things bothered me deeply. The first was that I had developed a feeling in my gut, which I had not had in years, telling me that Redeemer of Arlington is not a healthy church. The last time I got this feeling was when I explored Mormonism. I used to get this feeling when I sat in the pew at the local LDS Ward. When I looked into Mormonism, I felt confused, dizzy and in a haze. That feeling started to return during Redeemer’s Easter service. It deeply bothered me.
The other thing that bothered me, which startled Andrew when I told him, was the push for membership. This was Easter, and although it was to be the only service I would ever attend at Redeemer, I felt the strong, overwhelming pressure about membership. The pressure reminded me of the same pressure the Mormons placed on me when I was 19, except that pressure was to get baptized into Mormonism.
One thing that personally hurt me is that I often shared with Andrew from my past religious experiences. Those experiences include discernment, knowledge, and information. Andrew sometimes ignored or brushed aside what I had learned about Mormonism and the similarities to evangelicalism. I overlooked that and didn’t press him too much because I think it reflected both his youth and his pride.
When the service ended, I drove home relieved it was over. I tossed and turned as I thought about it and got up late in the night and blogged about it.
9 Marks and SGM
I had never before seen this fierce kind of blind loyalty that Andrew exhibited towards his church. Even though I was on the outside of Christianity, I still knew the Bible incredibly well. How could he be a Berean when what he mostly did was defend and worship his leaders and doctrinal beliefs? Please understand I am not trying to mock Andrew — I note this as an outsider. Also please remember that while I was critical or offered my observations, I also did that with other churches. One time in talking with Andrew, he espoused the Sovereign Grace Pastor’s College. I pushed back hard, “Why? It’s not even an academically accredited institution! It's not Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody, Trinity, Westminster, SEBTS, Fuller, etc…” Andrew changed the topic. I did respect those who received theological training at accredited institutions. I chose to open up a dialog with someone in Kansas City who attended Moody.
At another point he talked about how important church discipline was. I pushed back hard, “Why should the alcoholic in the congregation face discipline when Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, and their ilk are exempt?” I wasn’t trying to argue. I was hoping he would answer me. Andrew, however, changed the topic and asked me if I had ever heard of 9 Marks. I said “Mark Dever made the 9 Marks useless when he let C.J. Mahaney run with his tail between his legs to Capitol Hill Baptist.” In what would become a pattern, the topic would be changed by Andrew in order to avoid hard questions. I last ran into this kind of evasive behavior when I was looking into Mormonism, and this was a red flag for me.
I later pointed out all the "9 Marks" that Mark Dever violated when he allowed C.J. Mahaney to run to Capitol Hill Baptist and avoid church discipline. I wanted to know…is Christianity in the United States going to duplicate the current Caste System in India? Are members of congregations now the new Dalits? Are the Pastors above all law or even scripture? I also scrutinized Redeemer’s church constitution (from The Gospel Coalition) and took my NLT and tore through it. I discovered that they were engaged in proof texting and that Redeemer even referenced a verse in scripture that didn’t exist. I can’t remember what the verse is, but it was something like Acts 30:2. I gave it back to Andrew, and he had no response. As an agnostic, I loved this!!
Due to how many in the modern Reformed movement view authority, I actually jokingly suggested to Andrew that Redeemer of Arlington’s next retreat should take place in North Korea. With the way that John Calvin governed Geneva, there was much that can be learned from how Kim Jong Il governed Pyongyang. At this time I still read and participated on the blogs. As I was really vocal on Internet Monk and asking hard questions, discussing theology, and sharing my story, a funny thing happened. In the ranking of all the Christian blogs, Internet Monk was one of the top blogs that people visited in the country. I joked with Andrew, “Do you realize how lucky you are — you are evangelizing one of the top agnostics in Christian cyberspace?”
Due to a violent windstorm that suddenly hit the Washington, D.C. area in late June 2012, I lost power for several days. Again, as a train nerd this created an opportunity for me to head down to Spencer, North Carolina for a public event hosted by Norfolk Southern Railroad celebrating their 30th anniversary as a company. As I drove down to North Carolina I gave Dee Parsons a phone call and explained that I was passing through and to see if she wanted to get together. She called back, “The Eagle is coming to North Carolina!” and we agreed to meet. In a hotel in the Raleigh-Durham area, Andrew called up, and we had a pleasant chat. The following morning I met Dee Parsons at a Panera Bread. It was an animated and pleasant conversation. We discussed the problem of evil, and she spent a considerable amount of time trying to teach me about grace. She actually gave me a book to read as well. When I was leaving, her final words were about learning grace. The talk lasted a couple of hours, and we parted company and stayed in touch by phone from time to time. The following day as a train nerd I was in heaven, having the privilege of going to the one of the neatest railroad industry events in modern history that was open to the public.
A Serious Illness
On July 29, 2012, I found myself incredibly sick and thought I had the flu. I woke up in the middle of the night violently shaking, and my leg looked strange. I drove to an emergency clinic. I had a bacterial infection in my leg, and the infection had moved into my blood stream and was aggressively spreading. I was going into shock, my heart beat soared to 180 beats per minute and my blood pleasure plunged to 70/40. I laid there on the table of the emergency room clinic with medical technicians working around me.
One thing on my mind as I lay in the emergency clinic was that I committed to help Danny Risch move and load up his van as he was leaving D.C. Now I couldn’t do that, and I felt guilty. Meanwhile emergency technicians were trying to get my blood pressure up. I sent out a text to a few people. Andrew responded immediately that he was praying for me. That deeply moved me. But even in the midst of a major medical crisis and being in the hospital for nearly a month, I never once asked God for help. I just couldn’t believe in God at this time even amidst a full blown medical crisis, but I was okay with other people praying for me. In the next three weeks, despite the uncertainty of was happening, I never attempted to pray to God. I was transferred from the Clinic and ended up in the ICU and was pumped with antibiotics. My leg swelled due to the infection and the skin came off. I was in intense pain, and the doctors were following the situation.
I have heard competing stories on whether my leg was at risk of being lost; some thought yes, others unsure, or said clearly no. (Dee’s husband said he was deeply concerned.) Early on in the crisis, I sent a text to Dee and word leaked out on the internet that I was in the ER. It became a prayer request, and people from around the country prayed for me.
Chaplin Mike at Internet Monk wrote a very tender post while I was in the hospital in which he compared and contrasted how Christians reacted to my situation, compared to the support shown to Chick-Fil-A on August 1, 2012. There were updates on Internet Monk and The Wartburg Watch. During this time I learned that churches in Arizona, Oklahoma, New York, and other parts of the country were praying for me. As time passed I was stunned that people were praying for me, and sometimes in the middle of the night I lay in my hospital bed and stared at the ceiling and wondered, “Why? I thought….especially with the way I’ve raged about Christianity being a cancer?” I often wondered with all that transpired and the love I was shown and asked myself….is this what grace is?
During the next week I had more visitors than I could acknowledge. I got notes, flowers, gifts, and food. James and his wife visited and we talked. I had complete strangers that brought me books or magazines to read. Andrew stopped by and gave me a Subway sandwich. The biggest surprise was when Dee Parsons, who is a registered nurse and from a medical family, drove up from North Carolina for a couple of days to offer medical guidance. I was stunned by her hospitality. About 10 days later I was discharged but I couldn’t go home due to the condition of my leg. So I was transferred to a rehab facility. It was technically a nursing home, and I was the youngest resident there by a few decades. I was very much in pain but I limped around and I noticed that elderly residents would watch me as I walked. The atmosphere of the nursing home was beyond depressing, and unlike anything I had seen. During all this James stopped by with some clothes for me to wear. We we’re probably the youngest people in the nursing home by decades. He had also checked my mail and place, and I was deeply grateful for his fellowship in the nursing home. As the meals were bad and with a severely injured leg, I managed to walk out the door and grab some food at a nearby grocery store. As I would walk into the place, many residents sitting in their wheelchairs would watch me and stare as I moved around the floor.
A couple of days later my fever returned and was inching up. My parents and Dee were worried about the fever and thought I should be in the hospital. On the last day there, I heard a conversation which will forever haunt me. One of the nursing home residents who watched me leave my room and wander the hall sat outside my door. As I was inside the room reading a Vince Flynn book, I heard this hysterical sobbing. Surprised, I peaked out my door and it was the guy who watched me leave the room crying to a social worker. And he poured out his fears to the social worker. I went back into my room and lay on my bed trying to read and ignore the sobbing.
But I couldn’t…he was too loud, and the conversation really invaded my space. This resident proceeded to tell the social worker about how he was going to die alone. How he had no family that would visit. How he had no friends outside the nursing home. How he was running out of money. And how he was going to live out his life in that nursing home. He told the social worker how lonely he was and how he craved company. And this was all between hysterical sobbing. After hearing that I decided I had to leave. I just had to get out! This was probably one of the most distressing situations I had ever encountered. And it showed me how if Christians truly were serious about The Gospel they proclaim…well they have a lot of work to do. After my experience in the nursing home, my prediction or analysis is that as the population ages you will see an increase in doctor assisted suicide, or euthanasia, due to people’s determination to avoid nursing homes. And I can personally see why.
A fever landed me back in Fairfax INOVA Hospital. I had more visitors including Andrew. At this time in our relationship, Andrew and I had stopped having meals and discussing faith. He brought me some Eggplant Lasagna that his wife made and then he raised the issue of us not having discussions again. Andrew professed that he missed the discussions, and he asked if we can resume them. I told him that was fine and that in the future we could resume them. Andrew was happy that the faith discussions would continue, and he also checked my home and grabbed the mail and a new cell phone since my cell phone was stolen apparently in the ER.
Eventually, I was discharged but I would be at home for another few weeks. I was home bound and hooked up to an IV machine. During this time James and his wife made a couple of meals for me. I was deeply touched by the grace that James and his wife showed me. But the cutest thing I ever saw happened in the dining room of my condo. Even today as I think about this it still melts my heart. James came to visit, and he brought his daughter. She was thirsty so I gave her some orange juice. While I sat at the table hooked up to an IV machine, James’ 3 year old daughter reached into her pocket and pulled out a band-aid and gave it to me. It melted me and was probably one of the most innocent, pure and amazing acts of grace that I had ever seen in my life. I was deeply touched — so touched that I’ve never been able to throw away that band aid and I save it as a reminder of how much I am loved.
Sadly Danny was gone, but James was still around and Andrew wanted to meet and have more faith based discussions. The relationship with Andrew would become further strained when the lawsuit against Sovereign Grace kicked off. There would be a lot of friction and tension, which I wish had not been the case, but sadly it happened.
The SGM Lawsuit and Andrew
On October 17, 2012, the lawsuit against Sovereign Grace Miinistries kicked off, and I was angry by what I read in the Washington Post. I texted Andrew and asked him about the allegations of his denomination actively discouraging members from reporting crimes to local law enforcement. What happened to following Romans 13 I asked? He responded saying they should have. When I read that SGM allegedly forced a 3 year old to forgive her molester, I was furious! Going forward I started to ask Andrew routinely, “Is it the Gospel to force a 3 year old to forgive her molester?” Andrew just believed it was an isolated incident and not a systemic problem, which stunned me.
While we bickered over SGM, Andrew started to ask me to read my Bible. He’d come up to me and say, “Eagle pick 5 books and then read them 3 times,” I remember sitting at my kitchen table trying this and thinking to myself, “This is a waste of time….” On October 22, 2012, Andrew wanted to have dinner to discuss theology. And he wanted me to journal, so he gave me a journal. In it Andrew wrote:
From: Andrew White
Date: October 22, 2012
Eagle, I hope and pray that this journal can be a practical tool to capture your journey wrestling with God, face-to-face. May its privacy be encouragement to be brutally honest with God as you try to find peace.
Thank you for the friendship
According to Andrew in a congregation meeting at Redeemer of Arlington, Pastor Eric Simmons talked about how nervous he was of the SGM lawsuit and how he had a difficult time sleeping at night. He also said that he knew one of the litigants in the lawsuit against Covenant Life Church, as they were close friends from childhood. Despite hearing stuff like this, Andrew still called Redeemer of Arlington the “healthiest church he has known”.
Upon hearing such information as an outsider, even though I was agnostic, it raised major red flags in my mind. When, I wondered, would the largest lawsuit in evangelical history ensnare Redeemer of Arlington? The odds were quite high as I contemplated this since the church was planted by the epicenter of the lawsuit, Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and had strong ties to Sovereign Grace Fairfax, which was bleeding its own child abuse stories. The question I raised to Andrew (which he completely ignored) was how much information regarding child sexual abuse at Covenant Llfe Church did Eric Simmons know when he was a leader there? In a shepherding organization, which I believe characterized SGM, I thought it was more than likely that Eric Simmons (as a CLC leader) knew that child abuse had occurred. Again, this was my analysis and critical thinking skills at play, but hopefully I am wrong, as I would not wish malice upon anyone.
The discussions with Andrew became sharper, and I started to ask him more questions about SGM. For years I had ranted that Christianity is a cancer and that it is corrupt. Now, with a growing lawsuit and horrific details, I began to associate SGM with corruption, decadence and abuse. Andrew’s defense of Redeemer of Arlington was still strong. I commented that he would have made a good Mormon due to how he seemed to be able to ignore the facts. Andrew said that I was confusing SGM and Redeemer and pointed out that Redeemer broke away from SGM. True…it has, but for me it begged the question — Was there really change? Or as the old saying goes, "You can take the boy out of the country, but can you take the country out of the boy." With Eric Simmons at the helm — a man conceived and born in PDI, reared in SGM, accountability partner with Josh Harris, and SGM Pastor’s College trainee, etc… was there going to be healthy change? I didn’t think so. But I told Andrew I would like to be proven wrong.
During this season I was still in my “If they’re in an evangelical stage they must be burned” I had a friend who was down in Atlanta and part of an Acts 29 church. As a militant skeptic, I used the Problem of Evil to decimate him. It was entirely inappropriate, but at the time I didn’t care. Christopher Hitchens claimed that he had a right to be openly contemptuous of religion. As I read and watched so much of hard core atheistic material on the internet, I did something similar. I posted something on “Archie Griffin's” Facebook page in Atlanta after his wife gave birth. It permanently destroyed our relationship, but I really didn’t care. Right after it happened, Andrew and I met at a Starbucks and had coffee. I told him what happened, and he said that was not good. He challenged me to make the situation right by contacting “Archie”. I let the issue drop, and in my faith crisis I continued to march on.
The next stage of the SGM lawsuit occurred when Susan Burke filed the Amended Complaint on January 14, 2013.I read the complaint and felt physically sick to my stomach. It was probably the most disturbing information I had ever read in my lifetime. The graphic and lewd accusations about child sexual abuse so disturbed me that I paced in my apartment and was unable to sleep. I was stunned. I also wondered what Andrew would say. On top of that, this horrific child abuse story raised another issue. Many evangelicals, in my mind, have permanently forfeited their right to talk about sexual sin. How can they talk seriously about the sin of gay marriage, co-habitation, pornography, sex outside of marriage and then totally ignore, enable, or cover-up child sex abuse? I just couldn’t get it. After the Amended Compliant was filed, I seriously embarrassed Andrew and he was upset with me.
When the amended complaint went forward, I was curious as to what Redeemer of Arlington was saying about the lawsuit. I told Andrew that I was willing to come. Andrew jumped at the opportunity and said they were going to have a Q & A, and that I could ask my questions then. With my tradition and knowledge of questionable religious organizations, I wondered if this meeting would indeed be held.
However, given the sarcasm I possessed, I thought of a way to deeply embarrass Andrew. With the Amended Complaint in the lawsuit dealing with an SGM Pastor who stripped and spanked an adult female with a plastic rod or wooden spoon, I did the following. I went to Target and grabbed a nice wooden spoon for $10.00 in the housewares section. That Sunday afternoon Andrew was looking forward to me attending Redeemer. I saw him in the lobby speaking to a couple of his friends. I slapped him on the back and gave him the wooden spoon saying, “Since it's The Gospel to strip and spank an adult woman, this gift will help you practice your faith.” Andrew held the spoon and was irritated and told his friends, “Do you see what I have to put up with from this guy?”
We grabbed a seat, and I paid close attention to the service. Then I saw something that was too much. I was amazed as to how I restrained my laughter. The Gosnell trial situation with the doctor who performed illegal, late term abortions in Philadelphia was ongoing. Redeemer of Arlington wanted to mark the anniversary of the legalization of abortion in Roe vs. Wade. They mentioned how sacred life is and discussed the evil of abortion. I sat there hearing about how precious children are, and I thought of the ties that Redeemer had – EVEN informally – to SGM. The guy I was sitting next to was consuming the works of Mark Dever who was propping up C.J. Mahaney and SGM, who were accused of covering up the child abuse crimes. It was too much hypocrisy, and I almost roared out in laughter. I couldn’t take what I was hearing seriously. The hypocrisy was about the worst I had encountered in Christianity. And it was ugly. Wouldn’t that have been something if I stopped a fundagelical service due to how hard I was laughing!! That said, I refrained and held back.
Eric Simmons had a family emergency, and the Q & A was canceled. However, despite this family emergency Eric Simmons had said that he stayed to give an expository sermon. Now, I want to be clear…I empathize with a family emergency. But I was confused with why Eric Simmons could stay for the sermon and not stick around for an additional 10 or 15 minutes in a Q & A? If the emergency was that severe, why wouldn't he have left right away and had another elder give the talk? I wondered…did Andrew tip them that I was coming? Was the Q & A canceled due to the Amended Compliant? Who knows?
One thing I found interesting was that Eric Simmons made a comment about how atheism is a faith system. I leaned over to whisper to Andrew that I had learned that the previous year at the Reason Rally. The other comment that Eric Simmons made which for me was too much was when he claimed that “in our reformed tradition…” I thought of the long-term history of SGM from its origins as a group of Catholic Charismatics in the 1970s from Massachusetts Avenue in D.C. to today. I wanted to stop the service and ask, “What Reformed tradition? Sovereign Grace has none. It went in the Reformed direction because that is the latest fad in evangelicalism, and that is where the money is.”
After the service Andrew wanted to grab dinner, and he told me that I was mean and disrespectful to him. He said I asked difficult questions as a way to jab him. I listened and acknowledged that I asked hard questions, but I also wanted answers. Ours was a deeply troubled relationship.
Shopping with James Crestwood
During this time I still kept in touch with Danny Risch by phone and discussed things with Scott. James’ wife was pregnant, and they were expecting their second child. James still called and stayed close. One weekend in the early spring of 2013, James called up and asked if I could take him grocery shopping. Of all the items he needed to hunt down was a particular type of toilet paper his wife wanted. So after raiding Aldi and finding the right toilet paper, we talked in the car. In the spring my thinking was slowly changing, and James was happy that it was. He remarked about how exciting it was that I seemed to be slowly moving back in a faith direction. He wanted to lead me in a prayer, and I held off because I still had some qualms with God. One of the funniest things happened in my faith journey shortly after James’ offer.
We needed to get some additional items and visited Safeway. I asked James if they had a name picked out for his soon to be born daughter. They did, and he explained that the name was tied to Kansas history. So I asked a few questions and tried to guess the name. I tried to think of female names from Kansas and asked, “Is it Nancy?” (as in Nancy Kassenbaum?). James said that it was tied to transportation and I tried to think….a female with ties to Kansas who is a pioneer in transportation. As we were walking down the aisle in Safeway the name Amelia Earhart popped in my mind, and I remembered her aviation history and link to Kansas. So I asked James, “Is it Amelia?” And he stopped in the middle of the grocery store aisle and said, “I can’t believe you did that?!?” I could have rolled on the floor in laughter; I never have guessed the name of a friend’s child before. But shopping in a grocery store with a close friend was an incredible way to fellowship with James.
Interaction with Andrew
In March Andrew called and left a voicemail saying that his wife was out of town. He asked me to stay with him because he wanted some company, and he thought we could have some theological discussions. I told him “Sure”. With that I went over for a couple of days. One night Andrew and I got into a dispute about John Piper’s teaching on a wife submitting to domestic abuse. In the heat of the moment I said something I wish I could take back. Andrew looked at me while standing in his kitchen and said, “I know Eagle…I’m worthless” I went to bed that night thinking, “Eagle what a fool you are. He invites you over, and you get into an argument at his place. That’s stupid…” The next night Andrew showed me pictures on his Android of his daughter and also walked me through his wedding album. Around this time Andrew also was purportedly optimistic that I was slowly moving in a Christian faith direction again. As he was asking me to read the Bible regularly again, he pointed out that a couple of months back I would not have done that. He seemed excited.
Since Andrew continued evangelizing me, I had a slew of questions. I wanted to ask about Jonathan Edwards who was a slave holder. Did this have more to do with 18th century class status of owning slaves instead of honoring God? Also, when Paul wrote about how slaves were to be treated in Colossians, did that apply to slavery in 18th century America, especially New England? Another topic that I would have loved to ask is that some believe that Jonathan Edwards suffered from mental illness. If that was indeed the case, could that have influenced Jonathan Edwards to teach a darker form of depravity that was un-Biblical? After all, members of his congregation did commit suicide.
I decided to address this topic, instead. Many who hold to Neo-Reformed/Neo-Puritan theology appear to view God’s sovereignty as being deterministic. I would suggest that this makes the problem of evil worse. Scott McKnight writes about this in an essay about “meticulous sovereignty”.
I thought of this essay when I read that some of John Piper’s “Christian Taliban” circle pointed out that Matthew Warren’s suicide (Rick Warren’s son) was predetermined by God. I asked Andrew a series of questions regarding how involved God was in Matthew Warren’s suicide. Did God foreordain the gun that would be used? Did God even foreordain the trajectory of the bullet? As I see it, and have discussed with others, the determinism and minute control will always be a problem for Neo-Calvinism….and one of the key issues that undermines Neo-Reformed theology.
And then…a horrific betrayal occurred by Andrew which sent me into the darkest season of my life.
Lydia's Corner: Micah 5:1-7:20 Revelation 7:1-17 Psalm 135:1-21 Proverbs 30:5-6