Out in the Open

Yesterday I wrote about a gay college friend who stayed closeted from me until our 25th reunion, though for much of that time, we were completely out of touch. Commenting on that blog post, another friend speculated about whether Scott was even out to himself in the 1980s, and wondered if coming out begins with oneself.


So there's the answer to the story problem. Now, of course, I've got to show my work. There's a lot of it.

This is about my personal journey of coming out agnostic. It starts in 1974, when I was on two parallel church-related tracks: confirmation and earning my God and Country badge, a religious emblem awarded by the Boy Scouts. Many eighth graders going through these initiation rites are fortunate enough to do them in a community of young people their own age. I was not. The church my father served in Emmett, Idaho was really too small to have a youth group, and I was the only Methodist in my Scout troop, so I was on my own with both these studies, which were taught by my pastor who, of course, just happened to be my father. Right at the age when young people begin questioning their parents' authority, mine was teaching me about faith.

I did everything I was supposed to: I studied the Bible, read the textbooks, filled out all the worksheets, did service projects, reflected as much as a 14-year-old can, and at the end of that time, two things happened: my father proudly pinned the God and Country medal to my uniform; and, several months later in Philomath, Oregon, where we had moved just after I finished the eighth grade, I was baptized in the only Methodist immersion baptistry in the Pacific Northwest after answering the required questions about believing in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the church, promising to be faithful to it with my prayers, my presence, my gifts, and my service.

I had hoped this would be a profound experience, that the heavens would open up, a dove would descend, and I'd hear the voice of God. Instead, I remember two things: the water in the baptistry was two hot, so my father could not get my head all the way under; and, since I was fully dressed during the baptism, I was now very very wet. And that is where my journey really began: even as I said the promises and took the vows, I felt like I was telling a lie.

I wanted to believe. That was never an issue. My grandmother was a saint whose faith had gotten her through a lifetime of difficulties, and her example was always before me. But I just didn't feel it.

Through high school and college, I continued to struggle. I never missed church--I was a dutiful preacher's kid--and I spent a portion of my own time reading the Bible and popular theology, trying to find the secret to faith. I had moments of inspiration, of feeling like I was on the verge of belief: feeling the embrace of a community at camp, among my friends, at church; crying out on my knees as life dealt me a harsh blow; reading of the faith journey of C.S. Lewis, another, far more prominent, skeptic. I'd almost have it in my grasp, and then it would slip away.

This is probably the main reason I went to seminary after just one year of teaching: I wanted to do my confirmation justice. I desperately wanted this elusive thing called faith. And in seminary, I found it, though again it was fleeting. Struggling with questions of identity, studying spirituality, engaging in disciplines of meditation and prayer, I came as close as I ever would to believing. I also acquired the tools to dismantle that belief: historical criticism, systematic theology, and an unflinching look at the history and polity of the church, corrupt, hypocritical, and more flawed than I'd ever allowed myself to know.

I came out of that experience preaching my doubts. I intentionally went with the hard texts, the passages in the Bible that had to be wrestled with, challenged, that forced readers to ask the same questions I'd been asking myself all along. These texts did not always yield satisfying answers. In fact, as the years went by, I found myself preaching to myself more and more; and while my sermons were always well received, I came to see that it was patently unfair to treat my congregation as my own personal theology experiment.

The doubting clergyman is an archetype well established in literature and the arts. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is a setting of texts by medieval ex-monks, and it is loaded with drinking, carousing, and corruption. Robin Hood's companion, Friar Tuck, is a hard-drinking hoodlum. The novels of the Romantic era teem with such characters, struggling with their own faith. Sometimes they are victorious; often they are not.

What I could not admit to myself as I went through counseling, spiritual direction, retreats, and continued to study great works of theology and spirituality, was that I never really had faith to begin with. Looking up at the stars, I had awe--who could not?--but faith had always eluded me. And lacking faith, I really had no business being a pastor.

The church got this, though not for the right reason. I was eventually pushed out of ministry because I did not connect well with parishioners unless they were going through some kind of crisis. For some reason--perhaps the empathy I wrote about yesterday--I did great work in hospitals and funeral homes; but when it came to dropping by for a chat, or just being friendly after church, I lacked the pastoral gene. So I was gently, but firmly, shown the exit in 2000, after fifteen years of going through the motions.

I landed in an intentional Christian community, where I continued to wrestle with these questions until that community closed up shop two years ago. I still wanted to believe, but now, I was finally realizing, I just didn't. And I don't.
I finally began admitting this to myself six years ago, the last time I really prayed. It was a deep, gut-wrenching prayer that sought something very specific. That which I prayed for, I lost. One could look at this as meaning that the prayers of those seeking the other outcome trumped my own, and God chose them over me. Maybe that's how things work, though if it is, that's not a God I want anything to do with.

There is one other explanation for the failure of my prayer to receive an answer, any answer: nobody was listening. This is what I've suspected all my life. As hard as I've prayed at times, I've never known for certain that God was listening. Quite the contrary, in fact. I've had a rare sense of presence in the experience, but for the most part, it's felt completely one-way, as if I'm pouring myself out into a vacuum. I'm not talking about half-hearted prayers here. These were prayers from the gut, from the anguish of my soul, sobbing, even wailing, my petition to a deity who, I've been told, hears all prayers and, more importantly, answers them.

I got no answers. And the least a loving God could do--the very least--would be a simple, "Sorry, no."

Six years ago, I finally admitted to myself that I had never known a prayer to be answered, and probably never will. There's nobody picking up when I dial God.

Mind you, I'm not saying there's nobody "up there," "out there," or even "in here." As Louis CK has said, how can anyone know for certainty that there's NOT a God? All I know is that, whether or not there is one, he/she/it is not talking to me, and never has.

So there it is, friends: I'm an agnostic. It took me half a lifetime to accept this about myself, but now that I have, I'm putting it out there for all to see. Or for at least the 20 people who read this.


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