How I Scared My Pastor – And Learned That He Was Afraid Of The Truth
This is an excerpt from “Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ Was An Amateur. How I Cracked The Christian Code And Found… Nothing”, a book which I am currently in the process of writing. I hope you enjoy it.
Many years ago, I was a college student and devout Christian Evangelical (we called ourselves “Fundamentalists” in those days). I was a member of a mid-sized Christian church that was a member of one of the largest conservative Christian denominations, and was located in the suburbs of a large city in the “Bible Belt” of the southern United States.
The minister, whom I shall call Pastor Ray (a pseudonym), was a very nice man who was about the same age as my parents. He had a “Master of Divinity” degree from the denomination’s largest and most well-respected seminary, and many other impeccable conservative Christian credentials.
Pastor Ray wore a calm, attentive, serene demeanor, which never left him. No matter what happened, he was always “on” – he maintained that “pastoral” countenance at funerals, weddings, births, worship services - everywhere. Even when the Youth Director wrecked the church bus with him and me and the entire Youth Group in it (without seat belts), nothing flustered Pastor Ray.
Pastor Ray really knew how to preach the Bible. He would weave its messages into sermons which were a delightful combination of entertainment, instruction and inspiration. My friends and I would sit in one of the front-row pews and take notes, which we would study afterwards in order to glean every detail of insight and wisdom. I and most of my friends were college students, so this note-taking and studying came naturally.
We note-takers eventually realized, however, that Pastor Ray only had four sermons:
• Trust Jesus
• Come To Jesus
• Trust Jesus and Come To Jesus
• Come To Jesus and Trust Jesus
But he changed things around enough so that most people never noticed, and his delivery was so good that nobody (including us note-takers) cared if he repeated himself. Besides, we all believed that God spoke through him, and who were we to question what God was telling him to preach?
“Absolute truth” was another common theme in his sermons. His sermons frequently expounded on his belief that you could only trust the Bible and God. “Secular Humanism” could not be trusted, nor could anything else that humans had created, because only God was perfect and unchanging, and Jesus was truth personified (John 10:10).
He said that we could apply the “fruits test” to things to see whether they were true. This was based on Matthew 7:16-18, where Jesus is quoted as saying, “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit”
The “Fruits Test” made a lot of sense to me and my friends, and it was frequently reinforced by Pastor Ray’s sermons and Sunday school lessons.
I was majoring in science, so I spent every day with people who devoted their lives to scientific research. These people were dedicated to finding scientific truth. The power of these scientific truths was self-evident and undeniable. Science’s search for truth has given enormous benefits to humanity: vaccination, antibiotics, sanitation, electricity, engineering, modern transportation, telecommunications, and a myriad of others. I saw no conflict between science and my conservative Christian beliefs, because I believed that science helped me get to know God more deeply by understanding His creation (Romans 1:20, Psalm 19:1).
Science passed the “Fruits Test” with an A+++. Except, of course, that the “scientific method” (observation, experimentation, evidence) was a very different method for finding “truth” than the Bible’s dependence on faith (Hebrews 11:1). But I decided that that was one of those mysteries that God would help me understand some time in the future. I took it on faith that there was no contradiction between the scientific method and my Christian beliefs.
I prayed a lot during that time of my life, because the Bible commanded Christians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). This included constant dialogue with God (I believed), while I was walking to class, eating, or any other activity, as well as daily “quiet times” when me and my Bible were “alone with God”. My prayers included a lot of questions, asking God to help me understand the Bible and other things.
One thing that I prayed a lot about was for God to give me guidance about what to do with my life – did He want me to be a minister, doctor, scientist, teacher, or something else?
This was a huge issue for me, as it is for many Christian college students. The problem was that I never could get God to give me a consistent answer. One day, I would feel Him “leading” me to do one thing, the next day, I would feel Him “leading” me towards something entirely different. Maybe God was “leading” me to combine all of these: I could be a medical missionary and teach at a third-world medical school where I could also do research. I could not get Him to give me any answer about that one either.
Finally, God gave me a revelation!
I decided that I heard the “voice of God” telling me that He wanted me to devote my life to trying to find the truth, of every kind, whether it was scientific, theological or any other kind.
Admittedly, this was not very specific. It could include any one of literally thousands of careers. But it was a start. The deciding factor, what really convinced me that this really was the Voice of God talking to me, was that it was consistent. As I “prayed without ceasing”, I heard God (I believed) saying over and over “I want you to find the truth”. I heard God saying this to me dozens of times every day. (I didn’t literally “hear” it with my ears. It was a thought that popped loudly into my mind.)
For the first time in 5 years of being a Born-Again Christian, I felt like God was speaking to me. I was thrilled.
I didn’t tell anyone because I wanted to be sure it was God talking. I’d been to lots of “prayer meetings” where people made complete fools of themselves by saying that “God” had simply told them whatever they wanted to hear. That was worse than foolishness. It was heresy.
After several weeks, however, this message from God had been frequent and consistent, which convinced me that two-way communication with God had finally been established, and that it really was God telling me to devote my life to trying to find the truth.
Who should I tell first? How should I tell them? What should I say? After much prayer, I decided that my beloved minister, Pastor Ray, should be the first to know about this milestone in my walk with Christ.
I felt very close to Pastor Ray. He had been like a second father to me. Actually, he was in some ways closer than my father. Although my Dad was a very good father, he was not a Christian. So there were important parts of my life that I could share with Pastor Ray, but not with my Dad.
My church and denomination did not say very much about God talking to people in modern times. They believed that God talked to lots of people in Biblical times, but today, not so much. They never explained why. They just gave people that, “I’m being nice to you but you’re a wacko,” look whenever someone said that God spoke to them. So I had to come up with the right terminology.
It was ok to say, “God has led me to…” do things. So that’s what I decided to say.
The next Sunday, I made the 90 minute drive from my college campus back to my home church to tell Pastor Ray the good news.
I didn’t expect this to be a surprise to him. After all, finding God’s Truth was what he had been telling us to do in his sermons. At least, I thought it was. I was actually a little worried that he would be underwhelmed by what I said.
About a half-hour after the Sunday morning worship service ended, most of the people had left and I found Pastor Ray picking up church bulletins out of the pews. I walked into the next row of pews and helped him pick up bulletins for a couple of minutes, while we exchanged small talk.
Then I said, as nonchalantly as I could, “I have really been praying that God would give me some direction about my career, and I believe that He has answered my prayers.” I said.
“That’s wonderful,” Pastor Ray replied, “What have you decided?”
“I have decided to follow the truth wherever it leads”, I responded.
Pastor Ray looked at me like he had seen the Devil himself. His eyes grew large and his face flushed a bright red. His immutable “pastoral” face mutated into contorted fear. He grabbed his church bulletins and his Bible, and left the Sanctuary in a walk that was almost running, without ever saying a word. He was a short, rotund man who never exercised. His hasty exit reminded me of Bilbo Baggins being chased by a dragon.
I just stood there, trying to understand what I had said that could possibly have upset him so much. After much rumination, I had no answer.
Five minutes before, I would have bet a semester’s worth of scholarship money that no power on Earth could cause Pastor Ray to lose his “Ministerial Face” for a nanosecond. Now, I felt like checking my head and butt for horns and a tail.
That evening, after Sunday night church, I went to a coffee shop with my good friend Phil (another pseudonym). Phil was a member of my church, a layman who was about 25 years older than me. He had earned a Master of Divinity degree at the same seminary as Pastor Ray, but he had never been ordained as a minister. He worked for a large, non-religious business downtown. Although we were very close friends, he rarely spoke about his own beliefs, and he politely declined whenever I asked him to help teach any of our youth Bible studies.
Phil broke into uproarious laughter when I told him about my conversation with Pastor Ray. I was more dumbfounded than ever. It took Phil a couple of minutes to stop laughing long enough to speak. Then he had to wipe the tears from his eyes and catch his breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I know this is important to you. I hope I didn’t hurt your feelings.”
“No,” I managed to emit a confused mumble.
“If you had been a student at the seminary that Pastor Ray and I were, you would understand,” he began to explain.
“You’re going about it backwards,” he continued. “Christians aren’t supposed to start with truth and find God, they are supposed to start with God and let God – actually God’s ministers - tell them the truth.”
“But if God and truth are the same thing, it shouldn’t matter,” I replied. “Jesus said that He was truth personified in John 10:10. So why can’t you start at either end, or at both ends and work towards the middle? This is simple math.”
“If Jesus = Truth, then Truth = Jesus”, I continued.
“Well, that’s what I did when I was in seminary,” he said. “I started with the facts, hoping to find the truth. It didn’t work out. In fact, it led me to conclusions that were completely different from what I expected. I don’t talk about it, because it upsets my wife. So don’t ask. But, if you are more committed to truth than to Jesus, you won’t end up where Pastor Ray wants you to.”
“Where will I end up,” I mused.
“I can’t say, but Pastor Ray won’t like it, wherever it is,” Phil replied.
“But there has to be more to it than that,” I said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. He was SCARED of me.”
“That’s because you’re contagious,” Phil explained. “They warned us about this when we were in seminary. ‘Warn’ is too tame a word. They scared us shitless about it. It’s poison for a minister’s career. Worse than poison, actually. More like the Black Plague – highly contagious and painfully deadly.”
“This kind of thing spreads faster than the Plague,” he continued, “Once you start looking for truth, you start asking lots of questions that have the ‘wrong’ answers, from a Bible-believing point of view. Other people start listening to you and it makes perfect sense to them, so they start doing it too and it snowballs into an avalanche. The minister loses control of things when the church members start to think for themselves.”
“We heard stories about churches losing every member of their college groups, or their biggest donors withdrawing their support. When that happens, pastors can lose their jobs and get permanently blacklisted in the denomination. Sometimes, even pastors lose their faith, then they find out that they are middle aged have no marketable skills. Pastor Ray has a wife and three children to support. He can’t afford that,” Phil was trying to explain, but I felt more overwhelmed with every word.
“Have you ever been to Faith Church?” Phil asked. Faith Church (yet another pseudonym) was a large, old church in our denomination, located several miles away in a middle-class section of town.
I said that had never been there, but I knew about it because one of my best Christian friends, whom I’ll call Vic, had been “disinvited” to teach Sunday school after teaching there for several years. He was a very sincere Christian, a ministerial student and a graduate of our denomination’s local university with a Bachelor’s Degree in “Ministerial Studies”.
“So you know about Vic,” Phil observed. “Do you know why they asked him to leave?”
I repeated what Vic had told me: they never told him why, but they threatened to “ruin” his ministerial career if he ever tried to contact anyone in his former Sunday School. He respected their prohibition, but invitations for “interim” and “substitute” preaching jobs that Vic had been getting for several years, from churches all over the state, suddenly dried up. He had to get a job delivering pizzas to pay his bills.
“I work with several guys from Faith Church,” Phil replied, “So I know what people were saying. I know Vic very well, and I know that he is a good friend of yours. I am absolutely certain that not one bit of those rumors can possibly be true, but I think I was able to dig through all of the BS and figure out what really happened. If Vic doesn’t want to tell you about it, it’s not my place to tell you either. But you know Vic and you know what just happened to you. You can probably guess the rest.”
Now I was the one who had to catch my breath. I thought I had been doing God’s will. But Phil was one of my best friends, a smart guy whom I really respected, whom I looked up to because he was older and more experienced than I was, who knew more about Christianity from the “inside” than I did. And he was telling me …. What was he telling me?
Phil and I continued this conversation for a long time, long enough for the waitress to refill our (decaffeinated) coffee cups several times. It was clear that he was not going to disrespect my beliefs and that he was not going to say anything about his own beliefs that would upset his “Christian relatives”.
But it was equally clear that I had unintentionally stumbled into something very unexpected about Christianity, something that was very dark and ugly, though I had no idea what it was or where it might lead.
• Could this by why the Sunday School and other training materials were so shallow?
• Did this explain why Pastor Ray’s sermons and the Youth Director’s Sunday night “Youth Training” only discussed the same few dozen Bible verses over and over?
• Was this why none of us high school or college students could get straight answers to our questions?
• Was this the reason that the church library and denominational book store did not contain a single book about the evidence for Christianity?
I eventually said “Good night” to Phil and drove back to college in complete confusion.
I had felt very close to Pastor Ray before this. He had been like a second father to me. After that day, however, he would barely speak to me.