Attempting to decipher old stones…

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older

The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated

Of dead and living. Not the intense moment 

Isolated, with no before and after,

But a lifetime burning in every moment

And not the lifetime of one man only

But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.

There is a time for the evening under starlight,

A time for the evening under lamplight

(The evening with the photograph album).

Love is most nearly itself

When here and now cease to matter.

Old men ought to be explorers

Here and there does not matter

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

-T.S. Eliot

 East Coker, from The Four Quartets V

Jesus once told a story about two people building a home in two very different locations. One builder chose to erect his home on a rock, while the other chose sand. Not long after completing their homes a natural disaster struck, and the wind pelted each edifice with all its fury. In the aftermath, only the home built on the rock remained. The story is a simple one designed to communicate the truth that what one builds isn’t nearly as important as where one builds. For nearly five decades I’ve been constructing this life as best I can with the tools given to me by my genetics, experiences, and education. At times these tools have been both helpful and hurtful to my goals in constructing a life, and at times I’ve had to undo much in order to redo something of lasting significance. Also, at times I’ve had to leave half-finished projects and start all over again, returning to bits and pieces collected at different times from various sources in hopes that ultimately where I’ve chosen to build my life is of greater importance than what I’m constructing. Of even greater importance is why.

Jesus’ simple story with a profound truth reveals that sometimes well-intentioned people mistake sand for rocks, and even though much time, effort, and energy are spent in constructing a massive, complex and palatial estate, it falls apart when scrutinized by the winds of adversity or critical inquiry. No matter how professional the workmanship or attention to detail, in the end it is the foundation that matters. And while every human system erected to serve the needs of people reveals some cracks and weaknesses that are prone to failure, religious institutions that are built on faulty notions of dogmatic assertions of certainty tend to crumble with exceedingly violent results, exacting tremendous harm on the human soul. 

I have listened to numbers of people share stories of excruciating costs debited to them because of their experiences in the United Pentecostal Church. I also know at least an equal number of people who would testify their experiences have been wonderful, enriching, and beneficial in both temporal and (based upon expectations of those beliefs) eternal ways. For me the Pentecostal experience has been a mixed bagSo it is with some trepidation that I write these words. Because I know that what I may assume to be rock solid conclusions could be tectonic plates shifting beneath my feet. After all, it is possible for people to start at the same place and end up in vastly different positions, or in positions separated only slightly by degree. 

I was Apostolica self-proclaimed label designed to differentiate us from other Christians. I embraced the label and all that entailed, including dress and behavioral codes, including an emphasis on ecstatic emotional experiences with little understandings of biblical, historical, or cultural nuances. These characteristics coupled with dogmatic allegiance to pastoral authority and social isolation fueled the atmospheric prerequisite, thereby setting up a perfect storm of psychological angst and truncated social and mental development. I am now a heretic of sorts. The word heretic has been defined throughout history as one who deviates from orthodoxy—and when it comes to Apostolic Pentecostal orthodoxy, I am indeed a heretic. Ironically their pseudo-orthodoxy is at odds with historic Christianity, a difference that I became acutely aware of early in my life. 

Growing up in a small United Pentecostal Church in rural Arkansas afforded me a front-row seat to the differences that defined us from others in the greater Christian community. My earliest memories are those of sitting in my mother’s lap and bringing her hands together in rhythmic clapping to the distinctive musical styles which emphasized feeling rather than thinking. Not all of this was bad. I believe there is a value to understanding the strengths of emotional catharsis as individuals, and had it not been for these formative experiences, I may have well been tempted to relegate my relationship with the God of the universe, the very God I believe created me as an emotional creature, to the sphere of intellectual categorical imperatives alone. But what was problematic about our worship experiences, besides being appropriated in large part from the Black Christian community, is that the collective cathartics reinforced a group allegiance to skewed misunderstandings of the Bible that were then leveraged to enforce dysfunctional group dynamics—dynamics that negatively impacted (according to numerous testimonies) the emotional, physical, and mental wellbeing of many who experienced our brand of Apostolic Pentecostalism. Additionally, even though many of the biblical positions my church embraced turned out to be inventions of fiction, I did receive the gift of biblical literacy, a tool that would later inform my exit from the church. 

At the time, this currency of biblical literacy provided an entrance into a larger world of expectations of ministry within our church. With my additional giftings in oratory, not only was I in a position to know what the Bible said, but I could share this knowledge with others effectively, and in a way that served to encourage, inspire, or otherwise influence those who listened to what I had to say. For me, this also functioned as social capital that I could not come by otherwise as my family wasn’t wealthy or well connected. And while my intentions were sincere, upon reflection I cannot help but consider what deeper motivations informed my declaration to pursue public ministry at such an early age. No doubt, these motivations were intrenched as a result of being a child who was naturally introverted and preoccupied by imaginary worlds constructed within me, with little capacity for engaging the realities that most of the adults in my life, and peers for that matter, found all consuming. As a result, the extent of any apprenticeship into the world of labor and skill, as taught by my father, most often defaulted to me holding a flashlight for him over his focus of attention, while I drifted aimlessly in my own thoughts. My uselessness when it came to such pedestrian matters was summed up perfectly by my pastor some years later in describing me to a friend of his: “Scot is good at coming up with ideas, but nothing practical.” My propensity for heavenly mindedness yet very little earthy good, would serve me well in ecclesiastical occupations albeit devoid of any real remuneration. To take dramatic liberty with Matthew 6:20, I was busy “laying up my treasures in heaven” but simultaneously “moth and rust were destroying” what little I had gathered, and “thieves breaking into steal” weren’t far behind. Indeed, for more than one reason, even if I had wanted to, I could not serve “God and mammon.” 

Not having any natural motivation for money put me at odds with many church folks who saw the pursuit of material and financial betterment as a means of moving our marginalized faith community into the mainstream of acceptability. Lacking a proclivity for manual labor of any kind insured I would be at odds with most in our rural culture and that, additionally, any residual motivations of upward mobility would go unmet, prophetically self-fulfilling my belief that a life of ministry and its accompanying poverty would be my lot. There was no category for philosophers or scholars in my world. I didn’t know of anyone who took these occupations seriously. The only time I heard these categories referenced were in relation to Bible passages that warned against such pursuits of the mind, like Colossians 2:8 KJV “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” 

I had no concept that time, talent, and circumstance, fueled by a natural curiosity about the world, would eventually lead me to occupying the office of a university professor—a profession well described as “one of the last monastic disciplines: it offers long hours, a hermetic lifestyle, and low pay in exchange for a life of the mind.” This “life of the mind” I now credit as one of the key catalysts that eventually led to me exiting the United Pentecostal Church, but not before I experienced many years of attempting to piece together a living by forging an identity for myself as an Apostolic Pentecostal preacher. I’ve gotten a bit ahead of myself in this story, because my now adult identity continues to be shaped by my formative experiences. Perhaps thanks in small part to the angst of puberty, the seeds of change were being sewn in me. 

When I graduated high school, I opted for one of my denomination’s Bible training schools, we mistakenly called a Bible college. Upon reflection it had little to do with any actual understanding of the Bible and even less to do with anything resembling college. I headed as far west of Arkansas as I could imagine at nineteen, landing in Stockton, California, at Christian Life College owned by Christian Life Church, at the time one of our denomination’s largest churches. It was as if someone had transported me into a different universe where everything was familiar yet much larger, diverse, and certainly more exciting in scale compared to anything I had experienced in rural Arkansas. In Stockton, I was treated to a repeat course of most of what I had learned in my small Pentecostal church. However, the experiences in Stockton did serve to expand my horizons beyond my limited scope of Northeastern Arkansas, and in a way contributed to redefining my thinking about just how many opportunities exist in the world. To this end, there were a couple of instructors at the college that served to challenge my thinking. Daniel Seagraves opened my eyes to consider a different perspective on the Trinity and Loren Yadon taught me to consider the grace of God as the center of God’s work in my life as opposed to my own efforts. 

Seagraves taught many of the classes that centered on the dogmas of the UPC, but one class addressed what our tiny denomination taught about the nature of God. We were Oneness Pentecostals who rejected the historical understanding of God as Triune Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and instead saw God as one who changed roles throughout history revealing himself in different ways. The distinctions were often subtle and could easily be dismissed as semantics, but as Oneness people, this doctrine was tied to our identity of being elite Christians if not the only Christians. We were taught to believe those who embraced the doctrine of the Trinity believed in Tritheism, rejecting a central truth of biblical fidelity found in Deuteronomy 6:4; “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.” This also informed the development of the doctrine that caused a historic split with the Assemblies of God in the early part of the twentieth century, and the doctrine central to our identity that in order to be saved one had to baptized by immersion exclusively in the name of Jesus. This was a doctrine I fervently believed, and it shaped the way I read and interpreted Scripture, to the point that it was exceedingly difficult for me to comprehend the doctrine of the Trinity for many years after departing the UPC.

But Seagraves helped me understand in those early days of my Bible College experience that those who believed in the doctrine of the Trinity weren’t adherents to tritheism, but equally believed in the monotheistic God of the Bible just as we did. However, Seagraves did maintain that our understanding of the nature of God was superior to those trinitarians and that we were right, and they were wrong. It wasn’t until many years later and after much reflection and study did I come to embrace the historical understanding of the Trinity, that the one God was three in person, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And although it took me a while to get there, I can now say unequivocally that this understanding has given me a more robust appreciation for the God that I worship. 

In addition to Daniel Seagraves, another instructor, Loren Yadon, was instrumental in planting seeds that would later flourish into a harvest of thoughts that would lead to my exit from the UPC. Yadon opened my understanding, unlike anyone else, to the doctrines of God’s grace. As he would slowly and methodically unpack the epistles of Paul, specifically the books of Galatians and Ephesians, my mind was convicted and my heart was transformed by these truths. The beautiful truth of Ephesians 2:8 was no longer just a “throw away” verse central to the doctrines of lesser Christians, but it was a Magna Carta of dynamic power that served to set me on a journey that would eventually free me from the shackles of legalistic Christianity. This verse in Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—” along with the verses that followed it, would become the key that would serve to unlock the rest of the epistles and dismantle my fraudulent indoctrinations. 

A few years later, Yadon was abruptly dismissed from teaching at the college and moved to Idaho to pastor a church. It was at his son’s wedding, where I served as a groomsman, that he and I had an opportunity to openly discuss some of the issues surrounding the formation of the United Pentecostal Church. It was Loren Yadon who first explained to me, after over two decades of being active in the UPC, that originally the organization wasn’t defined by its insistence on a three-step plan of salvation—a plan based on a specific interpretation of Acts 2:38, that included baptism exclusively in Jesus’ name and the assertion that the infilling of the Holy Ghost was something that happened subsequent to repentance and was always accompanied by the phenomenon of speaking in tongues. I remember hearing these words in this context for the first time in my life as a teacher I respected looked at me and said with conviction, “We are saved by God’s grace. Period.” The dissonance I felt at that moment nearly caused me to literally fall off his couch. 

But Oliver Wendell Holms Jr. was right: “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” My mind was stretched, and my heart would follow. My brief time at Bible school granted me a few opportunities to engage my giftings and get noticed. I was the only freshmen to have been selected to preach in chapel and this served yet another confirmation of the direction my life would take into ministry. 

Convinced that there were ample opportunities for me, I left the Bible school in less than two years and returned home to get married, my wife to be and I had been dating off and on since having met at a church youth rally. She was of our religious stripe but from outside my local church and belonged to another small oneness Pentecostal group. Candy is a gifted singer and musician, and the marriage seemed an obvious match to me, a match that in retrospect was conditioned more by ministry aspirations than by anything else. We both agree now we rushed things and were very naïve in our motivations to get married. These decisions would impact us throughout our marriage, decisions that were tightly connected to maintaining appearances for the sake of ministry and influence, neither of which ever came in ample supply. Don’t get me wrong: we both contributed to difficulties within our relationship, like every married couple in the history of marriage we have our ups and downs, but I’m convinced these issues were magnified by the demands of ministry in an unhealthy church environment. 

There was this unspoken expectation within the United Pentecostal Church that if you play by the rules and pay your dues good things will come your way. The essence of my lament isn’t that there weren’t some good things that did come our way, but that ultimately my youth, our youth, was spent in service to a system that made promises it never intended to keep. And whereas I can’t say I regret these experiences, because every experience is formative to who we are now, I will say that there is a great deal of anguish and sorrow when I consider the years I invested in the church and ministry thinking these were the expectations of God and that my relationship with Him was dependent upon my service. I was attempting to please men, mistaking them for God. But this was what I was conditioned to believe, and I pursued it with enthusiasm. 

For over two decades, my wife and I served as traveling evangelists, anchored by serving in the church I grew up in, filling a variety of ministry roles as youth pastor and all-around assistant pastor, eventually serving in every capacity within the church except for senior pastor. I gained a great deal of experience that would be applicable in many of the roles I would occupy later in life, so for all that experience I’m grateful, but what I now understand, and in retrospect seems obvious, is that the pastor we served wasn’t all that interested in helping us achieve any kind of ministry advancement. On the few occasions I did have an opportunity to pastor a church of my own or to accept a position with another church, the opportunities mysteriously disappeared, or we were convinced that staying where we were was the “will of God.” There is much that can be said about these years, but I’m still processing a lot of what I learned and experienced. What is evident in continuing to unpack the implications of our brand of fundamentalism is that the exploration of these experiences reveals multiple impacts on my mental wellbeing.

For example, sometimes I feel lost. Sometimes I feel anxious. My heart rate quickens. Sometimes I feel like this even in church. What should be a sacred and safe place becomes an emotional trigger. This shouldn’t be, right? 

I remember once reading about a man with a withered hand who stepped forward in the Synagogue where Jesus was preaching. Jesus miraculously straightened it out. Like that man’s hand, sometimes my life feels withered. I think to myself “I really need Jesus to straighten it out.” Some may perhaps point to these feelings as a result of leaving “the truth” of my formative religious experience. It is also possible that the feelings are simply everyday stressors negatively amplified by those formative religious experiences. 

I experience these kinds of challenges in many aspects of life, and it is often difficult to differentiate between what is normal and what is exacerbated by early assertions and embrace of dogmatic religious positions—positions that promised a certainty that have proven anything but certain when these adverse gales bluster. I feel like these winds hammer my relationships. Ironic how unrestrained religion has a way of ruining our relationships with God and with others. I’m still attempting to make sense of it all. What is true, what is propaganda, what is false, and what is mere wishful thinking? Not that there is anything wrong with thinking wishfully, as this is the stuff of enchantment, and it is wonderful when it is found again. But it does seem to be a scarce commodity as life in general has a way of complicating everything. Life plus time can equal despair if we lose sight of hope. While I don’t think I’ve lost sight at times it is blurry, as the fog can be thick these days. 

I sometimes wonder how those who directly interacted with Jesus managed the emotions they must have experienced. I wonder what that man with the withered hand felt? I wonder if he was embarrassed when Jesus called him forward. Was he able to even focus on the words of Christ, or did he suddenly become exclusively self-centered, as many of us do when singled out in front of a crowd? I wonder how long this man had silently suffered wondering if anyone really cared about his circumstance. Was this his first time at Synagogue, or was he a regular, seeking a small amount of meaning in the solace of religion?

Jesus gave a simple command to the man, “Stretch forth your hand.” Of course, it was an impossible ask. Those who are withered cannot stretch. But miraculously as the man made the attempt, he was healed. This is what I’m attempting to do. Through reflection and writing, I’m attempting to stretch all the withered parts of me. Maybe this is by divine design? Perhaps God uses our feeble attempts at impossible tasks to straighten out the truncated emotions and failed actions of the past and give purpose to our suffering redefining our present and providing hope for the future. This is what I choose to believe. 

I continue to emerge from half a lifetime of attempting to construct a house of faith. Unlike my former home, my present dwelling isn’t as ascetically pleasing. The furniture is mismatched, some second hand and mostly antique—not antique like a high-end gentry collection, but more like pieces handed down from one generation to the next. To complete the set of three worn chairs an out of sorts stool supports my resolve as I sit at a plywood dining table.  The accoutrements are less colorful. There are some glaring holes in the walls; the ceiling is sagging in places and the carpet is of the green shag variety. There are books strewn about, and my Bible still rests on my nightstand, as I do still give myself to reading. My bed is adequately warm, contentedly so. I’m still working on the old place as time and opportunity allows, it’s a work in progress. But I don’t worry much because, unlike before, I’m now confident the foundation is secure. 

“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand

When darkness veils His lovely face
I’ll rest on His unchanging grace
In every high and stormy day
My anchor holds within the veil

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand”

Home sweet home. 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s