I grew up in a proud United Pentecostal Church family in the Bible Belt. Words and concepts like “holiness,” “shouting,” “anointing,” and “apostolic” were and are important in UPC circles. For those unfamiliar with the jargon, these terms stand for rigid codes of physical dress and behavior, highly physical expressions of worship, a belief that followers could be “in tune” with the Holy Ghost (speaking in tongues is required as “proof” of being filled with the Spirit, which is necessary for salvation), and a literal translation and application of the whole Bible (as interpreted through the book of Acts as a lens). I know some of this sounds tedious to outsiders. I know some of it sounds ridiculous. But it was my sub-culture, my world, from the moment of birth, and to me, the idea that we were right and the rest of the world was wrong—it was a self-evident fact.
The two most esteemed vocations in the UPC are musicians and ministers, those who facilitate worship and those who bring “truth.” Over the years, the organization has produced very accomplished songwriters, singers, and musicians. Many UPC choruses have been sung throughout Christendom, and many UPC musical artists have gone on to have successful careers. Naturally, I aspired to be one of them. I sang my first solo at the age of eight, began to teach myself piano in my teens, and became choir director of the local church at eighteen. Similarly, the organization has produced some powerful, widely recognized pulpiteers. Naturally, in an emotional youth camp service, with the bass and keyboards and vocalists building a powerful musical backdrop, with a skilled minister urging us on—“God is speaking to young men and young women tonight”—I felt that God was calling me to be a preacher. I’d heard of others receiving “the call” in a common vision. In it they saw themselves preaching to crowds of thousands. Such an obvious manifestation of ego causes me to shake my head now. I received a vision, too, but mine was even loftier. In my mind, I saw myself as a great bird, gliding on rising currents of air into the sky. The sky was God himself.
Go ahead. Roll your eyes. I had ample hubris of my own. But in the delusion of that sheltered, ignorant, fundamentalist kid was the hint of the heretic I would become. In that “vision” was the desire for the high, the noble, the transcendent, and wrapped up in that desire to climb was the belief that ascension would come through greater and greater revelations, through learning more and more about God.
I had no way of knowing that my push for constant self-betterment and the persistent questions of my hungry mind would lead me to revelations that destroyed my faith. While seeking to become more beautiful, I couldn’t help noticing the ugliness in scripture and in our insensitive dogmatic behavior. When inquiring after God, I couldn’t help seeing the cliché, the nonsensical, the shoddy construct in the answers I was given. Eventually I could no longer bring myself to call the pathetic caricature “God.”
I wish I had seen the whole pitiful truth all at once a long time ago. It would have saved me from a lot of bad decisions. But the process was incremental, epiphanies gathering, gathering, until their weight was undeniable. It was the accumulation of immoral behaviors by “the elect,” from old-fashioned Southern racism to the callous dealings with loved ones who “fell into sin.” It was the accumulation of scriptural discrepancies and horrors, the mismatched accounts and genealogies, the brazen endorsements of genocide, human sacrifice, and slavery. It was the accumulation of prayers that never got answered, of times in need when Heaven’s best and only help was indistinguishable from the work of family, friends, and neighbors. It was an accumulation of knowledge of “the world” (a negative term in the UPC) through my education, exposure to history, to philosophy, to the power and limitations of language, and to beautiful, genuine nonbelievers who behaved more “heavenly” than any zealot.
So here I am, still a pastor with very un-Christian ideas. I know that for someone to stand by as another is brutalized, when that bystander has the power to stop the crime—that is immoral. Yet I’m supposed to preach an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God in a world where pedophilia is big business. I know in any scheme that claims divine foreknowledge, prophecies, and predestination are true, free will is irrational. But I’m supposed to preach to “sinners” that they have a choice, God or sin, Heaven or Hell, bribe or punishment. For now, I stay away from topics related to the dogma. I teach on being good citizens, glorious human beings, successful adults. I seek to discourage the worst while inspiring the best in the church’s members. I do all of this while quietly waiting and working for the moment I’ll break away.