Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Year of the Rabbit

This is long, but it is a chapter from my book Butterflies in the Belfry. I've posted the whole chapter because it does describe how my great disillusionment with Evangelicalism and my state of confusion began.

When we arrived in Cairo, our two youngest sons, Bryan and Daniel, were ages four and two respectively. Denise was also seven months pregnant with our third child son. As soon as we got on our feet we had to start making arrangements for his birth.

Tyler came into this world without any complications but it was his older brother, Daniel that soon became quite ill. His illness lasted throughout our two, long, arduous years in Egypt, and during the months leading up to Curt’s visit, he had been very near death on one occasion. I think it was typhoid. To have a very seriously ill child, while being alone in a strange country, was deeply draining on our spirits and emotions. In our desperation, after ten months Denise broke Curt’s mandate and called her parents for help. They were quickly on their way.

Within weeks of the worst period of Daniel’s illness, I personally became very sick. I had been working with ill children in a slum known as the “Village of Garbage” and was exposed to a lot of infectious diseases. I succumbed to meningitis on the day that Denise went to the Cairo International Airport to pick up her parents.

I knew that something was wrong when I got up that morning and had a terrible headache and fever. By ten o’clock I had become so ill that could not accompany Denise to flag a taxi and fetch her parents. By the time she returned, after three hours, I was on the verge of unconsciousness. It was extremely scary for her to have her two-year-old son and now her husband so sick with only a broken Third-world health care system for assistance. The good news was that Denise’s parents were there to help with Bryan and Daniel while she attended to me.

I spent the next week laying on a foam pad, the place where I originally collapsed, sequestered in the sweltering boys’ bedroom as our make-shift hospital room. An Egyptian doctor visited me each morning and brought me cups of pills . . . some of them I took, but when I was of my better senses, some I brushed under my pad. I knew that there were no pills that would treat viral meningitis except to dampen the senses and bring temporary comfort.

As I was recovering, I next came down with a very painful case of shingles across my face. Daniel, simultaneously, started taking another turn for the worse. Denise, fortunately a nurse by training, bounced between Daniel and me, plus attempted to provide her parents with some needed hospitality and orientation to this radically different (from Minnesota farmland) culture.
The grand finale in our bad health saga was Denise’s father himself. On the eve of his departure back to the states, after I was on my way to full recovery, he collapsed. He was having a very significant heart arrhythmia, which put us in the middle of another medical nightmare on the heels of mine and with Daniel continuing to decline.

There was no “911" number to call for Denise’s father, no emergency rooms to drive to and few friends to call for help. We did get an IV started in his bedroom and eventually get his transported to and admitted to a hospital with a makeshift cardiology unit. But, after all of that, what were the few words spoken in a Chinese restaurant that became my breaking point?

When I found out that Curt was in Egypt on personal business, I was desperate to talk to him. Denise and I both felt that we were on an unsustainable path and I came that night asking him for mercy. Denise and I had decided that we wanted to finish our difficult assignment in Egypt and join the rest of the team in Cyprus as soon as possible. We wanted to reunite the boys with their clothes and toys and get a hold of the diapers and other baby equipment that we had shipped to Cyprus a year earlier. Most of all we wanted fellowship and peers that we could talk to.

I took the hour train ride into the heart of the city that night, repeating over and over, in my mind—and even audibly at times—the words that I wanted to say to him.

I will never forget Curt’s response to my petition. He looked at me and smiled, “Uh Mike, I have a new assignment for you and Denise . . . Sana, Yemen. So really, you won’t ever be joining us in Cyprus.” He paused for another drink of his green tea and sloshed it around in his mouth as I sat speechless. Stirring his noodles with his chopstick he added, “But one thing I’ve learned over the years, women don’t handle these changes very well.” Pointing his chopstick at my face he concluded, “Lie to Denise and tell her you are moving her to Cyprus . . . then surprise her when you arrive in Sana.” His smile evolved into a chuckle and then sipped his tea again.

Before the words had finished passing his parted lips, I began to feel a tightness building in my chest . . . and a warm, flushed feeling in my face. I had known of Curt for ten years . . . known him personally for three, but I had never said an unpleasant word to him. I believed that it was wrong to do such . . . to say unkind words to a bother or to even harbor anger. But, on that night it took every once of strength in my body to hold back a flood of vile verbiage or possibly a punch in his face. The few words that did slip out still took Curt by surprise, “I’m fed up with your crap! I’m not taking orders from you any more!” I said in more of a whisper than a shout. My throat was acting as a high pressure valve on fire hose, turning gently to let a few, soft words slip out while guarding against an uncontrolled explosion pressing against the brass like a torrent. Being a “godly man,” my intentions were for my behavior to reflect that.

He immediately stood up, handling me a bundle of envelopes tied with a string, “Here’s your mail.” Then he said to his friend, “Let’s get out of here.”

I stood up too, shaking . . . shaking so hard that I couldn't say another word. Curt noticed my quiet distress and his parting words to me were, “If you have a problem with my orders, Mike . . . well, write me a letter.” He then vanished into the chaotic streets of downtown Cairo. I didn’t hear from him again for almost another year.

The vertex on the imitation bamboo table began to spin and its suction escalated. Trying to escape its tug, I too exited the small restaurant. I left the fumes of wok-burnt soy and stepped into the dark and dusty air that hovers over the busy night streets of Cairo, saturated with the odd mix of fumes, motor exhaust, jasmine, campfire smoke, incense and rotting animal flesh.
But even outside, walking over the broken down sidewalks beneath the clusters of dusty palms, I felt myself continuing to fall and losing control and it was almost literal. The rabbit hole was following me and, like quick sand, there was no escaping the pull if its pit. I turned the corner and stepped off the side street into Medan Tahreer, the major square at the heart of downtown Cairo. Even at nine O’clock at night, it was a busy place, a perpetual activity of hundreds of walkers and drivers between bus and donkey riders. But in the midst of the chaotic masses, I had never felt so alone . . . and terrified. Not terrified of Curt or even of Egypt, but of the darkness that was beginning to percolate up through the hole, a darkness with had claws, scales and saber-like teeth. What was most scary was now realizing that the hole wasn’t in the imitation bamboo table, or even the restaurant, but in the middle of my own soul . . . and there was no escaping it. I refused to name the dark force, but I knew what it was . . . it was hate.

A mile away, I fixed my eyes on the metro train station, which was my transit home. I continued walking, but slower, now that I knew that I could not outrun the void. I heard the sound in my ears . . . on the left and on the right . . . before me and behind me . . . a soft thumping sound. It was my house of cards, one by one, starting to fall in slow motion. The cards had been carefully, but perilously put in place over a decade and a half with the faces pointing outward. There were the stoic kings, always in control and with a confident, purposeful. Below him, were the princes, serving with faithfulness and order. Finally, at the bottom, were the smiling jokers . . . who were the first to fall. One by one the whole house of cards of my Christian persona was starting to crumble. I kept walking, focusing my eyes on the sparks falling, like fireworks, from the overhead lines as subsequent electric-powered trains pulled from the station.

What was the meaning of those fifteen years of devotion? When I first came into the Christian fold, my mentor had shared with me a verse from II Corinthians 5:17 that I was a “new creature.” He went on to explain that all my past was erased and I was a blank slate of purity as a new Christian. I had felt that so reassuring because as a young man I had a lot of anger. My mentor, and the other Christians that I had spent time with, taught me a simple formula for Christian maturity, like a magic growing potion, “Time in the word = Christian maturity.” I had spent thousands of hours “in the word.” Thirty minutes of devotional time virtually every morning. I had memorized hundreds of Bible verses and spent literally thousands of hours in Bible study, not to mention all the other activities of “discipleship,” such as evangelism and prayer. I had experiences of being “Baptized in the Spirit” when I spent one year associating with a charismatic group. I had also attended hundreds of hours of workshops and classes, thousand of hours of lectures and sermons . . . and for what? Thump, thump, thump fell the cards before me, and behind me as I—in a zombie state—boarded the faded green train, which listed to one side from the broken springs, a consequence of chronic overloading.

I took a seat on the well-worn, red, vinyl seat. I had rarely sat on this train because when I usually rode it, commuting to Arabic classes, it was standing room only. At peak travel times, I was lucky to even get into the interior of the train. Once I hung on the outside with my toes on a 1/4 inch ledge and my fingernails grasping the chrome flange that framed in the window . . . as the train raced through the crazy maze of streets of Cairo. One slip on that day and I would have been crushed beneath the train . . . but on this night the danger seemed far more vicious. I really needed a seat. I could barely stand as the foundation beneath my feet was slowly crumbling away.

I hated Curt that night, with no less hate than I could have had the day before I came into the Christian fold. It was a hate that was no less than that of the militant Moslem Brotherhood, who I knew that wanted me—as an American—dead. I was always looking over my shoulder, trying to avoid them. But, on this night, I too felt murderous. If I were to hear that Curt’s Egypt Air flight, from Cairo to Cyprus had plunged into the warm, but suffocating Mediterranean, I would have felt some joy. As Jesus, in his wisdom noted, murder is hate’s twin brother. I could pretend sorrow, and even shed a Christian tear in public, but I knew, in my heart of hearts, that there would be at least some delight. This was the real doubt-inducing dilemma that I faced that night. I could rationalize Curt’s cruelty but the conundrum of my own hatred was inevitable.

Thump, thump, thump the cards continued to fall. What was the meaning of all the spiritual training, which I had received, from great men of faith? What was the significance of the six years I spent at a para-church training center, probably the most disciplined training center in Christendom outside some ascetic Turkish monastery of the tenth century. What had all of that self-denial, discipline and study gained me? How could I, the tabula rosa, still carry that evil nature that I had known so well before I had met Christ? Why was the magic formula for maturity not working? Why were all those dragons, which I thought I had slain, now raising their atrocious heads? Had I only clothed them in party dresses rather than crushed them with my sword?

What was wrong with me that I allowed my own family to suffer so much? I had always wanted to be the most perfect, loving father, but instead, my wife and especially my son had suffered tremendously in Egypt under my watch. How could I have allowed that to happen? Why hadn’t I stood up for them earlier?

I looked out the window and studied the continuous flow of humanity that lined the old tracks. Shiny plate glass windows of the fancy dress shops of Roxy were accented with homeless Boabs (door-men) that huddled in their dusty robes over a campfire fueled by trash with dinner—a single ear of burnt corn—being stirred in the coals. I saw my own reflection on the inside of the train window, faintly, ghost-like, superimposed over the alien world outside. I looked like, and was by that time, only a semitransparent shell.

By the time I was halfway home; all the cards had all fallen. The Christian Mike was gone. The stoic faces of kings, disciplined princes and joyful jokers were in disarray beneath my feet on the dirty floor of the listing metro train. But my fall down the hole didn’t stop there. Head over heel, with nothing to grab a hold of to arrest it, the fall continued. The muffled thumping had ended but I started to hear the subtle building of a replacing sound . . . a clicking.

The clicking was soft at first, but more comprehensive than the thumping. Was it real? Maybe it was the clicking of the wheels of the train over the fatigued joints of the old, iron rails. But the sound wasn’t real. In the eyes of my emotions . . . I didn’t see any more cards of my persona left to fall, but I did notice that the fabric of the whole Christian world was clicking as it was shifting and changing. Tiny threads of the fabric, like a scene from the movie The Matrix, were turning to, 1s and 0s and streaming downward like thin rows of white sand through an emptying hour glass. What was this? I was confused and horrified beyond fear as I watch my whole world dissolving before the eyes of my emotions.

But my disillusionment had spread, like a pandemic, outside my own persona . . . next to Curt. Three years earlier, when he first invited me to come to Cyprus under his leadership, I was so honored. I considered him one of the most godly, men-of-faith, within the Church. After all, he was a poster-child of commitment inside one of the most devoted organizations within Christendom. He alone had worked as a missionary during a very difficult and violent period of Beirut, when other Americans were being killed and kidnapped . . . and all other missionaries had fled Lebanon for their personal safety. Even his own wife and two daughters had fled, not hearing a word from their husband and father for over a year. I had heard about him, and his legends, long before I had met the man in person. He had been my hero.

Now, my Christian hero was appearing to me as a monster, one of the cruelest men I had ever known. But, how could I resolve this antithesis? The greatest man of God I had ever known . . . and also the most savage. Nothing was making sense anymore. My previous boss, in the U.S. was an agnostic Jew . . . but kind and loving to me and my family. The whole paradigm of my Christian world was crumbling under the weight of its own erroneous presuppositions.

After the hour train ride, we pulled into our stop. I had to move faster than I felt like moving or the train would leave with me still on board. My feet hit the fine, Sahara sand beside the tracks and I started my last two-hundred yard walk down the narrow street toward our flat. Click, click, click the fabric of my universe was continuing to come apart, digit by virtual digit . . . 1s and 0s falling in lines into the bottomless hole. I wanted to make it to my apartment and the safety of Denise’s arms before there was nothing left of me or of my world.

When I arrived at our flat, Denise, who was in bed, donned her housecoat when she heard me enter. “How did it go?” she asked with a hopeful smile. She knew that our future was to be determined that night and hopefully the end to our struggles.

“Horribly,” I said softly. I sat down on the couch and said again . . . even softer, “Just horribly.” Denise and I sat for a couple of hours . . . both of us dazed. As close as the two of us were, I couldn’t find a way to communicate what was happening inside of me. It was the beginning of something terrible and even I had no idea how dreadful it would eventually get. I sat up the entire night. Denise didn’t sleep either, but she returned to our bed to rest.

Between the hours of two and four in the morning were the only times that our apartment’s interior temperature’s were bearable during the summer. Click, click, click it continued in the coolness of the early morning until the break of the sun over the eastern desert and the rooftops of the apartment buildings that neighbored ours. Even the face of God was starting to blur and change. Who was He? Did I really know Him? Was He really there after all?

I had learned of God as a loving father, who had control of everything, even the very hairs of my head. But that He too was the rewarder of those who do good and a punisher of those who do evil. Hadn’t I done good?

For fifteen years, following God’s will had been my highest desire. I knew that I wasn’t perfect, but I was sincere. I had sought out the toughest Christian disciplining programs. I, with my family, had given up a good job, lived out of a V.W. Vanagon for almost two years while we raised financial support to go to the mission field. Then we came to one of the most difficult places in the world, because it was the most difficult mission field . . . just to serve Him and follow His will. Why did I feel that we were being punished? Why did God Himself feel absent? Click, click, click the fabric of all I knew of God was falling apart turning to 1s and 0s and falling downward to oblivion.

In the early morning light, I reached for a bundle of letters that Curt had brought from Cyprus. It had been months since we had received a letter, considering the requirement that they be sent to him first. About the time that Denise broke the rules by calling her family for help, I had followed in suit and sent out a desperate newsletter directly to our supporters, mailing them from Egypt. In the letter I had simply asked for prayer . . . prayer because we were struggling to cope with some health issues.

In the bundle of letters I noticed one with a return address of a Roger, a man whom had been in the training center with me . . . an old friend. I opened it, looking for some comfort in the midst of my pain. Instead amenity it was a letter of rebuke. Roger wrote, “When people have struggles it is because they don’t have their eyes on Jesus.” He added that I needed to “Repent and shape up.” The loneliness that I felt at that moment was like the musty taste of death itself.

Click, click, click . . . the collapse of my world spread rapidly, the foundations were the first to give, then every thing above it . . . to the whole Church, and my entire Christian experience. Was any of it true or was all of it a facade or farce? By the time that the sun was high in the sky, I was no more of a Christian than my Moslem neighbors across the alley or the agnostic that I once was . . . before I had become a “new creature.”

Like any man, standing in the center of a total ruin . . . be it a physical ruin of a bombed-out city, a personal ruin with the loss of a spouse or a spiritual ruin . . . there’s three main paths out. The largest and most inviting path is that of emotional numbness. The ones who walk this path learn to continue the mechanics of taking steps, eating nourishment, but develop a thick, elephant-type skin to insulate them from reality. This was my father’s response to losing his three sisters and parents from TB in the 30s, then his horrors on the beaches of Normandy. He never talked about it. He didn’t shed a tear when his close brother died years later . . . except when he was alone, beneath his blankets in the middle of the night. Numb people, like my dad, become the kind of rock that Paul Simon sang about. Zombie-like, they continue through the remainder of their lives until a natural death brings comfort.

The second path is to simply extinguish your own physical life, by your own hands. Those who choose this path, I think, do it out of fatigue. I was very, very tired at this juncture. Although the first path seems to be the broadest and most traveled, this second path is, in some ways, the easiest.

The last path is the long torturous journey to understand. This path is taken usually out of curiosity alone, and sometimes with the hope that understanding will bring resolution. I was fatigued, but, by nature, I’ve always been curious. So I stood in the center of my ruin almost visibly contemplating which path to take. I flirted with each of the paths over the next twelve months. I think that my deep disillusionment was bred with a deep desire to understand and that’s why I eventually left on a perilous four-year-long journey determined to find the answers and to solve this celestial puzzle as to why had my safe, solid world had really been built on glass. Why did I still harbor the worst kind of evil imaginable? I would eventually ask, where do I go from here? Where do I find truth? I also wanted to honestly find out if God was ever there to start with and if he is, to know Him candidly.

Denise and I did not want to be quitters so we stayed in Cairo for another year without any connection to our mission organization . . . as if there had been any connection to sever. Initially following the wide path, breathing and studying the Arabic language were my only purposes because the rest of me was a lukewarm corpse. I had no thoughts of God or spirituality. I lost fifteen pounds as I could barely remember to eat. It was a great struggle for me to even nurture my wife and children like I knew that they needed. By the second half of our second year in Cairo I saw the on the horizon our return to the states, and maybe there I hoped to find myself again and my family could find rest and good health.

Arriving back in the states, I quickly found a job in Duluth, Minnesota, where we knew no one. I thought it would be better that way. It seemed easier to start over from scratch among strangers than to try to constantly justify my return to the people in the church which had sent us out.

Assuming a great relief, I was so disappointed to find that my fall had not yet run its course. I had passed through the realms of spiritual discordance, intellectual doubts and finally into a pure emotional fall. I was in clinical depression, for the second time in my life . . . this time far more seriously than the first. My first taste of depression was when I was a teenager but this time I had honest thoughts of suicide. The opportunity to end the pain forever is seductive. However, this time I had more reason not to do it . . . Denise, three boys and now a new baby girl, Amy.

The first year on American soil, all my and unfortunately Denise’s, energy was spent on me trying to find my way out of the melancholic colliery. Matters were not helped went rumors made their way through our mission organization circles that we had been “quitters” at best and failures at worst. This organization had been my Christian family for fifteen years and now I felt like an outcast.

But eventually I did get my emotional feet back on stable ground and I was ready to move back to the third path, with one inquest . . . finding the real truth. Was God really there? If so, which path leads to Him? If Christianity is genuine what is the truth about it? The Christianity that I had known for a decade and a half now seemed deeply flawed and nonsensical, like high tea around a mad hatter’s table in Wonderland. If Jesus was real . . . who was he and what did he really teach?

I also discovered a very alluring fourth path that, unfortunately many of us fall into after any kind of painful experience or disillusionment. This path is where you become obsessed with your pain, in a very selfish and destructive way, just like a dog licking his wounds day after day . . . turning a small gash into a huge gapping hole. I know that I must have wondered onto this path many times and like a thick syrupy mass, once in it, it was very difficult getting out.

I remember an interview with the courageous Christopher Reeves, after his tragic injury. Barbara Walters asked him, “Didn’t you ever feel sorry for yourself . . . surely you did.”
Speaking slowly, pausing to catch each breath with the help of his portable respirator, which was mounted on his wheelchair, “For a while,” . . . breath . . . “I allowed myself” . . . breath . . . “to feel sorry for myself for the first fifteen minutes” . . . breath . . . “of every day. But I had to stop it then” . . . breath . . . “because I knew if I let it go on more than fifteen minutes” . . . breath . . . “my self pity would totally consume me.”

Fortunately, my curiosity seemed to eventually win out over my self pity but not without a bitter struggle.

As I started to make my first attempts to re-enter American Evangelical culture, everything appeared to have been turned on its head . . . irrational and very ugly. What I had seen before as a Jesus-centered utopian society, filled with loving saints, I now saw as only a veneer. In a raw way, I saw broken people struggling earnestly to hide their brokenness and promote their own self interests under the guise of spiritual fruits. And worse yet, I then realized that for fifteen years I had been the most broken and self-promoting of them all.

The dishonestly around me appeared to be comprehensive, and yet, it too was luring me back into the game because I was so desperately lonely. I wanted to be part of something again and to have Christian friends. We weren’t allowed to make Christian friends for the two years in Egypt, but now, living in a Christian country I still couldn’t make any because I was broken. The lure was enthralling because I so hungered for Christian friendship . . . which was not often assessable unless I appeared good, at least that’s what I believed. There were things that you could do, like smiling a lot, saying, “Praise God” telling stories (although lies) of God’s miracles, that would earn you many points of value within some Christian social circles. Other things, like being depressed, questioning everything, and being emotionally honest that was very unbecoming, in something of a paradox, for an Evangelical.

The fact that we had been missionaries earned us a lot of saintly points at first glance. However, when people asked me about our experience and I did not give a glowing response, they were stunned. I was violating all mores of the Evangelical value system. Few people are attracted to missionary stories that are not considered “victorious” and capped with a happy ending.

It took a year to begin to rebound from my emotional depression. It took another year of searching to find God again. Once I knew once more that God was there . . . and believed that the Bible was true, I set in my heart that I would never, ever play the Christian game again. I buttressed my will to know the truth at all cost, living more scrupulously than I had ever known. This was not as some kind as heroic measure, but, because I had no other choice. If I could not experience Christianity honestly then I knew that I could not experience it again at all.
During that second year of trying to find God, I read countless books on philosophy and listened to literally hundreds of hours of tapes on lectures. I read the complete works of Dr. Francis Schaeffer, some of his books many times over. I read every book on Christian apologetics that I could get my hands on.

I spent the third year studying world history, history of world religions and especially the history of the Church. Then the forth year, I studied the Bible from cover to cover with more fervor than I had ever known even in my intense discipleship training center, but this time out of a subsistence passion, not as a religious exercise.

I think that God rewarded my efforts with new insights that eventually pulled most of the pieces together in a way that made sense of this crazy Christian Wonderland. I would eventually learn that there really was a fly in the sacred ointment . . . one simple factor that, years before, had sealed my eventual doom. Like trying to find the one, unifying theory of quantum physics, I knew that there must have been one flaw in my previous way of thinking, which once uncovered, would make sense of everything. But to find this philosophical culprit, I would have to go back through my journey, like a Sherlock Holmes bearing a magnifying glass.

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