TW: professional gambling… long story
“Can God create a rock so big that He can’t move it? Yes, and when He does, He’ll move it.”
Growing up on the campus of Highland Park Baptist Church and Tennessee Temple was like playing a fun, family-friendly video game. Then, out of nowhere, it would turn into a horror movie that left you paralyzed in your seat while the credits rolled. Then (usually after the death rate calculator came off the wall) it would go back to being mindless fun again.
For 18 fully aware years, I lived on that campus. I witnessed the absurd.
The hell and rapture scare tactics weaponized on toddlers.
A pregnant teen slut-shamed in front of 1500 people in the pews (as if being a pregnant teenager isn’t traumatic enough).
Cognitive dissonance on a level that would make a schizophrenic look reliable.
Abuse swept under the rug.
A dead baby in a freaking dorm room.
And that’s all just a drop in the ocean.
At 21, I was hospitalized and thought I would die. I obviously did not but did realize that I had no idea what I believed. My faith was a fear-based, hand-me-down farce. But hey, at least I knew if I was wrong about that, my soul was secure because I’d said the sinner’s prayer 149 times. Once saved always saved, right?
After graduating from TTU, I worked for the school, faking the whole church thing because it was part of my job. I was married. We had a baby. I worked 4 years at TTU. Never once got a raise or bonus. Had no benefits. And never made more than $20k in a year. We were hungry, but hey, at least we were serving Jesus.
During this time, I became disillusioned with all of it and dove headfirst into the spiritual wasteland of atheism (long story). Oddly, things started working out for us financially. I left TTU for a better job. Higher pay and more flexible hours. I started playing online poker in my spare time to supplement my income. I was fortunate to be in a perfect situation where two good friends of mine had become world-class players. They were feared by the stoutest of competition and taught me the nuances of the game. Before I knew it, I was sitting behind three 30-inch monitors every day, playing 8 tables at a time, and practically printing money. In one year, I had made twice as much as I had in the rest of my life combined. I played professionally for nearly 12 years. My marriage was great. Our kids were healthy and beautiful. We traveled the world and had more than we ever dreamed. I had every reason to be oozing with happiness.
But it was lonely behind those monitors. And there was a subtler reason for the loneliness beside the obvious isolation of a work-from-home computer job. I had lost my Hope and faith. And also my community. But the truth is… I had cut myself off on purpose.
Growing up at HPBC and TTU, I knew all too well the condescending, judgemental language that IFB people would use regarding people like me who were searching or had walked away. More specifically, I knew what they would say about someone who gambled for a living. Even if it was their only option to provide for their family.
I had a more than a handful of judgemental conversations from people who said they loved me. Maybe I should have just stayed at TTU and served Jesus during the day and fed ramen noodles to my kids at night. I knew if I kept talking to people from my past, I would keep catching condescension.
I knew the scriptures they would use. Knew most of those passages by heart. Might have even won a sword drill to chapter and verse in my past life.
All the Christian cliches that would be lobbed my way… heard those too. Good intentions, sure. But I’d seen too many of those piety grenades, and the shrapnel of guilt and fear would NOT bring me back to my senses. I’d had my fill of all that. And the mere thought of hearing this directed at me made me sick.
So when I left, I cut myself off. During this time, depression had wrapped its tentacles around me. At the advice of a therapist, I started writing. I wrote about the loss of my faith like this:
“I fear everyone I’ve ever known wouldn’t understand me anymore. Pain stabs me through the screen when scrolling my Facebook timeline. So many posts project that old-time confidence and unshakeable faith.
I want to accept them for who they are. Most people choose to believe in the narrative that gives them the most hope. And I think that should be okay.
But what about me? The friends I grew up with, the mentors who have invested in me, even my own family, would they accept me for who I am now? Could they associate with me?
The deconstruction of my faith has felt like a death. I’m actually grieving. Grieving the loss of people I love who will never see me the same way again. Worse, I grieve the death of the person I’ve been my entire life. And buried with him, every story he once believed. Part of me is ashamed. Part of me is sad. Part of me is angry. But all of me feels alone.”
I filled a notebook with journal entries. The journal entries became fictional short stories inspired by real life. I didn’t shy away from the darkness. Instead, I confronted it head-on. It was raw, unfiltered, uncensored rage. And the more I wrote, the better I’d feel. Not because I answered any questions, but because I could pose them honestly. And because I could talk about it without worrying who might not understand… or who might judge.
Surprisingly to me, through confronting the uncomfortable and the previously unconfrontable, my soul began inching away from the darkness and into the light. I considered that C. S. Lewis and Aerosmith may have been right all along about the “Hole in My Soul” thing.
I slowly came to the belief that maybe God doesn’t fit into the box we tried to put him in. Maybe this became about our specialness instead of God’s love and grace. And maybe, just maybe, Jesus went dark from age 12 to 30 on purpose… Because any road map for us to follow concerning Christ’s journey from educated to enlightened might rob us of our own journey. We’d blindly follow without contemplation or questions. Maybe asking questions wasn’t a sin after all, but a spiritual thing. Maybe those questions meant loving the Lord our God enough to use our brain and be tormented to the point we NEEDED to draw to Him. Trust in Him.
Maybe if we’re 99% sure, we are NOT 100% lost.
I read the words of Christ with my new lens. He seemed all about loving the lost sheep. He was the God of the rejects and outsiders. He had no time for those who, in their own minds, “KNEW”. He came to seek and to save the lost. He came for me. This broke down my wall. I NEEDED Him. And He brought me back. Without Him, the godless, hopeless, nihilistic path I was on, would have been my end. He literally saved my life.
When I came back to Christ, the conversations with many (not all) people that assumed they knew me revealed that my suspicions had been mostly true. They loved me for who they wanted me to be. And pitied me for who I was not. The relationships would still never be the same. These people would probably have said they loved me. And maybe they did, but still, their condescension said otherwise. And their rhetoric always made me second guess if I wanted to come back. I’d leave them with a smile and a hug. And they’d walk away feeling good about themselves, while I walked away hurting… again.
Then I’d remind myself of Gandhi’s words, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” And I’d remember I didn’t come back to Christ for anyone’s approval. I came back because I needed Him. Then I’d try to remind myself it’s not their fault. It’s just the language they know. The language of the righteous. The confident. The superior. They have never known the language of the lost.
There are so many hurtful things said about the “lost/black sheep” in church culture. And the sad thing is that I don’t know if some of the people in the church realize that they are driving people further away. I know you guys see this problem at its worst with IFB preacher clips. But that’s the extreme.
The HAYMAN, TV-bashing, NEKKED-hating IFB preachers are to the lost sheep what Neo-Nazis are to racism. They’re a joke. Caricatures. As easy to dismiss as they are to make fun of.
Of course the Neo-Nazis are racists. But if we’ve learned anything in these past three months, there are certain things one can say that will drive a wedge between his black brothers and sisters without him realizing he did anything wrong. He just doesn’t know how to listen. And he can’t find his empathetic lens because he won’t stop talking about the issues that make him feel important. So many Christians are the same. They drive a wedge between the “righteous” and the black sheep. And if that lost sheep is found, it’s often (not always) despite the church. And because of Christ. Thank God.
It’s impossible to love without empathy.
There is no empathy without active listening.
And a person can’t listen if they never stop talking about what is right in their own eyes.
When the lost/black sheep hear this kind of church-speak. They hear the pop song that’s played out. They hear the echo chamber. It’s not calling them home. It’s telling them to keep walking. It’s telling them, “Don’t you forget that God’s grace is not for you.” Church people may say, “That’s not what I’m saying. I love them and help them see the error of their ways.” But it doesn’t matter what someone thinks they’re saying. It only matters what is heard.
In multiple Facebook religious trauma support groups (4 of them IFB), I ran polls asking hurting people how their family/friends/church responded to their faith deconstruction/reconstruction. The results were horrifying. I know that 300+ results is a small sample size. Also, I’m aware that the participants being in a support group might contribute to a slight bias in the results. But these support groups exist for a reason. People have been hurt, and their pain shouldn’t be dismissed or considered a result of “backsliding”. And when I combine the results with my life experience, it leads me closer to the conclusion that we might have a problem. Christians have a hard time talking to hurting, searching Christians. And worse, to those who have left altogether.
Really long story short… Over the course of six years, my fictional short stories became a full novel.
I know the release of my novel is triggering these feelings again. It’s transgressive, violent, and R-rated. Maybe I’m anticipating the backlash, half-expecting to weed out friends because they’ll think me a scorner (At least it’s not as many as it would be if I didn’t have a pen name).
But that’s okay. It’s a parable. And it played a massive role in my ugly, yet beautiful road back to Christ. It’s my warning to myself: Bitterness CANNOT win. And a life without God could become the worst hell one could imagine. Madness. As much as it hurt to write. I’d do it all over again. And if it helps one person who is drowning in bitterness come up for air, opening their heart again to the possibility of God, it’s all worth it. No matter who thinks ill of me. I guess it’s all worth it already… It helped me recover.
P.S. Please don’t think I am judging the judges. It may sound like it, but I’m really trying to break away from that. Anger is a part of the journey, and I apologize for any condescension in my tone. It’s unintentional. I understand now that most of us are doing the best we can with what we know. I just hope that someday, all of us get to know each other better. So we can unite and live out Christ’s message of love to our hurting neighbors.
Thank you for doing this show, guys. These conversations are so important. And you are helping so many people.
“The first step to solving a problem is recognizing there is one.” -Aaron Sorkin