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By GORDON ATKINSON
William B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDeep sea Preacher
* * *
There is a deep vent on the ocean floor of humanity, a place of creation between belief and unbelief. On this living ridge is the sacred spot where faith takes its first deep breath. This is the womb of grace.
People pop out of this fissure. Young and old, they swirl for a time in a warm eddy before settling on one side or the other.
For better or for worse, I have thrown my Texas lasso into this vent, and now I float above the rift, hanging tight to my rope, fighting the currents.
Peter Pan? Burr under the saddle? Bodhisattva to the agnostic? I don't know what I am. I did not know what I was doing when I cast my rope.
Some of the people drift so naturally into belief, and I shout "Vaya con Dios" while they disappear to one side of the ridge. Others are swept just as naturally to the other side. They take life straight, like Hemingway said.
To them I say, "Be strong. Keep your heart open, as well as your eyes. Keep asking."
"We will, Preacher," they say, their voices growing faint as they follow their current.
"Why are you here?" someone asked as she drifted away. All I gave her was a shrug and a smile because I don't know myself.
I look at my rope-burned hands, and I have no answer.
I only know that I never get tired of living in the moment when faith is born into this world.
Chapter TwoA question for the Preacher
* * *
"Preacher, how do you know you've chosen the right path? Have you read the Upanishads, the Koran, the Vedas, the Talmud, and others? Have you checked into other religions and compared them with Christianity?"
I'm flattered, but you vastly overestimate the Preacher's intellect, stamina, and attention span. Where are you in your threescore and ten, I wonder? I'm in my forties and have miles to go before deep sleep. I will not have time to explore even the depths of Christianity, though I'm digging as fast as I can.
I can look up from my trench and give a respectful nod to the Buddhist, but I cannot join her and I suspect she cannot join me. It's a matter of time, specifically the lack of it.
Because of my history and where I live, Christianity is my choice. I'm not qualified to make comparisons, but I will claim that my tradition has deep roots and serious bona fides.
In this life you MUST choose. You may limit yourself to handling and re-handling observable data. You may dabble in several faith traditions, but your trenches will be shallow. Or you may choose a spiritual path and love God, as you understand her, with your heart, soul, mind, and strength, working your way ever deeper and ever closer to the reality that you long for.
Chapter ThreeA preacher, a rabbi, and a professor go into a computer store
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I met Rabbi Jonah in a computer store. He was like Santa Claus in a wheelchair. Very fat with a white beard and two thin stockings called legs hung with care from under his great bottom. Polio. He lived back in those days.
His friend Robert had muscular dystrophy and sat quietly in his own wheelchair. Robert had a Ph.D. in history, but his teaching days were over. His new challenge was getting food to his mouth since his arms had begun to fail him.
Thus began a most wonderful and challenging friendship.
Jonah was the most intelligent man I'd ever met. He had a hell of an education too - Old School. He was fluent in at least six languages. He taught himself Greek just so he could look into this "New" Testament.
We quickly settled into the routine that we enjoyed until they moved to Los Angeles two years later. I would load them into their van and drive them all over town. The only agenda was that we never stopped talking. God, religion, history, life, all of it.
That December I was using the Hebrew word Shalom in my Advent sermon series. The rabbi was waxing eloquent on the concept of Shalom while we drank coffee at their kitchen table. I was a little distracted watching Robert trying to steer spoons of soup into his mouth.
I think Jonah realized that he was not at peace and decided to do something about it. He stopped his lesson and asked me point blank, "Do you think I'm going to hell?"
I gave my polite answer. "That's really not my business. What happens to you after you die is between you and God."
That was not enough for the rabbi, who responded quickly. "No, you A preacher, a rabbi, and a professor go into a computer store | 3 don't get off that easy. As I understand it, your religious tradition teaches that I will go to hell unless I accept Jesus as my savior. I don't intend to do that. I think you owe me an answer. Do you believe I'm going to hell?"
I did not want to hear this.
He was right. I do come from a tradition that understands hell to be real. Maybe not eternal fire, pitchforks, and gloomy caves, but separation from God is understood to be real.
I'd been avoiding the subject of hell for some time, living in denial. We gentle Christians often do this. The harsh reality of our theology works against what we discover in real life. Those of us who get to know people of other faiths are profoundly moved by the experience.
A Real Live Rabbi faced me across the table. Here was no theology or doctrine or tradition. Here sat Jonah, a man I had grown to love.
He escaped the concentration camps when he was three because a Mennonite man grabbed him and said, "This is my son." His family stared straight ahead and pretended not to know him. They found their pitch basket at the last minute and put him into the river. The Mennonite brought him to this country and helped him find his only surviving relative.
As a young man in rabbinical training he danced with the Torah before polio took his legs.
I went to the synagogue with him and saw him twitching in his chair, for he longed to dance again with the sacred scroll. I heard his impassioned prayers, offered at the end of the day. He was teaching me a little Hebrew, ever patient as I struggled with the text.
I found it hard to look him in the eyes for I understood then how our theology hurt him and other people of faith.
"No," I said. "I do NOT believe you are going to hell. You love God more than anyone I know. More than anyone. I feel closer to you than I do to many in my own tradition. I cannot believe that about you."
He stared at me until I could look him in the eyes again and simply said, "Thank you."
The stunning dignity he put into that "thank you" is ever on my mind.
We have a belief that tells us faith in Jesus Christ is important. We have a theology that tells us what we decide here on earth has consequences after our life is over.
I have two friends named Jonah and Robert. They are Jews. I am unable to think that God does not accept them-I am not able to think this. There is something deep within me that will not abide such thought.
I owe Jonah a great debt. Because of my encounter with him, mine is a theology born not only of word, but of flesh and Spirit.
* * *
I live in South Texas, where tamales are an important part of life. We know from tamales.
The difference between a good tamal and a bad one is like the difference between a hot, Krispy Kreme delicacy and that half doughnut you found on the floor of your car.
The first time I had real tamales, I ate eight of them in ten minutes. I only stopped because it was getting ridiculous.
It's the masa, or dough, that makes or breaks a tamal. Good ones are moist and savory. They melt in your mouth and make you groan with desire.
Christmas is the traditional time to be making tamales and the time of year that Hispanic women pass on the secrets of this ancient art to their daughters and granddaughters. The best tamales come from their kitchens, but you have to be a friend of the family to get some.
The Preacher's tips for eating tamales:
1. Do not eat the corn shuck wrapper, Yankee.
2. Do not put salsa or chili on a tamal, not on a good one anyway. That's... unseemly.
3. A fresh jalapeno is a nice complement. Fresh, not those pickled abominations. Slice it up and take your chances. Fresh peppers vary greatly in how much heat they pack. If the pepper is hot, one slice will light you up for the duration. You learn to manage your peppers to keep a nice burn going. Nice, but not too much. People who love hot peppers surf the line between pain and pleasure for the endorphin rush.
4. Have plenty of cold beer and flour tortillas on hand for first aid.
In most South Texas towns you can find a restaurant that makes tamales in the traditional way, with lots of love and no shortcuts, but you will have to be on a serious quest.
Reynaldo's is that restaurant in our town. It took me five years to find it.
You don't go into Reynaldo's to buy tamales. You knock at the side door of the kitchen and speak with Lupe. There are three large stoves, each with six huge, steaming pots on top. You buy tamales by the dozen. Lupe scoops them out and wraps them in butcher paper and foil.
If you are smart you will ask for one and eat it right on the spot. At first you will not be able to speak. When you can speak, your words will be given by the Holy Spirit.
"Oh my God" seems to be the most common utterance among Anglos. "Madre de Dios," among Hispanics.
Lupe has been making tamales at Reynaldo's for forty years.
While I was in high school, she was making tamales.
While I went to college, she was making tamales.
While I struggled with God in seminary, she was making tamales.
While you and I pour out our souls and struggle with issues of faith and life, she is making tamales.
She makes and serves tamales. That is her life.
Do you think her life is less fulfilling than yours or mine, less interesting and less actualized?
You wouldn't think so if you ate her tamales with your closest friends. If you let the jalapeno arouse and the masa soothe you, if you felt the endorphins release into the buzz from your beer and felt your passion for your friends rise until you could not contain your laughter, then you would not think so. You would praise the name of Lupe and marvel at what she gives this world.
There would not be tamales if there were not people like Lupe.
The women who make tamales in our town are some of the most Christ-like people I know. They give their lives away so that something good may come into this world.
Chapter FiveThe Preacher's story
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Part 1: I am a strange mix
The preacher grew up in a devout Baptist family in Texas. Some of you are imagining a domineering father and endless hours of religious abuse punctuated with occasional beatings.
I have a great family. My parents were and are gentle Christians who put a premium on living a Christ-like life and helping the poor. We lived in the border town of El Paso, and my mother and father were actively involved with a group of Christians who were constantly throwing their resources at the piteous poverty that coexisted with us just on the other side of the Rio Grande.
I spent a lot of time in Mexico as a young boy. The Preacher knows the mingled smells of outhouses, kerosene, and poverty. It's something you never forget.
One year during a bitter cold spell my father and his friends showed up at the border with a load of blankets and coats. The forecast was for temperatures well below freezing that night, and they knew a lot of families were going to be cold. The Mexican government forbade them from entering. Some bureaucratic bullshit, I guess.
My dad said his kinder, gentler equivalent of "screw it" and became a smuggler on the spot. He and the others made numerous trips across the border that day in their cars with blankets, food, and jackets crammed under the seats and hidden in the trunks.
My dad felt that one's calling to serve God was higher than one's calling to obey the law. For Christ's sake, he and his friends couldn't let children freeze.
"For Christ's sake" packs a punch when you mean it literally.
My family went to services three and four times a week. Ours was a nice church filled with good people who cherished one another. I enjoyed being a part of the community and learned to love Jesus in that place.
These were the Christian people who nurtured me and taught me my faith.
I came to understand that it was the teachings of that same Jesus that led my parents to fight poverty and want in the border town.
There was a leeetle problem though. Early on it became apparent that something was different about me. I couldn't make myself believe some parts of the Bible. I was a natural born skeptic.
When told the "Noah and the Ark" story in Sunday School, I quickly figured out that two of every kind of animal would not fit on one boat. No one else seemed to be doing the math. I could no more believe the ark story than I could believe the sky was green. I wanted to believe. Believing seemed nice, but I couldn't. I COULD NOT.
I felt strange and out of place because everyone else at church seemed to believe everything.
I kept my "believing problem" to myself because I thought something was wrong with me.
Thus was born the strange dichotomy that has become the Preacher. A passionate love for Christ and his teachings mingled with a fierce skepticism that would only grow stronger as I grew older.
Part 2: College, seminary, and disillusionment
I felt "the call" to ministry after high school. Let's just say I had a strong desire to be of service to God, and I wanted to learn more about the now troublesome Bible.
I went to a university and majored in religious studies with minors in Greek and philosophy. Except for the philosophy, that's a standard "preseminary" degree. Eye opening time! I discovered most serious Bible scholars had moved beyond a simplistic reading of scripture.
The bottom line: not everything in the Bible should be taken literally, and, more importantly, not everything in the Bible applies to MY life.
After college I spent four years in seminary studying further. I managed to work out my problems with scripture and now believe the Bible won't cause insurmountable problems for anyone willing to study it with integrity.
I was, however, experiencing disillusionment of another kind.
Excerpted from RealLivePreacher.com by GORDON ATKINSON Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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