I once swam in liquid darkness. I could touch it, feel it, taste it, and smell it. It was far more sinister than the mere absence of light. It was an amoral creature with a deep, bloodcurdling growl, culminating in my personal Good Friday. All my assumptions about God were challenged and, in a climactic moment, I peered into the eyes of Deity. My world expanded in a stroke and the growl was silenced.
I was remembering my Good Friday during Holy Week. I was 31 in the fall of 1987, a student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts – and I was a love-struck space cadet, forever bumping into things under the hypnotism of my soon-to-be wife, Andrea. We had scheduled our wedding for December 19th in the Rochester area of Upstate New York – which meant we were begging fate to dump a record white-out on that very day. Do it. Pretty please. With sugar on top.
That was our worst fear, anyway.
The novelty of seminary was just wearing off. I had settled into a journalism career about a year and half after graduating from college, supposedly walking Hemingway’s path: I would write for rags, graduate to respectable magazines or newspapers, get famous, write nonfiction books, then write novels, win a Pulitzer, zig-zag through the lecture and talk-show circuit, get more famous, influence nations, alter the course of human history, and retire as a humble Nobel Prize winner. I would do it all for Christ, of course (no self-serving hubris for me), because I had been an evangelical Christian since I was sixteen.
But God botched up my plans on doing Him a favor. I had a divine encounter in August of 1984 – complete with something like electricity running through my body – after a year-long soul search in which I realized I had been worshiping a dead-end, toxic career. This was not one of those I-think-I’ve-heard-from-God-because-I-feel-good moments. This was a Moses-at-the-burning-bush moment: I had to shelve my writing ambitions and become a pastor despite my own fear of the vocation. Or else.
I dropped my bags in a dorm called Pilgrim Hall the following January. Andrea literally walked into my life in May of 1986 when she visited her sister, Kristi, to help her pack and drive home for the summer to the Rochester area. I was almost thirty by then, a veritable veteran at life, a jaded former journalist. I had interviewed first-degree murderers, covered gang rape trials, and exposed manipulative politicians. There was no possible way I could fall in love at first sight.
I fell in love at first sight.
The Happy Couple’s Surprise
Andrea and I wrote to each other over the summer (she had moved in with her parents because she was disabled with what would later be called chronic fatigue syndrome); she visited and stayed in a women’s dorm in September; I visited her family in October; she visited mine in November; she moved to the Gordon-Conwell area in the winter of 1987 and rented a room; we got engaged in the Spring; she returned home to prepare for the wedding in the Fall while I sat through my classes in love-struck hypnosis.
It doesn’t get any better than this …
… Except …
An ugly gash was digging into my flesh on the left side of my tongue. It couldn’t be serious, right? I was Mr. Squeaky Clean: never smoked, toked, snorted, or chewed. I had always slept alone. What goes around comes around: I’m cool. I’m clean. I’m safe. If there was anyone who wouldn’t fall victim to … some disease (don’t say the “c” word), it was me. But it hurt – and it was rock-hard to the touch. I was even shoving food to the right and losing weight.
I finally visited the doctor, who gave me some cream and insisted I call again in a week if the wound didn’t heal. The cream didn’t work, so I returned, and … There I was, sitting in his office while he called an ear, nose and throat specialist to set up an emergency appointment: the odds were I had cancer – and the tumor was big.
Walking Through The Fog
I remember the receptionist asking me to sign something; I remember standing there, pen in hand, dazed, hardly able to write my name. I remember her worried-yet-professional look: she had seen people get “the news” before – but they were usually older smokers, not those nice young seminarians. I remember avoiding the eyes of my fellow students and confining myself to my room, which became my hermit’s cell, my cocoon, my retreat from all the worried gazes as the word inevitably spread. I remember calling Andrea and hearing her cry; I remember my mother’s gasp over the phone and understanding her fear of losing her oldest child and only son. I felt an irrational but real guilt for causing so much worry and grief. I offered Andrea the option of bailing out of the marriage (“Do you really want to be a widow?”). She told me to shut-up. Bless her.
The specialist confirmed it. I did, indeed, have cancer. There were options, of course: surgery would remove a little less than half my tongue. I would speak with a severe speech impediment and find a different way of eating and …
Uh, God …
Didn’t you call me to be a preacher? What about my burning bush experience? And all those confirmations on my oratory and empathy? And my clean living? And … and … and … And am I the male version of Ali McGraw’s character in Love Story, which was a stupid movie to begin with? Is that it, God? My entire life winds up as an unsold script for a bad remake of a sappy tear jerker? Is this how you get your kicks? What about all that stuff on grace, love, and protection? Were you lying to me all along?
It was there, in my cocoon of a room, that I pictured myself standing on a wind-swept field beneath a blackened sky, peering over a cliff with no bottom. Suddenly, a massive, monster god – a divine fiend – towered before me. He cackled. “You believed all that stuff? Joke’s on you!” He picked me up like an insect and threw me into the darkness. I was falling, falling, falling – forever falling.
I found myself doubting God’s sanity and morality, not his existence.
Christianity holds that goodness lay beneath the fallen world – a goodness possessed in God himself. Evil is rampant and terrible, but God, who spans creation’s length and breadth, is holy and loving. That means that love beats at reality’s heart and will eventually reign victorious. Evil is bound. Holiness and love are enormous and free …
… But maybe not. Maybe God has intentionally, willfully lied. Maybe God is a celestial prankster akin to the malicious child ripping insect wings. Maybe God is a sociopath.
Is God actually evil? Is God an all-powerful devil? Perhaps we’ll peel away the layers of existence and find pure, unadulterated spite. The cosmic center beats with unapologetic malevolence. The mask has slipped. We see God’s true face – and it’s an omnipresent Stalin. Heaven – God’s home and our eternal destiny – is really a Gulag. We’re forever trapped. A criminal God wanted playthings to fool and torture, so he made us.
Give me atheism’s angst over this. I want it.
In The Audience
But the mental imagery changed, and it was now so vivid it may as well have been a vision. I stood on another field beneath a blackened sky, only this time I was in that braying crowd at the crucifixion. I could almost smell the grass and feel the tension. The focal point, of course, was Christ, who hung between the two thieves. Everyone was hurling their curses and epithets. The guards stood with ready pikes, prepared for a riot and willing to do their worst for the emperor and Pax Romana.
Then came that transformational glance, that look that altered everything: Christ lifted his head and He peered directly into my eyes. I felt His empathy. I felt indescribable love. I felt strange but wonderful peace.
I said it aloud: “Oh my God, you know.”
I was caressing the beauty of the incarnation and the crucifixion. Christians believe that Jesus was fully God and fully human. He didn’t merely act like a human; he wasn’t a human-like wraith. He was God living a genuinely human life, which means God himself endured human pain; God himself suffered isolation; God himself begged for mercy on a dark night (“My father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me …”). But, more important than any of that, God himself experienced alienation from God. Christ cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God didn’t merely sympathize with me in my situation. He lived it.
Suddenly – in one stroke – I saw the God to whom I pray. When I holler a prayer of anguish, I know God hollered the same prayer. When I feel forsaken and declare my forsakenness, I realize God felt that very forsakenness and alienation. I do not only pray to a divine God, I pray to a human God. God … knows.
It was incredible. None of my questions were answered. Christ merely looked at me from that cross. He never spoke – just as the Father never spoke to him as he hung there. He never explained why I – Mr. Squeaky Clean, the one who never smoked, toked, snorted or chewed; the one who plowed, bull-headed, through the hormonal roar and never yielded to all the sensuous enticements – was forced to endure cancer. And there was no assurance I would survive.
But I wasn’t asking those questions any more. Their era was finished. I was now enamored with the human god who knows my pain and alienation. That one glance from the cross eviscerated the divine fiend. Love and goodness does sweep the universe; hate, while terrible, will be defeated. Evil will eventually end at the second coming. Christ didn’t explain any of that to me. He showed it to me in that one glance.
The near-vision ended, and I was back in my cocoon. My own, personal Good Friday was complete.
The following months were a surreal mélange. I opted for twice-a-day radiation therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital in which my tongue and mouth were gradually burned. Andrea and I moved our wedding to November 28th and held a private ceremony so I could be with her while in out-patient treatment (go ahead: make fun. We really practiced sexual abstinence until marriage). The doctors warned me I would feel nothing at first, but the pain would grow. They were right. I could not eat my own wedding cake on December 19th, when we held our public ceremony before a throng of hundreds, and my throat and mouth eventually seared so much that even water felt like lava.
But the tumor was cindered. Most of my salivary glands were destroyed as well and I only have one third of my former spit. I lost my thick beard (Andrea still misses it), so my photographs show a “pre-cancer” and “post-cancer” look. But I speak normally and, eventually, I regained my love for Mexican food. I also count myself among the blessed. Many cancer survivors are haunted with memories of vomiting and losing their hair. I didn’t need chemotherapy.
The doctors don’t know why I had cancer. My ear nose and throat specialist gave me the most detailed explanation: “This was a freak.” And God has never bothered to fill me in. But, then again, I began asking different questions after I looked into the eyes of Christ on my Good Friday, questions not involving “why,” but “how”: How can I glorify my loving Lord? How can I be an ambassador of the god-man who knows alienation and feels what we feel? How can I live the kind of life that silences the growl of darkness? Those are the questions to which I earnestly beg for answers.
Enduring my own Good Friday has allowed me to relish Jesus’s Good Friday, the day on which God gazed into all our eyes and said, in His silence, “I am one with you.”