Authors: William Lobdell
How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace
To my wife, Greer, and my four boys, Taylor, Tristan, Matthew and Oliver
To those wounded by the church
“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
“You Need God”
A God Thing
Shot Out of a Cannon
My Ten Commandments
A Spiritual Body Blow
The Golden Rule
Millstones Around Their Necks
A Gentle Whisper Silenced
“Rebuild My Church”
The Dark Night of the Soul
At the Edge of the Earth
Letting Go of God
One Story Too Many
“Welcome to the Edge”
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
27, I had screwed up my life. I had married my volatile high school sweetheart five years earlier, mostly because it seemed easier than breaking up. When I left her, I didn’t follow through with the divorce. Dealing with her in court would be messy, so I just bailed. In the meantime, I happily jumped into an adolescence delayed by my fidelity to the first girl I’d ever loved. Before long, I managed to get a girlfriend pregnant. I loved my newfound bachelorhood, and I was petrified by the prospect of another marriage and my first child (leaving aside the fact that my divorce to my first wife couldn’t be finalized for at least six months).
I ran away as fast as I could, concluding that I had only a few months left in the wild before the baby arrived and a lifetime of responsibility would kick in. I needed to pack in as much living as I could. I drank away many nights. I caroused with friends. And I’m forever shamed to admit that I cheated on my pregnant girlfriend.
Other parts of my life weren’t much better. My journalism career had stalled at a local minor-league magazine, where I worked long hours for low pay covering “business lifestyles” about which I couldn’t have cared less. My digestive system waged daily war on me. I developed acne that I had been spared as a teenager. When I combed my hair each morning at the bathroom mirror, I couldn’t look myself in the eye. When I turned 28, I could barely admit it was my birthday. I couldn’t stand the person I had become. I found no reason to celebrate my life.
But then our son, Taylor, was born. I found myself staying up deep into most nights, holding my child tightly, staring at his innocent face, letting his chubby fingers wrap around mine and knowing it was time for me to grow up if this kid was going to have a fair chance at life.
A month after Taylor arrived, I married Greer in a Las Vegas wedding at a small chapel on the Strip presided over by a drunken pastor and his dutiful wife. They were our only witnesses. We spent the first part of our wedding night watching a comeback concert by Tony Orlando and Dawn. I gave our marriage about as much chance as the over-the-hill singing trio performing in that half-empty casino concert hall. Though she would not say it, I knew Greer had grave doubts about me, too, but she wanted her son to have an in-the-home father—something missing from her childhood—and was generous or desperate enough to give me a chance.
Soon after the wedding, on an especially low day, I had lunch with a good friend named Will Swaim. A fellow journalist of my vintage, Will is rail-thin, with a handsome face whose broad features seem to be made from stone. He has a kinetic energy that brings to mind someone who drinks way too much coffee. He is also one of the smartest and most searching people I know. Not yet 30, his career ambitions had swung wildly from Roman Catholic priest (he decided not to go into the seminary) to punk rock star (he was the lead singer for a group named the Barking Spiders) to aspiring guerrilla fighter (an unexpectedly pregnant wife caused him to give up his one-way plane ticket to Mexico City, the first leg of a journey that would have taken him to Nicaragua to fight with the Sandinistas) to peace activist (he worked for three years to ban nuclear weapons). He finally settled into journalism, where he’s made a national reputation for himself as an alternative weekly editor and publisher.
Seated at a booth in an upscale coffee shop under the flight path of the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, he started a conversation in the usual way.
“How’s it going, Billy?”
I hadn’t told anyone the extent of my troubles. From the outside, my life didn’t look
bad. I was married to an intelligent and gorgeous woman, had a healthy baby boy and was president of a local media company. But I was dying inside. And Will was too good of a friend. I couldn’t lie to him by saying I was fine. Taking a deep breath, I decided, for once, to tell the truth. I described, with deep shame, every last humiliating detail of my life. It wasn’t cathartic for me—it just filled me with more self-loathing.
Will’s reaction was unexpected. He didn’t seem fazed by any of it. I couldn’t detect any judgment or disapproval. His response was matter-of-fact. He first asked if I was suicidal. I wasn’t, though I conceded that I did believe everyone in my life would be better off if I were dead. Then, with the certainty of someone describing the law of gravity, he concluded, “You need God. That’s what’s missing in your life.”
God? I hadn’t given Him much thought since I stopped going to church the first chance I could, at age 17.
“Everyone has a God-shaped hole in their soul,” he continued. “We all try to fill it with something—drugs, alcohol, work, sex—until we stumble upon God. He’s the only thing that fills that hole. I was a lot like you until I surrendered my life to God. Why not try it? It can’t hurt. Look at where you are with you in control. Get yourself to church, Billy.”
It sounded right. More importantly, it felt like a way out. If Will had said in the same confident tone, “You need crack cocaine. That’s what missing in your life,” it probably would have sounded good, too. I was desperate enough to try anything that would get rid of the pain that had enveloped me like quicksand.
“I’ll go to church this Sunday,” I said numbly. “Just tell me where.”
…[I]f you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
S A KID
, our family—my mom, dad, sister, two brothers and myself—piled in the station wagon and drove to downtown Long Beach, California, to attend services at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. For my parents, going to church was like brushing their teeth. It was something they just did. For me, it felt more like pulling teeth. The service—which could stretch to nearly an hour-and-a-half—seemed more like a test of patience and endurance than anything else. It certainly wasn’t a sacred moment of contact with the creator of the universe. We sat through ancient hymns with stilted lyrics (“Lamp of our feet, whereby we trace our path”), a long list of prayers and readings and a liturgy that changed only slightly throughout the year. The rector, Roy Young, was a sensitive soul with a gift for storytelling, so I often enjoyed his sermons. But that was it.
My younger brother Jim and I had a routine at the end of each service. When Father Young turned to the congregation and said, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we’d respond with the people, “Thanks be to God.” But then we’d turn to each other and whisper, “…that church is over!”
I watched with envy as my big sister and then older brother stopped going to church about the time they graduated from high school. I impatiently waited my turn, which never seemed to come. I often passed my time inside the cold church, trapped between the vaulted ceiling and stone floor, trying to quiet some nagging doubts about Christianity. As a kid, I didn’t believe faith could be questioned, so I kept these heretical thoughts to myself. But my young mind remained busy working to solve my faith’s seeming contradictions.
For instance, I wondered how the Holy Trinity was even possible—how could the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be just one God? I also second-guessed God’s sacrifice of His son as the best way to square things with His perpetually sinful children. As a boy, I was fascinated with the Aztecs, and when it was mentioned in church that the Lord sent Jesus to die on a cross for our sins, I often thought of an Aztec chief pulling out the still-beating heart of a young beauty to please the gods. If the Lord was the Lord, there had to be a less primitive way to get us back on the path to salvation.
Some Sundays, I’d look over the congregation and find it odd that the parishioners were mostly white and middle to upper class, when the church was in one of Southern California’s toughest neighborhoods. They didn’t match who Jesus’s followers were in the Gospels. Where were the poor, the sick and the hungry? To find them, all parishioners had to do was step off church property. But they were nowhere to be seen inside the church. I found it curious that the local bishop received a grand reception fit for a king whenever he visited our church. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and told his followers that the first shall be the last, but the bishop was treated literally like royalty. It seemed backward.
My doubts about faith were often amplified after church by the sounds of my father yelling at us, sometimes before we even pulled out of the parking lot. We had just spent more than an hour trying to get closer to God, praying for help and guidance, singing His praises, listening to His words in Scripture and being told to humble ourselves and love our neighbors—and even our enemies—as ourselves. Though church bored me, I couldn’t help but absorb some sense of holiness during the services and often felt spiritually uplifted by the time I walked out those huge wooden doors. This same feeling apparently escaped my father. My dad’s tirades after church struck me as a blow against Christianity. How could we so easily discard His teachings even before we made it home?
Like my sister and brother before, I stopped going to church at age 17. My last church service felt like the final day of school. To have Sunday mornings free—to sleep in, to watch NFL games, to go surfing—was a wonderful luxury that I had been denied. Now I was free. I never thought of going back—or rather I considered the possibility with a deep sense of dread. Because by this time, I had fused together the image of God and my father. To me, the Lord acted like my dad: quick to anger, capricious in his wrath, willing to withdraw His love and never satisfied. In other words, like the God I knew from the Hebrew Scriptures, someone who wiped out entire populations, including children, in angry fits. I was scared to be around that God, just as I was sometimes scared to be around my father.
My dad grew up desperately poor during the Depression. His family survived on the bag of groceries a generous grandmother would drop off each weekend. He was a tough man who set high standards for his children. My grandfather, whom I never met, was the town drunk and rarely at home. Through relentless hard work and sacrifice, like many children of alcoholics, my dad became a self-made millionaire. His job as a father, as he saw it, was to churn out high-achieving children. He vowed to raise no quitters or failures. So for us kids, nothing was ever good enough. If we did something well, he warned us not to “rest on our laurels,” because we needed to do even better next time. Love was conditional, doled out in proportion to our performances. In some respects, he did a great job (and, to his credit, evolved into a mellow old man). Two of my siblings received undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford University, with my sister finishing near the top of her law school class. My older brother and I claimed more modest academic achievements but did well in school and played college water polo. All of us became achieving machines who would climb to great heights in our professions. But the price has been a high one. Among the four of us, you’ll find alcoholism, depression, stress-induced physical ailments and crippling anxiety.
I decided in my late teens that I didn’t want to worship a God who was that demanding, vengeful, difficult to predict and hard to please. So I didn’t. At least not for another dozen years, when Will Swaim suggested I go back to church. He pointed me to Mariners Church, a nondenominational congregation based in Newport Beach. The next Sunday I decided to scout it out alone.
When I stepped onto the well-manicured Mariners campus, I immediately saw that I wasn’t at my father’s church anymore. As thousands of congregants streamed into the mega-church’s sanctuary for one of four weekend services, volunteers served coffee drinks on the patio from cappuccino machines, not silver drums. Classy kiosks—not card tables—ringed the patio, marketing all kinds of church activities and clubs designed to appeal to young singles, older singles, elderly singles, young married couples, married couples with children, older married couples, stay-at-home moms, junior high school students, high school students and college students.
As I entered the church itself, a friendly usher handed me a program—not a copied sheet of paper put together by a church secretary, but a multi-page brochure with a hip, professional design. I took a seat near the back of the large auditorium, which had no church trappings except for a plain wooden cross at the rear of the stage. The building had the feel of a tony playhouse with its padded rows of seats, top-drawer lighting and sound system and wide stage. The church was packed with good-looking people who wore stylish but casual clothes. They greeted their church friends with hearty handshakes and hugs before the chatting and laughter began. Even before the service started, I started to yearn to be part of this appealing club, to get some of what they appeared to have—simple happiness.
When the church band began to play, the crowd rose and sang along with lyrics projected on a big screen. The energy spiked instantly. Instead of hymns, the band—an electric guitarist, bassist, pianist, drummer and several singers—played what’s known as worship music, modern songs with simple lyrics repeated again and again. St. Augustine wrote that “to sing is to pray twice,” and he was right. Singing words repeatedly, propelled by a catchy melody, allows you to enter a meditative state where you can find God. It would take me more than a year to understand this and fall in love with the musical form.
At first, I just didn’t want to sing. I didn’t have a good voice, and I felt self-conscious—it all seemed so touchy-feely. As they sang, some parishioners held up their arms to the heavens; others closed their eyes and swayed to the beat. For my first year as a churchgoer, I arrived 20 minutes late in order to avoid all this. But the music slowly worked on me, and I began to understand what they were feeling. When you enter that zone, it feels like you are having an intimate conversation with God and that He is bathing you with love.
The main draw at Mariners is the sermon by Kenton Beshore, the church’s senior pastor and its primary draw. The son of a preacher, Kenton had taken over, at age 30, the remnants of an aging, split church. In one of his first moves, he threw out the organ along with other traditional trappings. His ministry focused primarily on people who had been turned off from church for one reason or another. The congregation rapidly grew, drawn to this good-looking pastor with the boyish face, a shock of brown hair that he often pushed off his forehead, a sharp intellect and quick wit. But most important, he delivered stirring sermons—called “messages”—that weaved together humor, his own vulnerability, biblical history and Scripture, making Christianity come alive, giving it relevance in the modern world.
Kenton’s talks reminded me of the only time in my youth when I found the church compelling. In confirmation class, Father Young read to us 12-year-olds from Dick Gregory’s
, a collection of biblical stories that the African-American social activist put into the street language of the day. In one chapter, Gregory recounted the story Jesus told his disciples about how they will be judged in heaven, citing a parable in Matthew 25. Here’s how Gregory told the ending of the story:
And the bad folks will say, “Lord, you’re wrong! We never did that to you. We may have done it to those bothersome poor folks, or those useless old folks, or those dirty hippies, or those niggers, kikes, commies, faggots, and spics, or those muggers, winos, junkies, and rapists. But never to you, Lord!”
And the Judge will say, “You’ve just condemned yourselves. Every time you did it to one of those—even the very least of those—you did it to me. So sweat it out in hell, while I takes these other folks to heaven with me.”
I had forgotten about
until hearing Kenton on my first Sunday at Mariners. A natural entertainer, Kenton got the congregation to laugh with him at the start of the sermon and cry with him at the end. In my first months at Mariners, I sat spellbound as he delivered his message series on topics such as “Top Ten Surprises of Jesus’s Life,” “God’s 9-1-1: A Series from Hebrews,” “Hope in the Storms of Life” and “Life at Its Best: Fruits of the Spirit.”
Here’s a typical way Kenton kicks off a message series:
The world is fast changing, it’s moving quick, and there’s a lot going on. Where’s the market going? Where are your investments going? Where’s business going? Where’s politics going? How about relationships in your life? Changing fast. Where do you go to find the truth that you need in a fast-changing world?
We go to God’s Word because the Bible isn’t just another book. The Bible is a book God has put together for you. To give you principles, truth, that will guide your life in an ever-changing world.
…Our challenge when we read the Bible, if we want to understand it better, is to understand the person who wrote any individual book [of the Bible] and the time and the culture in which they wrote it and the people to whom it was written. And when we understand that, then what we can do is understand the Bible as it was written in [that] context and then we can take those truths, those timeless principles, and transport them to the 21st century, to our lives today, and then begin to apply them.
For someone who was basically illiterate when it came to the Bible, these messages fed a hunger in my soul. It was like discovering a great new author, only the writer of this book—or at least the one who inspired it—was the creator of the universe. I thought, finally, I had found the answers to living a quality life. The secrets had been there all along—in “Life’s Instruction Manual,” as some Christians call the Bible.
Most of the lessons in the Scriptures were just common sense, but they carried the weight of God. Among them: Love the Lord with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. Forgive and even love your enemies. Honor your wife. Be open and honest. Take care of the poor. Don’t gossip. Don’t run up financial debt. It all sounded good. And the Bible’s promise—God’s promise—was that it would lead to a fulfilled life.
From that first day at Mariners, I began to fall in love with a God different from the one I had grown up with. This God loved me perfectly. He didn’t love me any more or any less, no matter what I did. I eagerly lapped up the unconditional love. He was a rock upon which I could build my life. He laid out exactly what kind of life to live in His Holy Book. It was a relief to have someone else in charge of my life.
I began making baby steps as a Christian. I not only went to church each weekend, I looked forward to it. I prayed in the morning and at night. I told Him my dreams, including the desire to get out of my dead-end job, to have my wife forgive me for the mess I made before our marriage and to find a cure for my intestinal problems. Despite my enthusiasm, I was reluctant to dive into Christianity headfirst. I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a Christian because of all the baggage that went along with it. Outside of church, I couldn’t even say the J-word. The word “Jesus”—or “JEEZ-us,” as I heard it in my mind, complete with a Southern accent—had been so thoroughly corrupted by televangelists and other Bible thumpers, so mocked in television and movies and so trivialized by professional athletes claiming that “I want to thank Jesus my Lord and Savior for giving me this win,” that it was embarrassing for me to say aloud. I kept my budding faith very private and didn’t mention it to most co-workers, friends or even family.