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June 5, 2020 Nonfiction

Pluck

Adam Hughes

Pluck photo

I emerged from the womb with my hands clasped in prayer. The nurse told my mother that I’d be a preacher and everyone laughed, except God. God doesn’t laugh at jokes he’s heard before. I was born into the choir loft, a cross tattooed on my tongue, the words of scripture crowding my blood, my eyes full with a cloud of witnesses. My grandfather was my first pastor, the church my first country, prayer my first language.

To question was to doubt and to doubt was to sin and sin led to hell. Every time I cursed, or masturbated, or lied, I immediately prayed for forgiveness in case I died suddenly because if I died with unconfessed sin I’d be separated from God forever. No one ever told me that but I knew it to be true. I was certain of my religion. Certainty was my religion.

I never drank or smoked, didn’t have sex until my wedding night. I kept the cursing to a minimum—most of the time. Went to Christian college. Became a pastor. I prayed about as fervently as that first prayer emerging from my mother.

My favorite plague was the one with the frogs. What did God do with all the frogs afterward? Where do you stick an amphibian plague after its utility has passed? Did they wash into the sea? Clog all the Egyptian toilets? Maybe there was a frog rapture—frogs beaming up to heaven like the good guys in the novels I read.

My first marriage ended after seven years. She fell in love with someone else and that was that. I had a two-year-old daughter, a church, a very public ending, and a new beginning. Still, God and I were roommates. We passed in the hall occasionally and nodded. I was a good preacher but a poor believer. I didn’t question. I ignored. Silence is easier to hear than doubt. I got my first tattoo after my divorce. Around my wrist, Poet Warrior Priest.

I didn’t take the ending of that marriage as hard as I should have. In retrospect, it was a relief. I drained my meager retirement funds (I was only 28 after all) and used it to spend thousands of dollars on books. They started stacking up around me—in the bed, on the couch, near my bookshelves. Books I never did read, never really thought I’d read, but needed to possess. I bought books on theology, on history, on language, on sports, on random things I saw on Wikipedia. I bought four books on the Zapatista movement of Chiapas, Mexico. I bought an entire 22-volume collection of the writings of the church fathers—pre-Nicaean, Nicaean, and post-Nicaean. I bought poetry. So much poetry. I did not find God.

I found sex. I had been looking for that since my marriage. I dated someone. We never went on a single date, I only went to her apartment where we watched movies and had sex. It was a mutual arrangement, but it was still new ground for me. Sometimes during sex, I whispered the Jesus Prayer—Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. It was very quiet, a breath only half exhaled, but it covered the sound of blood, the ocean in seashells, the thunder of distant locusts. She didn’t know the words, their meaning, if she even noticed, she thought I was whispering pleasure and passion; didn’t know why I shook my head as if that was part of some terrible ritual, this liturgy of breaking into pieces—holy, fallen, and undefined.

I’d spend the night there on Saturday nights, get up Sunday morning and drive to my church and preach. I didn’t find God because I wasn’t looking for him. I was looking for me but I didn’t find him either.

I’ve never been one to give a shit about eternity. I’ve feared hell but I’ve never felt those hymns or songs that talk about longing to spend eternity with God. Or the people who say, come quickly Lord. Or the ones who talk about how they can’t wait for the Lord’s return. Can’t wait to stand before him. I don’t feel any of that. None. I want this life to be good. I never think about the next. I’m the inverse of the Serenity Prayer. Neibuhr says something about wanting to be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with you in the next. Truth is I want the opposite. I want to be supremely happy in this life and it’s a bonus if I’m happy in the next.

This is pretty stunning. But what does it mean about me and God? What’s wrong with me that I don’t think that way? I don’t celebrate God, or often stand in awe of him (except when he’s done something outstanding for me), I don’t know what it means to love him (and never have). Are these things I’m supposed to feel naturally? Do I cultivate them?

One failed marriage is fine. After two, people begin to wonder. I married my second wife quickly—we’d known each other three months when we got engaged, another three months and we were married. She lived in Virginia, I lived in Ohio. When she moved to live with me, I think we both realized our mistake.

I stopped pastoring. My new wife pointed out that someone who didn’t have a relationship with God really didn’t have any business being a pastor.

I was quickly becoming a caricature. I couldn’t seem to hold a job. I was lying more, covering my tracks. Spending money. Hiding the candy wrappers and empty bottles of pop. Not living a double life, because that implies that two lives are being lived. I was a ghost in both lives.

Of course, this can’t end well. I earned my exile. We separated for seven months. When we reconciled she announced she was moving back to Virginia with or without me.

We made it six months in Virginia. The spider-silk bond that held us was easily broken. I found myself first in a hotel then in a studio apartment without heat or air conditioning. I was alone, six hours away from my daughter, my family, no friends, only books and something resembling God.

I didn’t question God in that small apartment. I’ve never questioned God. I’ve never been the “why me” type. I know why me. I’ve been selfish, irresponsible, immature. That’s not on some higher deity. That’s on the lesser deity of myself. I wasn’t angry at him. I wasn’t sure he mattered anymore, but I suspected he still did. I was too scared to abandon him altogether, of course. Without him, what was I?

When my second marriage ended, and when the relationship that followed ended as well, the chorus of voices grew deafening. They were all my voices, sometimes punctuated by my parents, my exes, possibly something higher. My life had been incredibly easy. I’d never fallen without someone there to pick me up—parents, family, spouses. I’d never lacked for support or love or grace. And where had it gotten me? The problem with grace is that it’s fundamentally unfair. If we deserve it, it’s not grace—it’s a reward. If we don’t deserve it, well, yeah. I don’t.

After I left pastoring I attended a Vineyard Church in my hometown. To this day it remains my spiritual home, even having moved two states away. It remains the place I feel most spiritually alive and where I’ve learned the most about God. One Sunday, I made my way toward the front during the music time. I was kneeling on the floor, crying, unsure what was next or where to turn. A friend came up and laid his hand on my back. In the Vineyard movement, we believe that God still speaks to us, often through the voice of others—something called words of knowledge. My friend said to me, “Adam, I feel God has something to say to you. You’ll have to forgive me, I don’t usually use this kind of language. But God is very clearly saying the words, ‘Shit or get off the pot.’”

I started laughing. Not because it was funny or inappropriate, but because it was so spot on. And then I laughed at the idea of a Divine Being who was so frustrated with my bullshit that they resorted to cursing at me. God certainly wasn’t the first to feel that way toward me, and likely wouldn’t be the last.

I’m not entirely sure I believe anything I’ve ever written. I’m not entirely sure I believe anything I’ve ever said. Everything is a performance, whether the audience is another person, the Divine, or just myself. I’m a good performer. I can ad lib with the best of them or rehearse my lines so well that they seem ad-libbed. I’ve walled myself in thoroughly, a local vagrant found suffocated in the chimney of an abandoned house, stuck and sealed by a desire for refuge.

We never actually see the stars. When we look at the sky we’re seeing snapshots into the distant past. Different timelines all across the horizon, but each of them decidedly ancient. Much of what we see is already gone.

I want my instinctive reaction to almost every situation to be something other than abject terror. I want bigger arms. I want to be known perfectly and loved anyway. I want people to stay.

Do you know what kind of unhappiness drives a man, alone in a small bedroom, to contemplate reading Moby Dick? The demons know and shudder.

I know all of my failings like I know this language. I am unhappy and I wear that like an amulet to ward off the scourge of hope. Nothing is so dangerous to unease like the tiniest pinch of unreasonable expectation.

In the book of Genesis, a central character is a man named Jacob. Jacob is the son of Isaac, the grandson of Abraham. He is defined early in life as a trickster, a conman, contrasted often with his twin brother, Esau. Esau is straightforward, muscular, and earthy, if a bit dim and unimaginative. Jacob is crafty, shifty, and uses his brain to get what he wants. Jacob is dishonest, ambitious, and enters life grabbing his twin brother’s heel and refusing to let go.

After many schemes and setbacks, the story continues with Jacob later in life, disillusioned of his earlier quests for glory and riches. The reader encounters him stripped of his previous bravado, devoid of the certainty of God and man’s favor that had defined his early life. Instead he is alone, awaiting the arrival of Esau, fully expecting the heavy retribution of a powerful and wronged brother. Gone is the protection of his family, his wit, and his charm, exposed to the debt he has long outrun.

As Jacob sleeps fitfully in preparation for his brother’s—and his brother’s army’s—arrival in the morning, Jacob is visited by a man. This unannounced visitor begins to wrestle with Jacob. Jacob, a grappler since birth, wrestles back. All night this fight is waged, neither side gaining an advantage. As dawn nears, the unknown assailant finally speaks and tells Jacob to release him. Jacob refuses. At this point, he has realized his opponent is supernatural. Jacob says he’ll only let go if he receives a blessing. The grabber is still grabbing.

Then the supernatural cheats. He pokes Jacob in the hip, immediately dislodging it. But he blesses Jacob anyway, offering him a new symbolic name and a promise of protection and favor. The opponent disappears and Jacob is left with a promise and a limp. His brother arrives soon thereafter with forgiveness rather than vengeance and the Jacob story moves on to his son Joseph.

Jacob’s early certainty had been bruised well before the wrestling match. It had been broken by life. It was in the wrestling that certainty gave way to clarity. Certainty is not found in nature. Clarity is seeing things for what they are—and more importantly—what could be.

In Switzerland it’s illegal to own one guinea pig. You must always own at least two. I keep thinking of an illegal Swiss guinea pig, alone and sad, her owner fully believing that he is enough to fulfill all her longings but unable to understand what it feels like to have teeth that never stop growing. If I had a ship, the figurehead would be a guinea pig. Always looking for another guinea pig. My ship would be the best ship because it would always be lonely.

Every morning I lay out the pieces of my life upon this altar and watch for fire to descend. Can I offer myself as a living sacrifice? Can I truly lay still on the altar while the anticipation of burning builds? Can I truly lay down my insecurity? My desire for acceptance and approval from others? My desire for affection to somehow give myself value? My longing for validation from others? My fears of abandonment and rejection? My selfishness and my ambition? My desire for the easy path? I lay these things out this morning, by naming them, by calling them out. I offer them to you to be consumed by your fire and returned to me as something pure, something holy, something you intended rather than them consuming me of their own accord. There’s a consummation. I’ll be on fire either way—the unholy fire of self-immolation or the holy fire of your purification. Come.

My parents worry about me. They always have. I’m an only child, their entire legacy and hope wrapped up in one very fallible human. These days they worry about me being in Virginia. They worry about my diabetes. They worry that I play rugby. They worry, more than anything, about my soul. They don’t address this directly, rather through inference and asides. But it’s clear. They’re worried I’ve been heathen’d. That I’ve become an apostate—a word they wouldn’t use but a concept they would agree with.

They love me deeply, full-heartedly. They give and they cajole and they guilt and they pray and they tell me about the prayer sometimes. They care. They worry.

I don’t have the words they’d like to hear. That I’ve returned to what I once appeared to be but never actually was. That I’m coming home physically, spiritually, emotionally.

It’s uncomfortable here. In the tension of almost and in between and yet but not yet.

I’m better at knowing than doing, a great learner but a bad student, in my head I’m more accomplished than outside it and I much prefer having written to writing. But today I fed the cat and put away the dishes. I even folded laundry and made myself dinner. These things are a kind of editing are they not? The stories we tell ourselves aren’t good enough. We think they are because in them we are handsome and strong and we have lots of sex and the walls are always the right color and the light is always perfect for pictures. But the walls have teeth and our hair is made of rice noodles and the neighbors are never as nice as they seem and the moon is a leaking ceiling and the gaps in the shower are video cameras that capture the smallness of our intimacy and the ghosts are real. So tell me new stories tonight. Tell me new heroes and take me to new places. No more make-believe though. I want real. I want her and me and a bed with three blankets and a fireplace that doesn’t really exist so forget the fireplace. I want chili on the stove or chicken noodle and I want a big bowl of ice cream and I want children who are happy and bills that are paid and fiction that pales in comparison to the poetry of our living. I sing this sacred song beneath the silent stars and it’s my voice, but you are all the notes.

The soundtrack in the background of my life is the ongoing, constant vibration of almost. That used to terrify me. I’d sit and try to figure out where I was. I fell in love at an early age with geography, maps, and cartography. I spent countless hours looking at my atlas or drawing my own maps of imagined lands. Many writers use maps to add flavor to their stories. I have always used stories simply to flavor my maps. It was only recently that I began to understand the link between my love of cartography and my walk with God.

Old maps, reveling in their uncertainty, filled in the blank spaces with fantastic lands and beasts, and with warnings—here there be dragons. For centuries writers and dreamers have populated space with imagined beings and civilizations, from Barnum’s humbug of the 1800s to Star Wars to SETI. We still, as a species, revel in the unknown, or the almost known. Why should that not include that deepest part of our being—the quest to understand, or at least encounter in a meaningful way, the Divine?

 

image: Aaron Burch


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