For as long as I can remember I have loved stories and I have told stories. When I was nine or ten years old the neighborhood kids would congregate in my garage and ask me to make up stories. And I did. Hopefully they never told their parents. God knows what they would have thought. I had recently discovered creepy ghost stories and monster movies like “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” and my stories usually involved variations on haunted houses where the eyes in the paintings moved, or strange half-man, half-lizard hybrids that would slink from the lake to terrorize the local inhabitants. Usually I would combine the two themes, with the lizard ending up in the haunted house. But the neighborhood kids were an easy audience, and these tales enthralled them. They could have listened forever, or at least until their moms called them in for lunch. At any rate, they would usually ask me to tell them another one, and I would oblige, making up more ghastly, spooky stuff as I went along.
But truth is always stranger than fiction, even when it comes to ghastly, spooky stuff. Here’s another story. Mark Palmer was a young man I never met. He was the pastor of a small house church in Columbus, Ohio, and he had a profoundly positive impact on many of my friends. Two years ago his wife Jennifer died of cancer, leaving behind a grieving husband and an infant son. Mark remarried a little over a year later, and was only a few months into his new marriage when he found out that he had colon cancer. Yesterday, he lost his long, courageous fight to that dreaded disease, leaving behind a grieving wife and a four-year-old son who celebrated his birthday the day before daddy died. He will be too young to remember his parents. Here is Mark’s story in his own words, except for the last few entries, which were completed by his wife. I shake my head. The tears well up in my eyes for a man I didn’t even know. It’s unbelievable; no one could possibly believe it. It’s too melodramatic. Any good editor would tell you that it’s way, way over the top.
Thirty years ago I got caught up in another story, the one of Jesus of Nazareth. I had spent six months of Ohio University dormitory life arguing, often vehemently and derisively, against the idiotic tenets of the Christian faith with people who had the annoying habit of loving me in spite of my best efforts to alienate them and piss them off. I couldn’t get rid of them. And I couldn’t get rid of Jesus, either. I read his story, the one contained in the four gospels, and he was just as profoundly annoying. I wanted to admire him from a respectful but uninvolved distance, kind of like Abe Lincoln or Mahatma Gandhi, and he wanted to be followed and worshipped. It was puzzling. For a megalomaniac he was remarkably gentle and inviting. For the so-called Lord of the Universe he was concerned about the smallest, most insignificant things – lost lambs, prostitutes, slimy corporate tax collectors, half breeds, poor widows, the homeless, prisoners in jail, the sick, the grieving -- all manner of people who didn’t have their shit together, just like me. And so I decided to give this Christianity thing a trial run. If not completely satisfied within thirty days, I could revoke my conversion and my emotional and spiritual investment would be cheerfully refunded. At least that’s how I approached it at the time. And, to be honest, there were ulterior motives as well. The girl I loved was falling in love with Jesus. And I didn’t want to be left out of the action, although at the time I wasn’t really sure that the action had a lot to do with Jesus.
And so, on March 28, 1976, thirty years ago today, lying alone in an Ohio University dormitory bed at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, I asked Jesus to be my Lord and Savior and I prayed the “sinner’s prayer.” I probably didn’t think of it precisely in those terms. The “selfish asshole” prayer probably would have been the preferred terminology because that was who I better understood myself to be. But it was sincere as far as it went. I was a selfish asshole, and I had been a major jerk to people who had done nothing but care for and about me, and I wasn’t proud of that fact. It was, at best, a conflicted conversion, half prompted by love and half prompted by lust. Make of that what you will. And that was pretty much what I prayed. Make of that what you will, God. If you can do anything with this conflicted mess, you’re welcome to it.
Thirty years down the line it’s still a mess. Look at what happened yesterday and try to fathom the bottomless hole in the hearts of many people in Columbus, Ohio, and that four-year-old little boy left without a mother or father. There are no words and there are no explanations other than perhaps love, a love that is somehow as real as it is inscrutable and mysterious. Don’t try to grasp that cognitively. It doesn’t work. But it’s true. And it’s okay to admit that it’s a big mess.
All I know is that the story goes on. I was wrong. It turned out that the action had a lot to do with Jesus. There have been days (okay, years) when I’ve tried to run away from that, numb it, keep it at a safe, manageable, respectable distance. But Jesus isn’t manageable or respectable. He breaks into the pain sometimes, and sometimes he doesn’t, and there’s no predicting it, no magical incantation to make it work, nothing but the assurance that the story doesn’t end, and that we’re caught up in a tale that will go on forever.
I am not the same person I was thirty years ago. And yet, in some ways, nothing has changed. I keep repeating the same prayer every time I’m faced with the inscrutable. “I don’t understand,” I tell God. “I’m angry, and confused, and more sad than you can imagine. And I love you. Make of that what you will. If you can do anything with that, you’re welcome to it.”
And that’s what I pray today. The story doesn’t end. It keeps going. I’ve seen that again and again in my own life, times when I have despaired of hope, times when I was convinced that God could not change me, that I was destined to sink under my own selfish assholedness, but it wasn’t the end, and God had another chapter to write. The story goes on, and I’m still caught up in it. It can’t be stopped by impure or mixed motives or lust or addiction or fucking cancer, which I hate with all my heart. It’s a good story; the best story, in fact, better than anything I could ever make up. It’s the story of the gentle and inscrutable mercy of God, and I pray that the family and friends of Mark Palmer will be caught up in it today.