Can I just admit, or confess, that my religious quest found its answer through the television?
Now, I’m not talking Tammy Fay and Jim, or Pat Robertson, or even Oral Roberts. But it was through the television medium, nonetheless.
I had been dissatisfied with the pat answers of my South of God church. My study of religion in college had only intensified my questioning, beginning with the scholarly search for the historical Jesus by the storied figure of Albert Schweitzer, a medical missionary doctor whose passion for Jesus led him headlong in a quest to get at the real person behind the biblical myth. As I have written, this sent me on my own peculiar journey through Jewish mysticism, Roman Catholic theological scholarship, Trappist monasticism, and even evangelical apologetics. My appetite was voracious but like Mick Jagger, I could not get satisfaction. And, I might add, I tried.
What’s weird is that it was on a Sunday morning after a fraternity party at the Sigma Chi house at Emory that I got a nudge. I had had several flagons of coffee for recovery, and ambled on downstairs to the TV room, a dark place in the basement, suitable for Saturday night sinners, or as Kris wrote, a Sunday morning coming down. I turned on the television, and begin flipping around. Sunday morning TV in those days, before cable, did not offer a lot of options. There were cartoons, church services, and public service programming. Not many options. Sparse.
Suddenly, I came across a round face, cherubic, I would say, of a man. I remember the camera was on a close up take, not revealing his liturgical garb. It took me a second but I soon recognized the language of a preacher, but unlike any preacher I had ever heard. He was talking about a person, a person I had heard about all my life, but in a way that seemed fresh. Rather, than telling me things that I needed to believe, he was asking questions about this person, and asking questions about my life.
Turns out, the person he was talking about was none other than Jesus, a person whose story I thought I knew. Growing up in the church sometimes inoculates you to the power and intensity of the story. This guy was talking about a Jesus that seemed more real to me than I had ever heard it. The preacher, the round faced dude was named Tom Bowers, the priest at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta. The sermon was a part of what I came to know as the “folk mass”, where guitars provided lively music, the communion prayers seemed relatable rather than the rigid Lord’s Supper my church did, twice a year, whether we needed to or not. The spirit of the service seemed joyful. I do remember the other priest leading the worship, a Friar Tuck looking guy with an acoustic guitar, sang a song, “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog”, and asking me to help him drink his wine, which was not very appealing in the glow of the morning after,
I can’t explain it, but it grabbed my attention. So much so, that the next day, I called the
St. Luke’s office to set up an appointment with the Rev. Tom Bowers in order to ask him about my questions. Tom was so gracious in spirit, took me into his office, and fielded all my questions without an ounce of judgment. It was the beginning of my journey into the Episcopal Church, a place where my questions were not only tolerated, but encouraged. Turns out, curiosity is my super power.
What started with a chance encounter via television with an alternative way of Christian faith, led to my coming back there to the Folk Mass on many occasions. It eventually led to me coming with my new wife to join this very parish, and beginning my discernment process for priesthood. The cherubic Tom was gone to a high-octane parish in New York City, St. Bart’s, the same church featured in the movie, Arthur.
Now, Dan was the new rector, looking more like Neil Diamond when he was singing about Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show. Dan has an electric energy, with his own winsome style of presenting this Jesus. And Dan surrounded himself with an all star cast of kick-ass priests: Parkins, Gorday, Ruhle, and Temple who skewed me into thinking all Episcopal parishes have stellar staffs. Wrong. Each one gave me a gift, a unique slant on this Jesus. Dan was the ringmaster, and he became my sponsoring priest as I moved on to ordination. It was my Camelot.
Luke’s became my paradigm for church. As a person of questions, it is understandable that I have a native affinity to people who also bring questions to the dance. It is not a surprise that my passion for those unchurched, those outside of the community of faith, has focused my energy.
It makes sense, then, that I have a certain drive to present a church that is open and inviting to those who have questions. When I arrived in Tyler, Texas, I was surprised to find that most people were “churched”, meaning, they were member of an organized church, most of them very traditional. I wanted to make a place for the people, like me, who were full of questions, searchers, questers. I did not see any other churches making a place for those types.
So we began to advertise. My good friend, Holly, explored ways to get us on television, producing ads that put forth a message that we were a church that was welcoming to questions. We worked hard to offer advertising at the traditional news hour that Christ Church was an inviting place to go to church. We actually bought advertising on the last show of Cheers, with me at the altar with a bar towel, saying, “The bad news is that Cheers is closing its doors. But the Good News is that there are churches here in Tyler who will be open this Sunday, and they not only know your name, but more importantly, they know that you are a child of God. Why not visit a church this Sunday?” I think the people in Tyler wondered who that crazy priest was at Christ Church. And I think, some of my members felt the same way!
The other tactic I used was to sponsor a weekly radio show every Sunday night from 9 PM until Midnight. I called the show “The Midnight Minister”, although my friend Trey Yarbrough kidded me by calling me The Prince of Darkness.
The format was simple. I would come on the air playing a variety of eclectic music, which was great fun for me. But I invited the listeners to call in and ask me a pastoral question about faith. It was LIVE radio, so you never knew what crazy questions might come in. I made it clear that I would NOT entertain doctrinal questions nor dogmatic debates during the show. I reassured them I would be happy to talk with any one at my office about any question, but I did not want to bog down the show, fighting over who was right and who was wrong about this or that doctrine, like infant baptism, virgin birth, or inerrancy of Scripture. I wanted the questions to be pastoral in nature, dealing with relationships, spirituality, and life decisions.
People honored my request, for the most part, bringing pressing questions of marriage, relationships, vocation, and purpose. Due to the late hour, we wound up with a lot of folks struggling with alcohol and addiction, and wound up guiding a number of folks to some resources that would assist them in getting a handle on their issue. I never did know what question might be coming my way, which was a blast for me and my brave staff. It sure made it hard to go to sleep after the show was over as my adrenaline level was pretty high. Monday mornings at the church house were rough.
This format offered a way that afforded the caller an anonymity that was not available in a local church. You could ask anything….and people did. For marital issues, to child raising, to dating, to addiction, to finding the meaning for one’s life. It was a great run for me and led a number of folks to come to Christ Church to find a spiritual home in which to grow.
I do need to mention my team. I had two guys who gave me some security in terms of helping me through some of the stickier situations, as well as talking me down after certain crazy shows. Keith Weber, my organist at Christ Church, is like a brother to me. We had gone through personal issues in both of our lives and had been the supportive “other” to one another in those ten years. Keith’s own struggles and battles brought rich experiential wisdom to the show.
The other member of my Midnight Zoo Crew was Paul Kyser. Paul was a producer at the radio station, KTBB, and had become a member of Christ Church. He was invaluable as he knew the practical issues of broadcasting as we sent our voices into the night ether of radio. But Paul’s wit was put to use as a sometime caller, Buck, from Buford, who would serve me up weighty questions in a comical way. Sometimes, we had way too much fun on the airwaves of East Texas, but it was always in service of our mission to use a non-church vehicle to reach out to those people searching for answers.
By the way, Keith is providing musical leadership in Houston, these days, having been nominated for a Grammy. And Paul is now Doctor Paul, a medical doctor in Longview, Texas. He no doubt brings his compassion and comedy to the clinical work that he does as an internist. These two continue their work in another venue, which leads to the question, “What the hell am I doing?”
I guess I am continuing to reach out in non-traditional ways to folks that are motivated by questions of faith. Why am I here? What is the best use of my time and energy in the life I have been given? What does it mean to be compassionate? How can I center myself amid all the distractions? What were the Falcons thinking?
What questions are you dragging along behind you? Old questions from your past, or fresh ones from current struggles, they are where we dive deep into this thing we call life. Care to share yours? I have found that community, in the context of relationship, is where I have found some of my answers. What questions press you? We are gifted with the capacity to question, reflect, think, and eventually, decide. What are you wrestling with? What comes to mind?
My prayer is you find the courage to lean into the question. You may leave with a limp from the encounter with reality, but you may get a blessing.