When I was a teenager in the late 1970s, my father helped start a new Methodist church. We’d just moved to the north side of Houston, where he had reconnected with the former youth minister at our previous church who was building a congregation of his own. The nascent services were held in the cafeteria of a nearby elementary school, where each Sunday morning before the service a few of us would arrange orange plastic chairs in neat rows on white linoleum. After services, everyone would pitch in to noisily re-stack the chairs in a fraction of the time it took to set them up.
The minister, Harris, was a talented and charismatic preacher. I had gotten to know and admire him at our previous church, where, as a somewhat impressionable teen with a tendency to veer into minor trouble, Harris had been the youth minister. Our parents told me and my brother, Tracy we were moving to be closer to our father’s work. I was entering high school and Tracy was entering middle school. Both of us were irate about leaving our friends, the lives we’d known. It was only much later that it dawned on me that keeping me in close proximity to Harris, and hopefully out of trouble was likely another reason my father chose to uproot our family.
Harris ritually ended his services with the Lord’s Prayer. Leading up to the prayer, the piano would kick in as he extended his robed arms and invited his congregates to stand, open our hearts and let Christ in. That’s all we had to do to be saved, he assured us. He made it sound easy. But it wasn’t for me. One Sunday, struggling in all earnestness to do as Harris asked, I thought, “How will I know the difference between Christ speaking to me and my own consciousness? I mean, yeah, I kind of feel it, but…” Just then a disembodied voice said, “Don’t worry, we have other plans for you.”
“What the hell was that?”
I quickly reasoned that the voice was just my imagination’s way of trying help me cope with the stress of trying to invite an all-powerful supernatural being into my scrawny teenage body. But the otherness of the voice was unmistakable. And the choice of words struck me as pretty damn weird. The voice could’ve simply said, Relax, dude–this was the 70s, after all–don’t try so hard. Instead, it told me to stop, to not try at all, that they–the voice was singular, but used the pronoun “we,” as if it represented some gang of gods–had other plans for me. While I was wary that the voice’s declaration meant my will was not my own, at least not entirely, I felt comforted, if uneasily, by its promise of a purpose to be revealed at a later time. I’d apparently been chosen for some pre-destined spiritual mission. I also took the message as forgiveness for my falling short of being a good Christian. Still, it didn’t take long for me to decide my initial reasoning was probably correct–the voice was merely a product of my own overactive imagination.
On a later Sunday morning, Harris announced to the congregation that his toddler daughter had died of leukemia. Broken and struggling to maintain his composure, he explained that he needed to be there, that God wanted him to be there. Despite this ultimate, cruel test of faith, Larry needed to prove to us, and presumably to himself, that his was unshaken.
The loss of their child put an unbearable strain on Harris’ marriage. My father told me that Harris’ wife repeatedly insisted God would bring their baby back. When they eventually divorced, the Methodist bishop moved Harris to another church on the opposite side of Houston, telling the church’s board, on which my father sat, that God built our church and a divorced pastor was unacceptable. Why it was acceptable to another church across town was unclear.
My father was furious. “God didn’t build that church,” he said, “the people did.” We stopped attending when Harris left. My parents would eventually attend other Methodist churches, in other towns. I never would.
When my father was in the throes of dementia, I tracked Harris down, hoping Dad would remember him. He was living in Atlanta, working for a nonprofit that helps churches organize building campaigns. While the Methodist’s bishop’s decision to move Harris out of our church all those years ago had given me an excuse to turn away from organized religion, he remained a faithful servant. When I told Harris that my father could not remember him, all he could say, appropriately enough, was “bless his heart.”
I’ve thought about that Sunday morning when the voice spoke to me many times over the last forty-five or so years. While I can’t say I’ve clearly uncovered the plans ‘they’ claimed to have had laid out for me, I have no doubt that morning was formative for me. In the midst of an oft-repeated ritual designed, among other things, to inculcate certainty in its participants, I was cast into a perpetual state of uncertainty, of ambiguity, of not-knowing regarding ultimate reality. The experience made me open to and curious about other ways of understanding the many mysteries of our being. I wish I could say this pursuit has been consistent, rigorous and disciplined throughout my adult life, but I tend to wander as I wonder. And as answers accumulate, the questions only multiply. But live long enough–I’ve just entered my seventh decade–and osmosis can lead one to a state of gnosis, to a state of both knowing and not-knowing. Even if the disembodied voice in my teenage head was the work of my own imagination, I know now there is more to it than that. A lot more.