My nephew David passed away today. He was a man of great artistic talent, which he got from his mother, my sister. He was a really nice guy from all angles and a loving husband. We mourn. I ask for prayers of comfort for my sister Sandra, his brother Eric, and David’s wife Rizza. Mike
I had my stem-cell transplant in mid-June. Around July 4th (I know I’ve said this part before) I came down with graft Vs host syndrome with serious abdominal pain, head to toe rash, and profuse diarrhea. Was started on five new daily medications, the cornerstone being a high dose of steroids (after six weeks of therapy, I’m off those medications now and my graft Vs host has not come back, a good thing). However, being on the steroids caused a dormant virus (CMV) start to propagate. A full-blown CMV infection, in someone like me, has a very high mortality rate. I was then started on a new anti-viral medication to treat the CMV. Virtually all the medications that can treat CMV, can harm the kidneys. I was started on the one medication that harms kidneys the least. However, it has one rare side effect of hemolytic anemia. Unfortunately, it has caused this side effect with me. My hemoglobin started to plummet as soon as I started it (dropping by one full point per week). Now I am very anemic and extremely weak. When I first came home from the hospital, I was walking 5 miles a day. Now, I can’t walk from my bedroom to the kitchen without being very short of breath and a heart rate of 120-140. I did walk two miles yesterday with Jerry, but it was like climbing Mount Everest. Tuesday morning, I could not stand without almost passing out. This is very discouraging, and I feel I’m losing ground daily.
The other bad thing, and we think it is related to the anemia, is that I woke up with a severe headache 12 days ago, and it has never gone away. It keeps me awake every night and there is nothing I can take for it. I’m not supposed to take Tylenol, because it could mask a fever and infection. I can’t take anti-inflammatory drugs, because of my kidneys. So, I pack my head in ice packs, hoping I can get an hour or two of sleep when my head becomes a little numb. At least I don’t have the associated symptoms (except of light sensitivity) that my migraine patients have.
I must remain on this antiviral medication for two more weeks, if I can make it. The CMV viral load has come down. We are trying to avoid more transfusions (I had five in Seattle this summer) because with each one, someone with such a compromised immune system as me, is put in danger of an occult infection. This is where I’m at.
Denise is back at work with mixed feelings. She wants to be home with me. I think it is good for Denise’s sanity to get away from me, from not hearing about my constant symptoms and watching me struggle every day. Greta, the Saint Bernard is watching over me.
Ramblings: More Self-Pity
I am certainly not a superstitious person, but if I were, I would believe that some great curse has descended upon my life in the past two years and—while there are good spots now and then—the trend does not seem to be changing. I think it seems so severe to me because, for the previous 62 years, I felt really blessed. I have five healthy children, who have turned out to be fantastic human beings. I have been in very good health without much of a taste of suffering… until now. I remember thinking, before all of this started, that life could not be any better. This previous life juxtaposed against my present life, I’m sure, intensifies the distress.
I do know several facts, for one, the line between venting (what I think I’m doing here) and self-pity is a fine line, easily crossed. I also know that others have suffered far more than me, many in complete silence. I also know that there are limits to human empathy.
My professional calling was to listen to other people’s complaints. I thought I was very empathetic. But now I know that I could never live in some else’s skin, feeling what they feel, nor can I ever hope to communicate what I now feel to others. Suffering isolates you from people, because you start to live in a private world that, unless you are a gifted poet, can never express appropriately. I regret those times that I didn’t listen to the suffering of others more carefully.
My curse seemed to have started with two, unrelated, back to back freak accidents in 2017. One cause a complete tear of my left rotator cuff and the other a partial of my right. The pain was constant and pretty severe from that point forward (I am happy to report that pain has been gone for 3-4 months). In June of 2018 I was at Swedish Hospital, having a shoulder surgical evaluation (both shoulders were deemed “unrepairable”). While I was walking to the surgeon’s office that morning, I had a call from my sisters that my mother had passed away. I had to stuff the grief as deeply as I could for on that day, I was also starting to host a week-long wedding party for my daughter. My next call from my siblings, a few of days later, was to inform me that they were having my mother’s funeral without me. This created tension within my family that I had never experienced before.
The next event was when I flew to Tennessee in October to say goodbye to my mother at her grave on my own terms. It was during that trip I first started to notice some vague symptoms (I would call it malaise), which, in retrospect, I think was the beginning of my cancer.
In December, my vague, mostly neurologic, symptoms intensified. I suspected I had ALS, which I knew was a death sentence. It was about this time I had a call from my brother who reported to me that he was very sick, with his own bone marrow cancer (different than mine, and mine was still undiagnosed) and he was asking me to be a donor of stem cells to him. I said yes; however, I had the intuition that something was very wrong with me. I was on a long wait during the Christmas holidays to get in to see my doctor.
It was January 11th that my doctor ordered some labs, which showed I was in complete renal failure and I ended up at Peace Health by that night, fighting for my life.
Since then, there hasn’t been one hour of one day without some significant symptom plaguing me. It was either pain, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weakness, neurological symptoms, or many others, often all at once.
My bother has been in worse shape than me at times and still has not had his stem cell transplant due to very serious complications leading up to it. I’m not sure he can survive what I just went through in his weakened state.
My nephew, David, during this time has also become very seriously ill and his future looks grave. My sister has fought hard to keep her son alive, but she feels like she is losing him now. What makes that situation most frustrating for all of us, is that was preventable or at least treatable at one point.
I am so weary of bad news and suffering that I call it suffering-exhaustion. There comes a time when you start to give up any hope that you will ever feel well again, even for a flighting moment, or that things will go well again. I have begged God for mercy for months to help me turn the corner, to give me a single day of respite and I’m still waiting. I pray too for my brother, my sister and my nephew daily. Mike
Ten days ago I said I would come back and finish this thought in part II (and there will be a part III). It has taken this long to formulate the thoughts into writing plus I haven’t been feeling well. But I’ve decided not to post it here because I assume most of my current readers would not be interested in this topic. If it is something you are interested in, you can follow this link to the paper.
I just had my labs done. The fantastic news is, now that I’m off the 5 drugs used to control my graft vs host syndrome, my kidney function is much better. The thoughts of returning to dialysis is a mute point at this juncture. Thanks for your interest and prayers.
My biggest problem (from a lab standpoint) is that my anemia is much worse, dropping one hemoglobin point per week. It is not clear why, as several factors can do this. But it makes me extremely tired and if I just walk 100 yards my heart rate gets to 140 and I’m short of breath. I had five transfusions in Seattle and may be due for more now. But transfusions are not the easy answer and can create their own problems.
I will be quick to say that someone blaming me for my cancer almost never happens. I’m glad, because such a conversation, would really piss me off. People have been extremely generous and compassionate. There have been only a few hints of such an attitude. It is usually from an acquaintance rather than a close friend. They often ask, as soon as I tell them why I am now bald, “How old are you? Were you a smoker?”
I know where these people are coming from and it is something that crosses all our minds when we hear of a medical tragedy in someone else. It is because we don’t want to have the same happen to us and we are looking for a rational reason why it can’t.
Of course, there are some cancers linked to human behavior, but even those are not a slam dunk. We are all familiar with the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancers (plus other cancers) such as non-small cell lung cancer. The relationship between the two is clearly established. But there are people who have never come near a cigarette and developed it and others who smoked from age 12 to 105 and whose lungs faired relatively well (which is uncommon). I could list several other cancers that have some connection to human behavior.
However, most cancers, including mine (multiple myeloma or MM), after decades of study, have few connections to human behavior and those are sketchy. The only relationship is that MM is slightly more prevalent in wood workers (carpenters) and those who have worked around pesticides or petroleum products. I have done a lot of home remodeling in my life. However, even those who work daily as professional carpenters for their entire lives only have a slight increase in MM. Regarding petroleum products, we all have pumped gas. I have restored a couple of cars which including messing with petroleum-based fluids, but even the professionals who work in the center of huge refineries have only a slight increase risk of MM.
MM, like most cancers, is due to a genetic mutation. No one on this planet understands why this happens. We have between 20,000 and 25,000 genes in our body, and it the case of MM, only one single gene folds the wrong way, starting this entire nightmare.
Our bodies are constantly having gene mutations. Most of them are harmless, and even some are beneficial. As Dr. Lewis Thomas describes in his great book, The Medusa and the Snail, if it was not for gene mutations, we would not be who we are. Now, you can take this from an evolutionary perspective or intelligent design. The body is constantly experimenting with our genes to make a better us. It is like rocket scientists trying to get the maximum thrust from the liquid fueled rocket engine. They try to turn up the pressure in the main fuel pump and the entire thing explodes. Well, that didn’t work. Then they turn the pressure up, but not as much. Finally, they are able to increase the thrust without the explosion.
In the case of MM, the genetic error of folding happens in one of the many genes that make plasma cells in the blood. Plasma cells are a good thing, producing antibodies that keep us healthy and free from most infections. If the error in folding, like I have, was a good thing, making our antibodies even better, we would live longer and healthier. However, the problem is, once this error of folding happens, the cells start mass-producing the plasma protein without limits. That’s where the problem occurs.
There are two types of belief systems, in my opinion, that tend to make people want to blame the victim of cancer for their plight. I would put both under the heading of a “Prosperity-Perspective.”
One of those belief systems is in the evangelical branch, known as “Prosperity Gospel.” They believe that all things happen for a reason and has intrinsic meaning. Things like cancer, within that system, are usually due to “sin in your life” or your lack of faith or prayer. Sometimes they see it as God giving you this awful disease to teach you something like patience. That type of God seems more like a Nazi to me.
The more common (at least outside of the south) Prosperity-Perspective is the erroneous belief that if you are a “health nut” that you will live to a ripe old age without any of these diseases. I hear that attitude a lot. These people exercise like crazy, eat very healthy and take a lot of “cancer-preventing” supplements. While exercise (the latest figures is about 2 miles of walking per day) does seem to help prevent heart disease, the benefit in preventing cancer is not so clear. While I see some benefit for some things in “Alternative Medicine,” it is hard to even have a conversation with those folks because they immediately start to blame my lifestyle for my cancer and start quoting their “medical information,” which has no basis in research . . . none. I don;t like making stuff up on the fly.
Unfortunately, while a healthy lifestyle has a marginal benefit in preventing some cancers (it is subtle) there is no diet or supplements that have convincing proof of benefit (see here). I know this flies in the face of most people’s belief systems, but the claims about supplements and diet are made to sell you supplements and books. These days, there is far more misinformation about health out there than good information. Additionally, there is no evidence that sugar has anything to do with cancer, while there are lots of books and gurus (who have no scientific training) who make these claims. Sugar has always been the health-nuts whipping boy. Sugar’s main downfall is that is represents empty calories (without other nutritional benefit). But, without sugars (of all types) we would be dead in seconds as it is–like it or not–the fuel for our bodies. But limiting sugar reduces obesity, which in turn does have health benefits. The only sugar I’ve ever used is to lightly sweeten my tea. Never in coffee (may God forbid).
The one diet that has some benefit for heart disease and may have some benefit (again, it is subtle if true) in preventing some cancers is the Mediterranean diet. But this was the diet I’ve been on for years. I also ran, three days a week, with my longest run being 6.5 miles.
As a headache specialist, the one message that I’ve always have tried to give my patients is, “Your headaches is not your fault.” That is true 90% of the time. The only exceptions are when people take too many pain killers, their headaches tend to get worse. The other, and I’ve had a few patients like this, who have professions or hobbies that cause them to get repetitive head injuries (I’ve had several boxers and those who do X-game type sports and don’t wear a helmet). But for all the rest, such my migraine patients, it is also due to a genetic mutation, over which they have no more control than they do over the color of their eyes. Life is not fair, is it?
I have debated in my mind if I would do any more “updates.” Part of me wanted to wait until I had nothing but good news to share. None of us like to hear about bad news and those who “over-share” their struggles are quickly marginalized within our optimism-longing brains. I’m not a whinner. I never have been and that is not my intentions now. But I also never knew the depths of suffering that some cancer patients must go through. I am also amazed at the resilience of the human psyche, that it can endure so much suffering for so long without a total mental “crack-up.”
So, if I say nothing, well-meaning people (and I would do exactly the same) make the assumption that things are going well. I hear often, “Mike, you look good. I heard that you are doing really well.” I don’t know who is spreading those rumors, but they seem to grow within the darkness of my silence, like mushrooms in a hollowed place.
On the other hand, if I inventoried all the problems I’m having, all the set-backs and disappointments, then I will appear as the proverbial “Debbie Downer” and it assumed that I just have a bad attitude about the whole thing, or, as a (very few) have suggested, I don’t have the right faith or pray right.
To share or not to share is the real dilemma.
Before I started typing this morning, in my mind I had a long version to “update” all the problems that I’m dealing with right now. But I’ve decided to summarize with the two most important. I will also add, to help shed the “Debbie Downer” image, that, within the sea of bad news over the past 8 months, there have been a few pockets of good news, for which I am deeply grateful. Yes, I am still alive. Yes, I’m still off dialysis for now. Yes, I’m still home.
In a nutshell, without the nasty details, I (which only happens to 10-20% of people who used their own stem cells) developed a graft vs host syndrome, which required me to go on five new daily medications, the main one was high doses of steroids. Of the five, four of them had a potential of re-injuring my kidneys. I will be off all five by Sunday (which is very good news). While my kidneys had returned almost to normal in late June (creatinine of 2.2 and BUN of 23), after six weeks of these drugs, they are doing worse again. If I had to go back on dialysis, to me, it would be worse than death.
The biggest danger for a stem cell transplant patient is an “opportunistic infection.” Being on steroids increases the risk of such. So, a common cold is nothing to most people, but could be fatal to me. Unfortunately, I do have such an infection (CMV), which was discovered this week. If the infection had “matured” it has a mortality (death) rate of 21% in patients like me, and if it turned into pneumonia, it as a mortality rate of 100%. The nugget of good news in this sea of bad news, is that we caught it early and I’m on treatment. Hopefully it will not get worse. However, the new anti-viral medication is also hard on the kidneys.
So, that’s where things are at. Yeah, I feel discouraged at times. Sometimes it is more like one step forward and then two steps backwards when I want progress so badly. Mike
I am still working on Part II related to my last posting. However, events of this week (the mass hate-murders) have upset me and distracted my thoughts. I posted something very similar to what I want to post today a few years ago, but I know that I have a totally different audience today and felt I needed to re-post it.
Part of my motivation for posting this was a discussion I had with some people from where I grew up in the south, just this week. They were clear that they 1) totally support Donald Trump, and 2) he is not a racist but reflects their strong evangelical values. For me, I felt bewildered. I’ve known Donald Trump as a racist for decades. To question President Obama’s birth certificate was a pure racist maneuver and there is no other way to explain it. His public stance since being president has strongly reinforced that image.
I consider myself well-informed because I have watched virtually every pep-rally Trump has held as well as I watch his propaganda machine (Fox News) daily, along with CNN (which I admit has a anti-Trump bias), MSNBC, Aljazeera (in Arabic when I can), BBC, and my favorite (least bias) PBS or NPR news. I also read several newspapers online from across the political spectrum. So, to me, Trump’s racism is blatant, so blatant that I don’t understand why his supporters don’t see it. There must be something that is blinding them.
When I’ve had conversations like this with Trump supporters, at this juncture, they play the “partisan” card. They have told me to my face, “The only reason you don’t like Trump is that you are a lib-tard.” I usually disengage when it becomes political or personal. Others, and many evangelicals have said this to me, “How can you call yourself a Christian and not support Trump?” I am thinking just the opposite.
I want to end this political argument now by stating, before 2016 when I saw this disaster unfolding, I was very apolitical. I’ve voted for far more Republicans than Democrats (mostly based on fiscal responsibility, which turns out the Republicans don’t care about anymore anyway). I will also state, for the record, that I was never a big fan of Bill and Hillary Clinton but did vote (happily) for Obama twice. While I do think the Clintons are smart (I attended a meeting once with Hillary and was very impressed with her grasp of knowledge), I didn’t trust their judgment. But I didn’t hate their guts as the evangelical community was taught to do (through a lot of misinformation from Fox News). I said many times in 2016 that I was very disappointed in the choices (for president) given to us. It was voting for the lessor of two evils. I would have voted for almost any of the other Republicans (which were in the primaries), except Trump.
WHY I’M A RACIST
I’m going to tell you my story. Everything I say is factual. Others, family members, boyhood neighbors, etc. are appalled that I would call myself racist, when they don’t consider themselves racists, having shared the same upbringing. Listen to my story and you be the judge.
First, I will define racism, from the dictionary: Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. I was tempted to expand this discussion to bigotry, to include discrimination based on other labels such as religion, national origins, and sexual orientation. But, for the sake of brevity, I will leave it with racism.
I was born in NE Tennessee and grew up in a small community of less than 1,000 people. There were NO people in my small town except for white “Christians.” I will say that it was a typical small town in the south.
The only time I knew of, where a family of color attempted to move to our small town was when my mother was a young girl. A black man and his sister moved into a small, porched cabin, not far from where my mom was living. Mom told me how the community was very upset (and this was in the 1930s). Quickly, rumors started in the churches that the two were practicing incest (no evidence to support that except that they shared a cabin). Everyone wanted them run out of town as soon as possible.
Mom told me that everyone was persecuting this pair, with the blessing of the churches. She also told me that my own grandpa (who I barely knew as he died when I was about 12) went over the cabin one night with some friends. Based on the (one of many) prejudices that black people are very scared of ghosts, they took a sheep, soaked in in kerosene. Then they ran a wire about neck-height around the posts of the porch. They set the sheep on fire and pushed it into the cabin’s back door. Of course, in the middle of the night with a ball of burning sheep running through their cabin, the man and his sister ran out the front door, where the wire caught them across their necks, causing them to fall off the porch. My grandpa and his friends thought it was hilarious. But it wasn’t enough (plus a lot of other harassments) to make them move away.
Finally, a group of teenage boys when over, kicked the cabin door in, dragged the man out into the yard. They were considering lynching them both as “God’s justice.” But instead, they staked the man’s wrists and ankles into the ground and then got a sharp stick and literally pried his eyeballs out of their sockets, blinding him for life. The couple did leave after that, because they knew that they would soon be murdered.
Mom says those teenagers were seen as heroes in the town. One of the teenagers, who did this terrible thing, was the town’s constable when I was a kid.
Also, when I was a kid, the ONLY name we knew for black people was the “N-word,” which I will represent with a capital N. I had no clue that there were other ways to talk of the black community until I was at least in high school if not college. We were taught that N’s were; very dirty, even nasty, lazy, immoral, scared easily, very dangerous, and very low IQ (a term Trump still likes to use). I’m sure that I’m forgetting something here.
The nearest towns with a black community were Kingsport and Johnson City, Tennessee. From the time I was a toddler, all black communities were called N-town. The cliché that my mother (and sometimes dad) would use, if we had to drive through such an area, was “Roll up your windows and lock your doors, we are driving through N-town.” That always scared me to death.
I have many memories about those days, but I will mention one more. When I was in middle school, I was very active with the Boy scouts, which was sponsored by the main Baptist church in town. Our leader was a man in his thirties (maybe forties) whose name was Chuck. He drove a GTO, and if I remember right, was known as lady’s man.
Every Memorial Day, we would join many other Boy scout troops from across NE Tennessee and camp at the big VA (which has hundreds of acres of lawn and a huge military cemetery) center in Johnson City. We would put American flags on the Veterans’ graves on Memorial Day.
One year, and I remember as if it happened yesterday, Chuck told our troop, “Boys, I just got our camping assignment. We will have to camp just next to a troop from Johnson City, which has Ns in it. I have fought against this. I know that you boys haven’t been around Ns but I had to serve in the army with them. They are all thieves (like Trump describes immigrants), and they will rob us blind. They also stink, smelling like ammonia or piss because they never take baths.”
So, Chuck made us lock up all our valuables in his car during the weekend, so that the Ns would not steal them. I will mention that Chuck, later became a supplier of pornography, alcohol, and cigarettes to his select group of middle school Boy scouts. I found out when I went to find him for some problem in camp and found him and his four favorite scouts sitting in his GTO—windows steamed up—all of them smoking, drinking, and looking at porn.
I will tell one more story and that is one of my classmates, in high school, wanted to start an official KKK club, as part of the school. The principal told him that he could not because the liberals in Nashville would not allow it as an official school club. But that he could start one as a private club and he would support his efforts. This friend tried to get me to join and I thank God that I had enough integrity, that even back then, I knew it was wrong.
I’ve visited my hometown many times over the years, to visit my mother. Each time I leave shocked that little has changed. Jokes about the Ns are common (and still the only name you hear for blacks is N). You can also hear the hatred toward blacks, gays, Hispanics and Muslims in so many conversations, and the reason they give for hating these people is because they, the one speaking, is a “strong Christian.” This makes me want to vomit.
I don’t know when I realized that I was a racist. I know that I had my first black friends in college. But I also know that I carried the fear of blacks well into my adulthood (not realizing it was part of that racism). I think the biggest thing that has helped me to see this, are my travels around the world. I’ve said before, it is really hard to hate someone or to stereotype them, once you’ve slept in their house, shared meals, and played with their kids.
Honestly, I still think there is an epidemic of racism in this country and those who are most racist, don’t see it at all. They hated Obama’s guts (not realizing it is because he is black). They think “Black Lives Matter” is crap. They don’t believe in the type of social justice that might favor minorities, to help make up (just a little bit) for the centuries of abuse and discrimination by us whites.
I pray often that God will help me to heal and change from this powerful upbringing, before my life on this planet is done. Mike
Note: I wrote most of this the day before the most recent hate crimes and this article does not mean to reflect that information in any way.
When I started this blog, I mentioned that I will use this same space for my medical updates under the title “Updates” and where I just put down my rambling thoughts about anything. Since then a lot of caring people have signed up, I’m sure, just to keep abreast of my cancer fight and for that interest, I am deeply grateful.
Today I’m posting a rambling that, while I want to be concise, I fear will turn into an exposé. The best way to summarize this writing, is me sharing my perspective on why people are leaving evangelicalism (starting with one particular story from the news this week about Joshua Harris) and why all the statistics says the Church (in general) is dying in America.
This “op-ed” is really targeted toward those who have already left Christianity or those who are contemplating doing so. It is not an attempt to persuade anyone to stay, but to confirm their legitimate reasons for leaving, and that there are alternatives to evangelicalism besides atheism.
I’ve spent time with a social media groups, that consider themselves “Post-Christian.” One of them had about 4-5 thousand members world-wide. If I remember right, they did a survey of that group and about 75% reported now being atheists. I found many to be very bitter, being deeply hurt by things such as sexual abuse within the Church. I don’t know if Joshua is ending up as an atheist as he has not said.
Because I will say things that some will find controversial, if you are happy where you are, please don’t bother reading this. I have no objective of arguing with anyone or trying to convince them to adopt my views. I’m not here to persuade those who are comfortable in their beliefs to change them, but to offer people, like Joshua, alternatives to the “all or none” acceptance of evangelism and to talk about the legitimate reasons (not just their “moral failure”) of why someone would want to leave. I will also be clear that most of what I will share is based on my own experience with evangelicalism (some thirty years ago) and is not meant to be a critique of your story or church.
Joshua Harris Departs Christianity
If you live in evangelical circles you may have heard the news that author Joshua Harris, just announced not only the end of his marriage, but is now kissing his faith goodbye as well. He was the author of the evangelical, best-seller of 1997, I Kissed Dating Goodbye. That book was very popular among evangelicals, I think (and I cannot find the statistics right now) was one of the best-selling Christian books of the entire decade. He is recanting most of what he said in those books and has said that he is especially regretful about how he treated the gay community.
In his flagship book, he describes how to live with sexual purity, before marriage, as a way of building a foundation for a more perfect and enduring marriage. His other books followed this general theme. Not only was he a very successful author, but was the lead pastor of a mega-church, in Maryland, until 4 years ago. Then he moved to our neck of the woods (Vancouver, BC) to study at Regent College. Regent is a deeper-thinking, but theologically conservative college (that I’ve had a several friends and patients who have attended there) so I certainly don’t think he was “led astray” during his studies.
His previous associate pastor and close friend in Maryland, Kevin Rogers, posted the following letter to their congregation this week:
Several times Paul mentions former Christian leaders ‘swerving from,’ ‘wandering from,’ or ‘making shipwreck’ of their faith. So while this is sad and confusing, it isn’t new.
“Paul says some had gone off course theologically. Others behaved in ways that violated Christian conscience. For others, it was greed. In every case, Paul’s hope was for redemption and restoration. That these leaders would develop ‘love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.’ (1 Tim 1:5) That should be our hope and prayer for Josh as well.
Now, if someone thinks they are hearing gloating in my “voice” here, they are entirely wrong. That is the last thought on my mind. I feel the same level of sadness (at least) as the evangelicals who supported him, but for entirely different reason.
If you want to hear more about Joshua Harris’ departure and conversations as to why people are leaving the Church, here is a link to Christianity Today’s podcast on the topic. I didn’t listen to the whole podcast and probably have a different viewpoint than CT.
A Personal Perspective
I know that I’ve shared my very personal story before, but I will review it briefly for this context. I grew up in the Bible-belt, however, I was unique (at least in my high school) that I privately considered myself an atheist by the time I was about 13. I remember having an argument with my 10th grade biology teacher (who, like everyone else was a Christian, usually Baptist) about evolution… me for it and him refusing to teach it. If he had taught about evolution in my school, the local parents would have run him out of town, as they say, on a rail.
But, saving the details, I was converted into Christianity at age 18 through the influence of a high school psychology teacher. Not only was it an evangelical Christianity, but (seriously), had to be one of the most zealous branches of evangelicalism in the country. If there was such a thing as a Christian Taliban, we would have been it. I spent the next 12 years being “trained” in this discipleship group, and then, following Jesus’ example, we gave away all of our processions and moved, with our little kids, to the Middle East with the primary goal of converting Muslims to Christianity. It was a very hard and dangerous work. I share this because some of my evangelical friends now assume that I must not have taken evangelicalism seriously enough and my point is, you could not have tried harder than we did.
Then, after a bad experience with an abusive leader overseas (which is common within the most zealous religious groups) one day I suddenly realized that we were all just a bunch of phonies living in a make-believe world. I had what some would call a “crisis of faith” and started on, what would eventually be, a decade-long search for the truth. Because I felt like the group, which I was coming out of, was very dishonest—intellectually dishonest and dishonest with each other—my mantra became honesty. I did not care where my journey took me, as long as it was the truth.
During that decade of serious study, I first looked at Church history (to figure out where in the hell we got things so wrong), and then expanded to the history of western civilization and then to philosophy. Next I studied all classic disciplines of science, astrophysics, geology, archaeology, and etc.
I’ve had evangelical friends say at this point, “Mike, there’s your problem, you should have been studying the Bible!” I think, in response, “Are you freakin kidding me?” For 12 years I had studied the Bible daily (as taught to us by leaders, Bible study books, and etc.). At this juncture, I started to study the Bible with even greater fervor than ever before, but this time on my own. I wanted to know what the Bible really said, rather than having someone else, organization or church, predigesting it for me and telling me what I suppose to believe. I studied it back and forth from cover to cover, trying to understand what it was saying within its historical context and referencing the original languages.
I was anticipating that when I was done with all of this, that I would end up back where I started, as an atheist… or at least an agnostic. But during this 10-year journey, I eventually got jammed up on two issues. The first was self-consciousness and the second was cosmic entropy (or another way of putting it, asymmetry between future and past in the cosmos, which doesn’t allow for a reasonable beginning with order). I will not waste your time trying to explain what those meant to me here, but it was a profound sticking point. I also want to be clear, although many have tried (especially during the Enlightenment), there is no scientific proof of God’s existence nor is there a proof that He (BTW, I use “He” as an arbitrary pronoun as I’m quite sure God does not have X or Y chromosomes or a penis) does not exist. So, my two issues weren’t to me as some type of ad hoc proof of something but more of an enigma that causes you pause and realize that the resolution will not be so easy, nor with complete certainty.
To make a long story short, this eventually led me to a place where I’ve embraced a very simple form of Christianity, trying to avoid the many layers of human traditional and subculture add-ons and certainly not American Evangelicalism. One crucial point, in my previous evangelical days, we had to have certainty about every trivial issue, and I mean dead certainty or “dogma.” We called it “Biblical Christianity” to make us feel better. Now, I have no certainty… which is a good thing.
My evangelical friends sometimes think my present concept of God is not big enough. I think it is really the opposite. When I was an evangelical, we served a simpleton, Bronze-age God. He wasn’t much bigger than the old Bronze-age kings. Other times, he was like the genie, Aladdin, in a bottle in our back pockets. In that world, God’s only purpose was to grant our wishes, like helping me find a parking spot at the mall, (or curing my cancer). He was so small, that we could completely wrap our heads around Him, knowing His every thought on every issue and motive… or at least that’s what we thought.
I shared this following story in my book, Butterflies in the Belfry (I think, unless this part ended up being cut before the final manuscript) that we, our college discipleship group, had a serious debate in 1973 if God wanted us men wearing anything but tighty-whities. The argument was that men wearing colored underwear was part of the “gay agenda” to feminize men. Now, I see a God with so much mystery and hugeness that I don’t have a clue what He’s thinking or doing at times, and I would be quite surprised if He gives a rat’s ass about what kind of underwear anyone is wearing.
It is Inevitable that the Church in America is Dying
I am simply the message bearer. When I say the Church in America is on a dying path, it makes some people very angry at me as if I was cahoots with the Devil himself. But I am only restating facts that have been clearly established.
There have been surveys about youth raised in the evangelical church, which show as many as 75-90% will leave the Church entirely by the time they are independent adults. And no, it does not matter “if you raise them right.” They are still leaving.
Church membership in America is getting older and older. While there are exceptions, just walk into most churches and count how many heads are white or bald (like me now!), as compared to those who come during their child-rearing years.
I shared this information with a pastor friend (who co-pastors an evangelical church) and he became quite upset at me. He quickly protested that his church is packed full of young people. Maybe it is, after-all his church is in a college town. However, when I got home I did some research, and oddly, I discovered that his particular church denomination is the oldest of any church in America, with an average age of its members at 65 years old.
If you try to measure this by church attendance, an old (2005) study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that just 22% of Americans attend services weekly. This compares to other countries claims such as 15% of French citizens, 10% of UK citizens, 8.8% of Australian citizens, and 5.6% of Dutch citizens, and it has dropped a lot since then.
My friends who do accept these facts often want to blame the people who are not coming. “This wretched generation doesn’t love God like our generation did.” If that attitude brings you comfort, you will continue believing it. But imagine, and it actually happened, that Sears shoppers no longer visited Sears. Would the CEO of Sears start to trash talk those old customers? Maybe he or she would, but it doesn’t make sense. Sears, and churches, have to look honestly at the situation and realize that the culture has changed, people’s needs were not being met, otherwise, if they were, you couldn’t keep them away.
The decline in church interest is only expected to escalate over the coming years. One reason for the recent acceleration, and I’m trying not to take on another “third rail” of politics, is that only 30-37% of millennials have a favorable view of Donald Trump. While at the same time, the evangelical community has fully embraced the president. The Trump camp and the millennials are on diverging paths and have very different priorities in their values. While the Trump camp places the economy, American Nationalism, and defense, the millennials have far more convictions about honesty, social, and environmental justice.
I have heard for at least a couple of decades of how the Church needs to create new and better programs to retain this younger group. Many, very gifted people, have tried to do this. I attend a church right now that has a fantastic program of engaging the youth with many things such as the musical and theatrical arts. It is is led by very smart and talented people. However, I predict that in 30 years, after my generation is gone, this church will be much smaller, and in 50 years, our beautiful building will be a restaurant or hotel.
In my opinion, all the programs of the best churches is simply re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I don’t say this with doom and gloom in my voice, as I think a radically different and more simple approach to Christianity will eventually come. But the Church has built into it (going back for its 2000 year history) some fundamental flaws of in the area of philosophy, especially in the area of epistemology (how we know things or find truth) that has set it up for eventual failure, especially now that the marketplace of ideas flood people’s lives and social media pages daily. In the previous 2000 years, the Church was able to hold its own by brute authority, isolation, and keeping the masses naive. That no longer works.
So, my Part II is where I share some of my specific diagnosis of the Church’s age-old problem and why it is not reform-able enough at this juncture to make a difference. But don’t worry, if you are of my generation, there will still be churches around for the rest of your life, if that’s what you want. But my concern is, what comes after us and what about those, like Joshua, who are leaving, for good, now? Do we drift into an atheistic society and call it quits on meaning? We could. But I think, if you erase all the human tradition (some of it a hindrance to faith) that has been piled onto the Church for 2000 years and replace it with some wonderful and very simple teachings of Jesus of Galilee, many people will be there. Mike
I came to do a very brief update, as people are asking, and am stunned by the massacre in El Paso. I think of how hard I’ve struggled to stay alive this year, and here are these poor people who were going to Walmart to simply to buy school supplies and were gunned down, lives ended, because of the color of their skin and nationality. This country is in need of a great and sincere repentance from the hate-talkers and bigots, especially those in high places.
With that said, I have been home for 17 days already. I wish I could say that things were going hunky-dory, but honestly, it has been a struggle. I was feeling a lot better (with 70% of my energy) when I first got home. I walked 5 miles a day for the first few days, but now . . . I couldn’t mud-wrestle a 200-year-old milquetoast. I am still trying to walk two miles a day and kayak two miles. Several have offered to be my walking partner and I appreciate that. But, I’ve also had a long list of other troublesome symptoms that is still blunting any attempts at some quality of life.
Now, if there is a silver-lining (and it is too early to tell), it is the fact that I was on very high dose steroids for three weeks (which can cause a lot of the symptoms) and now I’m on a prolonged taper. I had to do that because I developed complications from my stem cell transplant of Host Vs Graft Syndrome (which can be life-threatening without the steroids). Tomorrow, I move down to 10 MG of prednisone (after starting at 75 MG 5 weeks ago) for 5 days, then 5 MG for 5 days and then I’m off. So, both the earlier high dose can cause some of the problems I’m having as can the tapering process. We will not know until I’m off or even after I’ve been off for several weeks. That is my hope and prayer that I will feel better then.
I have strict orders to avoid crowds, especially indoor crowds, until December because of the frailty of my immune system. Tomorrow, however, my church is having an outdoor service and I will attempt to go. About half the days I’m too ill to leave the house until the afternoon, so we will see what happens in the morning. Even in the outdoor space, I can’t have physical contact (such as shaking hands or hugs) with other people, so that will be awkward. I hope to see some of you tomorrow and do a lot of waving . Mike
I’ve lost count of the books I’ve devoured over this past three months. I often have one or two audio books going at one time. I get mine through the Washington state libraries, and maybe it is my lack of expertise, but it is hard to find the good books. The classic novels are often not available in the MP3 format, or if they are (and I haven’t figured this out yet as to why) you must put them on hold for weeks or months before they are available for you to download.
This past week, during my sleepless nights of prednisone induced mania, I listened to two books. One was James Patterson’s Ambush (part of his Michael Bennett series). I found this book when I searched for “popular” audible books. The second book was John Updike’s book of poetry, End Point. I think John used that title because it was the last thing he wrote before dying in 2009.
Listening to these two books, back and forth, at the same time, highlighted a huge contrast. James Patterson is the highest paid author of all times (has earned over 700 million dollars in book sales alone). He has written the most #1 best sellers and there are many other accolades for him.
John Updike, on the other hand, has received his own honors, for example, being the first author to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He was also successful, especially toward the end of his life (he mentioned that his last tax filing in 2009 was huge because of such success of his last novel).
Beyond the similarities of the authors, the two books could not have been more different. John Updike was a brilliant wordsmith, in the same league of Faulkner, Dickens, and Austen. He is most famous for his “Rabbit” books, such as Rabbit Run. His creativity, his ability to imagine and to capture the reader’s imagination are uncanny.
On the other hand, the very best thing I can say about the Patterson book, was that it was horribly written. The plot, plan, and space that the story took place in was so uncreative, that you knew every line, as if you were reading the book for the 100th time, not the first.
I really don’t get it. You could easily say that Patterson is the most successful author in the world. But why? It’s like a painting that fetches millions of dollars at an auction and then later someone finds out that it was not even a painting, but a canvas that was laying on the floor to catch the drips when the artist was painting his or her real master-piece above it.
I’ve said before, there must be at least 50 million people in America alone who dream of being a full-time, self-supported author. I’ve seen the work of many these “amateurs” and many are incredibly talented, much closer to Updike than Patterson.
Patterson’s book is more like mass produced literary junk food. Cram as much in your mouth as fast as you can, rather than enjoying a 3-hour, seven course French meal at a Burgundy Chateau, which would be an Updike or Faulkner book.
I have no more observations from Patterson’s book, but could turn this into one of my long ramblings, if I got started talking about Updike’s book. But some things that he said, about being an author, really stuck with me.
The first thing was that his dear mother had more passion about writing than even he did. However, she spent her entire life trying to get something, one article, one op-ed, or short story published and came up with nil. No publisher wanted her work and she died alone on a farm in New England without single author’s credit.
John speaks of this with a guilt-laden voice. Why did he succeed so well, when his mother’s passion was greater? I don’t know and life is never fully fair, is it? But I certainly believe that his mother is what shaped him as an author. Without her passion, John’s writing may have never seen the light of day.
John also described the process of writing, especially his last novel (which I think was The Widows of Eastwick). For us who have written books and worked with publishers, be it journal publishers or book, the process is familiar. But I never thought that Updike would have to subject himself to such humiliation.
He describes sending in his manuscript to his faithful publisher. Now hold this thought in your mind that he is already very successful, Pulitzer Prize winning author and has earned his publisher a lot of money over the years. He says that the “Publisher’s minions” descend on his book and take it apart word-by word. Then the grammar police go through it and tear it up, not sparing one sentence. He says it comes back to him so marked-up that he can’t recognize it. Then, in the end, after his rewrite after rewrite, it ends up being in an exotic language, only spoken on Mars.
This is so reassuring to some of us who like to write. Especially for those of us who like to write fast without proofing and without the obsessive-compulsive impulses that some people have, where one typo keeps them awake at night. John was no dummy. He was a Harvard and Oxford man. Surely, he was well-versed in the English language, but thought-less mistakes didn’t ruin his self-respect.
I have a professional editor that I often work with (on big projects). He is very good. Not only does he have the eye for the technical syntax and grammar of sentence formation, but being a creative writer instructor at a college (and an editor for a major publisher in his other day-job) he does not hesitate to tell me when something I’ve written is good, or a piece of crap. If I had submitted to him the Patterson book as my own (pretend it was my own) he would not have hesitated to tell me that it was a complete work of shit. No imagination. Unbelievable characters (which he often tells me anyway) and behaviors of charters that make no sense. I am thankful to have him.
Now that I’m home and looking to the future, I want to start filling some of my time with writing again. I have about ten books etched in the back of my mind. There is nothing on this planet that is more enjoyable to me (almost) than me getting completely lost in one of my own stories . . . looking up hours later, not having a clue as to where I’m at or what day it is. And who knows. Maybe someday, if I do it really well, someone else will read one. Mike