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Memoir Excerpt

Writing a memoir is a lot like walking the shoreline of the sea after some great storm, collecting bits of wreckage or debris and assembling the tale from the pieces. When I started writing my memoir back in 2012, I had an idea where I wanted to go with it. Well, as I’ve sifted the flotsam, the story has taken new turns. The following is one of them.

* * *

Faith is not a delicate thing like a porcelain figurine or a dandelion. Though it starts small and gestates unseen, it often does so in harsh, inhospitable conditions, where the terrain forces it to take root in something deep and hidden. Faith does not own a summer dress and rarely lets its hair down. Its wardrobe consists of aprons, gardening gloves, and overalls; earth and grime collect under its nails. You could say that faith is blue collar. It has scabs and skinned knuckles. Faith is often missing a digit or two. But the remaining stubs are in nowise useless. Faith can be agile, when necessary. Though sometime it plods. Yet for the most part its contortions are not for show, but simply evidences of survival. Faith is forged in the furnace and on the anvil, rarely in the classroom or the pew.

“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ,” said Dostoyevski. “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.”

I feel like this sometimes. “My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” Doubt in myself. Doubt in my senses and my objectivity. Doubt in those who claim to know the way. Doubt, sometimes, in my understanding of God’s Word. Yet, like the Russian novelist, I praise.


Which is why I cringe when faith is portrayed as blind, or as soft and simple-minded.

Kim’s faith was not like that. Not at all.

I baptized her privately, in a Doughboy pool in someone’s back yard, one smoggy Southern California summer. Kim hated to be the center of attention, which is why she opted out of our annual all-church pot-lock and baptism in favor of less hooplah. Besides, her mother would not approve of her being baptized by a Protestant minister.

Kim’s twin sister, Karen had attended the small church I pastored and extended an invitation. Kim came by herself at first, as she was in the process of separating from a physically abusive husband. Eventually, she brought her boyfriend. They were somewhat standoffish, but friendly. It was obvious that they were not “church people.” Unlike many of our church members, Christian culture was new and awkward for them. Still, Kim listened intently during my sermons, and by all counts was on board with this Jesus stuff. Nevertheless, she smiled and remained at arms length. So it was with equal degrees of surprise and celebration that, when she asked to be baptized, I concurred.

Later on, ovarian cancer would bring Kim the kind of attention she hated.

Chemotherapy was immediately begun, as the disease was already breaching other systems.

What is the appropriate response to someone who is diagnosed with such cancer? Do you shake your head, intone about how tragic and scary this must be? Do you hug them, promise to pray, and then go home and try to forget about what chemotherapy and cancer does to the human body? Do you offer medical or dietary advice? Do you recall stories about the friend of a friend who was given six months to live and defied all odds?

I may have over-stepped my bounds when I heard the news about Kim. My wife and I visited their home and after some chit-chat, I managed to speak to Kim alone in the kitchen. I was not known for pulling punches, and didn’t then. “Kim,” I said, “if the Lord chooses to take your life with this cancer, are you confident about where you will go?”

Some may see this as cruel. Perhaps judgmental and presumptive. Who was I to barge into her suffering with these rude, thorny questions?

Kim hesitated, and finally admitted no, she wasn’t sure.

It led to a great series of discussions between us about saving faith. We talked about the reliability of Scripture, about how we can trust the transmission of the documents and the witness of its writers; we talked about evidences for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; we talked about salvation by grace, rather than works. And we talked about Kim’s profession of faith, which I had witnessed in that Doughboy swimming pool. Along with heaven.

Kim’s battle with cancer lasted a few years. Her faith did not bring healing or counteract the savage effects of the chemo. She lost her hair and wore a wig to church. I caught her in the foyer one day, hurrying out because she was crying. The cancer went into a short period of remission before returning again. She declined further treatment.

One day, after church, my wife and I went to Kim’s house. I brought my guitar and sat in their living room and we sang praise songs. Just like we had at church in those early days of her faith. Afterwards, I took Kim in my arms and started bawling. Uncontrollably. Huge, snotty sobs. It was quite awkward.

I was crying as much for me as I was her.

I think my faith lost a digit right there. At least, it’s left a scar.

They made a place for Kim downstairs where she basically withered away. She stopped eating, became skeletal, and was often incoherent. In a way, her death was a relief. She had fought the good fight. She was no longer suffering. I officiated her funeral, managing not to bawl again. I talked about the day I baptized Kim, about how Love is stronger than death and how Jesus rose to prove it, how Kim expressed faith in that Christ and his promises. And how she died holding fast to heaven.

Faith is enigmatic that way. It dies waiting, looking, hoping. Unfulfilled. It dies on the anvil. It dies in its boots.

Kim is one of the many pilgrims I’ve encountered along the way. They were walking paradoxes who’ve believed bigger than their experiences, professed what they never could attain, who’ve clung resolutely to promises yet unfulfilled. Saints and sinners. Living and dying. People who’ve hoped beyond hope.

In the borderlands between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, the place where I was raised, dogmatism is a virtue. Yet so often these days I find myself in another borderland.

Pastor John Wimber described it as a “radical middle.”

Scripture seems to allow for such a place. A radical middle, a place of holy tension, a place that allows for mystery and ambiguity, a perspective that doesn’t require definitive answers and demand labels. It is an approach to faith that, while acknowledging Black and White, also makes room for Gray. It is a place where those who are truly alive, die; a place where it’s okay to not have everything figured out. It is somewhere between being “fully persuaded” (Rom. 4:21) and realizing we only “know in part” (I Cor. 13:12). It is the kingdom that is both in our midst (Lk. 17:21), and not quite here (Matt. 6:10). It is the cognitive dissonance between being convinced of God and his Word, and the realization that some of your beliefs could be dead wrong. It is the man who cried to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). It is the embrace of paradox, and paradoxical people. It is the middle ground between certainty and wonder. It is the celebration of enigma.

I like to call it paradoxology.

This is the story of an unconventional faith journey, an exploration of spirituality in the midst of a complicated world, a trek through ministry and evangelical culture, and the heroes, heretics, and oddballs I’ve encountered along the way. If anything, it’s the tale of survival, of how I embraced paradoxology and came to believe that God was too big to be contained in any one doctrine, creed, theorem, or denomination.

It’s a journey that has landed me square in the radical middle.

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Proctor S. Burress June 23, 2014, 6:35 AM

    “Unthinking faith
    is a curious offering
    to be made to
    the Creator of the human mind.”

    from “Faith, Reason & Existence” by
    Dr. John Hutcheson at Claremont, now deceased.

  • Joni M. Fisher June 23, 2014, 7:43 AM

    Wow! Yes, your description of faith is the faith I know and experience. It is fighting for life here and in the hereafter.

  • Nicole June 23, 2014, 7:56 AM

    Mike, beautiful expression here. I know Jesus is who He proclaims in John 14:6. I know the Word is true. Beyond that, faith rushes and ebbs and for me it can be a roller coaster ride. Life on earth: full of sorrows, some joys, some miracles, some dire circumstances. I’m with you on the Help my unbelief! You wrote this so well. Thank you.

  • Mary Potter Kenyon June 23, 2014, 8:12 AM

    This is the kind of raw stuff I need in my journey. This is a book I would pick up again and again, jotting down paragraphs in my journal where I write my own words, and the words of others, to figure things out. Quotes of yours would be shared as favorites on my Goodreads pages. I spoke at a conference last week and so many people came up to me afterwards, commenting, “You’re so real.” I was taken aback, and then I understood what they meant. I lay bare my heart, my soul, and all my imperfections in my public speaking. It was the highest compliment they could have given me, the “baby” Christian in the room, if “Christian” means a real relationship with Jesus. This is “real,” Mike. You are real. Thank you.

  • Tim George June 23, 2014, 8:44 AM

    And how I wish we had started our journey knowing each other here rather than in the boling cauldron of varying opinions about genre, publihing, and author styles. Memoirs are much harder to write than anyone can imagine, and good memoirs are rare indeed. What I sense in this short reading is that I have fainlly met the “real” Mike. You know, the guy I would love to have over for coffee (made on my Keurig with some truly good exoctic blend), discuss life in a way only fellow-travelers can, and know I have met someone who knows what he is talking about when he says, “Been there, done that, now praying for you.”

  • Thea van Diepen June 23, 2014, 10:40 AM

    I concur with Tim about the sense of having met the “real” you, Mike. This excerpt comes across as softer and a lot less angry than I remember the first excerpt you shared being (although I will point out that I quite like that one, too. It’s just that, in this one, it seems like you understand something about yourself that you didn’t before). You sound a lot more comfortable with yourself and where you’re at, as well as sounding a lot more loving towards yourself. It’s really neat to read someone’s words about themself, and to find that kind of gentleness and honesty.

  • Jill June 23, 2014, 12:37 PM

    The radical middle certainly isn’t a term I’ve heard before. Memoir is my favorite genre; I can’t wait to see what you do with it. No pressure or anything.

  • LL Cheung June 23, 2014, 6:09 PM

    Thank you very much for this post (and for other previous posts about Christian doctrines and your views, which I find like a clear and faith-building stream in the murky waters of the world, which tend to contaminate even the minds of believers today), which is sent by God for me to read, because I’m translating a book by Robert Govett expounding on Romans, and your post is a perfect example to help me understand the faith of Abraham, which Govett describes as: “For the hopes of Abraham in chapter xv must lie beyond the tomb; seeing that his earthly seed were not to enter on the land for four hundred years; and of himself God said—“Thou shalt go to thy fathers in peace; thou shalt be buried in a good old age:””. This post touches me deeply. Praise the Lord!

  • Mark Luker June 24, 2014, 8:25 AM

    very good read……I often see and hear much disappointment from people who accept Jesus and even attend church…because they somehow thought that when they accepted Christ, somehow, life would be better….but it has taken most of my life to finally learn that accepting Jesus as my savior doesn’t promise a better life in this world…but more importantly, guarantees an everlasting life in the next. God bless.

  • Melissa June 24, 2014, 9:31 AM

    Excellent stuff, Mike. I loved the first paragraph especially.

  • J. Butler June 24, 2014, 9:47 AM

    Beautiful! Just … beautiful.

  • Jim Hamlett (@jimhamlett) June 25, 2014, 6:26 AM

    Great beginning, Mike. I look forward to the book. You might want to think about having a retreat for the “radical middle” readers of your book. Just an idea.

  • Kat Heckenbach June 25, 2014, 7:09 AM

    I’ve been totally looking forward to this book, even more so now that you’ve shared a sample. I also feel kinda privileged knowing I’ve gotten a glimpse of the “real” Mike before this. I think our few phone convos opened that door for me, and I have been able to see the snot-bawling Mike under the surface even in your most hard-nosed posts about inane Christian fiction and genre wars. Definitely the Mike I intend to sit down with one day and chat face-to-face. You can do coffee with Tim, though. I’ll buy ya a pint :).

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