A Disturbing Journey

After Western’s graduation, I am up here in the wilderness, where one can be alone with one’s thoughts—as well as probe the thoughts of others. I did this last night. I began reading Jack Deere’s Even In Our Darkness. Being a graduate of Dallas Seminary, I knew a little bit about this former instructor, but after reading his memoir, I know him much more.

I was not prepared for the encounter. There are fifty fast paced chapters, and after each one, I found myself saying, “Okay, just one more.” At close to 11:00pm, I finished the final chapter. I’ve read nearly all of the 80+ reviews, and most all capture my own assessment—raw, gripping, tragic, real, disturbing, gut-wrenching. I went to bed troubled. How is it so many Christian leaders–fellow seminary graduates, my own spiritual godfather and spiritual mentor who died of AIDS—end up with such dreadful stories?

In places, I could relate to Deere. I grew up in the 50’s in a modest home with working parents and a father who could be harsh and demanding. I too had my own Davy Crockett coonskin cap. There were the same occasional family fights, the men who came by from the Baptist church, and similar stories of adolescent love, and campus ministry. But Deere’s early years were much darker. A father who committed suicide, a drunken mother who could be abusive, and Deere’s own struggles with addictive sex.

Like Deere, I had to go to secular college to see if the truth I was embracing about God could stand under scrutiny. And eventually I too ended up at Dallas Seminary. But Deere’s spiritual journey shifted from a Dallas classroom to John Wimber and the Vineyard movement. It was a radical shift from a more cessationist world (God has ceased performing signs and wonders) to one where God is active in healing and inspiring prophetic utterances. Deere discovered the “voice of God” and the “power of the Spirit,” and he became the chief theologian in a movement of more than 500 churches.

It is here the book drew me in. Deere was preaching all over the world and living the life, but his personal side was becoming a series of tragedies. Deere’s oldest son could never come to terms with his own identity, and after years of drug abuse, he took a gun and killed himself. Reeling from the suicidal deaths of a father and a son, Deere writes, “Once my life had a lofty purpose—to speak to churches and write books about God’s goodness so that people would want a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. But Scott’s death robbed me of the story I had told myself to make sense of my life. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. I still got out of bed at dawn. But I didn’t know why.”

Mixed with this despair, Deere’s wife began to drink. On a few occasions, she nearly took her life, and their marriage began to fall apart. It was only then that Deere became aware that his wife’s father had sexually abused her for years. It was part of the reason she chose to escape—and Deere was discovering that she also wanted to escape him. Years of unresolved anger had taken their toll. While his wife Leesa lived from binge to binge, Deere lived from failure to failure.

But it does not end here. Relationships begin to heal. Deere comes to deeper terms with God’s mercy, His love, and His beauty. As Deere concludes, “God took away just about everything I used to fuel my self-esteem until there was nothing left except His love.”

Also near the end of his final chapter, Deere quotes from John Steinbeck–“We all have one story, and it is the same story: the contest of good and evil within us.” He then follows up with these words, “Any honest person knows that they are losing this contest.” Are these Steinbeck’s, or Deere’s?

Either way, I can’t go here. We can’t go here. This goes down the same path as Michael Spencer’s post, “When I am Weak.” In it he asks, “Why do so many good Christian people turn out to be just like everyone else? Divorced, depressed, broken, messed up?” He suggests that many of our messages regarding spiritual transformation overstate and oversell. It leads him to wonder why more Christians aren’t either being sued by the rest of humanity for lying or hauled off to a psych ward to be examined for serious delusions. What he suggests we need to do is admit our brokenness and admit our need for God. As he puts it, “I fall down, I get up…and believe…that’s as good as it gets.”

But doesn’t our faith go further than–“Life’s a mess, but thank God Jesus is our friend”?   I’m not dissuaded from the conviction that God can powerfully change a life. All things are new (2 Cor. 5:17). We can do the same, if not greater works than Jesus (John 14:12). Sin no longer has authority over us, so the contest has been won (Col. 1:13). God can do more than we have imagined according to the power of the Spirit (Eph. 3:21). We do live under an open heaven, where things get better. It does not mean we can be perfect this side of eternity, but it does mean we can be radically different.

About John Johnson

John Johnson is the former lead pastor at Village Church in Portland, OR. Presently, he is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology at Western Seminary and devoted to writing.

1 thought on “A Disturbing Journey

  1. Wimber appealed to a lot of people because I think he was trying to restore a genuine experience of art to evangelicalism. It wasn’t super profound art, such as during the Wesley era, or the American frontier awakenings. But at least it was a step in that direction. Perhaps Deere was searching for something deeper—I know he was involved in the Vineyard from about 1990. And for some people that leads to a lot of questioning and a feeling of not being in control. Plus I think today there is too much emphasis on broad biblical understanding. The first century Christians didn’t have the new testament except for specific letters and probably some random communications. Historian Randall Balmer seems to think that modern evangelicalism was shaped by the Bible Conference movement—so maybe that was just adding too much.

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