Writings > Mr Toad's Wild Ride
"And to think I never knew!” went on the Toad in a dreary monotone. “All those wasted years that lie behind me, I never knew, never even dreamt! But now – but now that I know, now that I fully realize! O what a flowery track lies spread before me, henceforth! What dust-clouds shall spring up behind me as I speed on my reckless way! What carts I shall fling carelessly into the ditch in the wake of my magnificent onset!”
“O stop being an ass, Toad”, cried the Mole despairingly. (The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame)
My personal faith journey, has not been so faithful, most of it has been “O me of little faith”, and the journey has looked more like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride than anything else. I don’t know how to talk about it much without Steinbeckian characters from Cannery Row, or somewhere East of Eden eating my Grapes of wrath, or Murakami madness somewhere in a jazz bar in Tokyo, or Dylanesque images of the street-folk and apocalyptic. In other words, it seems I can only talk in Dickinson truth-slant.
I got taken to Sunday School, Lincoln Park Reformed Church, when I was 4. I thought it was reformed school, only on Sundays, so I figured I must have needed some reforming. But all I got was a vision, there in the church basement looking outside through a window to my left, some kind of call to be used of God to set something in life right. I got to visit that space a few years ago. Couldn’t see anything this time. I guess ya’ gotta become like a little child to see such things.
I was sick a lot in those days, which gave me time to draw pictures and become a Hardy boy trying to solve mysteries, which is what I’m still trying to do; I watched TV a lot– the Little Rascals (which provided my first understanding of ecclesiology, diverse communities, sin, and adventure). In Mayberry, Opie & Andy helped form some moral sense, and through Barney Fife, I learned to keep my bullet in my shirt pocket.
I learned that you have to behave in Sunday School, you could not roll up your clip-on tie and let it fly at the girls, and there was to be no laughing - which helped me to understand why the Pharisees never had any fun, and maybe why Jesus liked to party with sinners.
Later on, my mom dropped me off to Mt. View Gospel church, where I asked Jesus into my heart, right after pizza and basketball, and I think he came. I remember only one thing from SS, from my teacher Jack Osborne: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added unto thee.” I have spent over 40 years trying to figure out what that means and how to live it.”
Adolescence: Holy crap! Who the heck was that creature. He played drums in a group called the Hands of Time. We entered the junior high Battle of the Bands – and we won! Our great honor was to play at the dance that night. Another group, that lost, decided to sabotage our instruments. When we came out to play, we looked like fools and could not recoup our dignity. Utterly humiliated, I spent the night against the wall with the other boys while the girls danced to records. And then a girl named Megan, cute as a button, walked all the way across the room, and in front of everyone asked me to dance. It was the kindest thing that ever happened to me, and I started to believe in grace and redemption.
My dad’s machine business went bust in a recession, but we were given some more grace to move to California. First, we spent the summer in California, where I was invited by some hippie girls named Cheri & Monica, to go to the waterfalls in Azusa Canyon, drop some LSD and get naked. I said no, and though sometimes I think I was stupid, I also think it helped somehow in my faith journey.
I then was invited by my uncle in Carlsbad to stay with him for the summer. There I believe a bridge was built to God as my Father. My uncle demonstrated care and affection in a way that paved the way to understanding God as such. He died in recent years, and only recently as a man of intentional faith.
I returned home to New Jersey, was warmly welcomed by friends and girlfriend and once more was propositioned so easily. Again I said no and again, somehow, I think it helped this faith thing. While there, I read a Life magazine about the Jesus Movement in CA. Black and white photographs depicted hippies, drug addicts and a rock culture being baptized by a bald headed preacher at Corona del Mar. I was interested, and maybe destined.
We wound up moving to CA, and within 3 weeks I met some Jesus Freaks who took me to the 1st Maranatha concert in Long Beach. There I heard the simple gospel of Jesus - from that same bald-headed preacher in Life magazine! and decided to follow Jesus. I had no idea that this event was to be part of an epicenter of the Jesus Movement that revolutionized modern Christianity. Long-haired, Bible-totin’, and cross-bearing – I became a Jesus Freak - guess I still am in some ways.
Premillenial, pre-tribulational rapture, apocalyptic energy surged through that movement- the late great planet earth - I propagated the rap to my cousin, scared her to death, and began to doubt the wisdom of this approach. Predictions of Israeli wars and end of times further caused some more thoughtful reflection on these eschatological predilictions. Maybe I should check these things out more carefully.
I began to prepare for ministry, within a church-in-the-park, and at Bible College. During my senior year an invitation was presented to preach in a little church in an oil-field town. They hired me. I became a minister in Taft, Ca at 23 years of age. Long-haired kid-preacher in a red-neck oil patch. What a Toad!
The congregation grew, in fact tripled in 3 years, which I guess was something, if you’re Rev. Toad. But I was disillusioned with traditional church forms and began a quest within the radical sectors of Christianity- looking for authenticity. We experimented with communal living, radical politics & economics, pacifism, & Christian anarchy. I became involved in the development of a network of house churches from Seattle to San Diego. I traveled to Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution, studied Liberation theology in Mexico City at the International University with Marxist radical exiles. We interviewed the future president of Nicaragua, saw the horrors of war and propaganda, and were invited by Cesar Chavez as a consultant to his community in its waning years. We started a church in the back of a bar, called the Oasis, which I thought was a pretty good name for a church, and I led a bunch of middle class folks into a mini-ghetto attempting incarnational ministry, but did it very poorly. I saw sin & sorrow, betrayal and deceit, rape & murder, filth & filthy lucre, perversions & twisted souls - there on Desolation Row (Dylan)
"On the House"
Oasis-Church in the Bar
I had fumbled my way into a very important corner of the universe –
a place where few were called, but many were funny.
It looked like a cave
but it was just a redneck bar
over on Plato Ave.
The oil patch philosophers were
holding forth in sweet converse –
calling each other, “Professor” and such
Aristotelian squeals of
Socratic dialog and verse!
There was a woman there
trying to hold up both sides
of a conversation-
Who had successfully bitched
three husbands into
And that’s when the brew ha ha
began, over which wine
the fine young lady enjoyed most-
to which the obvious answer
was mostly other people’s.
There were two brothers bellied-up
to the bar, barely covering big butts without par.
Well, a couple of wise-ass cowboys
were flinging peanut shells toward these
cracks the size of St Andreas
It was nobody’s fault
one hit the mark
and just as the brothers
Rose up to defend each’s honor
I strolled in and ordered up
Cappucinos for everyone!
My radical phase led me to my own backyard where a painful betrayal had occurred. Needless to say, my own life was in a revolution that I lost. I lost wife, ministry, job, church, friends, and just about everything a person would hold dear. Empty pockets -They got no friends (except Job – he had 3 of them). And Abraham – he had one - God. Well, I fell down a well, but found God at the bottom, light shone over my left shoulder, and grace eased me on down to the bottom, and then on up. It happened all there in Toad’s ditch beside the road.
I wound up back in LA, was invited to work with adult literacy and ESL programs, and began the Middle Adult chapter of my life. Within this context, I believe God wove a cocoon of healing for me. He used a group of Asian students, one of which I wound up marrying. It took 7 years, but I was eventually healed, a butterfly emerged (or a least a toad.)
I had to learn, like Joseph, to forgive those who did evil toward me, and that God, like a jazz musician, could create something good out of it all. And He did. Charlie Parker and God – blowin’ riffs of Redemptive analogies. I Tunes, I Am Tunes.
Middle adult: I was meaning to listen to a Dodger game on the way to work, but I stumbled onto a Jewish radio host who, also taught Torah at the University of Judaism; he began to help me rebuild my moral infrastructure.
From there I began to read Japanese Christian authors, partly to communicate my feeble faith to my Japanese wife, and partly to view my faith from another cultural perspective. Koyama, Endo, & Kagawa helped me appreciate the faith with a new slant. So far, the journey looked like Kosher Sushi.
Then some folks in a Palos Verdes neighborhood, a minister, an associate, and a lawyer (of all things), befriended & believed in me, when I didn’t have an ounce left myself, and they helped me back into life & ministry. Some further experience in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean churches provided a few more stair-steps back into my original calling, which, along with its giftings I am told are irrevocable.
Many streams began to flow into a river; many sticks began to be laid upon a fire. I experienced a profound renewal of spirit that led me back to my spiritual roots. I had to go see what I had left, what I had missed, so I returned to my roots - and to my first love. I saw 30 years of spiritual fruit and sat in a coffee shop in Costa Mesa and just wept.
God began to do a new, and old, and deep work within me like I’d never quite experienced before. It was intimate, a divine romance, it was a fullness of God’s presence that was transcendent & immanent.. I was content to the bottom of my being – it was well with my soul. The scriptures became conversations, relationships were made new, work became creative, family and difficult people were transformed.
This led me back into ministry again. Teaching at a Bible College, then directing the college, pastoring within a church of 7500 + and it was good, and there was fruit. And then I was promoted into administration, and it was bad and I saw things that made me very sad. Then I was invited to Oxford. There, in a hotel room, I saw clearly that authoritarianism can be very toxic. I cried out with David’s psalms for God to bring down justice and righteousness. But he didn’t and hasn’t- at least not the way and when I thought it would & should be. I became disappointed in God. I might have to wait, and with mercy. I might have to let God be himself, and me be me. And I think this is part of the faith journey - a Toadian Wild Ride
I quit my ministry to everyone’s consternation, and took a sabbatical for 3 months to sort it all out: life, God, vocation, work, relationships, ministry, and all things related.
The Lord, my shepherd, was restoring and replenishing my soul.
There was a mini-revolution at the toxic faith place. A few brave souls told Pharoah to go to hell and were promptly fired. Sheep, good hearts, were scattered. One day out on my my patio I felt the Shepherd’s call to gather the scattered. So, I did. And now I had a group of firecracker revolutionary sheep meeting twice a week in my home, looking for direction, some wisdom on the faith journey.
I had to find a job, again, so I went back to Adult ed, again. Deja Vu – this was where I wound up after my last ministry fiasco 17 years ago. They welcomed me and made a place for me. It was not the place I wanted to be, but it was a place.
And I also felt like I could come back to the Neighborhood for a while– because “sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and there always glad you came” – even if you’re a Yankee fan. So I did, and there I was - for 7 years.
Since then my dad had a stroke-dementia-blindness, my wife has Stage 4 Breast Cancer, I have a paralyzed vocal cord and Parkinson's, my best friend died, and I lost my job. My wife said, "We've both turned 60, have cancer, Parkinsons, and no voice - Who the heck would want us?" My only reply, "Maybe God?"... And so we've set out on an Abramic journey - old, and not knowing where we're going - but trusting God does.
I’m tempted sometimes to give up, to give in. There’s enough good reason. It all seems so sad sometimes, and Mr. Toad’s wild ride is getting weary, and yet...
Maybe someday a princess will come, like Megan did in 8th grade, and kiss this old toad, and he’ll become a prince. Maybe there’s still some good news in that old Gospel for me. Maybe we’ll all live happily ever after, after all.
“No, no, we’ll see it out,” whispered (Rat to Mole). “... I ought to stick by Toad till this trip is ended. It wouldn’t be safe for him to be left to himself. It won’t take very long. His fads never do. Good night!” (Wind in the Willows")