Stumbling Toward Heaven

Growing Up Catholic (1952 – 1971)

Although my soul is no longer in her keeping, I owe my physical existence to the Roman Catholic Church and her pro-life teachings. I was born the second of five children into a traditional Catholic home in 1952. My Mom once told us, “If it weren’t for the Pope, four of you wouldn’t be here.” We went to mass every Sunday and I attended All Souls School. In the fourth grade I wanted to be a priest. I still have the reply Father Foxhoven wrote to my letter telling me how to prepare for the priesthood. Then in seventh grade I discovered girls. They didn’t discover me until years later and then only one or two made the effort.

My sense of calling didn’t survive junior high but my Catholicism did. I faithfully attended Holy Trinity Church, regularly went to confession, occasionally wore a scapular (ask your Catholic friends what it is) and saw the world through Catholic eyes. I had never read a Bible; we didn’t have one in the house. I had never been inside a Protestant church. I was fairly serious for an Anglo youth. At one stage I remember saying 100 prayers every night before going to sleep. It isn’t as pious as it sounds; you can whip out a string of Our Fathers and Hail Marys at a pretty fast clip.

After high school a buddy invited me to a Bible study at his sister’s home. It startled me how these ordinary people could read the Bible and pray directly to God without a priest present. They were studying the Gospel of Mark and on the evening of January 10, 1971, I prayed to receive Jesus Christ, not sure what all that meant.

My life changed over the next few months as I got involved with these people. They were part of a newly-formed house church and I was their first convert. I later learned the group belonged to the Plymouth Brethren. (If you’ve ever listened to Prairie Home Companion, the Sanctified Brethren to which Garrison Keillor belonged as a boy are part of the PBs.)

To my Catholic upbringing I owe my belief in God, my love of family, my knowledge of right and wrong and a well-developed sense of guilt. Jewish guilt is the only form more powerful than Catholic guilt but they’ve had centuries more to perfect it.

Protestant Reformation (1971 – 2002)

Life changed after my born-again experience. My head was theologically turned, altering my perspective on everything. I now saw God and the world through Protestant eyes wearing fundamentalist spectacles. I quickly learned that we Evangelicals took our faith seriously, seriously enough to go witnessing door-to-door and to accost strangers on street corners. That summer I joined the Blitz evangelistic team and traveled to the University of Oklahoma. Open air preaching and witnessing scared the snot out of me but peer pressure kept me from running.

In 1974 I took my new bride, the former Susan Wright, to Fairhaven Bible Chapel in California for the nine-month Discipleship Intern Training Program. The intensive experience confirmed my desire to be in full-time ministry, a passion I pursued for the next twenty-five years. Everything during those decades revolved around knowing God and making him known.

Susan and I returned to the house church in Denver in 1975 where I became an elder at the age of twenty-three. I quit my job at a chemical plant in 1977 to devote myself full time to the work—and burned out a few years later.

Eventually we went west to Portland, Oregon to join Laurel Park Bible Chapel. I became a teaching pastor and we spent nine happy years there among some of God’s nicest children, but once again I found myself marching to a different cadence from the church. In 1990 the Hamels matriculated to Wheaton, Illinois to join Interest Ministries, where I served in various capacities for the next five years. During this time Susan and I also helped start Servants Church, which has since grown into Trinity Vineyard in St. Charles, Illinois.

Interest Ministries got squeezed between conservative and progressive groups of Brethren like a walnut in a nutcracker. A lawsuit ensued and I decided I’d had enough of passionate believers fighting over petty issues. I quit and relocated to Colorado Springs in 1996. I didn’t want to go to a Brethren church but we wound up at one anyway. We enjoyed the people at Harvest Bible Fellowship and I was soon preaching and helping with small groups.

Despite my involvement—or perhaps because of it—the church eventually died and I found myself looking back over a checkered ministry career. The years had been filled with wonderful people and worthwhile endeavors but I could see little of lasting fruit this side of heaven.

I didn’t blame myself for people and circumstances beyond my control; still, I felt like a failure. I didn’t know if my ratio of “defunct-to-surviving” efforts was normal for entrepreneurs, whether in business or ministry, but my record disillusioned me. I began to question everything. I tried to argue with God but he wouldn’t talk back; at least not in a way I could perceive.

I had abandoned Catholicism in my teens when I found a more biblical way of relating to God and life. Now as I reached the mid-century mark, I could no longer accept a fundamentalist worldview. It didn’t jibe with my experience or adequately explain what I saw happening in the world. The most painful part of this transition was not having anything new to replace the old.

Jehovah’s Bystander (2002 – present)

At eighteen I saw the light; in my middle years I did my best to serve the light; so how did I wind up at age fifty-seven in a spiritual Twilight Zone? To borrow a phrase from novelist Kinky Friedman, I have become a “Jehovah’s Bystander,” someone who believes in God but isn’t personally involved.

I don’t doubt God’s existence. I still believe he holds all things together, including me. But some of what we attribute to his presence in our lives is our own thoughts and emotions. We choose to take positive circumstances as evidence of his loving care but tend not to hold him culpable for negative ones.

This “faith filter” keeps us from disillusionment. Mine has gotten clogged to the point of doing more harm than good. What has gummed it up are the paradoxes that have been around longer than the Bible. Here are three examples:

The state of the world doesn’t reflect well on God’s planning or power. The technical term for this anomaly is “theodicy.” Is this the best God is capable of, or is he really limited by our free will and the machinations of a fallen angel?

The limited scope of salvation raises questions about God’s ability. If the orthodox position is accurate, somewhere between half and two-thirds of humanity will be lost forever. How would you rate a fire department that managed to save only a minority of the people it tried to rescue? Would you trust a surgeon who lost most of her patients?

The possibility of hell doesn’t speak well of God’s character. Most Christians can’t bear to think it through but eternal torture for temporal wrongs seems more despotic than divine. Not even Hitler revived the Jews so they could be fed into the ovens over and over again. Are the commands to forgive your enemies “seventy times seven” and the assertion that “love keeps no record of wrongs” voided at death?

Technical Difficulties

These difficulties didn’t used to be debilitating to me; now they are. I don’t expect answers but I do long for the consolation of a father who can make his child feel loved and safe in the midst of complex circumstances I can’t possibly understand. I could use a Shack-like encounter but I realize how rare such theophanies are.

I hope my condition is temporary. I want the fog to lift. I want to see behind the caricatures to the reality but I also don’t want to manufacture the experience.

Mother Teresa longed for the same solace yet never received it. The book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, contains letters between her and her confessors spanning two-thirds of a century. They show that for the last forty-five years of her amazing life she felt no presence of God whatsoever—except for a five-week break in 1959.

Mother Teresa was nonetheless able to press on in selfless obedience; that’s what made her a saint.

I’m not.

I’m also not done with my journey. I’m still searching, listening and holding myself open to divine intervention.

The above is excerpted from Mike’s forthcoming book, Stumbling Toward Heaven: Cancer, Crashes and Questions, due out in early April.

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