Working alongside police officers, firefighters, and paramedics, as a first responder chaplain now for over 20 years, I have often found myself thrust into people's worst possible nightmares and tragedies. My hope is always, in some way, to be a grace or godsend in moments of catastrophic despair and suffering. However, like all first responders, this work takes a heavy toll. I was not prepared to witness such anguish and heartache when I first began my work as a chaplain back in 1998. I had no idea what I was getting into like most cops and firefighters who enter their careers with a noble aspiration to serve the community but along the way encounter evil, murder, suicide, tragedy, carnage and lives destroyed by drugs, alcohol and crime.
But along the way something greater than the mark of sorrow, grief and dismay this work leaves upon you, has happened inside me. My faith has been challenged, confronted, tested, defied, gutted, ransacked, pushed to the brink, and turned upside down; only to become more real, more human, more durable, more whole, more courageous, more hopeful, more loving and more liberating.
I want to show you how all that happened. I want you to come with me on the actual scenes of my work as a first responder chaplain. You need to see what I saw, hear what I heard, feel what I felt, cry like I cried, doubt where I doubted, believe where I believed, and hope where I found hope. You cannot exactly experience what I did, I know, but I can bring you into my experiences as a chaplain where we share similar struggles of doubt, heartache, unbelief, and the search for hope and meaning in a world of hardship and suffering. As a warning, this journey is not for the faint of heart. This book is not about me trying to explain suffering. What you are about to read is my story. It is my story of coming to terms with God and faith in moments and situations ripe for doubt and unbelief. The last several years my spiritual growth has not been the byproduct of bible studies, prayer services and accountability groups, but from what I have experienced and learned at the scenes of life’s most harrowing circumstances.
The title of this book, Used to Go to Church, is based upon the countless times that people have responded to my introducing myself as a chaplain with, “I used to go to church.” Through further inquiry I would learn that their former church experience left in a spiritual no-man’s-land. On the one hand, they did not want to write off God categorically. But on the other hand, the “God” they learned in church seemed irrelevant, arcane, exacting, beyond belief, and even absurd. There is no shortage of people in the world like this, maybe you are one of them.