The day I walked out of church, I had just finished assisting our children’s church lesson about how God created the world in six literal days. God had put the first two humans in a garden with one rule, and then sent them into exile, the entire cosmos into decay and all of future humanity into total depravity because Adam and Eve broke that one rule against eating a piece of fruit.
My stomach was in knots. I knew that within two weeks, these 5-year-olds would hear that God had gotten so angry that he drowned everyone on the planet who didn’t get on a boat.
But I had come to understand that none of that was literal. God never did any of that. These were stories told by an ancient tribe of hurting people who had been exiled from their homeland and were processing their wonders and wounds against the wonders and wounds of the much larger empire that had hurt them.
There is beauty to explore in these stories when we read them in a way that connects our wonders and wounds back to the wonders and wounds of this ancient tribe. But when told through the lens of the modern evangelical gospel of a God demanding perfection and threatening eternal torture just for being born a descendant of those two people, these stories perpetuate wounds in kids that I no longer could take part in forming, let alone pass on to my children — despite how evangelicals try to point the story to the supposed good news of God eventually getting his anger out by killing Jesus in exchange for a few of us.
I walked across the creaking hardwood floor of the church lobby and heard the joyful sounds of voices raised in singing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below.”
“Something within me knew this was the last sound of live worship I would hear for a long time because I was leaving my Eden.”
In the six seconds it took me to walk toward the heavy wooden door, something within me knew this was the last sound of live worship I would hear for a long time because I was leaving my Eden. As my hands pressed against the door, and my face felt the breeze of the cool fall air, I walked out into my exile.
Cloister Garden Christianity
In her book Living Things: Collected Poems, Anne Porter shares this liturgy about Adam and Eve’s first morning in exile:
“When I woke up this morning there was no garden around me,
I was lying alone with Eve on the hard ground
And we were hungry, but there was nothing to eat.
The animals wouldn’t come to us anymore,
And where the door to the garden had been, there was nothing but fire.”
My entire 37 years of existence had been centered in the church. I was convinced that the church was my Eden. And yet, I finally had come to realize that evangelicalism was actually the empire that was disconnecting me from myself, my neighbors and God.
So, like Anne Porter’s Adam and Eve, the following Sunday morning, I woke up with no church around me, lying alone with my wife on our bed, and we were hungry. But thankfully for us there were eggs and bacon to eat. So we went downstairs and enjoyed a nice meal with our kids.
“Over the next six months, we began to experience a connection with self, each other and the Infinite in ways we never had before.”
Over the next six months, we began to experience a connection with self, each other and the Infinite in ways we never had before. We began to realize there was much more to this cosmos than our carefully controlled garden had contained.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke contrasts the beauty of handcrafted cloister gardens with the silent, fermenting web of the chasm of the self, concluding: “This is the ferment I grow out of. More I don’t know, because my branches rest in deep silence, stirred only by the wind.”
Cloister gardens are created so that spiritual communities can gather away from society and access the outdoors within the protection provided by their walls. They contain beauty and order with safety. And yet, they are manufactured and unaware of the expanding cosmos.
The chasm, however, is the wild, uncontrolled, messy canyon that is millions of years in the making, where untold stories of beasts and nature lie silent, fermenting and stirred only by the wind.
“In the chasm of the self, we come face to face with our wonders and wounds.”
In the chasm of the self, we come face to face with our wonders and wounds. And it’s there in solidarity with ourselves that we can begin to discover the wonders and wounds of others who lived and died in the chasm before us, and of our brothers and sisters both within and beyond humanity who still breathe and burn.
There is a deeper inner relationality that is born from the spirituality of the chasm that simply cannot be named in a book or article or categorized and condemned by those huddled in the cloister garden who’ve never tasted and seen.
Perhaps my favorite chasm story is the lost canyon of the Nile. Underneath the Nile River is around 200 trillion cubic meters of sedimentary rock that has filled an ancient canyon covering more than 1,000 miles from the Mediterranean Sea to the southern border of Sudan.
Just like the Grand Canyon, the lost canyon below the Nile contains millions of years’ worth of stories once filled with waterfalls and teeming with life. Yet the silent settling of sediment and salt slowly buried these stories to bring us the Nile Valley we can explore today. And what’s even more intriguing is that the other major rivers that flow into the Mediterranean also sit atop hidden canyons.
Cloister Garden Christianity never would discover these canyons to begin with because it stays within the carefully crafted beauty of its manufactured community, kept safe by the walls built by its hierarchical gatekeepers. Any discoveries it hears of “out there” that lead to questions about their garden are chalked up to “the curse” or “the flood” and seen as a threat.
Once someone ventures out into the exile of Chasm Christianity, they’ll discover entire hidden canyons to be unearthed that lead to discovering even more canyons that lead to oceans, continents, worlds and galaxies in an ever-expanding cosmos of relational wholeness with self, neighbor and an infinite God.
And while the nostalgia of the controlled garden may arise at times and its communal wonders be missed, the “I don’t know” of the chasm breathes and burns within us to continue being present in the becoming of a spiritual community far more ancient and far more expanding than anything we’d ever dreamed of before.
COVID-19 and a return to Eden
No matter how cut off from one another we feel, we tend to converge in our wonders and wounds. So when COVID-19 led many churches to close their doors in March 2020, my hope was that the wound of exile that evangelicals were about to experience might help them find empathy for the same wound of exile that many ex-evangelicals had — and that perhaps we could converge in our common wound of exile and begin to breathe and burn in solidarity together again.
“My prayer was that by getting outside the walls of the cloister garden, evangelicals might begin to connect with the family of the chasm.”
My prayer was that by getting outside the walls of the cloister garden, evangelicals might begin to connect with the family of the chasm.
When churches tried to replicate in-person worship services virtually on Zoom, I hoped perhaps they’d realize this wasn’t going to work and take the opportunity to try something entirely different, helping congregations move within to grieve their exile and see the new wonders around them that they were walled off from when inside their garden. I was stunned when I learned that pastors I once had respected were rushing back to in-person worship services despite the rising numbers of their neighbors becoming sick and dying. They had to get back to the cloister garden as quickly as possible.
John MacArthur began holding indoor worship gatherings filled with an unmasked, un-socially-distanced congregation of 7,000 people while dismissing the concern for caution, and claiming that “there is no pandemic.”
Worship leaders such as Michael W. Smith and Sean Feucht teamed up with politicians and business leaders to organize worship gatherings of up to 100,000 unmasked, un-socially distanced evangelicals using corporate worship in the pursuit of Christian nationalism and Republican politics.
Once November came, evangelicals lined up in droves to vote for the re-election of Donald Trump with enthusiasm.
After Trump was soundly defeated, evangelical conspiracy went into overdrive, calling for angels from Africa to fly over the ocean and overturn the election, begging God to take an iron rod and “smash the delusion of Joe Biden as our president,” and culminating in a Jericho March in which they were led by Michael Flynn, the MyPillow founder, Eric Metaxas, and Sandy Hook denier Alex Jones screaming: “Humanity is awakening! Jesus Christ is King! … This is the beginning of the Great Revival before the Antichrist comes! … Revelation is fulfilled! … We will never bow down to the Satanic pedophile New World Order!”
“The National Mall had become a cloister garden for evangelical faith, and the god being worshiped hovered overhead.”
Amidst blowing shofars and calls to fight to the last drop of blood, President Trump hovered over the roaring crowd in Marine One. The National Mall had become a cloister garden for evangelical faith, and the god being worshiped hovered overhead.
Now, with CDC projections that “more than 80,000 Americans could die of COVID-19 over the next three weeks,” churches are pressing on with in-person worship services. One such church in my city even rearranged the worship band to play on the floor with the seats gathered around them in order “to evoke the feeling that we’re all just sitting in a big living room together. Because we have been disconnected this year.” The following week the pastor said, “We’re pushing back against all the isolation of COVID. … It’s just great to have such a beautiful big family.”
On the stage were trees with pictures of Black and brown people living in their mission fields. The congregation was told to imagine, “as we sit together in this virtual living room, it’s like we’re looking out the window at our global family.”
“Rather than recognizing the White American Savior Complex that their worship is evoking, they actually think they’re being multicultural.”
Rather than staying in their separate living rooms like they should, they instead are playing pretend living room in their auditorium together in order to push back against all the isolation of COVID. Rather than realizing that their penal substitutionary atonement theology excludes the vast majority of humanity around the globe, they worship with joy while branding the few as a “global family.” And rather than recognizing the White American Savior Complex that their worship is evoking, they actually think they’re being multicultural.
This total lack of awareness led one of their pastors to invite “especially the suffering” to come to their service and to “not spend Christmas Eve in isolation” because “Jesus has overcome the world.”
Needless to say, evangelicalism has overwhelmingly missed the convergence that could have happened during their wound of exile by building even more delusional cloister gardens.
Finding God in exile
Just as we converge with ourselves and our neighbors in our wonders and wounds, we can also converge with the Infinite in the wonders and wounds of God. As disconnected from reality as evangelicalism has become, there is still a seed of resurrection in the story of God becoming a human. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross.”
The Gospels tell the story of the Infinite becoming finite in order to lead humanity from the cloister garden to the pioneering life of the chasm. The cross speaks of joy and pain, of the wonders and wounds of God.
In Christian tradition, the Eucharist is where we can taste these wonders and wounds of God. It is where the Infinite becomes finite, the universal becomes particular, where we realize that what we longed for in the cloister garden was true the whole time in the chasm. In fact, it’s there that we realize that the cloister garden is simply a play set that has its being within the chasm.
I may never be able to be a part of an evangelical church again. That is a wound I must bear. But it’s a wound I believe the Jesus who preached the Sermon on the Mount also would bear. And in our common exile, where we can taste the bread and wine in the wild, perhaps one day the few will learn to set aside their cloister gardens and meet us in the chasm of unknowing, where our “branches rest in deep silence, stirred only by the wind.”
Rick Pidcock is a stay-at-home father of five kids. He and his wife, Ruth Ellen, have started Provoke Wonder, a collaboration of artists that exists to foster child-like worship through story and song. Provoke Wonder’s first album, Consider the Stars, was released in March 2020. Their first children’s book, What If, will be released soon. Rick is pursuing a master of arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary.