Here’s the first chapter of the book I’ve been working on for the past several years. If you have comments or suggestions for improvement I’d love to hear them. Or if you know of any agents or publishers who might be interested that would be good, too – it’s getting close to the point where I’ll be looking in that direction. As always, thanks for reading!
Being absent-minded means stepping up to the urinal and hoping you have to unzip your pants.
If you’re really absent-minded you’re not worrying about whether your zipper is up, but hoping there is a zipper at all. Did I remember to put my pants on this morning?
Please look away for a moment while I check.
Okay. I’m pantsed and they are zipped.
Because this book has such a conceited title, I thought I would start out with an admission of my struggle with incognizance. As I told Alex Trebek during the contestant interview segment of my Jeopardy Tournament of Champions Semifinal, my kids made a lot of money from my air-headedness when they were younger. I would tire of looking for my wallet, or my keys, or my glasses, and I would shout out, “I’ll give anybody a dollar who can find keys!” or whatever.
Alex asked, “Did they ever hide those things on purpose so they could collect the reward?”
I don’t think so . . . but you can never tell about kids. They can be sneaky little suckers. I’m pretty sure they didn’t hide my glasses that one time they were on my face.
Do you see what I’ve done so far? At the same time I was being all self-deprecating about my absent-mindedness, I casually mentioned that I was smart enough not only to be on Jeopardy but to win enough games (four, if you insist on knowing) to earn a spot in the Tournament of Champions . . . and I made it into the semi-finals, no less. Plus I name-dropped Trebek.
But I’m not simply sneaking in a humblebrag (at least that’s not all I’m doing). One of the foundational ideas of this book is that smart folks can be Christians . . . and Christians can be smart folks. We’re not all like the doofuses who seem to get most of the publicity.
It would be easy to blame “the media” for the popular conception of Christians as dumber than dirt, but we Christians shoulder the blame, too. We keep sending our money to television preachers who give simplistic answers to questions like “Why do terrible things happen?”
Usually their answers revolve around God trying to punish people those TV preachers happen to hate . . . and who aren’t in the donor database.
One of the things I’ve learned since I’ve realized I was a Christian – and especially since I’ve become a pastor – is that I don’t have to know all the answers, or even many of them. Christianity ain’t Jeopardy, or even Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (the other gameshow I’ve been on).
In real life, sometimes “I don’t know” can be the smartest thing I can say.
So if I don’t have all the answers, why should you read this book? I can see you, standing there in the bookstore, perusing Too Smart for God in the midst of stacks of other fine books. The authors of some of those books – especially in the Christianity section – claim to have everything figured out. They even have God figured out!
Why should you march up to the register to invest your money and the promise of your time in these pages? Is it worth hearing another sales pitch about the bookstore’s Preferred Reader Program?
Or, if you’re reading this Sample Chapter on your laptop or phone or e-reader . . . with an almost infinite universe of other bits and gigs of data to download, why should you click on the button that says, “Add to Cart” and expose your credit card data to the possibility of being hacked by a teenager in his parents’ basement who in turn sells it to Russian gangsters or Nigerian scammers?
One good reason to take the plunge at the register or online is that someone has said Too Smart for God is “simply the best writing by an American author since The Great Gatsby, if not Huckleberry Finn.”
But because praise for my book by friends, family – or in this instance, myself – probably isn’t very persuasive, let me give you my strongest argument for buying this book:
IT’S NOT ABOUT ME.
I’m not just ripping off Rick Warren, who sold millions and millions of copies of The Purpose Driven Life, a book that started, with, “It’s not about you.”
This book really is not about me.
“Wait a minute, Dave,” you might protest. “Isn’t this your story? How you grew up in a family that went to church every Sunday, but became an agnostic/atheist (depending on the confidence of your unbelief on any particular day) by the time you got to college because you thought you were Too Smart for God, and that God was only for weak, stupid people? And about how you returned to the church in your early 30’s because it was the only way the woman who is now your wife would date you and you eventually became not just a Christian but an unexpected pastor? Then how can you say this book is not about you?
Because this book is about GOD.
I know that might seem like a pretty bold claim, but it is actually meant with the deepest humility. Yes, I am going to be the vessel for the story; my life is the vehicle by which we’ll take this journey together.
A few years back I had to change planes with some friends in Edmonton, Alberta as we flew across Our Neighbor to the North. We had four hours between planes, so we rented a car and drove into the city to explore. If you’ve ever been to Edmonton, you know the North Saskatchewan River (a River to Remember if you ever want to be on Jeopardy – Trebek’s from Canada) separates the city from the area where the airport is located. There are only a few bridges over that river.
When it came time to get back to the airport, we couldn’t find the way onto any of those bridges. We would drive toward one, then find ourselves on a road way below it with no ramps to it or signs showing the way to get to one. We spent increasingly hectic time driving aimlessly trying to get on a bridge, but we would inevitably lose sight of the one we were seeking and get lost again. Edmonton is surprisingly hilly for a city located in Alberta, one of the “Prairie Provinces” (a nickname Jeopardy-aspirants should know).
We did not have GPS in the car or on our phones. We had declined the map along with the insurance at the car rental counter. How hard could it be to get from the airport to the city and then double back to the airport?
Too hard, apparently, for us.
Eventually we did find our way back, just in time to get on our plane. But we had no idea how we had blundered there until I got home, pulled up Edmonton on Google Maps, and traced our route. It was certainly not a straight line, and I could see how we had missed many opportunities to get back on track. On the other hand, we had seen areas of the city and its environs that we never would have experienced otherwise. And we had a good story to tell.
This book is sort of my attempt to piece together a Google Map of my journey back to faith. Now that I’m a pastor, there are times when I am up front leading worship and wonder, “How did I get here?” Like the trip back to the Edmonton airport, it was not a straight line. Writing this account has given me the opportunity to see how the twists and turns led me to where, or rather, who, I am today – an Unexpected Pastor who was once Too Smart for God.
So please be patient with me as we go on this journey together. How it all works together is something I’m figuring out along with you. God is the real author of my story. God had a plan even – and especially – when I didn’t acknowledge God’s existence. All the time I thought I was running away from God, or more accurately, rejecting the very idea of God, God was writing this story in and through me.
Even when I kept driving around aimlessly, even though I didn’t have a map, God always knew I’d end up back at the airport.
Or back at church.
I don’t want you buy this book under false pretenses, however. Mine is not a story that climaxes in a dramatic moment when I see the light and realize I was on the wrong road.
The prototypical conversion story in the Bible involves a man named Saul who literally saw the light. When we meet Saul in Acts he is a despicable person. He hates Christians (which doesn’t in itself make him despicable), those Jewish apostates who are multiplying like rats ever since their leader died and supposedly came back to life three days later. Saul puts his enmity into action by rounding up members of the early church and throwing them into jail. At the stoning (death by throwing actual stones, not the use of mind-altering substances) of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, Saul didn’t have the guts to partake in the actual execution. He held the coats of those who hurled the fatal rocks. There’s something particularly smarmy about that kind of “I don’t want to get my hands dirty” participation.
In the ninth chapter of Acts, Saul is on his way to the Syrian city of Damascus. He is “breathing murderous threats against” Christians. They really piss him off. At his request, the authorities have given him a mandate to round up Damascus Christians and imprison them. Saul is portrayed as such a villainous villain that when I read this story I picture him twirling his mustache and rubbing his hands with glee as he nears Damascus.
But then! There’s a brilliant light from heaven, so bright it instantly blinds Saul. A voice says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It’s Jesus! Saul gets the point, and after a follower of Jesus restores his sight he became the greatest evangelist of the New Testament and maybe ever.
And, like many others in the Bible (and many modern celebrities), his name got changed. Saul was hereafter known as Paul.
Now that’s a great story!
My story is not like that.
Because of the change he made – or rather that God made in him – Paul is my favorite New Testament Bible character. (Gideon is my favorite person in the Hebrew Scriptures – you’ll have to read the rest of the book to find out why.) There are similarities between my journey and Paul’s, but his is a different kind of adventure. I rejected Jesus, but I didn’t kill Christians. I just made fun of them. I was never knocked off my horse by a blinding light, nor did Jesus ever rebuke me personally.
If that ever happened, this would be a much shorter book.
As long as I’m being up-front here at the front of the book, I should probably tell you that my story is different from others who write books in the Spiritual Conversion genre. I didn’t do a lot of the dramatic and (self-) destructive things they did. I drank too much, but I am not an alcoholic or a drug addict. I’ve been divorced and I’ve lived with a woman who’s not my wife, but my sexual exploits are pretty tame compared to say, Wilt Chamberlain. I don’t have a tale of child abuse and/or neglect to share; the family I grew up in was pretty “normal,” whatever that means.
But I suspect my story is more common than dramatic stories like Paul’s and many others that get turned into books. It is more like the other great conversion story from the Bible, the one that happened not on the road to Damascus but rather on the road to Emmaus.
Luke tells this story in chapter 24 of his Gospel. It happens on the first Easter Sunday. Jesus died two days before. Two of Jesus’ followers – Cleopas and one who Luke doesn’t name, so I’ll call him “Dave” – have just left Jerusalem. They are walking toward Emmaus, a few miles away.
Cleopas and Dave’s journey is symbolic of their emotional and spiritual state. Jerusalem was the city of hope, the city where they Hebrew Scriptures promised that the Savior would take over and establish a perfectly just rule over the world. Cleopas and Dave, along with many who followed Jesus, had thought Jesus was that Savior. But then they had seen him nailed to a cross where he died just like any other man.
That wasn’t what the Savior was supposed to do! So Cleopas and Dave were walking away from Jerusalem. Away from hope. Away from faith.
They were at the end of their hope.
As they walked, Cleopas and Dave discussed the events of the last few days. They were joined along the way by another traveler. Luke tells us in an aside that this newcomer is the resurrected Jesus, but Cleopas and Dave don’t recognize him.
Jesus asks why they are so sad. They can’t believe their new companion hasn’t heard what happened to Jesus. Cleopas and Dave tell him the whole story.
Jesus gets angry. “Don’t you get it! Don’t you know the Scriptures?! Dying was what the Savior was supposed to do all along.” Then Jesus teaches them a Sunday School lesson about how the promises in the Scriptures had been about, well, him.
Then it’s time to stop for dinner. Cleopas and Dave sit down. They invite Jesus to eat with them. A meal is laid out. Jesus picks up some bread, breaks it, and blesses it. That’s when it comes to Cleopas and Dave.
This is Jesus!
This is the Savior they’d been waiting for!
Because he didn’t fit their idea of what the Savior should be, they had rejected him. Cleopas and Dave had walked away from their faith, but Jesus had been walking with them.
Luke goes on to tell us that Cleopas and Dave ran back to Jerusalem and told everyone their story of walking with Jesus, of finding him – and their faith – even though they didn’t know they were looking for him – or for it.
And that, my new friend, is what I will do in the rest of this book. I’ll tell you how I walked away from my faith because God and Jesus didn’t meet my expectations . . . and didn’t answer all my smart-guy questions. I’ll show you how Jesus walked with me even when I didn’t recognize him, much less believe him to be my or anybody else’s Savior. Finally, you’ll see how I realized, not in a flash but over the course of the walk, who Jesus is not just for the world but for me.
Like Cleopas and Dave, I can’t help but tell the world about it.
That is what you’ll get when you read the rest of Too Smart for God. That and how to get on a game show.
And, if you buy this book today, I’ll throw in a FREE BONUS Christmas Short Story. It’s at the end of the book.
For now, take this book to the register or click on “Add to Cart.” Let’s take this journey together. I’ll be Dave. You can be Cleopas.