Questions and Campfires

I’ve been toying around with the idea of documenting the time we spent while living on the road. It was an incredibly formative time for Erin and I and it’s something I want to archive in some meaningful way. So at the prompting of a few author friends, I’ve started to piece together a story about our travels and the faith transition I went through during this time. Here’s the introduction I wrote for the book last month.

“So what are you, a Christian?”

It was an odd question coming from somebody I had just met an hour ago. Sam reached down into the small woodpile he had only recently constructed beside our campfire ring. He pulled out several small sticks and added them to the fire he was coaxing to life nearby. We were perched on a plateau high above the Teton Valley, with the Grand Teton mountains peeking through clouds to the West. An hour earlier, I was helping Sam park his 28-foot long Airstream trailer between our 34-foot trailer on one side and a steep cliff on the other side. While Sam and his family had been living in an RV for over a year now, my family were still greenhorns with only three months under our belt. As I signaled to Sam in his side view mirrors, I was terrified I’d get it wrong and he’d back his trailer off the cliff.

I started following Sam Curren on Instagram a few months prior. As my wife Erin and I began to research what it would take to live full-time on the road, we were instantly drawn to Sam and his family’s beautiful pictures of their wild adventures. Our kids were similar ages, so the Curren family became an idealized representation of what life on the road would become for us. Once our family actually hit the road, I began looking for any opportunity to meet up with them. “Are you guys heading East after your stop in Idaho?” I wrote to Sam via direct message. “Do you want to meet up?” Sam had posted a map of their plans for the spring of 2015 and it looked like they’d cross our path near Grand Teton National Park in western Wyoming. I didn’t know if Sam would take the bait. But a few hours later, he messaged me to say they might swing by our campsite and spend a few nights. It was an internet blind date. And to make it even weirder, we were meeting for the first time in the middle of the woods and we’d both brought along our families.

Sam laid the broken sticks across the fire and gently blew some air across the tiny flame. Our kids had all run off into the woods to play together. Our wives sat inside Sam’s Airstream, laughing and talking about life on the road.

“Are you a Christian?” Sam repeated. Sam noticed my pause at the question. “I’ve seen some of your posts on Instagram and I guess they kind of sound Christian.”

Our first date had gotten real serious, real quick. But I understood why he was asking – Sam was hoping I was an ally. The Curren family were devout Mormons. Sam was subtle about this aspect of his life on Instagram, but I’d picked up on enough of the clues to piece it together. Part of me was nervous talking to Sam, knowing he was a Mormon. I had grown up in the Christian church all my life, but had been taught to be wary of Mormons. I honestly couldn’t tell you much about their faith beyond the few bullet points I’d cobbled together over the years. But my high school Bible class was very insistent that Mormons “claimed to be Christians, but were not.” They were placed on the outside of “us and them” along with other world religions. But I was desperate for a friend and they seemed to be a nice family with loads of road-life experience to glean from. I didn’t want to make this complicated and awkward right out of the gate.

“Yeah, Christian. I guess you could say that.” Hearing the lie escape my mouth, I’m not sure if Sam noticed the slight grimace at the edge of my eyes. Sam reached down for more firewood. I composed myself and looked up to read his reaction. He smiled slightly and said, “Oh cool. We’re Mormons,” he said with a smile. Sam was so sure of his declaration – something I certainly wasn’t able to be.

According to a Pew research study, it’s estimated that 44% of people will experience some kind of faith shift in their lifetimes. But no one prepared me for mine. On the contrary, my religious tradition simply taught me to be certain. Certain of a God that loved me. Certain that I would die and go to heaven. And certain that if I didn’t play my part by converting everyone I knew, very few others would join me in that heaven.

In his book “Falling Upward”, Father Richard Rohr describes a “second half of life” that involves the deconstruction of the narrative we are given growing up. In an ironic twist, Rohr describes how those who have “fallen”, “gone down”, or “failed” are those that understand “up.” Those that wrestle with the narrative of their childhood faith tend to come out on the other side with a richer, fuller understanding of themselves and the universe. But typically that path involves a tragic event to force oneself into reconsideration. “Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable,” Rohr writes. Most people choose to stay in their certainty, but many others choose to step out into the wilderness.

According to Richard Dawkins’ “spectrum of theistic probability”, the amount of certainty one has in God is directly proportional to the size of hole that first bit of doubt can create. Luckily for me, the certainty I had in God hadn’t reached fundamentalist levels. But I was certainly steeped in the Christian subcultures of the 1980’s and 90’s. Christian music, Christian movies, Bible memorization, mission trips, AWANA, and purity rings. I immersed myself in Christian apologetics, having been assured that my faith would one day be challenged by the evil non-believers “out there” in the world. The bubble I grew up in left my faith unchallenged for 18 years. I could give you proofs for the archaeological existence of Jesus and could wax poetic about the many C.S. Lewis books I’d read, but I was wholly unprepared for how to deal with doubt.

The Christian culture I was raised in didn’t take kindly to hard questions from inside of the circle. A verbalized theological doubt was met with either grave concern for my soul or a platitude about learning to trust God more. I had questions about the historical accuracy of the Bible. I thought it contradictory that a God of love would send 95% of earth’s population to an eternal place of torment. But in a culture that so highly valued certainty, I feared being labeled a heretic.

So my questions remained in the shadows of my heart and the recesses of my intellect. Never one to rock the boat or cause my parents to be concerned, I learned to keep it all at an arm’s distance. And it worked. Mostly. Until my mom died.

In October 2004, my mom was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. By January 2005, she was gone. My mother, the strong matriarch of a strong family, was gone and I didn’t get to say goodbye. Why would I have to? I prayed. My dad, a newly minted Calvary Chapel pastor, prayed. His church prayed. I was a good kid. My mom was an incredible woman and an beloved high school teacher. My dad gave his life to the Church. But none of it seemed to matter to this God I was told loved me.

I spent the first two years of my marriage trying to reconcile the God I thought I knew with the current realities of my life. I stepped through each of the stages of grieving, choosing to spend an extra long time on “anger” and “bargaining”. I vividly remember a crucial night alone at home. I laid in bed crying, begging, pleading, “If you’re real, make this phone ring. Put my mom on the line. Just one more time.” The pleading turned to yelling as my face and body became tense with rage. The longer the phone didn’t ring, the more I was sure God didn’t care. “Prove it!” I seethed. “They say you’re all powerful, but you can’t make a phone ring?!”

The silence was deafening. But I didn’t know what to do with all this anger and hurt. Did I really have any choices? My entire world was wrapped up in church. I couldn’t walk away from God without walking away from everything I held dear. My new wife, Erin, was deeply concerned for me. She left me notes around our apartment with encouraging Bible verses and quiet prayers. My friends, like Job’s friends, were dutifully faithful but only offered me empty platitudes.

“Everything happens for a reason.”

“God works in mysterious ways.”

“His plans and ways are higher than ours. We just need to trust.”

It felt like everyone was trying to rush me. No one wanted to do the hard work of sitting with me. No one wanted to go to the depths with me. And I certainly didn’t want to tell everyone what I thought about God in that moment. But If I chose to go further down the road of doubt, I feared I would face the implosion of everything and everyone that mattered to me.

Over time, I decided that this was too much of a risk. So I decided I’d try and patch things up with God. Looking back on this now, it’s amazing how my brain was able to construct a story that entirely cleared God of all wrongdoing. “His ways are higher than my ways,” my training echoed. I could fight God the rest of my life or I could make peace. But I didn’t know that making peace would further delay the inevitable showdown I needed to have. So in the meantime, I internalized the platitudes and plastered the smile back on my face.

Needless to say, Erin was relieved at my new-found faith. Her prayers were answered, it seemed. I was back. One job led to another, and I found myself deep in the Bible belt, working at a megachurch. Time had healed my wounds (I thought) and the birth of my third child began to pour cement around the mythology of our white-picket-fence existence. I was never more sure of my faith and my own personal righteousness. I raised my hands, I read the books, I smiled the smiles, and I received the praise. Grief was a million miles away – somewhat by time, but mostly by intent.

Four years later, I began to feel that my time working for a church was coming to a close. Erin and I had been in marriage counseling for a few weeks and had reached a point where our counselor started our sessions with the simple question, “So what do you want to talk about today?” I jokingly raised my hand like an elementary school student. I turned to Erin and cryptically asked, “Do you remember that idea you had about traveling the country in an RV?” She timidly nodded. “Well, I think it might be time.”

A year later, I was staring blankly at a raging campfire, talking with my new friend Sam about RV tires, solar power, and national parks. We had sold our house and most of our possessions and set out to explore. And while my expertise about RV life grew each day, the confidence I had in God kept dwindling. But I knew everything I was taught as a child was being turned over and pulled apart. It was the demolition I had put off for years, but was finally facing head-on. And while my typically-rose-colored glasses saw the possibilities of a faith reckoning, I was scared as hell. And I certainly wasn’t about to explain any of this to Sam.

Hi there, I'm Jon.

Writer. Musician. Adventurer. Nerd.

Purveyor of GIFs and dad jokes.