Jonathan, Jack, and Donna

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We sat wherever we could find space—squeezed onto the couch, splayed on the floor. The carpeted basement room was aglow in the yellowish light of several 60 watt bulbs behind thick lampshades, and we had brought with us the smells of grass and teenage sweat from our frisbee game on the lawn outside.

It was a summer Sunday evening, and this was church youth group. There were no more than ten of us. Asheville Gospel Chapel has always been a small congregation. In the sanctuary, there was a marquee-style attendance sign with interchangeable numbers and letters that said “Sunday School Register” at the top, and for most of my twenty years there, the numbers consistently read just over 100.

I would have been seated next to Caleb or Kristen or Jenny, the kids I had grown up with. Between us we shared countless sleepovers, bonfires, summer camp stories, and viewings of The Sandlot. We were teenagers now, and although the Chapel lacked the program-driven ministry teams that populate most evangelical churches with endless opportunities to “connect” with your peers in small groups and social gatherings, we did have Jack and Donna Innes.

Jack Innes was on the Chapel’s Elder Board, a soft-spoken older man with grey hair and glasses who wore suits to church every Sunday. We called him Dr. Jack, and I wish I knew what the field of study behind that credential was, but it wasn’t something I ever thought to ask. He was the unofficial caretaker of the Chapel, dedicated and dutiful, making sure lawns were mowed and income and expense lines were carefully recorded and reported back to the church. His wife, Donna, was beyond gregarious. She was warm and kind and hospitable and had a way of making you feel like the most important person in the room when she spoke to you. Her hair had precisely one style, an encircling, billowy shape entirely her own, and entirely consistent for the many years I knew her.

Jack and Donna stood in the gap for the Chapel’s youth, inviting us to their home after Sunday evening services because there was no other formal youth group where we could gather. Donna made cheese dip for tortilla chips and had lots of soda on hand. We would assault their long front yard with barely organized games that resembled ultimate Frisbee or kickball. The evenings would end in that basement room, which was decorated exactly the way you would expect a retired evangelical couple in the 90s whose kids were long out of the nest might decorate it.

I remember Dr. Jack taking us through a book written by a modern-day shepherd that was one long metaphor for how his sheep dog was like Jesus. Other times he would ask one of us to lead our peers in a devotional, a terrifying task that I’m sure was spiritually enriching for all involved. And sometimes, a special guest would spend the evening with us.

At the end of the day, evangelicals aren’t very comfortable with mystery, are they?

Asheville Gospel Chapel had no formal staff, no pastor or clergy or anyone resembling a figurehead. No one on the payroll. It was truly a congregation-led church, and one of the key tenets of our brand of Christianity was “the priesthood of all believers.” Every act of service to the community was ordained and holy, no matter who did it.

Not having a pastor meant that we had to rely on a network of itinerant preachers who traveled our region, speaking to the few, scattered Plymouth Brethren congregations. We would see the same handful of preachers rotate through our pulpit every couple of months, and naturally, we all had our favorites. But one man stood out among the rest, and on Sundays he was scheduled to preach, the attendance register always showed a little uptick.

His name was—still is, actually (I may have just done a little light Facebook stalking)—Jonathan Brower. He was the kind of man who was simultaneously imposing and inviting. What they would have called ‘a man’s man,’ mustachioed and deep-voiced, barrel-chested and tall. He made sports metaphors and spoke often of his work with kids and teenagers in sports camps and after-school programs. He was smart, warm, and exceptionally gifted at public speaking and sharing what we all presumed to be the Word of God.

It seemed like a bit of coup that night at youth group, with Jonathan Brower sitting among a handful of sweaty teenagers. Dr. Jack and Donna had coerced him into extending his stay in Asheville for a couple more hours and so that the undersized youth group might benefit from his years of study and experience as a professional preacher. He had thrown Frisbee with us, eaten nachos with us, and now he was going to share a spiritual insight that would surely deepen our faith and draw us closer to God.

Perhaps he was preached out, having delivered two sermons that day already, because instead of opening a Bible or spinning a tale, Jonathan Brower looked around the room and asked us what we wanted to talk about.

This was kind of an exciting prospect: the chance to pick the brain of the best preacher we knew. At least, it was for me. My friends, who moments before had been boisterous, were suddenly subdued and shy. The silence stretched out, and, as it so often seems to happen, I began to feel personally responsible for the breakdown in communication. I wanted to make sure our youth group was well-represented to this legendary man. As others fidgeted and became suddenly interested in the throw pillows they were holding, I started to formulate a question that Jonathan Brower could really sink his teeth into.

I don’t know what he was expecting us to ask him that night. There are usual subjects that tend to come up when adults talk Jesus to Christian teenagers, things like “how far is too far” with the opposite sex, or some version of the need to resist the influence of the world and keep a strong faith. Whatever Jonathan Brower might have been expecting, I’m betting it wasn’t a 14-year-old’s query on penal substitutionary atonement.

I have a question, Mr. Jonathan Brower, sir. We know that the wages of sin is death and eternal separation from God in hell, because God can’t be in the presence of sin. Jesus died for our sins, and he was dead for three days, right? So, if the required punishment for one person, for just one sin, is an eternity in hell away from God, how did one man pay for all the sins of every single person who ever lived and ever will live with just three days in hell? And furthermore, Jesus is God, so can God really even be present in hell since he can’t be in the presence of sin? If not, where was Jesus for those three days he was dead? And if he was in fact in hell, how did three days for Jesus equal eternity for literally every other human?

I’m not going to lie—I definitely got off on the fact that I had clearly surprised Jonathan Brower. He took off his glasses and rubbed his palm down the side of his face and said, “Wow—didn’t expect the hardballs right out of the gate.” One of those sports metaphors he was so good at.

Turns out, though, that stumping the best preacher I knew wasn’t as gratifying as I initially hoped. I don’t remember his exact response, but I do remember that I found it deeply unsatisfying. He started by talking about the mystery of salvation, but quickly set about trying to explain every element of that mystery in excruciating detail that only left me more confused. At the end, all I knew was that Jesus had magic deity powers, and that was the best explanation for why a punishment that would have cost me eternity only took him three days.

The lesson I started to learn that day, that ended up taking me another ten years or so to fully absorb, is that the people in my evangelical orbit were deeply entrenched in a faith that prized allegiance above reason, belief over intellect, and acceptance over doubt. Not knowing was not an option because God had made evident everything our human minds needed to accept that Jesus was Lord, God in flesh, whose substitutionary death ransomed sinners from the power of damnation, and whose resurrection assured the ultimate—but still forthcoming—victory over an enemy named Satan.

I couldn’t be beholden to a salvation system that I couldn’t understand, but required my full investment.

Until that victory, we believe, and abide by a restrictive moral code, and evangelize. It seemed a simple way to live, but then we had volumes in our church library written about salvation and how it worked. We devoted whole semesters at my Christian high school to the study of atonement. There were entire colleges and seminaries waiting for us to enroll so that we could further understand the mechanics of our salvation, a fundamental requirement for access to God but so inexplicable that generations later, we find ourselves wading through endless obscure marshes of doctrine and exposition just to be sure we get it right.

To this day, I don’t doubt Jonathan Brower’s sincerity or his integrity. He modeled so many things that weren’t in my world growing up—a man who was both strong and kind, both formidable and gentle. I very much wanted to follow in his footsteps as a teacher, sold out to the truth I proffered. It’s just that, for me, I discovered I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be beholden to a salvation system that I couldn’t understand, but required my full investment. I couldn’t subscribe to a faith that prized my allegiance over my reason.

Maybe if we had been able to stop at the words, the mystery of salvation, if I had been taught to be comfortable with the inexplicable, if “I don’t know” was an acceptable response from our trusted preachers—maybe then, I could have stuck it out. I know there are traditions that are better at this. But at the end of the day, evangelicals aren’t very comfortable with mystery, are they? We needed to explain and analyze and document the whole of it: from the way we get saved to the number of people in the pews each Sunday.

In so many ways, my spiritual engagement these days—these heathen conversations and deconstruction—are simply about going easier on myself. Learning to give myself more space to roam, reminding myself to loosen my grip. Walking into mystery and just… breathing.

And accepting that all of us back then were duty-bound to a really inflexible, unforgiving system that was hard to challenge. Whatever traumas I need to work through, I can still remember, with deep affection, Dr. Jack and Donna, who didn’t have to, but found a way to make a little more space available to us in their basement; and Jonathan Brower, who, after all, had been asked to explain the inexplicable by a boy who felt as much pressure to have the the best question as he felt to have the best answer.

Matthew Blake