My father was a simple man. A man of the earth, both in the agricultural sense and his demeanor.
After he left the Navy in 1958, when he was barely twenty years old, he worked as a butcher or meat cutter. That is to say, he started at a slaughter house in San Diego with a job his father-in-law found for him. His skill at ending the life of cattle and sheep got him promoted from changing those lifeless animals to large chunks to small, meal-size pieces wrapped in cellophane to be sold in a supermarket.
I grew up with nothing but admiration for my father. I didn’t just love him, I liked him. I liked hanging out with him. He was a good father. Even when he came home from work, dead tired from slinging slabs of beef, he always made time for my sister and me. Frequently, while we climbed all over him on the couch, or sat next to him when we were older, no matter how hard he tried to give us undivided attention, sleep overcame him. This did not deter us from being with him. Instead, we’d sit next to him and color with our crayons or read. It didn’t matter that he was asleep. We just liked being with him.
When he and our mother moved us from the Lower 48 to Alaska, not much changed. He still sought to spend time with us. Except for one year when he worked on the Alaska Pipeline as a truck driver, he still worked as a meat cutter at the nearest supermarket, located some twenty miles from where we lived in Kasilof, an old Russian trading post. During moose season, he moonlighted after work for a man who owned a small butcher shop and a large bank of freezers he rented to hunters who had no room at home for hundreds of pounds of moose meat.
My father also hunted moose. Not a year went by that he failed to get one. It was usually enough meat to last until the next hunting season. Although, to keep some variety in the meals, my mother insisted on the occasional supply of poultry, pork and fish from dad’s supermarket job in Kenai.
Personally, I never enjoyed hunting. When we had first moved to Alaska, I tried my hand at it. To use the worn out idiom, but all too accurately, I couldn’t shoot the broadside of a barn. Under pressure from school peers, I set up a trap line. Once I had to kill an ermine that was still alive. As it gnawed at its own paw, I held it down with my foot and shot it in the head with my .22 rifle. So traumatized was I by that killing, I took up all my traps and turned to nature photography.
Nonetheless, I had enough strength-of-character or whatever attribute one might use, that I did not find it difficult to be around my dad when he was working. Or when we went moose hunting. As long as I didn’t have to do the killing, I was game for being with him under such circumstances. This game-ness, I have no doubt, was due to how much I loved being with my father.
My father was a great story teller. He was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an intellectual. That was my mother’s department. But he still had a way about saying things that influenced how I thought and spoke. He had maxims and sayings he frequently used, some as old and worn as not being able to hit the broadside of a barn and others new and original to himself.
For about two years before we left the Lower 48 for Alaska, he frequently moonlighted for another local butcher. Gilbert Dekoker mostly used his private little meat shop for agricultural animals. He had a truck he used for going to local farms where they slaughtered cows, pigs and the occasional sheep or lamb. At the farm, they simply turned the beasts into two sides of meat, used a hoist to lift the sides into the truck in order to haul them back to the shop to turn into small, meal sized packages.
Sometimes things went wrong. Maybe the animal didn’t bleed all the way, or later at the shop they found bile had spilt and spoiled meat.
When things went wrong, Gilbert Dekoker would say, “It ain’t all that easy.”
Dad always told us about what went wrong and how they fixed it and then he’d say, “It ain’t all that easy, as Gilbert Dekoker says.”
Later, after we were settled in Alaska, my father continued to use Mr. Dekoker’s declaration, changing it from present to past tense: “. . . As Gilbert Dekoker used to say . . .”
This became a phrase as well used by my dad as widely known ones, such as, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” a phrase he often used within a few minutes of saying Gilbert Dekoker’s.
I loved my dad; I respected him and listened to him with hardly any doubt he knew what he was talking about.
So it was that seven years after I left home he made a challenge to me that changed my life.
Some messy details are necessary here:
About a year and a half after I graduated from high school, I went to a nominally Christian college in Idaho. There, all within a matter of a few months, I met a devout Christian student who “led me to the Lord.” (She later became my wife and mother of my four children.) I did not grow up in a Christian family, but neither were my parents’ anti-religious. I, on the other hand, as a teen, through the writings of Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell, became a strong atheist. When I let my parents know of my conversion to Christianity, they were stunned such that they investigated Christianity and soon followed suit. Their conversion was so powerful for them they felt compelled to sell all they had in Alaska to finance attending Florida Bible College. From there, they went on to become missionaries with New Tribes Mission, a very conservative, somewhat militant Protestant missionary organization.
In the mix of my parents’ spiritual journey, my wife and I followed them to the same Bible College. However, we ended up quitting and moving to my wife’s hometown of Klamath Falls, Oregon. There I became something of a follower of Francis Schaeffer, the self-proclaimed philosopher/guru of conservative Protestant Christianity in America. His writings influenced the likes of Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed.
For me, Francis Schaeffer’s books moved me to want to become an academic within a secular university for the purpose of propagating Christianity in that milieu. Toward that end, I was looking to become a student at Southern Oregon University, in Ashland.
After my parents finished their missionary training with New Tribes Mission, which included one year of what was then called Boot Camp followed by six months of language school, they came to visit us before they went to Panama.
At the time of their visit, I was working as a short order cook at an old restaurant called The Pelican. It had been in Klamath Falls since the early part of the 1900s and had, by the time I started working there in 1982, long lived past its glory days. I was the closing cook.
My parents were staying at a hotel. While I was at work, they visited with my wife and children. The night before they were to leave and make their way to Florida for their departure to the mission field, my dad showed up for the last hour of my work to visit with me while I popped out a few late orders and worked at shutting down the kitchen.
“Son,” my dad’s tone intimated firmness. I knew: it’s time to listen. I was only too happy to. “I’ve not commented yet on your plans for college. I worry that taking that road will serve to weaken your faith, that it will turn you into a chocolate soldier.”
“Huh?” I replied, while applying cellophane to sandwich condiments.
“Do you know who C.T Studd was?”
“No,” I answered.
“He was an exceptional student at Cambridge, in England. He was also a famous college athlete.
“You know who Hudson Taylor was, right?”
He informed me: one of the giants of Protestant missionary outreach to China in the 1800s. After many years in China, Hudson Taylor returned to England where he sought to recruit young men to become missionaries to China. C.T. Studd was one of seven Cambridge students who were so moved by Taylor they soon went to Shanghai to work under the auspices of China Inland Missions, the mission society founded by Hudson Taylor.
“So, as you see, C.T. Studd was well educated. Can you do better than Cambridge?” my dad asked, rhetorically. “But he knew God already had enough Christians doing personal evangelism in England without C.T. Studd joining them.” (Personal Evangelismwas a sort of in-house term at Florida Bible College; it designated the action devout Christians should naturally do: personally, one-on-one, seek to evangelize everyone they knew.)
“Uh huh,” I replied, non-committedly. I was cleaning the grill. He was standing to my left, in front of the walk-in cooler door. His stance was aggressive, like he was ready to spring into action.
“Don’t you see?” He said, again rhetorically, for he jumped right in for the kill. “After years in China, C.T. Studd alsowent back to England to recruit. When he did, he preached a sermon called Chocolate Soldiers.
“Studd probably thought he was a real stud,” my father laughed at his play of words, “when he was back in Cambridge. But once he got to China, to the mission field, the battle field for souls, he understood how soft and unchallenged he had been. He said of himself that he used to be a chocolate soldier. Had he faced the hardships he faced in China when he was back in England, he said he would’ve started to melt and would’ve returned to the comfort of academia where he could pretend he was tough by the clever words he knew.
“In China, when things got tough, he couldn’t just walk away. In China, he faced starvation, violence, isolation, ridicule, loneliness,” he counted them on his fingers. “That’s the sort of trial that turned C.T. Studd into a real soldier for Jesus. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, he did not melt in the fiery furnace because he was not a chocolate soldier.”
My dad caught me off guard with his zeal. I’d seen him excited before while telling a story, but never had I seen him so animated while he was trying to convince someone of a point of view he held.
Many years later I would realize that this incident was the first small evidence that my parents had both been taken, as it were, by the influence of a radical form of Christianity that would warp them beyond the point of recognizing them as the quiet, easy going people with whom I grew up.
Standing there in the kitchen of the Pelican Restaurant, I felt the grease of an eight hour shift on my face. I knew that when I walked outside into the cold high desert winter air I’d feel the grease begin to solidify and make me feel like I was wearing a suffocating mask of cellophane. I suddenly was taken by the energy of my father’s argument. I felt like all I was doing was of small consequence and probably polluted by the worldly ways of secular humanism, the bogeyman of conservative American Christianity at that moment in time.
And I trusted my dad. He’d never steered me wrong. It was easy for me to think he was right. Furthermore, I of course wanted his approval . . . The idea of him intimating I might be a chocolate soldier grieved me. Suddenly, the future vision of myself that I had up until that night of being a professor in a cardigan, thoughtfully walking the halls of a university, indeed struck me as distinctly unmanly.
I looked at my dad. He stood like a man ready for battle. Although shorter than me by two inches, he still had my respect for his physicality, for his physique. Thanks to his work as a meat cutter, his early years of lifting weights, and his brown belt in Taekwondo, my father looked like a small version of Rocky Balboa.
Still standing in front of the walk-in cooler door, his chest heaving a bit from the spiel he’d given, I stood before him with my hands full of metal containers of condiments. I nodded at the cooler. He didn’t pause in his argument as he stepped aside and opened the door for me.
As I put the food containers on shelves, feeling the grease on my face harden from the cold blowing on me in the cooler, feeling the very temporal nature of the work I was then doing and convincing myself that academia would not be much different, just less dirty, I heard my father quoting from Paul’s epistle to the church of Ephesus:
“You know what the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians, ‘Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers of darkness and spiritual wickedness in high places.’”
He had the verses memorized. With the skill of a story teller, he put just the right emphasis on all the things Saint Paul had to say about arming up like a soldier for Jesus.
“Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
* * *
So it was, just a few months after my parents went off to Panama for their first term of missionary service, my wife and I went to the New Tribes Mission Boot Camp training center in Baker City, Oregon.
We were among a dozen other zealous Christian couples with their families. Our training consisted of morning classes on what the leaders believed we needed to be good missionaries, what they believed we needed to thrive in isolated third world people groups. In the afternoon, the wives tended to their homes (apartments made from what were once barracks, for the facility was an old military installation,) while the husbands did their work detail assignments. The entire facility, made up of a half dozen buildings, was kept immaculate by the tasks we students performed.
Our classes included lessons on submitting to leadership, on interpersonal relationships with other missionaries, and Bible lessons regarding what we would be expected to preach to those who had never heard the Gospel. Still in the spirit of its inception in the early 1940s, New Tribes Mission sought to train us so that “by unflinching determination we hazard our lives and gamble all for Christ until we have reached the last tribe regardless of where that tribe might be.”
We liked living at the Baker Boot Camp, as it was known locally and within the Mission. There was a definite camaraderie and sense of family to be enjoyed. We frequently ate meals with other families and them with us. Each month we all got together for a potluck in the chapel, ending the meal with first singing traditional hymns followed by “songs of challenge.” The chapel pews held hymnals, and a small book of about forty so-called songs of challenge about taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
One song that was sung frequently was a hymn called Am I A Soldier of the Cross? It was written by the famous hymn writer Issac Watts, who also wrote Joy to the World.
With serious gusto, we sang:
Am I a soldier of the cross,
A follow’r of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak his name?
Must I be carried to the skies,
On flow’ry beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize,
And sailed through bloody seas.
Sure I must fight if I would reign;
Increase my courage, Lord;
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
Supported by Thy Word.
We were all exhorted to not be chocolate soldiers. To not be “carried to the skies, on flow’ry beds of ease.” The Boot Camp leaders sought to toughen us up, to make us ready for the mission field.
(If this sounds a bit cultish, it’s because it was. And, to some extent, may still be. Today New Tribes Mission is known as Ethnos 360.)
Although we had obstacles along the way, we finally made it to Papua New Guinea, where we lived and worked from 1989 to 2001. This time included seven and half years in an isolated mountain tribe called Wantakia.
Other missionaries familiar with Wantakia, an area made up of a dozen villages and located in the Marawaka District of Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands Province, said Wantakia was “the land of vertical swamps.”
Wantakia had a population of around 1,500. Four other language groups, all about a day’s hike away from the heart of Wantakia, surrounded the tribe we moved into. These other tribes used to say “the rain grew in Wantakia.”
When we moved into the tribe, the only way to get there was by helicopter or via one of the grass airstrips located at each of the surrounding language groups where missionaries had long been established. There were no drivable roads to Wantakia. Hiking from the nearest airstrip demanded no less than seven hours. After we had lived there for five years, the Wantakians had constructed their own airstrip at the village farthest from where we lived. To get there required five hours of hiking over mountainous terrain, and crossing several single log bridges over the Wanja River located at the foot of all the mountains that made up the Wantakian territory.
“We,” when we first moved into the tribe, included my family and another missionary family whose country of origin was England. We also had two single missionary women as part of our team. This meant the building of three houses. It was a thrilling experience. Our zeal was matched by the positive reception we had from the Wantakian people, who had for many years sent representatives to the nearby missionary posts of the surrounding language groups expressly for the purpose of asking New Tribes Mission to send them their own missionaries.
Pinji, the village we moved into, squatted on the low ridge of a large mountain that peaked at 8,300 feet. Our village’s elevation was 6,500 feet, and had a natural flat spot at the end of the ridge that worked as our helicopter pad.
I remember the day we first went to negotiate with the villagers of Pinji regarding land to lease and build our houses on. With my English co-worker, we stood at the edge of the helicopter pad. Clouds swirled about us. We had prayed together, asking God to bless us and give us the strength to endure the three months or so of living in the rough while we built the houses. When we both said, Amen, the clouds seemed to lift as if blown by the breath of God, the Holy Spirit Himself. The whole Wantakian territory was visible from where we stood. It felt like a sign that we were exactly where we were meant to be.
Alas, once all six of us adult missionaries moved in to Pinji, (most of our children were left in a missionary boarding school; we families each had one small child still with us), things became difficult. Disagreements arose. For a while, some of us weren’t speaking to each other. Within two years, one of the single women left. My wife and I had grown very close to the remaining single woman, but our other co-workers had not. Neither were they comfortable with her staying in the tribe without another single woman partnered with her.
After four years, it was just my wife and I working in Wantakia. The others had left, for one reason or another.
And we were struggling, in our marriage and our ministry.
Before us, no outsider had learned the Wantakian language. It was an unwritten language. It was up to us to learn its grammar, to make its first dictionary. It was up to us to learn the language adequately enough to preach the Gospel.
When we had a full team of missionaries, the ideal was that those who turned out to be gifted at learning the language, (we’d all had pretty much the same language acquisition training), would help those who were not so gifted.
I was not among the gifted. My wife was good at language learning, but she struggled with a lot of illness and seldom had the large blocks of time required to really learn the language or the health to immerse herself in the world of the Wantakians.
After we’d been working at it for several years, my wife came down with some severe health problems. We had to fly her back to the States for care. She took our two youngest children with her, while our two older children stayed on at the boarding school.
When nearly two months later it became clear my wife was not well enough to return to Papua New Guinea any time soon, I packed up and returned to America with our other two children.
On the trip back, we had a three hour layover in San Francisco.
Thumbing through the New York Times, I came upon a movie review for an independent film called At Play In The Fields Of The Lord. It was adapted from a novel by Peter Matthiessen. From the review, I learned it was about a missionary team comprised of two married couples working in an isolated Amazonian tribe. Most everything in the review disturbed me for the simple reason that it sounded all too much like what we were experiencing in Wantakia.
As soon as we got back to Klamath Falls, I went to the library to get the novel. Lo and behold, the mission society the missionaries worked under was called Far Tribes Mission and they had a Songs of Challenge book that they sang from to fire each other up for the spiritual battle of taking the Gospel to an isolated, untouched language group.
When I finally saw the movie, I was very disturbed by it. How they sang and prayed was all too familiar and it looked empty and weak. And even what the missionaries ate was typical to what we ate. I felt like I was watching myself in the Aidan Quinn missionary. His hunger to do what was right, but his confusion about how; and his lust for the Daryl Hannah missionary (she was the wife of his missionary partner), these were things I all-too-well knew about.
And then there were the two mercenaries, acted by Tom Berenger and Tom Waits.
Tom Berenger, as Moon, a man of Native American heritage, was the true moral center of the story. Even though he’d gone there with Wolfie, as played by Tom Waits, to drop small bombs on a remote tribe an American oil company found troublesome to their exploits, in the end, he couldn’t do it. In the end, Moon left behind all he owned, just like Francis of Assisi. He parachuted into the heart of the tribe he’d been sent to bomb. He stripped himself naked and walked into the tribe’s midst, seeking to be accepted as one of them.
Wolfie, in so many ways, was as amoral and immoral as one might imagine the worst of mercenaries being. And yet, I found every scene Tom Waits was in captivating. There was not an ounce of pretense in him. His gravelly voice reeked with world weariness and sorrow. His stripped down authenticity seemed to bear more glory than all the machinations of the struggling missionaries, as well as Moon’s pompous insertion of himself into the world of the Amazon. I was strangely more drawn to Waits, as to whatever sort of human he was hiding behind his actor’s mask, than anyone else in the movie.
Before this movie, I’d never heard of Tom Waits.
Later I’d see him in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, playing a mad man. Again, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
So now it is time to pull this narrative together.
Our time in Papua New Guinea ended in 2001. But before we left, I was often haunted by the pairing of my father’s words, “It ain’t all that easy”, with the title of the movie that had me silently worrying about what was “at play in the fields of the Lord.”
That pairing seemed to be crushing me as I sought to prove I was not a chocolate soldier.
We never preached the Gospel to the Wantakians. I left feeling like a colossal failure. My faith was in tatters. For several years after returning to Klamath Falls, I worked as the chaplain of the local Rescue Mission.
As a fake.
You see, I needed to keep a roof over my family and food on the table and all I knew how to do was ministry . . . but I didn’t believe anymore.
My marriage fell apart. I ran off with another woman.
Now I am an atheist and in a same-sex relationship.
And about a year ago I discovered that Tom Waits is also a musician. I don’t remember if his song Chocolate Jesus was the first of his I heard, but it certainly was the most memorable.
His Chocolate Jesus song is full of melancholy, with roosters gently crowing in the background. He crones out how he “don’t go to church on Sunday, don’t get on my knees to pray, don’t memorize the books of the Bible. I got my own special way, but I know Jesus loves me.
“Well it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus make me feel good inside, Got to be a chocolate Jesus” he gets at “Zerelda Lee’s candy store, to keep me satisfied. Better than a cup of gold, see only a chocolate Jesus can satisfy my soul.”
Tom Waits sings it with the use of a megaphone, just like street preachers in a big city.
The first time I heard Chocolate Jesus, I wept.
* * *
I was once in love with Jesus.
It was confusing, I must confess, being in love with Jesus. The New Testament refers to those who are Christians as the Bride of Christ. Does that mean the men who are Christians are in some sort of celestial same-sex relationship with Jesus?
How can that be?
So many questions plagued me as I found myself failing in Wantakia and then in my marriage and then feeling like a total hypocrite, a fake, when I was the chaplain of the Rescue Mission in little Klamath Falls, Oregon.
No one can say I did not fight hard. I was not a chocolate soldier when I was in Papua New Guinea.
I wasn’t even a chocolate soldier before I went to Papua New Guinea.
In that very same Pelican Restaurant that my father came to, I had just a few months before been knocked off my feet by the bouncer of the bar because I wouldn’t stop preaching to him about Jesus. He was a six foot three inch, three hundred pound Klamath Indian. Someone had told him he could not be saved because he had not been circumcised. I had insisted twice that he didn’t need to be circumcised. The third time I so insisted, he palmed me in the face so hard I hit the wall behind me and fell on my ass.
But I jumped right up on my feet and looked up at him: “I got three things to tell you, my friend. One, God loves you no matter what. Two, I’m trying to love you just the same. And three, you don’t have to be circumcised to be saved.”
He looked down at me, shook his head as if he wasn’t certain what he was seeing or if he thought something was really wrong with me. Then he turned and lumbered back into the bar at the back of the restaurant.
A chocolate soldier for Jesus ain’t gonna take that sort of abuse, this much I believe.
* * *
In Russia, according to Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor who was imprisoned and tortured for his faith, there is an old proverb that goes like this: There is no cure for the disease called Jesus. To some extent, it seems to be true for me.
Intellectually, I don’t believe in God. I no longer find the arguments for the existence of God convincing. I no longer believe Jesus was risen from the dead. I’m doubtful Jesus actually existed. But the stories about him as presented in the New Testament, some of those stories stick with me.
So, too, many of the Biblical commands.
I reared my children with Bible verses, not the least being Ephesians 4:32: “Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” I’m pretty sure I quoted that verse to my children hundreds upon hundreds of times.
I am still a fan of kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.
And Jesus seemed to, for the most part, (though I don’t think he was very kind to his mom sometimes), embody these traits.
So even in my unbelief, I’m still sick with some of Jesus.
My gut feeling is that Tom Waits is also afflicted with some viral measure of Jesus. Many of his songs include religious content, the sort of stuff that tells me he remains haunted by or still drawn to religion, especially Christianity. Religion does that. Etymologically, the word religion contains the idea of holding, holding things together. You can see it and find it without too much effort: religion . . . reLIGion. ReLIGAMENTion. To bind, to hold together, that’s what religion does.
When you go literal with the prefix re, meaning again, lo and behold, you find the likes of Tom Waits and me returning to Jesus and religion like a dog to his vomit: again, and again. It’s one thing to not have intellectual belief, or even an ontological sense of the divine, but it’s an entirely different thing to have no feelings for, or desires for that which is transcendent.
In Tom Waits’ song, Little Drop of Poison, he wonders if “the devil made the world while God was sleeping?” In another song, he has to conclude that our fucked up world is the way it is because “God’s away on business. Ha!” His aspirated “Ha!” carries all the weight of someone who is both defiant and sad about what he is declaring.
As with me, and so many others who never found a satisfying theodicy to justify God’s meanness or allowance for all the evil in the world, Tom Waits seems to conclude and solicit sorrowful agreement in his song Heartattack and Vine: “don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just god when he’s drunk.” Indeed, in a song he co-wrote with Keith Richards, That Feel, “there’s one thing you can’t lose: it’s that feel. [You can lose] your pants, your shirt, your shoes, but not that feel. Throw it out in the rain, you can whip it like a dog, you can chop it down like an old dead tree; you can always see it when you’re coming into town. Once you hang it on the wall (author’s note: as a cross; I assume) you can never take it down.”
* * *
Even though I cannot, in good conscience, ever condone the sort of guilt my father put upon me about not being a chocolate soldier, I will to my last breath insist that I my genuine, sincere zeal for the Gospel kept me from ever coming close to being a chocolate soldier . . . Both before my father’s pitch, and after.
In the meantime, even as a professing atheist, I will gladly own up to finding that the things I still hold dear about Jesus are so held in much the same way as Tom Waits: because they are as sweet as chocolate to the palate of my innermost being.