Review of Finding God In The Waves by Mike McHargue (@sciencemike)

Review of Finding God In The Waves by Mike McHargue (@sciencemike)

I found it a little bit difficult to figure out which memoir I really wanted to write about. There’ve been so many recently my life that literally changed my worldview. I’d like to start by mentioning a few that were in the running in case this review resonates with anybody – there are some others that I think really deserve a chance. Bitten by a camel by Kent Dobson is another recent read along a similar vein. Kent is the son of the famous James Dobson who was at the helm of the Christian Coalition and 1980s conservative Christian scene. One of my favorite memoirs ever – blue like Jazz by Donald Miller must be mentioned for its soul-searching honesty by just another regular churchgoers like you and I. Searching for Sunday by Rachel held Evans is also an honest look at life in the church from the viewpoint of the pew. I think most of my other memoir’s that I love are fairly well-known so I don’t feel like I really need to mention many more of them. For those of you that feel like you’re curious about God but church and the religious status quo kind of piss you off… The books I mentioned above are pretty good start. Once you find these and start finding other people that have read similar authors, you will find your way home.

Finding God In The Waves is a memoir about a very dedicated Southern Baptist from Florida who enters a crisis of faith and becomes an atheist, and then finds his way back into faith again. I remember when I first heard a podcast by Mike and heard his story; how much it resonated with me. He, like myself, had devoted himself to the typical American church experience. He served faithfully in his church, led Bible studies, was actively involved in ministry for years, and his whole worldview and family life was based upon this kind of deep involvement. It really does become your world. What this means for many people on the inside of the church is that it is really scary to ask questions and doubt. When your whole world is based upon this shared religious experience you have with the community, questioning your faith in your faith experience is a lot like making a decision to run away from your family. That may sound dramatic if you’ve never been really deeply involved in something like a church where your whole life revolves around that shared experience, a for many of us this is exactly how it feels.

Mike’s crisis of faith revolves around his father’s affair, similar to how mine revolved around my wife’s affair. He, like I, thought that if he could just find the right first, the right words… He could talk his dad into honoring his vows to his mother. I thought the same thing with my wife. And as Mike began to really dig into his Bible to find answers, what he found were questions instead. These questions began to shake at a religious foundation that avoided the weaker parts of his faith through confirmation bias, as well as a subconscious, but very organized and consistent echo chamber that most religious people live in. Once he read the Bible straight through – without the blinders provided by commentary – he bumped into the beautiful mess that is the Bible. But since his faith was built on the Bible being essentially synonymous with God, when the Bible failed to be “the living, active word of God” marked by perfection, consistency, and inerrancy… God himself quit living and being active for Mike. I have had the opportunity to experience the same crisis of faith and it is scary and heartbreaking. In this way, Mike’s story really resonated with me and brought back some really scary feelings and thoughts that I thought I had completely processed away. The honest way that he shared his struggle and internal dialogue was really impressive – his ability to be honest and keenly self-aware was a great read.

Interestingly, through a very strange set of circumstances Mike found himself at a Christian conference listening to a speaker named Rob Bell – a provocative and controversial figure in the church who has deeply influenced my understanding of God and the world. Mike essentially stands up in disagrees with Rob in the middle of his talk – pointing out the inconsistencies and impossibilities of Rob’s worldview. But instead of challenging Mike or defending himself, Rob just said “Thank you. Thank you for your honesty, and for helping all of us in this room understand the challenges you have with embracing these mystical experiences we all try to share.”  Mike was sure he would be roasted by this crowd of religious people, but others spoke up and shared their questions and doubts as well. I won’t ruin the story for anybody reading this that may enjoy the book – but I will say that at that point, just with the acceptance of his questions, the church doors opened again to Mike. People rarely have a problem with God – it’s normally just his kids that piss them off. That certainly was the case for me as well. Mike and I both had a good relationship with the church – but both of us also came to a place where we realized that a lot of what we thought was a solid foundation turned out to be smoke and mirrors.

I can’t recommend the book highly enough. Even if you don’t have a church history, it might give you a little bit of a peek into what it is like to be on the inside. Honestly, it’s weird for us, too. But just as Mike found his way back to God without all the trappings of religiosity in church bullshit, there is a way to hold on to the beauty, mystery, and wonder that I think most of us long for without having to check your brains at the door.

An additional note – Mike is also part of a podcast called the liturgists with Michael Gungor- a former pastor who seems to still be wrestling with where he stands on the faith question. Mike gives a quick summary of his story in the two-part series called Lost And Found.

The Story has Changed

I thought I had a true story to tell, but it was fictionalized. 

Like many of you, I had a story about my own life that was fiction. Even memories and feelings had been shifted with time or twisted by emotions and justifications for my feelings. I wasn’t trying to lie, I just didn’t realize that I was. Honestly, looking back now it feels like I was in sort of a dream, this illusory reality where I got to play the hero and the victim, the Savior and the saved, therapist and patient. Ironically, the villain of the prior story turned out to be the unintentional positive change agent for the new one. Frankly, as I write this right now it is still so fresh still processing all that happened. My entire perspective on everything has changed. I have no idea what the future looks like for me, except that it is way better than the past – and the light switch seems to work in the rearview mirror as well. Not only is the future much brighter – but my past is too.

Sometimes we need a mirror. One of my favorite things ever heard in church was “My sin on me looks like it needs to be forgiven. Your sin on you looks like it needs to be punished.” That resonated with me not because I felt I struggled with it so much, but because I felt like it was a common problem in the church that was rarely pointed out. I have always been prone toward leaning into grace for others even more than myself, a simple personality quirk that I don’t believe has anything to do with true humility or wisdom- it was a happy accident for me. But this allowed me to be keenly aware of the reactions that Jesus had to the Pharisees and religious people in the bible. Jesus was a pretty laid back guy, but this judgemental know-it-all arrogant group called the Pharisees really ticked Him off. Unfortunately, they’re still around just using a different name to hide from their shameful judgement. 

I grew up in the church. I had mixed support for it at home as a teen, but have been pretty actively involved by my own free personal choice since I was about 15. Now nearly 50, I’ve never given up on my faith- though it’s been challenged and certainly shifted from the arrogant and prideful self-righteousness of my youth. I’m also recognizing that the faith community I was involved with has also shifted… and in an opposite direction. I think I was always leaning out while the church was leaning in, but in 2018 the leaning seems really extreme. The church is now behind men that live in ways I was brought up to believe were wrong in the church. The “christian values” that I believed in my whole life (and still do, I’ll examine them in this book) are now no longer what the church in America is about. This strange flavor of Christianity I’ll call Ameri-church in this book- it’s the christianity you hear about on “christian” radio and television. It’s the kind of Christianity that’s easy to mock, and rightfully so. I was once a part of the Ameri-church and have since repented to follow the teachings of a middle-eastern rabbi that lived 2000 years ago and preached a distinctly different message than the religious leaders of the time or the church leaders of today. He pointed out the hypocrisy of the religious and made a way for everyone to find peace with God and themselves. 

I have a friend who is very religious- a part of Ameri-church. She and I were once very close but have drifted apart for a myriad of reasons- but one reason in particular was a very intentional, very calculated, and still continuing betrayal that was very damaging to my family. It has cost my kids and I greatly for the last 10 years and will for the rest of our lives. I have no desire to go into detail about it; but let’s just say that we would all agree- my friend included- that what she did was horrible. We would also all agree that she has never repented of it, if repenting means “not doing the thing I shouldn’t have done anymore and trying to make it right again.”  She has also made legal and religious commitments to continue in this hurtful relationship with her friend who together with her damaged my family and kids forever. 

What triggered the final shift in my whole perspective on the church and Christianity was my friend’s reaction to her son staying at a friend’s house. Her son’s friend was gay, and she was unable to accept this or allow her son to be alone with this friend. What she said to me that morning on the phone was astounding to me: “My christian values say that this lifestyle wrong and I don’t want my son in this situation. Kids get confused and want to experiment with things in High School and I don’t want my son to make a mistake he’ll regret.”

That may seem completely normal- and if you’re even slightly homophobic and/or don’t have any gay friends as reference points, I can understand this. There is a lot of misunderstanding and FUD about homosexuality in Ameri-church, and I’m totally willing to give people a pass even when I disagree with them. What I couldn’t understand is that her very home is a “den of iniquity” if you’re going to use the bible as a reference for morality, and that she herself is completely unrepentant of her lifestyle and even calls it a “christian home” though it’s built on completely unbiblical ground.

For the record, I believe my friend is forgiven, and is just as much loved by God as I am. I believe she is seen as being just as deserving of grace and forgiveness as Mother Theresa (or whoever you hold up as an example of truly exemplary commitment to God). I have forgiven her for the pain and suffering she brought into my life and the life of my children. I don’t believe she owes me anything. But with that being said…

I was totally pissed off when I heard her being so judgmental about this young man who identifies as homosexual. What started in my mind was a “Well, if you don’t accept this kid’s choices and love and accept him as he is- then I no longer forgive you for your betrayal of our family and you owe us now.” I expected her to start repaying all the financial loss she caused my family. I also expected her to repent and return things to how it was 10 years ago… not because I wanted it that way, but as a punishment for her since I know that she (nor I) want it this way. 

And then it struck me. I was doing what she was. I was wanting her to “repent and repay” for her “sin.” I was moving back to the zero-sum game I used to play when we were younger and working together. Her judgement and arrogance was causing me to fall back into the same trap and doing it myself. At that point the light went on…

This is exactly what Jesus meant when he said “Do not judge, or you too,  will be judged.” This is exactly what he meant when he said “Love your neighbor as yourself” and went on to clarify that your neighbor is the person you encounter that needs help. Everything unraveled. Years of Ameri-church indoctrination, White Protestant Evangelical entitlement, and apologetic research fell like Saul off his horse on the road to Damascus.

When it struck me I was in the shower, and began to simultaneously weep with regret and conviction for the times I did the same to others, and laughing with joy that I wasn’t stuck there anymore. I remember actually saying the words out loud. “I’m free.” 

This book is about that freedom. 

Cool Kids

In the beginning, all I wanted was…

to fit in. I was a pretty shy and nerdy kid with a bit of a “zany” sense of humor. The fact that back then I’d actually use the word zany to describe my sense of humor kind of sums it all up. My parents were a bit controlling, so my dad forced me to dress and get haircuts like I was from the 1950’s (which wasn’t cool in the 1970’s), and my mom’s ultra conservativism and general fear stance of anything she didn’t understand kept me pretty boxed in. I was socially awkward, not particularly interested in school too much… there were so many rules and limits that could never entice my curious and wondering mind to stay on the boring, monotonous tasks. All of this combined to make me the nerdy kid who zip-zipped down the hall in my corduroy pants from Sears, just trying to avoid getting his ass kicked by the cool kids, and maybe one day kiss a girl.

Then, I struggled to…

figure out who I was and what I wanted. I think this is a necessary step for everyone. It really clicked for me when I was mowing the yard at around 15, listening to a church-rock band called Petra while mowing the yard. My mom bought me the casette at the christian bookstore about a year earlier, but I never really listened to it until I found it in my dresser and just stuck it in the stereo in my room. I had been listening for a couple months, and it was just resonating with me, and I was starting to get involved a little at youth group in church. I can still hear the words through the foam covers of the headphones for my Sony Walkman Cassette player as Greg X Volz sang:

So be strong in the Lord, and the Power of His might.
Put on all His armor, and fight the good fight.
In all of our weakness, He becomes so strong. 
He gives us the power and the strength to carry on. 

I didn’t know all that those words meant that day, but I knew enough to understand it. More than that, I believed it. I remember stopping the lawnmower beneath the bottlebrush tree, not at all nervous about the bees that lived there, even though I was terribly allergic. I just knew that day that God was real and He was on my side. He was the only one, but He was big. And I just remember starting to cry in a way I never had before… from pure joy.

 I no longer needed to be accepted, I already was. Nor did I cower in front of my parents anymore, I learned to stand up for myself and earned the respect I needed to to allow them to let loose of the reigns. I got a new haircut and some new clothes, and literally within in a few weeks, I was popular in school-dating the cute girl whose dad drove a Lamborghini, and no longer shoved into the lockers when I walked down the hall. 

At the end of this experience, I became… 

much wiser. I realized that the popular kids I hung out with were just as messed up and desperate to fit in as I was. They didn’t have less problems, just different ones. Soon I discovered that the popular group I fell in to was a bit snobby, and the day they shoved one of my old friends into the lockers when they walked by without saying a word, I just stopped. I looked at my old friend Jeff as my new friends kept just walking down the hallway. 

“Dude, I’m sorry about that. That wasn’t cool, they didn’t even say anything like they were going to mess with you.” I said by way of a roundabout apology.

“It’s no big deal, I’m used to it. It must be cool to be on that side of the lunchroom though. We talk about you, nothing bad… just that we wish you still hung out with us sometimes.” 

I remember staring at Jeff, mouth hanging open as my face fell to collide with my heart, Then feeling my heart fall off it’s perch into the chocolate milk I had for lunch, turning the milk sour with guilt and sadness.

“Schwartz, let’s go- what are you doing with that loser!? We thought you turned cool.” I heard my new friends taunt as they stared at me talking to this “nobody.” I remember looking down the hallway at how stupid they looked, nearly all dressed the same, with the same haircuts, the same clothes, the same attitude, and the same black scowls on their handsome, popular faces. 

“This is Jeff. He’s not a loser. You guys don’t even know why you pick on him. Neither does he, and neither do I. If this is what it means to be cool then I don’t want to be cool. I’m gonna walk Jeff to class.” 

That day, I realized I didn’t want to impress other people by what I did to set my self above them… I decided I wanted to impress people by how long I walked beside them. As an introvert and pretty picky judge of character, I value independent thinking, individualistic and creative people who like to be different, not fall in line with the ever shifting sands of fashion, popularity, and groupthink. 

I’ll stick at the table with the weirdos for lunch. 


One day when I was in High School- I had the greatest discovery of my life. I finally figured out what I was meant to do. I had always known it was within reach- this thing that I was built for but hadn’t quite found. Until then I was useful, but inefficient. It was like when you use a butterknife as a screwdriver, it kinda dings up the butterknife and does a shit job of loosening a screw anyway.

Finally, I had a purpose. I could finally find my place and fit. I didn’t have to search and feel so outside of everything, so wrong. I wanted to help other kids like me know that they are OK like they are and that of course they weren’t a great screwdriver, they were . I wanted to spend my life helping kids hear that satisfying click that only happens when you know what you’re built for, and you snap into place to do your part. You don’t feel so inadequate for the job anymore. You finally realize that your curved tip keeps people safe when used at the table, just as it put people in danger trying to balance in the slot of the screw, twisting in the slot where you never quite fit.

I wanted to be a youth pastor and help awkward kids like me. My youth pastor had talked me off the edge of a melancholy that leaned toward suicide multiple times, but I’m not sure he ever knew it. He taught me to see beauty in the mirror where I had only seen ash. He showed me that I was created for something; and when I found it I would stop feeling so inadequate, ineffective, and out of place. At our meetings I felt comfortable in my own skin. I’d get out of my introverted shell and participate in the silly games and talk to people I didn’t know, sharing my life freely as it was- perfectly comfortable in my own skin. This was the only place I felt alive… or that I actually wanted to stay that way to be more accurate. That was the only time in my life that I liked myself. The only time I felt like I fit. The only time I felt like I mattered.

A few months later I remember walking into my parent’s room to tell them that I found my place. I thanked them for helping guide me in this direction, and I told them how happy I was that I finally had a direction. The change had been obvious for months. They knew I had struggled to fit in and had commented on the change they could see in me. I no longer was such an awkward, socially unaware kid. I dressed well these days, started working harder in school, started taking care of my hygiene and bedroom- I finally fit. I told them that I wanted to go to seminary and become a youth pastor- that for the first time I could remember I was really happy and felt good about myself. They had both in their own way guided me to this place- forcing me to church when I didn’t want to go, trying to talk to me about the stuff that matters when the lights go out and you’re just there alone with your thoughts. I have never felt this good about myself before, and never again since that day.

It was the same night that my dad came in to my room with a nearly visible aura of anger and frustration. It was so out of place- he never hit me in my life, but that night I thought he was going to throttle me until I quit breathing. I couldn’t believe the anger. I had no idea what I had done that was so wrong, but I was sure I was going to pay heavily for it.

I remember his body shaking with anger. His voice was positively menacing, his eyes darkened with disappointment and rejection. “I won’t let you throw your life away. There’s no way you’re going to waste your life being some youth minister or youth pastor or whatever… you will get a secure job with financial security or I don’t want to be a part of it. I won’t support you with money or moral support or anything else if you decide to do this, Rob. I won’t let your life be a waste..meaningless.”

It was that day that I realized that to my dad, being myself- being who I was most comfortable and alive being- was in his eyes, a waste.

The real me, every dream I had about who I was, every good thought I ever had about myself… a waste.

I was a waste… meaningless.

It’s hard to see yourself even in the eyes of your Heavenly Father as valuable, when you see you’re a piece of shit in the eyes of the dad in front of you… the one God sent you to.

I knew then that God thinks I’m a waste, too… meaningless.

Tattoo Me

When I was around 20 years old, I was part of a youth outreach organization for the Wesley Center (a Methodist campus ministry) on the campus of Georgia Southern University. I was pretty involved, and became part of a summer traveling group called Lifesavers. Four college kids hopped in a van, hired for next to nothing to run a summer program for youth groups across the state of Georgia. I was a bit of an outcast in Georgia, a surfer guy from South Florida who skateboard it around campus and never wore shoes- but I tend to be a decent speaker in front of a group so is pretty easy to fall into leadership positions in campus ministries. Playing guitar helped, too.

I had been wanting a tattoo for quite some time, I had a drawn up and constantly drew it on my notebooks and notes for class. A simple, pointed cross with red at the center in blue on the tips, straddled by an Alpha and Omega. At the time, I was pretty new to much of the symbolism and iconography of the church so I found my little creation to be super deep and profound. The truth was, I was in the South, so most of my church upbringing and education was fairly flat; and most of my church history stopped around 1950.

I had scheduled the day to get my tattoo in a little town where I knew we would be hanging out for about a week. I can’t remember exactly where it was – but I’m pretty sure it was near Atlanta. The Lifesavers team had a day off after back to back lock ins, and after grabbing some sleep I scheduled my appointment at a local tattoo joint.

I remember waking up, and one of the other kids from the youth group wanted to come along with me. He offered me a ride so I wouldn’t have to take the church van – I was treading dangerously close to the edge of decency in the late 80s church scene of South Georgia. When the kid showed up to give him my ride, I couldn’t find my wallet.

I, of course, was convinced this was a sign from God.

I remember turning to this kid and saying, “dude, I can’t find my wallet… I never lose my wallet. I think God is trying to tell me I shouldn’t get this tattoo.”

This kid – wiser than his years – just looked at me and said, “Why don’t you pray about it?” So I did.

I asked for wisdom, confess any arrogance or pride I might’ve had, confessed mighty rebellious spirit, and told God that if he didn’t want me to have a tattoo, I wouldn’t get a tattoo.
I didn’t hear a voice, I just had this weird impression that God was talking to me. I’m pretty sure I even use that phrase to describe it at the time, but it definitely wasn’t spoken. I just had this impression of a windowsill.
I remember opening my eyes and looking at this kid, a little bit confused, and saying, “God just said ‘Windowsill.’” And the kid said “Let’s go check the windowsill.”

I checked the windowsill at the house I was staying, no luck. And then I had that vivid picture in my mind again of the blinds at the church. So I told the kid and he drove me over to the church, where I found my wallet on the windowsill. I remember grabbing it and just kind of staring at it in my hand. The striped shadows of the blinds tracing dark streaks across my forearm. I remember being confused – trying to figure out if God showed me my wallet so I can go and get the tattoo, or if he showed it to me because I confessed my arrogance and pride.

This was quite a conundrum for an overly zealous nearly 20-year-old college kid who couldn’t find his place in the southern church in the late 80s. I recognized my desire to kind of tweak the nose of convention and feign ignorance of the social norms of the claustrophobic social underbelly of the southern church in my hyper conservative version of Christianity. But I also had this overwhelming zeal – a deep and profound knowledge that there was something more to all of this, and that somehow Jesus was in the center of it all. And I had the sense that I was supposed to be helping people challenge their assumptions about what Christianity looked like.

So that night, I had my first tattoo, and my first mystical experience.

Left on the Counter

I finally met all my dad’s expectations of “success”- I was out of debt, I had published a book, my business was successful and I was “financially secure.” This was his rallying cry. I figured FINALLY- after 40 years of trying to please him with the external stuff, I’d finally get to talk to him about the things that mattered… the stuff going on inside. The deeply spiritual things that ultimately made me click- the things that made me “me.” I had bypassed so many of my own desires and goals for the previous 40 years to get to this point that was all my dad could see- “financial independence.” Once that was satisfied he might see me, what I have inside to offer the world- not just my stuff. (I repeated this course of action with my ex-wife with similar results, but that’s another story).

I had just gotten out of debt before hitting 50, I was a published author and relatively successful entrepreneur. I wasn’t rich or anything, but I didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to money. I had that “safety net” he had always talked about.  I had written a note to my dad on the inside cover of the first copy of my first book to thank him for the schooling, the financial support, and the encouragement to do my own thing and leave the (minimal) safety of a fully employed teacher to become an entrepreneur like he was. I showed him around the studio in the house I built to produce my videos, and we talked about the business and the freedom that financial security can bring. I was so stoked that I finally had jumped through all his hoops to become the son he always wanted instead of that idealistic, zealous, jesus hippie that he was so disappointed in when I was growing up. I had given up my deepest desires and goals to reach this plateau so it could be off the table and he could see me, not my failures to be who he wanted me to be. 

He didn’t have more than 20-30 minutes to visit… he was spending the weekend with his girlfriend’s daughter and running late. We didn’t get the chance to talk about the things that I had wanted to start to talk about for 40 years- to introduce myself to him as a distinct individual rather than just the story he got to talk to friends about the way he talked about his girlfriend’s daughter… she was a successful rep for a medical company living in a mansion. But at least I got to show him that I did it. I was successful so that he could finally talk about me to other people the same way he talked about other people to me. He even had a signed copy of the book with my heartfelt note inside the front cover to show off to his friends. There’s little he enjoys more than showing off to his friends. Finally, I could be the thing he was proud of.

But when he left to make it in time to his girlfriend’s daughter’s house for dinner, he didn’t bring the book with him. He left it behind on the kitchen counter. 

He left me behind on the kitchen counter.

The Plotline (Fall18A)

The flirty tone and cooing lilt in the voice of the woman was filled with sexual energy. The couple was young and attractive, but had no idea I was listening. I could only hear her voice- his words silent on the other end of her phone. I felt guilty listening to such private conversations I wasn’t a part of, but couldn’t stop listening- believe me, I tried. But I was enthralled- envious and jealous that this guy had so captivated a woman this beautiful. In many ways I hated him for it. I had longed my whole life to be loved the way couples love, to know the serenity and safety of a family that shared dreams, and joy, and love. It felt wrong to spy on them- to be a voyeur into this intimate relationship between two lovers, but I couldn’t stop myself from wanting to know everything about their relationship, and to just catch a glimpse of what it might be like to be loved by her.

I had become obsessed with her relationship with him over the last few months, trying to find out if my chances with her were finally over. They tried to hide it from everyone but I had a feeling that she was falling for him, and I had been in love with her for years. I don’t think she ever had any idea how much- I was nearly invisible to her it seemed. I’d see them talking and laughing together at school or church events, our families sometimes hung out together and I always tried to get her attention, to impress her… but she was impenetrable- at least for me. When she laughed with him I felt the hot sting of jealousy rise up to my face, red like a warning light for my heart, signaling a critical rise in the shame and emptiness of unrequited love.  My heart broke when I heard her voice speak the words into her phone that I longed to hear her speak to me, “I love you… I’m already on the way.  I can’t wait to see you.” 

At that moment my world fractured. I’ve heard heartbreak described as a heart shattering, but for me it wasn’t like that at all- not so explosive and full of energy as that. When my heart broke it was like when a mountain’s heart is broken by a glacier, the muted sound of granite fracturing in the cold earth beneath the soil- slow, cold, and deep. Unable to be seen, but sensed in the heart of the earth by anyone in the valley. In a fit of jealousy, I told his wife what I had heard.

When she discovered my treachery, the ice in her heart came to the surface and boiled with anger. The disdain and revulsion she felt for me all these years finally surfaced and revealed her heart to me, frightening in it’s anger and rage. “How dare you interfere in his marriage and tell his wife- his marriage is his business.” 

“Our marriage is mine.” is all I could reply.