As Episcopalians, we don’t often refer to ourselves as “evangelists.” It brings up connotations of people knocking on doors with that “are you saved?” question we dread in the South. We think of people handing out tracts in airports, waiting to pounce with well-rehearsed points of doctrine. What we often don’t think of is a pleasant man in a black suit and clerical collar sitting in a small office in a downtown church. But that’s exactly what an evangelist looks like to me. His name was The Rev. Howard Surface.
I was in my mid-teens, and my stepfather had just become the organist at Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green. I had grown up believing in God and reading stories from the Bible, but I had also been very interested in science and reason. We didn’t go to church as kids, so I had developed into a kind of Jeffersonian Deist, thankful to God for the creation, but thinking that our prayer had very little to do with our daily life. It’s really wasn’t all that different from Conan’s god Crom, which fit in well with my life in the science-fiction/gaming subculture.
Growing up under the buckle of the Bible Belt means that you are exposed to a lot of different flavors of evangelical Christianity. It’s a default in the culture - you can’t escape being influenced by it in one way or the other. Several times in Scouts and other groups, I was encouraged to “Give my life to Jesus.” I wanted God to be a personal force in my life, but I couldn’t overcome my skepticism enough to connect. I tried multiple times to pray for Jesus to enter my life, but it never seemed to “take.”
After my parents’ divorce, church became a regular part of my life with both my mother and father. Before the Episcopal church, my stepfather had been the organist at a Methodist church, and I dutifully went there, but never really felt it to be a part of me. Initially, I didn’t see a huge difference between Methodist and Episcopal, except that the sermons were shorter and you knew how much longer the service was going to be by simply following in the Book of Common Prayer. I liked that.
Soon after we started attending, my mother asked me if I wanted to be baptized. I wasn’t sure, but I was willing to talk to Howard about it. We sat down and talked about baptism and the Apostles’ Creed. I had a lot of trouble with the section on the virgin birth. My skeptical mind could not fathom how you could create a male human without an x and y chromosome. I explained this to Howard. I told him I was interested in Baptism, but that I couldn’t give up my skepticism and be honest. He told me he’d be glad to baptize me, and that I should just keep saying the creed and the answer might come to me.
I was in this predicament because the culture had taught me to believe that everything that had to do with faith was about me. It was about a personal affirmation of intellectual belief in a series of formulated and agreed-upon doctrines. If I agreed with the doctrines of any given faith group, I could enter into a social contract and become a part of that church. If not, I would be defined as part of the group that did not agree to the truth, and therefore damned.
Howard showed me another way. Despite my doubts, I said the Nicene Creed in the “We” form every week. I became an active participant in the Holy Eucharist. I became interested in theology and Biblical studies. I found, over time, that God did not want me to give up my skepticism. He wanted me to be in relationship with Him and his church. It wasn’t about making a set of intellectual affirmations, it was about being part of God’s family. I came to believe that God has no human ego and therefore does not mind being doubted. I saw the love that God has for me and for all of creation. Once it was no longer a contest between my mind and abstract doctrine, my resistance slowly receded and I was able to claim the beauty and philosophical poetry of the creeds as being part of me. I am now a Christian and a priest because I was offered this other way.
Howard didn’t quote scripture at me. He didn’t lecture me on points of doctrine. He didn’t bring up hell, or even heaven for that matter. He simply modeled God’s love through community, and provided good soil and spiritual food for my young faith to grow. He embodied the admonition often attributed to St. Francis to “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” He was an evangelist of grace, creating a space where skeptics and agnostics could come to find Jesus’ love.
Howard passed on to his glory this week, and he will be sorely missed. Many still remember his standard Easter sermon, or his somewhat authoritarian way of instructing the faithful what posture they were to assume in prayer. But I will always remember that afternoon in his office, when like Paul at the Areopagus, he offered me the Gospel for the first time in a language I could understand and accept. Were it not for him, my life would have turned out very different. For that, I am literally eternally grateful.
May the souls of the faithful departed, especially that of Howard, my father in Christ, rest in peace. Amen.