I kicked off my sandals and carried them into the woods for a barefoot prayer walk. It was exceedingly spiritual. Gandhi-like.
A few dozen steps beyond the tree line that faces the rear of the church building, my piety was placed under review by a swarm of spiritually antagonistic mosquitoes. They enshrouded me like the hash-mark cloud forming Pig-Pen’s dirt aura. I waved my hand calmly at this distraction as I sought to pray and center myself. I imagined this was how spiritual masters would tend to a parasitic invasion, smiling and gentle. Now, now, little ones, run along.
Three or four minutes later I had descended into rigid, maniacal slapping. I’d even tried punching one particularly brazen mosquito for landing on my eye. My own blood zigzagged down my temple. My frustration was about to boil over.
Closing my eyes, I decided to pray. I sighed a resetting breath and whispered into the sylvan air a prayer to God:
“God, would you alleviate the annoyance of these mosquitoes so that I might focus on you? Amen.”
A harp-strummed breeze blowing the bugs away at “amen” would have been a nice touch. Or Maya Angelou handing me a can of Deep Woods Off. Nothing like this happened.
Wiping my brow of sweat, blood, and the disappointingly low body count mashed against my scalp, I walked on moderately resolved and recentered. A sage in the forest.
The mosquitoes followed. Scads of new recruits joined the cloud as if God had gotten my request exactly backward.
I persevered. I was Bruce Banner, keeping my rage at bay, waving restrained, ineffectual swishes into the air as the swarm strafed my ears, their high voices taunting me.
I have walked this path dozens, maybe hundreds of times. Often the day after preaching, to wonder if I meant everything I said. I’ve spent hours on these leafy trails asking God to give me the maturity I lack, to show me what to do about the ongoing challenges in all my relationships, to address the gap between what I am and what I want to be. I’ve said the words out loud. I’ve thought them, too worn down to hear myself say the same crap to Heaven again. I’ve written my prayers in my journal and have been amazed how, years later, my petitions are identical. God, why do I still not have better relationships with family, friends? Why do I feel like a fraud? Why am I not developing spiritually? What must I do . . .
Weeks before this scene I had caught a turtle in our church parking lot. She appeared to be relocating to our church’s retention pond from some other secular pond in the neighborhood.
When I picked her up to take her to the water, I noticed she was covered with leeches. Twenty or more, attached to every soft spot on her body.
It was clear she needed my help and the leeches needed to be stomped into the pavement. Out of selective compassion I pulled the leeches off her one by one. I then gently placed the anemic little reptile in the water where she swam away free of parasitic oppression.
Later that same evening I felt two small bumps on my waist, right at my belt line. A closer inspection in the bathroom revealed what appeared to be a couple of eight-legged watermelon seeds. Ticks. Both of them were dining uninvited on my blood. I had apparently brushed up against some foliage while dealing with the turtle.
Then I saw my scalp in the bathroom mirror. It was riddled with bites. Dozens of them, pink and stretched tight. The mosquitoes had launched a sneak attack as I’d tended to the turtle.
Add to all this that one of my children had picked up lice at school that week. The stigma is worse than the reality, but the reality is bad enough. Bugs trying to live off my child without consent. My wife, armed with comb and flashlight, had spent several hours fighting to make our children lovable again.
I stood looking at myself that night after the turtle rescue, the mosquito pimples on my head, red freckles where the ticks had been, the fine-tooth comb that came with the lice removal kit on the side of the sink, remembering the leeches on the turtle. An unscientific hate was simmering in me. It had already been simmering in my wife. At one point in the delousing process, she had asked in exasperation, “Why would God create lice?”
Typically I prefer questions about simpler things like the Trinity or capital punishment. I don’t pretend to know why God would see fit to make parasites. Especially if God only had, as the story goes, six days of making. Though many of us love God’s creation, we hate these particular members with righteous disgust.
After some thought I’d shrugged my shoulders at Kristi’s question. Who knows why God gave these damnable things life?
So on that day when my barefoot prayer walk was spiraling into the abyss, Kristi’s unanswered question was still hanging in the air with the mosquitoes.
I couldn’t recenter anymore. My piety and my veins had run dry. I was back to wishing there was a way to murder these insects slowly, painfully. The whining cloud circling my head began to obscure the sun. I started using my sandals as weapons, slapping them together and saying through gnashed teeth, “How do you like that?! Get some! GET SOME!”
I gave up and started back for the church, furious at the universe. I had set out to pray, after all, not rob a bank or kill dolphins. Pray. My motivations entitled me to at least a squirt or two of Heaven’s DEET.
Where prayer is concerned I long ago stopped expecting, let alone demanding, to hear an English-speaking male on the other end of the line. I don’t hear God speak. But that moment, barefoot and seething, was one of maybe two times in my life I felt like I had.
“GOD! ” I demanded as I swatted spasmodically on my way back to the indoors. “If I am to take you seriously, why can’t you do something as simple as relocate these mosquitoes?”
In response I heard, Because I want you to acknowledge how loathsome it is living primarily as a self-interested taker.
Praise for Experiments in Honesty
“If Brennan Manning and Mike Yaconelli had a love child (which, granted, would be weird), it would be Steve Daugherty. In contrast to much of the pious claptrap out there these days, Steve’s voice in Experiments in Honesty is an heir to grace, quietly and humanly reminding us that we are too, we really are.”
— John Blase, poet and author of The Jubilee: Poems and Know When To Hold ‘Em: The High Stakes Game of Fatherhood
“There is way of putting Jesus on a sacred pedestal so distant from our everyday wheeling and dealing that we can honor him with our lips by calling him “Christ” while mocking the witness of his life with all that we are. Steve Daugherty’s Experiments in Honesty helps turn this ship around by presenting Jesus of Nazareth as one whose divinity can’t be made separate from his status as a pioneer of human seriousness. Do we want to follow Jesus down the path of industrial-strength honesty? For anyone serious about taking up this question, Daugherty’s work could prove immensely helpful.”
— David Dark, Author Life’s Too Short To Pretend Your Not Religious
“Steve Daugherty’s inaugural book is a literary treat, a visual pleasure, and—most vitally—a spiritual feast. Meditations on well-worn biblical moments retold through Steve’s storytellers’ heart give me pause. If you find yourself starving on fast-food religion, do yourself a favor and pick up Experiments in Honesty. You’ll find yourself at a table set with slow-cooked revelation.”
— Mike Morrell, collaborating author, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and your Transformation with Richard Rohr (I stand by every word.)
“Steve has a unique way of seeing stories inside stories: making connections that are past the obvious yet not stretched beyond truth. He gets the thread of intelligent thought that weaves throughout Scripture and has a way of enticing others to want to enter the conversation. His passion for God’s continued, redemptive pursuit of people, created as Divine image bearers, communicates the value of each individual, and invites his audience to consider loving themselves enough to keep seeking and finding their identity in God.”
— Dr. Jan Kempe, Author of Faithful Hearts: Adventures in Spiritual Mentoring
“Steve writes as a practical mystic, inviting the reader to discover more in everyday moments and those stories we’ve read numerous times in the Bible. He encourages self-contemplation through his humor and insightful perspective into life. You’ll see with fresh eyes as you continually wonder how you’ve never had these thoughts before. Grab a coffee to drink deeply as you read through Experiments in Honesty. You’ll notice yourself exploring profoundly into your journey with Jesus at the same time.”
— Jeremy Jernigan, Lead Pastor of Abundant Life Church and author of Redeeming Pleasure
“Steve Daugherty writes about ancient ideas as if they were invented yesterday, or as if our capacity to understand them needs a tune-up, and he has the tools. He’s not an arrogant engineer, though. This is a self-deprecating guide to seeing anew things that we might regret having mislaid. But the writing is so generous, so invitational, that such regret may easily be soaked up by the author’s goodwill. More than that, he doesn’t just challenge us to re-vision things, but to imagine what we would do next, after changing our minds.”
— Gareth Higgins, Peace Activist, Film Critic, Author of Cinematic States: Stories We Tell, the American Dreamlife, and How to Understand Everything
About the Author
For fifteen years Steve Daugherty has been a pastor, storyteller and counselor. Steve has served as teaching pastor for more than a decade at Crosspointe Church in Cary, North Carolina. With membership in excess of 4,000 and a global listening audience in more than 30 countries, Steve’s writing, including devotionals, prayer journals, and group materials has already been enjoyed by thousands. Steve is also a conference speaker, storyteller, and poet who jumps at the chance to capture imaginations outside the traditional church context. He has been married to Kristi since the 1990’s, and together they raise three children, Emma, Anna, and Ian in Apex, North Carolina.
Follow Steve’s work at SteveDaugherty.net!